In my last post I considered the question of whether citizens’ juries might help to lift public debate on issues which professional politicians find difficult to deal with. After looking at the process involved in a citizens’ jury on container deposit legislation, I concluded that it was likely to be particularly important for citizens’ juries to be asked the right questions.
The post provoked two different responses. Evan suggested that citizens’ juries could make a valuable input to policy, but there was a problem of legitimization i.e. the process required government backing. Anon (kvd) asked why it was necessary to place between ‘the people’ and their elected representatives a layer of ‘non-responsible, unelected, single-issue, unaccountable’ citizens’ juries. My response was that I agreed with both Evan and kvd, but what I meant was that both had raised good points. Citizens’ juries would certainly need to be seen to have legitimacy in order to have the desired effect on public debate. And the onus should certainly be on those who propose such innovations to show why they are necessary and are likely to succeed.
I think we should be looking for innovations to make the democratic systems work better because there is a tendency for democratic governments to over-reach – to raise public expectations of what they can achieve and to take on more responsibilities than they are able to cope with. This is reflected to some extent in the tendency for many governments to take on excessive debts, but I see the problem as much broader than that. I will write more about that at a later stage.
I have had an interesting discussion with Shona (the person who suggested last year that it might be a good idea to think up a new political system) about the possibility that citizens’ juries might be susceptible to groupthink. The discussion arose because of the example in my last post of a citizens’ jury coming to a unanimous decision, while successive polls looking at the same issue found that support for the proposal diminished after provision of information to participants. Shona suggested that I should take a look at the relevant chapters of Stuart Sutherland’s book, ‘Irrationality’.
Sutherland makes the point that not only do people tend to conform to majority decisions but group attitudes tend also to be more extreme than those of individuals. Rather than the attitudes of each member of the group tending toward a mid-position, as members of the group interact they tend toward a more extreme position. One possible reason is that if the group attitude is tending in one direction, individual members may express more extreme views in order to gain approval from other members. Another possible reason is that the group is willing to take greater risks than its individual members because membership of the group spreads responsibility.
Research relating to legal juries suggests that conformity to majority views is common. For example, a US study by Nicole Waters and Valerie Hans indicates that while about 6 percent of criminal juries fail to reach unanimity over one-third of jurors say that if the decision had been entirely up to them they would have voted against the jury’s decision.
The potential for members of citizens’ juries to conform to majority decisions and for group decisions to become polarised has been recognized by some researchers in this field. For example, R K Blamey, P McCarthy and R Smith of the ANU discussed these issues in their paper ‘Citizens’Juries and Small-group Decision-making’. The authors conclude that the fact that citizens’ juries are susceptible to biases does not necessarily mean that individual-based decision-making (e.g. via opinion surveys) should be preferred. They make various recommendations designed to minimize the weaknesses of group processes and to maximize their strengths.
There are some situations where the tendency of small groups to conform to majority decisions is desirable. For example, a fairly high degree of conformity to group decisions is required for a system of cabinet government to work effectively. It seems to me, however, that the tendencies for bias discussed above would pose substantial problems in using citizens’ juries in the manner I had contemplated. There is a good chance that the outcome of a citizens’ jury process would not be representatives of the views that a group of randomly chosen group of citizens would come to if they had the opportunity to consider an issue independently.