Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Are citizens' juries susceptible to groupthink?

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’.

Irrationality: Stuart SutherlandSutherland 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. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

What questions should citizen's juries be asked?

Since writing on the question of whether citizen’s juries might be better than focus groups I have been thinking more about the kinds of questions a randomly selected group of citizens could usefully deliberate upon. The answer probably depends on the objective of the process.

When Gordon Brown became prime minister of Britain in 2007 he announced citizen’s juries as his ‘new big idea’. It seems from his speech announcing the policy initiative that his aim was to improve communication between his government and the general public. His emphasis was on new ways of listening to people, consulting on new ideas and engaging in a dialogue and deliberation. He attended some of these citizen’s juries himself. An internet search indicates that the response at the time ranged from strong support to cynical suggestions that his motive might have to obtain more photo opportunities. Remarkably, within about a year the big new idea seems to have vanished without leaving a trace on the internet. I don’t know what happened. It is odd that there doesn’t seem to have been a public post mortem about what went wrong (or right) with the process. My guess is that the novelty of listening and consulting might have worn off.

It seems to me that the most useful objective of citizen’s juries would be to influence public opinion by providing a considered point of view that people might consider more trustworthy than the views of political leaders, interest groups or experts making judgements outside their areas of competence.  In other words, this process might help to address the combination of rational ignorance and hubris (or narcissism or whatever) that tends to lower the level of public debate on policy issues.

So, what types of questions might usefully be put to citizen’s juries? In my view the relevant questions would arise mainly from the issues that professional politicians find difficult to deal with because public opinion is ill-informed or unstable. Establishing citizen’s juries to look at such issues could be viewed as experiments to help a government to decide whether to take the political risks involved in introducing reforms.

I am not sure to what extent citizen’s juries have previously been viewed in that light. From the little I have read on the topic, the inclusion of unorganized citizens in policy processes is often seen as a desirable end in itself.

Greg Cutbush, a visiting economist at ANU Enterprise, responded to my last post by suggesting that before I get too enthusiastic about citizen’s juries I should take a look at a citizen’s forum on a proposal for a container deposit scheme in New South Wales.

In brief, the citizen’s forum was part of a review of container deposit legislation conducted by Stuart White of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS in 2001. Other parts of the review included a cost benefit study of container deposit legislation (CDL), stakeholder and community consultations and a ‘televote’.  The ‘televote’ involved two polls, the second of which followed provision to respondents of ‘balanced written information on the various arguments in favour and against CDL’. The eleven members of the citizen’s forum were provided with essentially the same written information, presentations from government officials and independent CDL experts, as well as exposure to three days of deliberation.

As a result of the provision of information in the televote process, support for CDL fell from 71 percent to 59 percent. By contrast, the citizen’s forum unanimously agreed to the implementation of CDL. I wonder whether the emergence of consensus reflects the impact of three days of deliberation.

In the aftermath of the exercise one member of the project team, Carolyn Hendriks, commented:
‘The introduction of new players to the policy debate, particularly in terms of their representativeness and legitimacy, was one of the key concerns raised by the interest groups in a recent Australian citizens jury held on Container Deposit Legislation (CDL). There were two key issues here. Firstly, interest groups questioned the capacity of ordinary citizens to comprehend their arguments. Secondly, most of the CDL interest groups saw themselves as the only legitimate stakeholders. According to this viewpoint, citizens with an opinion or interest in the issue can only enter the policy debate via a valid group. Extending public participation to virtual stakeholders such as lay citizens appeared to insult interest groups because it down-played their expertise and their long-term investment in the issue.’

The problem she alludes to was the withdrawal of some stakeholders from making presentations to the citizen’s forum, which necessitated reliance on written material. It is not clear whether this had any impact on the outcome of the deliberation process.

However, I have doubts about the value of the whole exercise because it isn’t clear that participants in the forum were asked the most appropriate question. As pointed out by Access Economics, in its review of the White report, the question of how best can governments increase recycling rates requires a ranking of CDL against other feasible options rather than an a consideration of whether a CDL scheme might be better than the status quo.

If citizen’s juries are asked the wrong questions they might reach unanimity about matters that are not particularly relevant to the policy choices that governments have to make. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Would a citizen's jury produce a better policy outcome than a focus group?

In an article published on his blog last Sunday Jim Belshaw argued that risk management by governments has come to focus too heavily on political risk avoidance because of concerns that a more balanced approach would be too difficult to sell to the public. As a generalization, I think the point is correct. It is possible to cite a few examples of recent Australian governments taking excessive risks (e.g. the infamous home insulation and school hall construction programs). In my view, however, the Hawke, Keating and Howard governments showed stronger leadership than those that have followed and were less prone to allow focus groups, polling and brainstorming on talk back radio and twitter to set the political agenda.

That is just a personal impression. It is difficult to cite hard evidence. Mike Steketee provided some examples in support of the view that poll-driven policies have become more common in an article in ‘The Australian’last year. In my view the strongest point he made, however, was to quote Rod Cameron, a veteran pollster, who has observed that politicians are now more inclined to accept the prejudice and narrow-minded bigotry coming out of focus groups as a basis for policy, rather than to seek to neutralize such views.

Irrespective of whether Australian governments have become more poll-driven in recent years, the temptation for governments to opt for politically safe options rather than those requiring courageous political leadership exists in all countries in which public opinion counts for anything. In many instances, of course, the politically safer option is much more risky in the longer term. In my view that makes it preferable to have a system of government in which it is clear which political parties are accountable for the decisions that are made or not made by governments, rather than proportional representation, in which responsibility is shared by the centre right and centre left - and the only parties that have clean hands are the extremists at either end of the political spectrum. I have in mind the situation in Greece, of course, but I am straying from the topic I want to write about.

Coming back to the importance of political leadership, I remember a conversation that I had with a wise person about 20 years ago. I made the point that Australia needed more courageous political leadership to pursue economic reforms. I expected the wise person to agree, but his response was that those who want governments to pursue economic reforms need to accept that governments don’t lead, they follow. The point he was making was that it is important to keep in mind that political leaders can never get far ahead of public opinion. The leader who prepares the ground for reform by attempting to raise the level of public discussion of an issue will often be more successful in promoting reform than the one who shows great courage in attempting to forge ahead ignoring ill-informed public opposition.

So, how should those who aspire to leadership seek to raise the level of public discussion of issues? One method that has had some success in Australia is the system of independent policy advice provided by the Productivity Commission and some of its predecessor organizations. The strength of that system - as Gary Banks, the chairman of the Commission, pointed out in a speech last year - has been the independence of the Commission, the process of public scrutiny of underlying research and analysis before the advice is submitted to government, and the educative role of the organization in helping to promote a broader understanding of issues and advocating initiatives to the public and parliament.

However, it has not been possible for the Productivity Commission to be as effective as it should be. In an interview with Alan Mitchell in the Australian Financial Review a couple of months ago (10 March) Bill Carmichael, member of the Tasman Transparency Group and former chairman of the Industries Assistance Commission, suggested that the Rudd and Gillard governments had sidelined the Productivity Commission as an independent advisor on microeconomic reform:
‘They have created a plethora of carefully selected inquiries and institutional arrangements designed to minimize bothersome critical analysis and produce outcomes more to their liking’.

The report of the interview ended with Bill Carmichael suggesting that political leadership is ‘a quality that has been missing from the present debate about economic reform’. An element of leadership is clearly required to move forward on difficult issues, even with the help of sensible public inquiry processes.

So, could citizen’s juries help to compensate for weak political leadership? According to Nick Gruen, in the transcript of an ABCbroadcast in which he spoke about ‘deepening democracy in the internet age’, a citizen’s jury or consensus conference is ‘a small jury-sized randomly selected group’ which ‘deliberates at length’ on policy issues. The body hears evidence from professional experts and advocates, and its conclusions are published.

It seems to me that the potential benefit of such a system would lie mainly in helping to lift the level of public debate on contentious issues, by providing members of the public with a point of view that they might consider more trustworthy than the partisan views of political leaders, or judgements of experts who might seem to be out of touch with the values of ordinary people. Citizen’s juries would certainly not be a substitute for sensible public inquiry processes, but they might help avoid policy development being placed at the mercy of focus groups and political point scoring. Citizen’s juries could perhaps be particularly helpful in development of policies that involve important value judgements e.g. deciding appropriate levels of immigration.

I will write more about citizen’s juries later.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

What is the case for government funding of mitigation research?

I ended a recent post by suggesting that serious consideration should be given to Bjorn Lomborg’s view that mitigation of climate change is likely to require a substantial increase in government funding of relevant research.
That position is somewhat at odds with a view that I have held for a long time that governments should stay out of the business of trying to pick technological winners by funding research and development. I acknowledge the case for public funding of basic research on grounds that it is a public good that would not be adequately supplied via the normal operation of market forces. If someone suggests, however, that governments should become heavily involved in funding of research into alternative energy because the world is running out of cheap sources of fossil fuels, I would regard that as a fairly silly idea. When the world does start running out of cheap sources of fossil fuels the prices of those resources can be expected to rise, providing a strong market incentive for private sector investment in research into alternative energy sources.

So, what grounds are there to argue that carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes that impose a cost on carbon emissions will not have a similar effect on research incentives? I don’t see any. In both cases, as the production of energy through conventional use of fossil fuels becomes more expensive the market should provide adequate incentives for research.

The case for substantial government involvement in funding of research directed toward mitigation of climate change cannot rest on arguments that apply to equally to many other forms of research, even though some eminent economists may think it does. For example, Ross Garnaut argues (in Chapter 9 of his 2011 climate change report) that ‘the carbon price alone will not lead to adequate investment in research, development and commercialisation of new technologies, because the private investor can capture only part of the benefits’. Similar externalities apply, of course, to a wide range of research, development and commercialization activities throughout the economy. Perhaps the existence of such externalities warrants some government assistance to industry, such as allowing capital spending on research and innovation to be treated for tax purposes as a current rather than capital expenditure.  It might also warrant some government involvement in funding of development rather than just basic research, particularly since it is often difficult to draw a line between R and D. But it would be difficult to justify the large increase in tax – and associated economic costs – which would be required to embark on a major program of government funding of research, development and commercialization of new technologies in all sectors of the economy.

It seems to me that the case for substantial government involvement in funding of research directed toward mitigation of climate change must rest on a form of government failure (the difficulty of obtaining international agreement for concerted action) rather than on market failure (or externalities). If governments were able to agree to an appropriate carbon price the case for additional government funding of research would disappear.

Bjorn Lomborg seems to be on strong grounds in arguing that international agreements to invest in research and development are likely to have a greater chance of success than carbon-reduction negotiations. Wealthy countries are less likely to object to making greater research contributions. Agreements to fund more research may also be seen as likely to make it easier to negotiate future carbon reductions by reducing the cost margin between existing fossil fuel technologies and less polluting technologies.

However, there is potential for gradual mitigation to continue to occur even in the absence of international agreements. Governments of countries with high per capita emissions will continue to come under political pressure – from internal and external sources - to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps the most likely outcome is that the world will stumble on toward a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, relative to what would otherwise occur. The climate will nevertheless continue to change. This may impose high costs on some people (those faced with high adaptation costs relative to their current income levels) and benefits to some others. But the general story might be one of successful adaptation.

If that is the most likely scenario, it would make sense to view increased government involvement in research to mitigate climate change as a precautionary measure. It is probably worth doing even though it will, hopefully, not be necessary. Imagine a scenario where climate change accelerates and costs of adaptation begin to rise steeply. My guess is that in that situation, international agreement would be reached fairly quickly by the United States, China and Europe to cut emissions of greenhouse gases drastically and take steps to ensure that other countries do likewise. The economic cost of such reductions in emissions will be very high if there is still a substantial cost margin between energy generated using conventional fossil fuel technologies and cleaner technologies.

So, it seems to me that the case for substantial government involvement in funding of research to mitigate climate change is largely precautionary. It is in our interests to reduce the risk that will be posed to our standard of living if we have to make sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions at some later stage.