A Citizen Jury in Action: Report from Morris Rural Climate Dialog

Speaking of Citizen Juries, I’ve wanted to share something about this “Rural Climate Dialogue” since I attended as an observer last month in a small town in the Minnesota prairie. Below are excerpts from the participants. The the full report includes a statement to the public drafted entirely by the 15 randomly selected participants and an explanation of the CJ process as facilitated by the Jefferson Center.

Personally, I was quite impressed by what these regular people–the youngest a high school teenager, the eldest in her 80s–were able to do. They actually listened, engaged each other, and decided together. Unanimity was not required but almost always reached. Even their writing-in-committee was well done.

I was very impressed with this group’s ability to come together as community members, as neighbors, and talk about these things in an open, civil, and friendly manner.

I have to admit when I came here when people talked about climate [change] I thought ‘oh come on’ – did I ever learn a lot. I am grateful.

I think I’ll be a little bit more active and learn a little bit more in the future as a result of that. The overall experience was wonderful and the people were great.

We are the ones responsible for making these decisions…I’m thrilled and honored to be a part of a process that reminds me why this grand [democratic] experiment continues. And it’s not been perfect, and it will not be perfect, but we can always make it better, and things like this are a start. Thank you for the opportunity.

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9 Responses

  1. Ahmed, do you not find a group of people reaching unanimous views a little worrying? I think it’s you (or was it Campbell?) who drew our attention to the social psychology literature on the pressure to conform to group-think. Laws passed as a result of consensus or unanimity are very often bad ones.

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  2. Like the consensus in a jury?

    The data is so overwhelming on this matter it would be more suspect if they were unable to reach a jury-like consensus.

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  3. In the case of climate change the data may well be overwhelming, but consensus is a normative goal of deliberative democrats and it’s this that I’m contesting as a model.

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  4. >”Laws passed as a result of consensus or unanimity are very often bad ones.”
    How often do we hear of laws passed by unanimity (outside of totalitarian states like North Korea)?

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  5. Exactly, that’s why I’m uneasy about the consensual aspirations of deliberative democrats.

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  6. A clarification is due as the terminology is not standard. A Citizen Jury is not a jury in the usual sense. The group neither decides a case nor drafts a law. In fact, “unanimity” or “opposition” does not quite apply in this context.

    What the Jury did do was synthesize a statement of their collective view with policy recommendations for their city and county government, and to other citizens. The procedure (outlined in the attached report) envisions aggregating then synthesizing opinions, in light of testimony presented by a balanced set of “experts.” The little “voting” done, in this particular case, came at the point of choosing the top priorities (3) to include in their summary statement.

    So, that there was little “dissent” should not be surprising, given both the procedure and the goal of the exercise . Nor does this detract from the usefulness of CJ’s as part of a framework of citizen deliberation & participation.

    What I witnessed in both the small (2-5 person) and large (15 person) groups was inclusive dialogue, not debate. Here’s a link to some pictures from the event including the “rules of engagement” given to participants.: http://filasophia.com/2014/07/17/morris1/

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  7. >”Exactly, that’s why I’m uneasy about the consensual aspirations of deliberative democrats.”

    You seem to think there is something sinister in this.
    There are a few points to note:

    1 The panel was given an extensive briefing by experts chosen in advance by people who were not on the panel:

    Presentation on MN Extreme Weather by U of M climatologist/
    meteorologist Mark Seeley
    »» Panelists determine the key facts from Seeley’s presentation
    Day 2
    »» Presentation by Center for Earth, Energy, & Democracy on energy burdens
    »» Panelist discussion of community values and concerns related to energy use and energy poverty
    »» Presentation by Mark Kulda of Insurance Federation of MN on extreme weather and insurance
    »» Presentation by Abdullah Jaradat of USDA Agricultural Research Service on climate and agriculture
    »» Presentation by Blaine Hill of the City of Morris on local
    infrastructure concerns
    »» Presentation by Bill Klyve of Otter Tail Power on energy and
    energy efficiency
    »» Presentation by Troy Goodnough of the University of
    Minnesota, Morris on options to strengthen resilience

    It’s a fair bet that the bulk of the advice given tended in the same direction: ie that climate change is a real issue and that something must be done. Climate change denial is now completely discredited.

    2 The panel had no real power, and knew that this was only an exercise.
    3 The panel was small (15 members)
    4 They were neighbours, so knew each other, or would in the future.

    Under these circumstances it’s not surprising that there was a good deal of unanimity.
    Suppose 10 or 12 of them were in favour of option A, while the others favoured B or C. Surely, for the minority it makes no sense to stubbornly continue to oppose a decision in favour of A. You might as well accept a decision for A with good grace, and stay friends.

    None of this would apply to a chamber of several hundred members, drawn at random from all over a country, who do have legislative power, and who have the right to use any sources of information they choose.
    On this issue, in an assembly of 500, I would expect (initially) a small number of diehard refuse-the-facts “denialists”, a larger group of undecided, and a majority who accepted that warming is happening, and that we are the cause. One would hope that sweet reason would prevail, and that after all the facts were on the table, and all the arguments heard, an intelligent decision would be approved by a large majority.

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  8. Oops. Anonymous was I.

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  9. Hi everyone, thanks for your interest and comments! I’ll just note a few things.

    The speakers did not, principally, advocate that climate change was real and that something needed to be done about it. Most of the experts presented on how extreme weather events in the past impacted the work they do, and how they thought it might impact their work in the future. Two of the speakers explicitly denied any connection to or concern with climate change as it related to their work. However, the goal of the event was not to produce a statement saying climate change was real or not real, but rather to decide if a) extreme weather and climate changes had impacted the community in the past and were more likely than not to impact the community in the future and, if so, b) how the community might mobilize to address those impacts.

    The only decisions made were about which concerns, opportunities, and actions to prioritize. These decisions were not unanimous. The only unanimity from my vantage point was the desire to engage seriously with the charge and to consider the evidence in good faith. I’ll note here that the Jefferson Center does not, unlike some deliberative democrats, aspire to unanimity or consensus.

    Finally, I don’t think the panel interpreted the event merely as an exercise in which they were passive, powerless participants. I believe they took seriously their responsibility to digest the information and produce recommendations that would be shared with their neighbors and local officials. They had no power to legislate, this is true, but legislative authority is hardly the only power in a democratic society.

    Anyway, we appreciate the feedback and will consider everyone’s comments as we design future climate juries.

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