In 2011, newDemocracy - an independent, research organisation aiming to improve our democratic process - first met with the City of Canada Bay in the inner-west of Sydney. We wanted to show Angelo Tzirekas, the Mayor of the local council, how the often misled – and patronising - process of “public consultation” could be resuscitated back to its true meaning. During our visit, 300 angry locals were blaming Angelo for the loss of their old playgrounds to new ones in bigger parks. Since the Council had undertaken what they considered to be appropriate consultation - through surveys and town hall meetings - they weren’t prepared for the blowback: When workers began removing the old play equipment, the residents took to the streets leaving the Mayor dumbfounded.

This scenario demonstrates two basic reasons why public engagement is a necessary process in place-making. The first is obvious: it helps leaders lead, by taking the guesswork out of the ‘customer’, and hearing first-hand their real needs. The second is a corollary of the first: If the engagement is done well, then it’s easier to build political consensus. However, the usual practice in Australia is that public consultation means little more than ‘Educate’, as in DEAD: Design, Educate, Announce and Defend.

Design, or public policy development, is not the exclusive exercise of expert practitioners, but a participatory process. Educate, similarly, is a two way street, between the public and the domain experts. Announce is not a propaganda exercise, but just the end point of a public judgement.

At newDemocracy, we argue that the jury model is better practice public engagement.  Relying on random selection, there is no better model for, by, of the people. In addition, deliberation is enhanced by bringing together a truly representative and diverse group of people.

Sydney - arguably the most beautiful city in the world - is a global city struggling to reconcile its growth and liveability. It has a sprawling suburban footprint, poorly serviced by public transport, and an affordable housing issue, exacerbated by continuing population growth. Developers, left unleashed, would continue with housing subdivisions and/or condos as far, and as high as they could-if it weren’t for government.

Professor Deirdre McCloskey, a Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English, and Communication from the University of Illinois at Chicago, calls modern capitalism ‘The Great Enrichment’. Beginning in the 18th and 19th century with the European middle classes, especially in the Netherlands and the UK, ‘The Great Enrichment’ improved the lives of most people. I like to refer to the ‘The Great Enrichment’ as ‘Starship Enterprise’: its mission is to liberate the entrepreneur in all of us. There is no better spaceship - no better sputnik - known to mankind. Working and trading are fundamental to human relations. When ‘Starship Enterprise’ took off 250 years ago, the middle classes began to make the modern world with accelerating speed and, it must be said, with some adverse consequences. Businesses don’t usually factor in negative effects to the community; what economists euphemistically call ‘externalities’. Cities need public transport, which the private sector doesn’t normally address. Therefore a companion spacecraft is needed alongside ‘Enterprise’. I’m calling that companion vehicle ‘Steamship Democracy’; it’s slower, but it actually needs to be faster, to anticipate business and promote the common good.

Following our first meeting with Angelo Tzirekas, the Council agreed to let us convene a jury of residents to review the Council’s budget. About 4,000 residents were selected at random and invited to participate. Of the approx. 800 respondents, 24 citizens were chosen, again at random. The jury met for about six days over a ten-week period, listening to presentations from expert practitioners (Council officers, consultants, etc). In addition, they engaged online and downloaded relevant information, submissions and hearings. Virtually all of their recommendations were unanimously endorsed by Council.

Another public consultation project, undertaken for Infrastructure Victoria in 2015, saw two juries (one metro, one regional) contributed to a 30-Year Strategy Report tabled in Parliament. Spanning nine infrastructure sectors, including health, education, justice, water and energy, most of the juries’ 137 recommendations, totaling $100 billion and reaching across 70% of the State, were included in the final report.

There have been many of these projects in Australia and elsewhere. They prove one thing: everyday people - when given an opportunity to deliberate together - make sensible decisions. Over my working life, management techniques have generally evolved for the better. Old autocratic and hierarchical structures have largely been replaced by collaborative frameworks. ‘Starship Enterprise’ is ingenious and nimble, going boldly where no-one has gone before. Cross fertilisation and interdisciplinary activities are not just regarded as a ‘feel good’ but an absolute necessity. Unfortunately ‘Steamship Democracy’, in most countries, struggles to keep up, not helped by having politicians bickering over the helm.

In this crowded and complex world, I think we need more effective and faster ways to reconcile our differences. The advantaged communities are likely to be those reaching agreements in more collaborative forums. I think citizen juries are set to be a big part of the way cities – and states - govern themselves.

issue 03. autumn 2017