How cities can rebuild trust in politics through meaningful public engagement

Claudia Chwalisz

By Claudia Chwalisz, on January 11th, 2017

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One oft-repeated phrase in 2016 was: ‘the people have spoken’. Despite the myriad of reasons behind voting intentions, the referendums in the UK, Hungary and Italy have all been claimed as victories for politicians claiming to represent ‘the people.’ By its nature, however, this form of direct democracy is divisive, playing into a narrative of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, forcing people to choose a side in a debate where a complex, multi-faceted problem has been boiled down into a simple, binary question.

Ruling the VoidPoliticians would be forgiven for wanting to forgo such consultation with ‘the people,’ fearing backlash in what has increasingly been pitted as a fight between ordinary people on the one hand and ‘the elite establishment’ on the other. However, it would be a mistake to ignore the fact that behind the support for populist parties and causes is a genuine desire for people’s voices to be heard. In the UK, the vast majority of people feel like their voice does not count in decisions taken by their elected representatives. Given recent trends in public trust in politicians and governments across Europe, it would not be surprising to find the same results elsewhere. Engaging their voices in a more meaningful and constructive way is the challenge.

Another URBACT blog post examined ways in which European cities are exploring these issues. But we should note that as inspiration, European leaders have no shortage of such examples from Canada and Australia, two countries that have successfully experimented with involving ordinary citizens more directly in public decision-making for the past decade. In a forthcoming book, The People’s Verdict: Adding informed citizen voices to public decision-making (Rowman & Littlefield), I consider the legitimacy and effectiveness of public decisions made by ministers, mayors, councillors, and heads of other public bodies in almost 50 cases where ordinary people played a key role through a specific democratic innovation: long-form deliberative processes.

In all of these examples, around 50 randomly selected citizens are asked by the public authority to provide concrete, measurable, realistic and costed recommendations to a policy dilemma. They meet four to six times over the course of two to three months, hearing from experts and stakeholders, deliberating with one another, considering ideas, finding common ground and reporting their judgement to the public body. By engaging a broad cross-section of the population – rather than the loudest voices – and giving the time and resources to consider the problem from all angles, public bodies encourage a consensual approach to decision-making and gain the legitimacy to act on hard choices.

About half of these long-form deliberative processes have taken place at the city level, where leaders are responsible for important budgets and a wide range of powers. The other half are mostly at the regional and state/provincial levels, with a few at the national level of governance as well. They range from developing Melbourne’s 10-year, $5 billion budget, to designing a 30 year infrastructure investment strategy in the State of Victoria, and updating Ontario’s condominium legislation based on the input of owners and dwellers. Questions such as how to achieve a safe and vibrant nightlife in the cities of Adelaide and Sydney, as well as how to upgrade cycling infrastructure so that cars and cyclists can share the roads safely were also among the topics. Currently, there is a longer term group of 28 randomly selected Torontonians who make up the Toronto Planning Review Panel, advising the City’s Planning division on various long-term planning issues.

Melbourne People PanelTaking one of these cases to illustrate more in-depth, the Melbourne People’s Panel in 2014 asked a group of randomly selected citizens to reach agreement on how Melbourne can remain one of the most liveable cities in the world while maintaining a strong financial position into the future. Eight thousand people across the city were randomly invited to participate. Among the 2,000 who responded with interest, 45 panellists were randomly chosen, controlling for age, gender, ratepayer status and location – the latter two being good proxies for ensuring a balance of socio-economic characteristics.

The People’s Panel met five times – once every three weeks from August until November 2014. During this time, they agreed the principles that would guide their deliberations, they heard from a wide range of experts and stakeholders, discussed with their family and friends between meetings, determined their priorities and weighed various funding models. In order for a recommendation to make it into the final report, an 80% supermajority was required within the group. The Melbourne People’s Panel put forth 11 concrete recommendations to the Council, presenting their proposals directly to the Lord Mayor and the city’s councillors.

cycle pathTheir proposals ranged from increased funding to address climate change (in the form of vertical gardens, solar panels, waste management and recycling for instance), to a five-year plan for introducing more bicycle lanes and physical barriers in the city, decreasing expenditure on new capital works by 10% over 10 years, and raising rates plus up to 2.5% per annum for 10 years among others.

The Council considered the People’s Panels proposals over the course of a few months, releasing their final 10-year financial plan on 30 June 2015, seven months after the Panel’s first meeting. The final plan was “heavily influenced by Council’s People’s Panel, a 43-member citizens’ jury convened to advise on spending and revenue priorities for the next decade” (City of Melbourne, 2015). Accepting ten out of 11 of the key recommendations, they explained why and why not for each one. In the City’s final publication of the plan, all of the citizens’ juries recommendations are in their unedited form, with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ column, and an explanation alongside.

Australia-Flag-MapThe Melbourne People’s Panel was one of the most successful citizens’ juries in Australia for a number of reasons: the problem was clear; the Council was open to hearing the Panel’s proposals, and it accepted the vast majority of them, closing an $800-900 million (AUD) budget hole.

One of the greatest strengths of this method of public engagement is that it allows participants to develop an understanding of the constraints and trade-offs that are part of policymaking, rather than other forms of direct democracy, which either simplify the problem or invite participants to produce unreflective wishful thinking. Long-form deliberative processes allow public authorities to treat the public as a resource to be tapped for useful, pragmatic ideas, rather than a risk to be mitigated. In times when trust in political leaders is in short supply, giving citizens a meaningful opportunity to contribute to shaping the policies which affect them and their communities can help to rebuild it in the longer term.

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