Allotted assembly for budget planning in the city of Canada Bay, Australia

The Australian Daily Telegraph reports:

The buck will stop with you – people power council

More than 1,500 people will be randomly asked to take part in a panel to set the agenda for how Canada Bay council should spend, service and plan its four-year budget.

It puts into practice an idea from independent research body newDemocracy Foundation that a random selection of citizens has the least direct self interest in public decisions.

NewDemocracy Foundation executive director Iain Walker said the randomly selected panel was similar to a jury – only for public decision making instead.

[…]

The computer-selected panel would include renters and business tenants as well as owner-occupiers and would operate on a “super-majority process” – meaning the direction must get 75 per cent support.

Mr Walker said researchers would not stipulate an agenda, instead showing a baseline of services and provide the experts they request so “to not shape them down a particular path”.

Canada Bay mayor Angelo Tsirekas said opening the chambers to the public hailed a new era in democracy.

“Council will be in a better position to say this is where you want your bucks spent, and giving us a clear indication of where they want council to deliver and how we should be spending ratepayers dollars,” he said.

The design parameters of the body make it rather weak. It is an ad-hoc body, with a relatively short term and an advisory role. On the other hand, the agenda is not overly narrow, and there is no fixed menu of pre-defined options, which could give the body some political maneuvering room.

However, a sixth design parameter, reverses this potential strength – size. With 1,500 members, the body is clearly too large for effective all-to-all communication under the given circumstances. [Edit: It turns out that 1,500 is the size of a preliminary pool – the body is to have 36 members. See comment by Iain Walker below.] This would make agenda setting a non-egalitarian process. In addition, the large number of members makes the individual decision making power of each member uncomfortably small, especially with the powers of the entire body being rather amorphous. Therefore the second effect of mass politics – rational ignorance – can be expected to play an important role as well.

It would be interesting to follow the trajectory of this initiative and see what impact it has on policy, on public opinion and on elite opinion.

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14 Responses

  1. Iain Walker follows this Bolg some, so perhaps he can provide a link to a more detailed description. For example, the article says 1,500 people will be “asked” to participate…is the assumption that only a few hundred will accept?

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  2. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood the article, but If the experience is similar to the British Columbia citizen assembly one can anticipate that only 4% of those randomly selected will attend. This would cut it down to only 60. In BC of the original stratified sample of 23,034 only 1,715 opted to be selected, 964 (4% of the original sample) came to the selection meeting and 158 were randomly selected. It’s likely though that the response would be higher if the topic was budget setting, rather than constitutional.

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  3. Yes, as ever with a media article the limitations of space dictate some details get omitted. Very positive to see mainstream tabloid media who crucified a Citizens Assembly around 18 months ago now becoming advocates of our work: this positice media coverage makes it easier for the next representative to work with us.

    We’re seeking a final panel of 36 – we’ll put 4 reserves in to allow for dropouts. From the 1577 invited and asked to make themselves available for selection we then do a stratified draw from the few hundred acceptances based simply on age and gender (broadly matched to Australian census data). They’ll meet 5 times for half day meetings across 3 months.

    We see the strength as the legacy it leaves: this becomes how council sets its service levels and defines what they do. The panel’s remit here encompasses the entire $75m p.a. annual budget for the 4 years from 2014.

    The goal here is to deliver a very practical trial that this works with real world budgets. We also have state government projects which will run this year. At the same time, we are gaining insight as to what motivates elected representatives to share power with citizens. The key element of how we work with representatives is to pre-agree the decision making authority of the citizens (and to make it actual decision making, not ‘consultation’). In this case the Mayor and the whole Council could see the rationale for trusting their community rather than being held hostage by groups of 10 and 12 in an area with 35,000 voters.

    Lyn Carson, who I think many of you will know, provides the academic oversight for the design and operation here.

    Happy to take questions – we haven’t published to our website yet as we wanted the formal council vote to occur. Interestingly, the vote was bi-partisan and unanimous.

    Happy to speak with people if you want more details – drop me an email and we can set a time to talk.

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  4. Iain,

    Perhaps a conference call on Skype might be a good idea, as I expect several of us would like to know more, and that would be more time efficient for you than responding to each of individually.

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  5. Sure thing. Next Tuesday 27th April is an option – see if there is any interest and we can figure out what time zones we need to accommodate. (Living in the wilds of Sydney i am happy to cop the strange time!)

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  6. >We see the strength as the legacy it leaves

    Absolutely. The proof of the pudding . . .

    Wish you all success with the project although I’d be a little concerned that the members would (in effect) be self-selecting. The stratified draw will ensure a fair balance across age and gender, but the forum will still be populated by people with strong views and might well be weighted towards the better educated and those with the necessary leisure time to participate. Although the sample will not obviously be beholden to partisan forces, it would be hard to describe it as a portrait in miniature of the whole citizenry. I’d be curious to know how the selection process compares with, for example, Fishkin’s Chinese DP.

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  7. Very interesting. Yes, please do keep us all posted.

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  8. 27th March, Tuesday, a Skype conference … I’d be interested.

    Wondering, too, Ian, about any progress by newDemocracy Foundation with my colleague in Sierra Leone.

    And … what’s the intention for the idiosyncratic typography of ‘newDemocracy’?

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  9. Firstly, if i was to suggest 11pm Sydney on Tues 27th March time does that work for folks in other places? If no objections lets go ahead with that.

    I am iain.walker99 on Skype… i think you have to make contact with me and I can originate the group call. Any other tech advice – please let me know.

    (And the typeface is courtesy of a founder and benefactor with a taste for contemporary art. The one area where we are not a democratic organisation is in our art and design choices!)

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  10. I am interested. 11 PM in Sydney is, I believe, 12 PM in Dublin, so I should be able to do that. I have sent you a Skype contact request.

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  11. Iain, congratulations on the launch of a project that sounds like a significant step forward!

    11pm Sydney time Tuesday 27th works for me.

    Looking forward to learning more,

    David

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  12. Iain, are we on for the conference call, at 11pm Sydney time?

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  13. Yes, confirmed for 11pm tonight (27th). I’ll dial everyone in.

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  14. […] hand, affects the power of the body by its influence on the behavior of the members of the body. A recent item about a policy jury brought forward three more design parameters that, like term of service, affect […]

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