The newDemocracy Foundation newsletter for February 2016
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Deliberative democracy - does it really work?

Dear <<First Name>>

Public decisions that are more representative, less adversarial, based on public judgment not the loudest opinion – these are the fundamental  principles  espoused by the concept of deliberative democracy. Is there anything not to like about it?

The newDemocracy Foundation has run over 12 juries for a range of government bodies in several states. Each project looks at a different topic but each jury is designed with five basic principles:

  1. Panellists are chosen randomly to mirror the demographics of the relevant community
  2. The blank sheet of paper: citizens are given the issue being questioned and allowed to answer it their way instead of having a draft solution with a  desired outcome
  3. The panel has plenty of time to deliberate the issue – usually up to 50hrs over a period of several weeks
  4. The participants have access to whatever information and whichever expert they require in the course of their deliberations.
  5. The deliberations are led by a professional moderator, experienced in dealing with such groups

But you may well ask – does it work?

My answer is Yes – But

YES:-  No problem is a simple binary – good/bad; right answer/ wrong answer. In all our juries, we have found the group has been able to produce a consensus report (ie 80% agreement) with a set of clearly defined recommendations.

BUT:- The process is only successful if the body commissioning the report is brave enough to accept the recommendations.
In this newsletter, I give the case for Yes and for But.

The case for YES

Penrith City Council is a large, iconic council area and like many local government authorities in New South Wales, it is growing and changing rapidly. That change brings with it both opportunities and pressures on services and finite resources.

Gulcin, a new resident to the area, was part of a 28 member panel whose brief was to look at the Council’s $300m future infrastructure needs and annual budget of $237m. [Penrith City Council - Balancing competing needs in a growing community]. Initially sceptical of the process she has become a supporter stating that “It is a mutually beneficial experience [for Council and community] and more organisations should get on board

 Below are some of her reactions to the process and its outcome. 

“It is difficult enough to get a consensus in your own small family group, let alone a group of 30 complete individuals. I saw this as the biggest challenge.  This was, at the same time, a strength and advantage.  You have an explosion of different views, ideas, agendas, perspectives and visions for the future
The councillors and staff of Penrith City Council (PCC) were very supportive, committed and forthcoming with their time, information, facilities, and catering.
The panel members provided a steady flow of ideas and discussion points. Respectfully, we listened to each other’s arguments for and against and discussed the different viewpoints. …….Though we didn’t always agree, we were able to come to a point somewhere in the middle that everyone was comfortable with. Additionally, the panel had access to feedback and submissions from members of the public, and an online forum that was provided for us by the PCC and nDF to further the discussions and exchange ideas.
This understanding between all parties allowed for the panel to come to a consensus”.
Gulcin’s full piece can be read on our website.

The case for BUT

In September 2013, after a number of violent alcohol-related attacks leading to the deaths of two young men in Kings Cross, the City of Sydney in conjunction with the NSW Government appointed the Foundation to conduct a Citizens’ Jury to look into "How can we ensure we have a vibrant and safe Sydney nightlife?" Note that the issue was for both a vibrant AND a safe nightlife – it was explicitly about achieving a balanced trade-off.

Recently this topic has again been argued vigorously in the media with the closure of several venues attributed to the Government’s lock out laws. Are the laws making Sydney safer and/ or duller?

The original  jury of 43 random citizens (including 18 under the age of 35) offered in principle support for the lock out laws but they also foresaw the possibility  that the vibrancy and diversity  of Sydney’s nightlife could be adversely affected and so  made a number of suggestions to mitigate against business closure and the reduction of nightlife opportunities.  Amongst some of the jury’s 25 recommendations:-

3. :- that the City of Sydney commit budget to support night-time innovation and diversity.

4. :- that the NSW Government collaborate with the City of Sydney and provide financial and regulatory support for night-time activities: small and major.

13. :- that there be an increase in visibility and coverage in the night time precincts by the NSW Police

21. :- that  the independent statutory review of the effectiveness of the lockout and trading controls in terms of the social, economic, health and crime impacts be conducted in 12 months rather than the proposed 24 months. The outcomes of this review are to be publicly available.

22. :- that exemptions be available for venues to the "lock-out" and other trading restrictions, based on good behaviour, no incidents, and proven lower risk to public safety. This makes it financially favourable for the venue to police itself.

Recommendations 3, 4, and  13 were supported in principle by the Government

Recommendation 21 was noted.

Recommendation 22 was not supported. 


To quote Luca Belgiorno-Nettis in a recent opinion piece in the SMH:

“ [A] jury isn't beholden to any party, lobby group or to the "popular" vote; and they don't have to answer to trending social media and shrill headlines. Unlike our elected officials.”

Governments must acknowledge from the beginning of the process that they are using a jury because

  1. they do not  have all the answers,
  2. the public will not trust a Government-only view of a complex problem

If citizens see, like and trust the jury process, then they will be open to some of the tough recommendations that come back from it. The point of deliberative democracy is to share the decisions, not to have them thrust upon the community or have MPs still left to go it alone at the conclusion.

My conclusion

Deliberative democracy can and will work if we let it, and Governments take the jury and its recommendations seriously.


John Burnheim

The newDemocracy Foundation is privileged to have as one of its supporters John Burnheim, lecturer in Philosphy at Sydney University.  In 1985 he wrote a seminal work entitled  Is Democracy Possible?  The alternative to electoral politics.  It proposed that using selection by statistical procedures to fill certain public offices would have decisive advantages over mass voting. It also agued that political power should be devolved from the state to authorities with very specific jurisdictions. Not everybody should have an equal say in all matters of public policy. Those who are most strongly affected in one way or another by certain decisions should have more say in those decisions.

People, especially politicians, having power over matters that do not affect them substantially can mean a sort of democratic tyranny where the majority imposes its decisions on certain minorities, like indigenous peoples, simply because their problems are misunderstood. It opens the way to power trading. A politician A offers another politician B support for a proposal A does not care about in return for B's support on something A wants. Accumulating power means putting as many players as possible in your debt. The result is that many decisions reflect deals between politicians seeking to maximise their power rather than the merits of the case. Hence the pejorative connotations of calling a decision "a political decision". The book argued that if the decisions on a particular area of policy were entrusted to a group statistically representing the interests most affected by them, better decisions would result. The participants themselves would bear the consequences of their decisions. They could not unload them on to others.

The suggestion that representatives should be chosen by lot was not new, but the book drew a lot of attention to it. The thesis about decentralising power to the people affected by decisions in a particular area of policy was ignored. It involved too great a break from the democratic tradition. In any case the questions raised in the book were mainly of theoretical interest. There was no prospect of getting majority support for such constitutional changes. Over the next thirty years Burnheim shifted the focus of his thinking towards what could be done to improve political policy-making without legislative changes.

THE DEMARCHY MANIFESTOThe result is The Demarchy Manifesto: for better public policy. It proposes a way in which practical policy decisions could emerge clearly from well-organised and completely open public discussion that concentrates on a particular problem area. That process of open discussion could plausibly claim to represent considered public opinion on the matter. So, although it would have no legal force, politicians would have to heed it, if they claimed to respect public opinion. Such completely open yet clearly focused public discussion has become possible only as a result of modern communications, as the book explains in some detail.

The core proposal is outlined in the introduction, while the first part of the book examines what kind of basis a decision should have if it is to claim to be a good decision. The second part offers suggestions about tackling various areas of decision, while the third attempts to answer objections. Burnheim calls his proposals Demarchy to signal that they envisage adding a whole new process to alter the way traditional democracy works. It is not a final solution to the problems of democracy as we know it, but a first, completely practical, step towards improving it.

As a little advertisement, copies of the book may be obtained at HERE.


Finally, thank you to those who contact me with ideas and comments – please continue to do so. Our ideas are spreading – let’s spread them faster and wider.

Manuela Epstein


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