Governments have lost the art of involving the people

Democracy is not in crisis – it is just that governments have lost the art of talking to people about their concerns and involving them in the solutions

When Australians can still vote in free elections and influence government decision-making in the most fundamental way - by changing the government – it seems to be drawing a long bow to suggest our democracy is in crisis. But an area where I think we have got into trouble in our democracy is that

too often we have privileged the judgment of experts over that of the people we represent when making decisions.

I use the term ‘experts’ here in the broadest possible sense – scientists, specialists in particular fields of knowledge, and bureaucrats who come up with ‘rational’ answers to issues that they decide are the problems the community should think about. Expert knowledge is important – it can inform debate – however it must serve our citizens, not dictate to them.

Jay Weatherill speaking at the launch of the Uniting Communities rebranding, Adelaide Oval, Adelaide, South Australia. Picture via Wikimedia Commons user Bilby

The reliance on experts to ‘decide for us’ instead of ‘help us to decide’, disenfranchises people, and has led to a general feeling of frustration with the political process. People want it to be better than it is but they also want meaningful ways to participate in it.

Governments that have failed to recognise this and simply sought to impose change have found their reform agendas floundering and have heightened citizens’ mistrust of politics. Compounding the problem, governments that choose to find ways to more meaningfully involve citizens in policy-making are likely to find their bureaucracies inadequately equipped for the task.

Most traditional consultation processes within government are good at eliciting the views of key stakeholders and the vocal advocates of particular policy positions. Not many can provide the opportunity for representatives of the ‘silent majority’ to deliberate on important policy questions.

That’s why in South Australia we have focussed on developing a new range of tools that involve people in making public decisions.

Citizens’ Juries – groups of randomly selected South Australians called upon to deliberate on policy dilemmas and make recommendations to government – are a prime example.

In a reversal of the norm, it is the citizens who decide what experts they need to hear from and then make the recommendations to government.

These recommendations are taken to the Cabinet and the Parliament, unedited and unaltered.

Given a genuine and transparent responsibility to influence matters of public policy, our citizen jurors responded in-kind. They exhibited the best qualities of ‘citizens’ in the true sense of the word by setting aside self-interest, focusing on what is in the best interest of the broader community, and delivering considered judgments. It is sometimes a surprise to people in government and bureaucracies that this is the case.

Yet, in many ways, it’s a process we deal with as we go about our daily lives – assessing new information, reassessing our priorities, and making compromises where it is necessary to deliver important change. Rather than being a threat to established institutions and reform, our Citizens’ Juries have demonstrated that the involvement of citizens in public decisions enables change and helps to restore faith in the political process.

Independent evaluation has shown that the cynicism and suspicion people had felt towards government decreased as a result of being involved in the citizen jury process, with a strong interest in participating again.

The Proclamation of South Australia 1836, Charles Hill

South Australia’s efforts in this area extend well beyond Citizens’ Juries with crowd-sourcing decisions about grant funding, more meetings of the Cabinet in community and regional settings, regular phone-in sessions that involve Ministers and senior executives, and 35,000 people signed up to the Government’s online consultation hub, YourSay, all part of the mix.

These are among the measures that form the basis of the South Australian Government’s Reforming Democracy policy statement, released in August.

In a very practical sense, greater involvement helps government make better and more enduring decisions.

The more we authentically engage with people, the better the chance the community will understand the trade-offs of different choices, reach consensus, and commit to a change that can bring wider community benefit.

Reforming Democracy commits the Government to looking beyond the traditional ways that ideas have been debated and decisions made so that we can tap even more of our most valuable resource – the common sense judgment of everyday people.

This article originally appeared in

Banner image: Parliament House, Adelaide via Wikimedia Commons by Orderinchaos