Lawson and Jenke: The solution to the ills of citizen juries is more citizen juries

Emma Lawson and Emily Jenke, CEOs of democracyCo which ran the citizens’ jury on nuclear waste storage in South Australia, write in The Mandarin (full article accessible here):

The nuclear waste storage facility citizens’ jury of 350 people — which we convened — recently returned a verdict that didn’t neatly advance the government’s agenda. Some have since argued that citizens’ juries don’t offer a useful approach to democratic decision-making. After all, the jury voted down the government’s proposal that a nuclear waste storage facility be hosted in SA. It is widely understood that the government wanted further consideration of this issue.

However, after six days of formal deliberation and countless additional hours of reading and analysis, a large portion of the jury (66%) found that this was not a proposal the state should pursue.


Unlike those they mention who are ready to abandon citizen juries as having been clearly shown to be unfit for purpose, Lawson and Jenke continue their pursuit of solutions to the deteriorating quality of governance. They are concerned that the public’s insistence that politicians obey their every whim is a trend that runs a “major risk […] to policymaking as we know it”, the risk of having governments “increasingly responding to the opinion of the day”. They argue that government should not see the jury’s unwelcome decision as a reason to abandon the CJ process – on the contrary.

As they present the situation, the government’s greatest problem is that people are uninformed. That is why they have unrealistic expectations of government which lead to dissatisfaction and even to Trump. Lawson and Jenke claim that despite the negative decision, the jury’s report shows that government can make the jury see sense. They say that while the negative attitude of the uninformed public toward nuclear technology and waste disposal is dominated by safety concerns, the report showed a lack of such concern, which indicates that expert evidence did manage to rationally sway the jurors and dispel the popular suspicion. In fact, Lawson and Jenke say, it is only general distrust in government – caused by a history of government insulation when it does not use techniques such as the CJ process – that undermined the government’s proposal.

The way forward then is the “clever application of deliberative democratic techniques” to “move beyond an individualistic approach and enable the community to reconcile self-interests” and “address conflicting values and perspectives”. The public will then come to “understand and trust politicians, public service [and] institutions of government” and will show this new-found confidence by supporting the government, giving us the democracy we want and need.

It is worth noting, by the way, that the degree to which the experts managed to make the jury see sense regarding the safety of nuclear materials can be questioned. The main recommendation of the report is phrased as follows:

Under no circumstances should South Australia pursue opportunity to store and dispose of nuclear waste from other countries for reasons of consent, economic, trust and safety.

The rationale section adds:

Accidents are inevitable in any industry, the cost of accidents may outweigh the economic benefit, and undermine any consent previously given. Jurors have also raised concern of long term quality assurance for safety measures both in Australia and client countries. This includes the safety associated with shipping in international waters and the security of the waste. Tim Johnson’s provided comment that no inclusion of costs associated with accidents had been considered. Some Jurors are less concerned with Safety as a predominant issue for consideration.

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2 Responses

  1. […] the electorate is manifesting itself in a revival of openly anti-democratic ideas. Van Reybrouck and others offer sortition as an alternative: an a democratic mechanism that will furnish the elites […]

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  2. Another Australian sortitionist trying to recover from the nuclear dump citizen jury debacle.

    Lessons learnt

    So, was the process successful? Despite trade-offs, tensions and breaches, the jury succeeded in exploring the issues, sharing perspectives, seeking evidence, and deliberating on options. In three action-packed weekends, they came to a resolution on the most important issues, a final position (or positions) and a report written entirely by jurors, using butchers paper and laptops. The report may be rough around the edges, but represents an impressive feat by jurors and the design and facilitation team who supported them.

    What was learnt? Pushing deliberation towards consensus on polarised topics can undermine many of the benefits of the approach. Despite the agenda-setting CJ, and attempts to frame the question in an open way (under what circumstances…), the process was set up as a yes/no debate. The very use of the CJ model, in preference to other deliberative designs (eg a consensus conference), focused on a verdict. Moreover, the Royal Commission, which came up with a clear recommendation, was a difficult starting point for a deliberative process of this kind.

    On polarised topics, deliberative processes can be of more use exploring the details and nuances of people’s positions, and considering the conditions and contingencies that political decision-makers must meet in making a decision.

    Was the jury too big? Arguably yes, but other design aspects such as the push for consensus and the time pressure clearly combined with size to create the problems described here. This suggests caution in supersizing such processes, and attention to design choices. It may also signal that we (and SA in particular) need to get over our obsession with citizens’ juries and starting using more of the range of well-tested deliberative democracy methods available.

    Meanwhile, this process is a strong test for Jay Weatherill. He hasn’t impressed many people with his referendum proposal, which seems a backward step after his investment in the CJ (particularly in the shadow of Brexit and the same-sex marriage plebiscite proposal). It may be that he will have to choose, for his legacy piece, between a nuclear waste storage facility and a democratic reform agenda. The waste dump might last longer, but it feels like we need the democratic reform more.

    Dr A Wendy Russell is a Visiting Fellow at the National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University and an Associate at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, University of Canberra.

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