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Community consultation and engagement is an important part of the good and democratic governance of local government

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Citizen Juries

Citizen juries (sometimes called ‘Panels) have now been employed in several local government settings around Australia – and, increasingly, in Victoria. They differ in their scale, scope and level of resourcing but have all sought to improve both understanding and decision-making on the issue at hand.

How does a jury work?

Citizen juries provide the opportunity for a randomly selected ‘mini-public’ to deliberate thoroughly over an issue, often over several days. Typically, invitations will be sent out to a randomly-selected group of ratepayers. From those who take up the invitation, a further (stratified) sample will be selected to ensure that the final jury best represents the demographic of the wider community.

The selected ‘jurors’ are given a key question, or ‘remit’ to work through, with the aim of working together towards a clearly defined set of recommendations. This process is typically facilitated by an independent, expert facilitator; this is important, because it affords council some distance from the process and means that the outcomes of the process are more likely to be trusted.

In the course of their deliberations, the jury has access to expert help, through background material and presentations from ‘witnesses’ with expert knowledge relevant to their task.  These experts are sometimes internal to councils – but, most often, content experts are called on from outside of council. The jury’s deliberations are typically closed sessions but are open to observers at certain times, subject to observers signing a code of conduct.

At the end of the process, the jury will issue findings and recommendations to council.

At the outset, it is critical that jurors understand the degree of influence that they are being offered by the council. The idea of a panel or jury can sometimes be perceived as challenge to the role of elected representatives, but the final decision around an issue will always rest with the council. The role of a jury is to assist council in making informed decisions.

What’s involved?

Planning and design

As with any community engagement, it is important to have a clear purpose in mind which will inform the design of a jury process. It requires many months of careful planning and considerations of issues such as the jury selection, the remit, background material, observers, the authority of the jury’s recommendations, costing and evaluation.  Excellent examples of the thinking involved in jury process design can be found on the newDemocracy Foundation website: www.newdemocracy.com.au.

In particular, council needs to be clear about what it will do with the jury’s recommendations. On receiving the jury’s final report, council will be expected to respond publicly to the recommendations, outlining the reasons behind their response.

Time, energy and support

Anecdotal evidence speaks to the enormous amount of time and energy that a jury process requires of council officers with the responsibility of making it happen. One fundamental task is to ensure that colleagues and elected representatives understand what’s involved. This is in addition to all of the many practical considerations about the design of the process and the smooth running of the jury on the day.

By way of example, you will find below the planning schedule that sat behind the City of Darebin’s Citizens’ Jury. In this particular case, the council’s Chief Financial Officer carried responsibility for the jury process. Typically, the running of a jury process tends to fall to community engagement/development teams in council. Where a jury process sits in council is an important consideration.

Resources

The cost of convening a citizen’s jury varies considerably with the design of the process. Detail contained in council budgets can be difficult to access and, even then, it may be unclear the extent to which internal costs have been factored in - the best approach is to ask the people involved. That said, there is evidence that juries have been successfully staged for a cost in the order of $10K but the figure is often closer to $50 - $60K, which includes the cost of an external facilitator and officers’ time; the City of Greater Bendigo’s Citizens’ Jury budget is given as $89K; and the City of Melbourne’s large-scale People’s Panel on the Council’s 10-year financial plan cost in the order of $180K.  Some creative thinking and adaptation can help manage the budget without compromising the process; see, for example, the Yarra Ranges Council case study below.

A common question is whether funds committed to a jury are well spent or represent value for money over other approaches to community consultation. This too will vary case by case but it will be important to consider the cost-savings from running a robust jury process which may reduce the need for other less effective engagement processes down the track. It will also be important to consider some of the less tangible outcomes, such as the goodwill generated and the capacity of juries to unlock previously untapped resources and ideas. This question of value for money is addressed, explicitly, in an evaluation of the City of Melbourne’s People’s Panel; see http://participate.melbourne.vic.gov.au/10yearplan.

Some of the cases studies below also provide further commentary on these points.

Evaluation

It is essential to consider how the ‘success’ of the jury will be measured. Every setting is different but common considerations will include those around the integrity of the process; whether participants were given the resources and time they needed to participate meaningfully; the extent to which the jury was representative of the local community; the jury’s involvement in the evaluation; and the extent to which the influence of the jury’s recommendations can be demonstrated.

Examples of evaluation frameworks are provided in the Resource Library.

When to use a jury

A jury is useful when a council wants to know what an informed, representative group of people thinks about a particular issue. In the context of rate capping, it lends itself to an early discussion of the trade-offs involved in a rate-capping environment and the options that could best be taken forward as part of a broader engagement strategy.


Additional Information

ABC Radio National – Big Ideas

ABC Radio National pulled together a special panel to discuss on participatory approaches as part of its Big Ideas program.  Citizen juries – leadership for a new democracy gives a useful overview of this field. Well worth a listen: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bigideas/citizen-juries---leadership-for-a-new-democracy/6477686.

A guide to using citizens’ juries

Another useful resource is a report prepared by Dr Lyn Carson for Planning NSW:  Carson, L. 2003, Consult your community: a guide to using citizens’ juries which touches on the role of juries relative to existing public participation approaches, the logistics of organising  a jury and the many considerations along the way. www.activedemocracy.net.


Resources:

Citizen Juries at a Glance

City of Darebin - Citizen’s Jury timeline

Citizen Juries - an overview

Local Government Citizen Juries – Case Studies

Yarra Ranges Council People’s Panel – Case Study

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