A few days ago someone questioned the value of a citizens panel composed of a random selection of ordinary people. As he said:
Ordinary people? Have you seen the Jeremy Kyle show? We appoint people to public office based on their qualification and experience.
If we set aside his reference to the Jeremy Kyle show as a barometer of public behaviour – which I think is way too harsh – he does have a point. And appointment to public office includes our elected representatives via the ballot box.
I think there are three points to make:
The first is straightforward agreement: “Yes, it is their job”, but I would add “it is also the job of people in public officials to listen and respond to the communities they serve. This doesn’t always happen. Citizens assemblies and panels are a very good way of making sure it does.”
The second point follows from the first: citizens assemblies, panels have the potential to strengthen democratic accountability. Done well, they bring together elected representatives, public officials and members of the public in a process of careful democratic deliberation, learning and dialogue. They strengthen democratic accountability by giving people a voice not just a vote, and this is now mission critical. According to the recent Hansard Survey, ‘42% of people feel they have no influence at all over local decision making’.The figure for national decision-making is 47%. and both figures have jumped by 9 and 7 points in a year respectively.
The third point is that public officials are not the only repository of expertise, we are too! For example, a housing expert may list all sorts of useful facts and statistics about housing in Cornwall, the scale and nature of homelessness and so on. But he (or she) may never have been homeless. They may have no idea of what it is actually like to experience precarious employment, insecure housing, eviction and homelessness. They have a conceptual understanding of the issue but they have no lived experience – and it is this lived experience that is a vital ingredient to understanding an issue. It comes from one’s being, and is not just a set of facts and stats in one’s head. The more diverse the panel, the richer and more varied the lived experience and the different perspectives they bring. That can be very powerful.
There are almost certainly other points that could be made but these for me are the main ones.