Monday, October 01, 2007

 

Citizen Juries: Where are They?

I get a bit confused about Citizens' Juries, one of Gordon's new 'big ideas' to help reconnect government to voters. We also learn from Jo Revill in The Observer that there is some discontent at what is seen as a 'sham' listening device, being nothing more, according to the National Consumer's Council(NCC), than 'glorified focus groups'. Blair used focus groups, via his pollster Philip Gould, to an inordinate extent as the latter's The Unfinished Revolution revealed. The idea was to offer a more reliable substitute for opinion polls and a formidable new weapon in the democratic armoury. Revill explains:

Citizens' juries are like focus groups, but with the key difference that they are controlled by a facilitator who introduces particular ideas and directs the conversations around the table. The juries - panels of 20 or more people who can meet for one day or over several days - can call witnesses to hear evidence before deciding how they feel about policies.

According to Gould, he also sat in the group and acted as a virtual facilitator and it would seem natural that someone would have to run the discussion. The key thing would be whether it was controlled. But, one wonders, who would wish to do so? Could the government plant supportive 'facilitators' all over the country? I'd doubt it. Opinion Leader Research, run by Deborah Mattinson, a friend of Brown, runs many such events and presumably feeds results back into the nerve centre of policy making.

What rather concerns me is that I have never heard of any such consultative events taking place in my area or in the north-west in general. It's natural that bloggers, being fecund of opinion, would like to have some input on certain topics yet this avenue seems not so much closed as kept secret. The key test, of course, is whether the government would listen whatever was fed back. Bower's biography of Brown suggested he only listened to advice upon which he had already decided and ignored everything else. And Tony Blair, recall, took no notice at all of the 1-2 million citizens who marched against the Iraq War in March 2003.

Comments:
This is an abuse of the term 'jury' - which is a body whose decisions are acted on.

A bad hangover from Blair's Spin machine.
 
Edward Weeks, in a 2000 Public Administration Review article on citizen juries (he assesses four cases in the US) states:
"a community dialogue of the sort described here is neither cheap, fast, nor easy. Its application is limited to instances where the issue is critical,
the political process is deadlocked, and there remains sufficient time to complete a yearlong public process. Where these conditions prevail, a well-implemented community dialogue is a powerful instrument for creating a public will to act."

There is also the presumption that the recommendations of citizen juries are translated (directly) into policy.

Both process and outcomes are very important in these sorts of civic engagement policies.
hmmmm....
 
I can't find much to grumble about with the concepts of People's Juries or Focus Groups although I can see that neither title will appeal much to pedants who don't understand how language develops.

Thing is - how on earth do you get the ‘views’ of 40+ million voters all of whom are equally entitled to their opinions? And what's wrong with testing policy against public opinion? Seems a worthy aim and an eminently sensible political strategy to me...

I shall treasure the memory of a Very Angry Lady on the telly at one election who wanted to have the five minute conversation with Tony Blair that she felt she was 'entitled' to. If all registered voters took up such an allocation it would take a PM almost 2,000 years if he did nothing else for eight hours a day, five days a week (with, of course, the statutory minimum holidays).
 
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