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Article Article December 4th, 2017

Detoxing democracy: introducing citizens’ juries as a form of political activism

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Detoxing democracy requires a new form of political activism, says @NGruen1 #FindingLegitimacy

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Citizens' juries should ultimately become a core component of our constitution, suggests @NGruen1 #FindingLegitimacy

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Legitimacy, says @NGruen1, can only be strengthened by having more independent and bipartisan discussions #FindingLegitimacy

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“Britain's governing class is now engineering a tragedy that arose from a piece of political improvisation gone horribly wrong,” says Nicholas Gruen, when talking about the consequences of Brexit. There is a growing distance between people and those elected to represent them. A distance that is mirrored in today's parliamentary debating culture: no longer are politicians working to solve problems, we hear from Gruen, instead we are witnessing a shift to short marketing pitches focused on building brands and careers.

Low levels of legitimacy are a natural consequence of this political environment, argues Gruen, who - in his roles as CEO of Lateral Economics, chairman of the Open Knowledge Foundation Australia, and former chairman of the Australian Centre for Social Innovation - has worked with and studied many governments across the world.

Gruen argues that we need more than material explanations for what's happened to our political culture and our trust in politicians. Certainly, material conditions have affected how people feel towards government: unemployment, fear of the foreign, inequality. But that's not a complete answer for Gruen, who points out that his own country is experiencing precisely the same problems, yet it's not had a recession in over a quarter of a century and it's only suffered a small deterioration in inequality.

Numerous indicators show that most people today live more comfortable lives than previous generations. So, what best explains today's lack of trust in government and the increasing gulf between communities and governments? For Gruen,  democracy has become toxic. To move forwards, we need to rethink how our political system runs. What can be done to detoxify democracy?

Citizens' juries as political activists

“Detoxing democracy requires a new form of political activism,” Gruen argues. Community engagement, and public consultations in particular, have become common strategies to address our growing sense of remoteness from government decisions. However, more often than not, public consultations seek communities' views only on small matters. At times, they merely have the function of validating existing decisions. That's not to say that consultations should not be used by government. Rather, legitimacy requires a fundamental change in the way that public debates take place.

In a number of papers and a public lecture at King's College London, Gruen is proposing the concept of citizens' juries as a form of political activism; as a bold assertion of a legitimacy outside the existing (electoral) system of democracy. Citizens' juries as permanent and fully community-driven bodies can bridge the gap between what governments do and the will of the people. “They should ultimately become a core component of our constitution in a deliberative, detoxified democracy. Until then, they'd be an incredibly effective way of putting pressure on the existing system from the outside. If we could find some philanthropists to get them going, I think they'd be a fantastically cheap investment in another, better future” Gruen argues.

Gruen's proposal goes beyond the use of citizens' juries as a mechanism to consult communities on a specific matter. Instead, a citizens' jury - chosen to be representative of the electorate - should be set up as an independent entity, potentially funded by a third party. “It forms a new cognitive elite that carefully deliberates on a matter and makes an informed recommendation that is trusted by the people.”

People trust people

“One thing we have learned at The Australian Centre for Social innovation is that people trust people. Hearing what is right or wrong from someone who is close to you or whom you think is like you is many times more convincing than hearing it from a politician,” Gruen argues.

The proposed model of citizens' juries is built on the premise that people have more faith in a decision, and are more likely to support it, if it was made by someone they can relate to. “Peer-to-peer education can strengthen the legitimacy of a decision,” Gruen explains. “The jury could comprise 299 citizens who work together to find a consensus following careful deliberation. It enables cooperation rather than competition, which is what is desperately missing from the current political system.” Citizens' juries would introduce a new system, one that is no longer run by a cognitive elite of politicians, but a system that is based on the outcomes of people's careful deliberation.

Introducing the considered will of the people into the parliamentary debate

How can this form of political activism be integrated into modern day politics? What does a system look like where parliament actually listens to an independent citizens' jury? The juries that Nicholas Gruen is proposing would work alongside government. They would function as parliament's critical advocate, the people's critical opinion voiced by a random but representative group of communities. “Citizens' juries would take on the function of a shadow parliament. They would represent the considered will of the people.”

Without doubt, there are risks when setting up citizens' juries. A jury needs to be overseen by a board to set the topics of discussion and manage the budget. Defining who sits on this board, how these people are chosen, and what their motives are is a complex discussion that requires careful deliberation in itself. Without aiming to simplify these important “machinery questions”, Gruen suggests that mechanical transparency, representative sortition, exposure to non-partisan evidence, and ownership of budget and decision-making processes - as well as juror exit interviews - should suffice as initial mitigation strategies.

To detox democracy, we need a change of gear

“Citizens' juries allow people to differentiate between good ideas and bad ones,” he explains. Policy is complex, and many people currently cast their vote based on partial information and with too little time to engage with the matter. To detox democracy and strengthen legitimacy, democratic processes need to slow down, Gruen adds. “We need to start moving away from political soundbites, which last less than ten seconds and dominate modern politics. We need to invest resources to strengthen deliberation, to strengthen the authenticity of political decision-making processes.”

To introduce this concept, government needs to be open to new institutions. Legitimacy, Gruen argues, can only be strengthened by having more independent and bipartisan discussions. This is not to say that communities can replace experts. On the contrary, there is a clear need for experts, and they would feed into the discussion as expert witnesses. However, what we need is a reset of the political debate, and more ways to incorporate what ordinary people think into day-to-day politics.

“The endless optimisation of processes has led to a toxification of politics. Politics has turned into infotainment,” so Gruen. And, without doubt, he is not the only one who thinks that politics has become meaningless because it is no longer driven by the desire to solve problems.


What is legitimacy to you? Where do you see legitimacy working well? How governments work with communities to build legitimacy is a big question for CPI. 

Find out how to get involved in our Finding Legitimacy project 


Written by:

Lena Kuenkel Director, Europe
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