Citizen Panels

Deliberation Day by Carolyn McConnell

Citizen Panels by Tom Atlee

Study Circle Democracy by Cecile Andrews


Citizen Panels

During the week of June 18–21, 2001, eighteen randomly selected Minneapolis/St. Paul citizens did a careful study of solid waste problems in their region.

Serge Bloch
Serge Bloch

After cross-examining state and county officials, consultants, waste management companies, and a neighborhood group—including both advocates and opponents of various proposals—they concluded that three-quarters of their municipal waste could and should be recycled, composted, or just prevented within 10 years.

They didn't stop there. They recommended government packaging standards to reduce packaging, labeling products with re-use suggestions, removing subsidies for materials that compete with recycled and reusable items, and other creative, sophisticated proposals. They were a citizens' jury, a form of deliberative council, and they have been producing wise common sense around the world for 30 years.

Citizens' juries have been held around the world. Illiterate poor farmers in India deliberated development policy. Suburbanites in Australia figured out how to stop the destruction of their beaches by pollution and erosion. A randomly selected panel of Britons told health authorities to provide chiropractic care.

Most citizens' juries are commissioned by agencies who want dependable, useful input from diverse citizens without divisive public hearings or fickle public opinion polls.

Citizens' Juries were created in the US in the early 1970s by Ned Crosby. Meanwhile, a similar form of deliberative councils, “planning cells,” were being organized by Peter Dienel in Germany.

Many often wonder if officials follow the recommendations of such citizen panels. Some officials do and some don't. In England, some innovative consultants require that agencies wanting a citizens' jury agree to follow its recommendations or else hold a public press conference explaining why they aren't.

But no one has gone as far as Denmark in making such citizen deliberative councils official. An office of the Danish Parliament, the Danish Board of Technology, involves citizens in technology policy issues being considered by parliament. Among their tools is the “consensus conference,” made up of about 15 citizens selected as a microcosm of the Danish population. They study an issue such as genetic engineering of food, cross-examining competing experts in an open public forum. They then craft a consensus statement of policy recommendations, which they report to parliament in an open press conference.

While citizen deliberative councils have been institutionalized as an official government activity only in Denmark, Danish-style consensus conferences have been used successfully in more than a dozen other countries, including the US. In “Citizen Policy Wonks,” (YES! #3), organizer Richard Sclove demonstrated that consensus conferences work as well in large diverse societies like the US as in small, more homogeneous ones like Denmark. Citizen panelists often end up knowing more about their issue than legislators who vote on it.

Ned Crosby is working to put forward state-level ballot initiatives that would establish Citizens' Juries to examine every ballot initiative and offer an official deliberative public judgment to balance the torrents of special-interest advertising. Crosby and University of Washington Professor John Gastil also propose randomly selected citizen panels to interview and evaluate a wide range of candidates. Evaluation scores could even be listed on the ballot.

An entire democracy could be grounded in citizen deliberation. Consultant Jim Rough proposes that annual Wisdom Councils of randomly selected citizens be held at all levels of governance. Citizen deliberative councils could provide not only guidance on specific issues, candidates, and proposals, but vision and oversight for the entire political process.

Rough points out that our current political system is crippled by the absence of anything that accurately represents the thoughtful, integrated insight of “we, the people.” A natural, sensible approach would be through convening a cross section of the population in high-quality dialogue, with full access to whatever information is vital to their deliberations, and helping them find common ground, and then publicizing their work to the public and its representatives.

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