Citizen juries

I have ranted about these new citizen juries before. Last December, I argued that MPs already have a ready-made focus group – their constituents – and there was no need for an intermediate cross-section to represent the views of everyone else.
Listening on the radio to the thoughts of some of those who participated, the verdict from Gordon Brown’s first session seems positive. The caveat, however, was that the citizens would “wait and see if we;ve been listened to” before making a judgement as to their success.
There is an interesting section in the Fabian pamphlet Facing Out that deals with the subject of being ‘listened’ to:

As Paul Webb observes, the failure to understand that politics cannot always give you what you want can give rise to a related perception: that just because you do not get what you want, you have not been listened to. Yet if getting what you want is the benchmark for being listened to, then we have a problem since democratic politics can never deliver this – no matter how much listening is done – unless all citizens happen, magically, to agree.

The idea of Citizens’ Juries raises some interesting questions about the nature of political participation and leadership. A reliance on focus groups is seen as a sign of indecision and lack of conviction. And yet a Prime Minister or party leader who does not take into account the wishes of their constituents, and the public at large, is deemed dictatorial and aloof. Clearly, a fine balance must be struck, but I doubt that Citizen Juries are a part of that balance. However the government responds, it will be percieved to have ‘not listened’ to the the people, and the cynics will score a victory.


Two of my favourite blogger-journalists are in the cynics camp on this one. Both Dave Hill and Chris Dillow think that Gordon has already nobbled the Citizens Jury. Chris also makes a similar point about the Catch-22 of the “listening” rhetoric.

5 Replies to “Citizen juries”

  1. There are different degrees of “not being listened to” however. Ideally, a politician would give a speech in which he or she outlined the various sides of the argument, and then explained their decision. Rather like a judge in their summing up of a ruling they have made.
    Only problem is, ackowledging your thinking process so openly opens you up to all sorts of criticism at a later date, with politicians arguing over every single past decision. This would be exacerbated here in the Internet Age, when everything you have every said is recorded for posterity. So more openness could lead to more infighting.
    Despite this, perhaps there is a case for politicians to be a little bit more robust with the electorate. When the culture assumes that the voters are stupid and cannot be given a straight answer, frustration surely ensues.
    I think voters would be more satisfied with the politician who says “Yep – Your interests lost out. A&Es are simply not our priority, so we are closing more A& to pay for more cancer services” as opposed to “while we recognise that the community has deeply held views, we felt that it would be inappropriate to reverse the current policy. The Executive remains committed to providing a strong healthcare service for Scotland.” If the politician proved that Joe Public’s point was a factor in the decision, that could lead to a certain amount of satisfaction in the political process, if not satisfaction in the result (or the judgement of the politician).
    Only problem is – when some old codger keels over, and dies due to the absence of A&E services in the area, the mob knows exactly which door to knock upon… It would require a certain amount of charisma and chutzpah from the politician in question to ride out that political storm.

  2. Bloody brilliant point. It is exactly this fact of life that the “opposition” and media exploit in what I consider an insidious and detrimental and disingenuous way.
    On the other hand, if you listen to the views of certain groups of people, and fail to act on or implement them, then one way of demonstrating that you have nevertheless listened is to offer an explanation or justification of the action/inaction that you have taken, in light of the views that you have heard. If you have made a good decision, you will surely know why it is good, and be able to communicate this, if only you can be bothered/respectful enough to take the trouble. I think it is this lack of regard for those who did not get what they want that makes them feel not listened to.
    When a decision boils down to a judgement call (as opposed to reasoned argumentation), then those who disagree with it are right to feel not listened to. Sadly, life is not all black and white, and judgement calls are a fact of life too.

  3. Citizen juries are a symptom of the move towards pressure group politics that has been insiduously replecing the genuine democratic process. Once you start listening to the MCGB, “comunity leaders” and the mileu of single issue pressure groups who are neither legitimate nor representative of anything other than themselves, you have no where else to go but to replace the MP and his constituents with focus groups, special advisors and management consultants, all of who bypass (and thus weaken) the democratic process. The idea that politics consists of balancing the conflicting needs of society has been lost because single issue politics appeal to emotion rather than reason. I’ve said it before but the only solution is to destroy all manifestations of authority which are not linked to legimitate, elected authority.

  4. Having a random selection of citizens have an informed discussuion about a subject might well lead to interesting conclusions.
    If you think otherwise, juries in criminal trials should be similarly worrying.
    Uninformed discussions between people selected to represent the right “communities” stike me as being rather more of a gimmick.
    On the other hand, from little acorns do mighty oak trees grow, so we may yet be surprised.

  5. Having a random selection of citizens have an informed discussuion about a subject might well lead to interesting conclusions. If you think otherwise, juries in criminal trials should be similarly worrying.

    Juries in trials act on very acute matters, and their decisions can be reversed and redressed if necessary. That is not the case with nationwide government policy.

    Uninformed discussions between people selected to represent the right “communities” stike me as being rather more of a gimmick.

    I think my fear, and the cynicism around this issue, stem from precisely the worry that the Citizen Juries are both “uninformed” and “a gimmick”. I could be wrong, of course, in which case the government needs to do a better job arguing for their relevance. I am still not persuaded that they should replace the constituency.

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