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Empowering citizenís voices: lessons from inside a citizenís jury

By Tony Webb - posted Friday, 21 February 2020


The NSW government has commissioned New Democracy Foundation (NDF) to conduct a 'Citizens Jury' to advise whether the state should repeal legislation prohibiting the development of nuclear power. Many will welcome processes allowing citizens to explore evidence for and against controversial proposals before they are legislated. However, some caution is needed here.

In 2016 a 350 person Citizens Jury, set up by the SA government and facilitated by New Democracy, examined the idea that the state could profitably and safely import, store and eventually 'dispose' of nuclear wastes. Six weeks of deliberation concluded with two-thirds of the jurors saying "No, under any circumstances' but seen from the inside it could have been very different were it not for critical questioning of the process by some of the Jurors and how this evolved into a deeply- and widely-held concern among jurors over the way the process was run by NDF facilitators.

The outcome was in part a reaction to a sense of being manipulated, guided and steered towards a decision to at least permit if not encourage government to proceed with the proposal – despite the mass of evidence against.

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A representative jury?

I was one of 25,000 people randomly selected via Australia Post listings who received an invitation to be part of the jury process and one of around 1200 who expressed interest. Though not chosen to be part of the first 50 person jury that set the parameters for the second I observed some of the sessions in June-July 2016, read transcripts of jury sessions, viewed the government's 'Know-Nuclear' website, attended the travelling roadshow and contributed to the public opinion survey. I was pleasantly surprised to be one of the 350 randomly selected to participate in the second jury starting in October.

I freely admit to having been an active critic of the nuclear industry for over 40 years. I have campaigned on risks of public and occupational radiation exposures in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia. I've also argued that the world needs a long-term solution to the problem of nuclear wastes, preferably by international agreement with one or more countries carrying the burden as a global-citizen responsibility – something not always popular with environmentalists and anti-nuclear advocates. I remain sceptical it can be done responsibly as a commercial venture or as a solution to regional or national economic and employment woes.

The evidence from other jurors' early postings on the electronic discussion board, conversations, comments and questions posed in the jury sessions indicated that most of us approached the task of reviewing the evidence for the proposal with an open mind; facing up to the challenge of producing reasoned advice to government on whether, and if so under what conditions, to pursue the opportunity outlined in the earlier report of the SA Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission. As further evidence of open-mindedness, at the end of the second of three weekend sessions, an 'opinion line' on juror thinking showed clearly that while some had firmed up their opinion (at both ends) most were still undecided.

Reviewing the evidence

The early part of the jury process was commendable. Facilitators introduced a range of critical thinking skills for questioning information and evidence from witnesses to use in reaching our conclusions. We were also invited to post questions on a 'fact-check' wall and could ask for 'fact-checks' at any stage in the process.

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Witness evidence was critically evaluated through two distinct processes. The first involved hearing from experts with views across the spectrum of opinions chosen by a 'Stakeholder Reference Group' of industry, government and community agencies A 'speed-evidence' process provided small groups of jurors the opportunity to hear these expert's evidence and ask questions.

The second process involved jurors hearing witnesses they chose to fill gaps in the initial evidence. The stakeholder reference group offered an expanded list with details of expertise. Jurors completed 'information gap cards' suggesting concerns needing further information and the additional witnesses they thought might fill these gaps. The expanded profiles of over 200 was posted on a 'Witness Wall' grouped according to six key concerns jurors indicated needed consideration. Selection from this list of potential witnesses involved each juror placing five dots against names of those they most wished to hear from. The top five in each area of concern were to be invited to present and be questioned at the next jury session three weeks away.

Witness selection at this stage was to be the jurors' choice for information we judged was needed. Concern was raised when the Democracy Co facilitators running the process immediately asked that they be allowed to add additional witness to achieve "balance" in the list to be invited. This resulted in something close to uproar. The jury had been told – no ifs or buts ‒ that we would be selecting the witnesses we wanted to hear from. Not the facilitators. Not the Government. Eventually permission was given to include additional witnesses below the top five where chosen ones were not available. Balancing of witness evidence had already occurred in the first stage. The 'dot-mocracy' process selected witnesses to assist with critical evaluation of the evidence already provided that the project: would be financially viable, could be done safely, and there was a genuine process for exploring public consent.

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About the Author

Tony Webb has an MSc in Energy Resources Management and a PhD in the social psychology of political change processes. He has worked on radiation safety issues in the UK, USA Canada and Australia, and has been involved in a Danish Citizenís "Consensus Conference".

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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