We had a busy day on Saturday 18 September at the People in the Park event in Salisbury. We were blessed by the weather and a steady flow of people through the day. Our SDA stall was well attended and we ran out of Democracy Café leaflets.
There was interest in the Citizens’ Jury concept which has received a degree of local publicity in last few weeks. It was briefly debated in the City Council last week. There were many questions: what is it? isn’t it expensive? and don’t we have councillors whom we elect to decide these things anyway (and can ultimately vote out if we don’t like them)? Well yes and no.
The basic concept is a randomly selected group of people who come together over 3 weekends to discuss a topic of political interest. They are advised by experts in the topic. The randomness is important as the problem is often that ‘consultation’ just means a narrow group of people talking to each other. Many feel excluded and public meetings are often populated by only a small part of the population as a whole. The young are only rarely seen or heard from.
It is quite expensive. Participants have to be paid, selection costs money as do the experts. Then there is room rental etc. But just think of the huge sums spent by Wiltshire Council on half-baked schemes which get nowhere and on their consultation exercises. Wouldn’t it be better to get a more broadly based set of views rather than from council officers in Trowbridge? Consultation in their terms actually means telling us about their plans. How much credence is given to different ideas or suggestions which are contrary to the political beliefs of those in Trowbridge?
‘We elect councillors’ is a frequent refrain so why invent a new (and expensive) system? So how many people engage in lengthy and complex discussions with their councillor on these topics? Very, very few I wager. Councillors over the years tell me that their contact with electors are about holes in the road, hedges not being cut, planning application moans and about fly tipping. All important in their way but hardly strategic topics which affect our futures.
Finally, the process is considerably more ‘bottom up’ rather than ‘top down’. It can be argued that it is genuinely more informed by randomly selected people who have had having had the benefit of expert advice and which is much more likely to recommend practical and doable projects.
That is why we believe that citizens’ juries are a superior form of policy making than the current system. One person spoke to me who was dead against the idea mostly for the reasons above. He had been a councillor. As we discussed the idea the conversation slowly morphed into how he found being a councillor unsatisfactory and inefficient and he ultimately stood down. On the one hand he was wedded to the current system but, as time went by, he found it more and more unsatisfactory and left. I suppose the moral is that people are so inured to the system that despite its manifest failings, they find radical change of this nature hard to accept.
At both the national and local level, the way we do politics is failing us. Surely it is time for radical change?