In September 2007 Gordon Brown announced that his New Labour Government would undertake a number of ‘citizens juries’ on key social issues such as crime and punishment and the future of the NHS. He said that this was party of a process of “reaching out, of doing the business of government differently”. However, despite this pledge, the concept of Citizens Juries in the UK has never really taken hold as a conventional political practice. So, what is a Citizens Jury and why have they never had a significant impact on the UK political process?
What is a Citizens Jury?
A Citizen’s Jury is a group of individuals bought together to consider social and political issues and give their honest views on them as citizens. This allows governments to directly consider the views of voters outside of an election season. Each jury is meant to be small enough to enable everyone’s voice to be heard, but big enough to allow for them to be demographically representative of a particular region. As part of a report called the Power Inquiry, Professor Graham Smith of Southampton University explained that:
Citizens’ juries bring together a small group of citizens to deliberate on a particular issue. Typically juries have the following features:
– 12 to 24 citizens selected by a stratified random selection process to ensure a diversity of demographic criteria (e.g. age, gender, ethnicity, etc.)
– Citizens are paid a small honorarium for participating over a period of 3-4 days
– Citizens hear evidence, cross-examine selected experts and deliberate on the
– The event is run by an independent organisation and a facilitator ensures fair proceedings;
– At the end of the process citizens produce recommendations in the form of a report.
The sponsoring body (e.g. the public authority) is expected to respond to the recommendations that come forward from the Citizens Jury process.
The broad concept behind Citizen’s Juries is that politicians are too easily locked inside ‘the Westminster Bubble’ and the views of ordinary citizens on key issues can often therefore be lost. Citizen’s Juries are therefore a chance to ensure governments engage with the opinions of real people when formulating public policy.
Where have they been widely used?
The use of Citizen’s Juries was popularised in Germany and the United States. In the US, an independent organisation called the Jefferson Center played a leading role in organising juries to scrutinise the plans of state and federal governments. This differs from Germany, where Citizen’s Juries are actively set up by government to proactively seeks views on proposed policy changes. It is the German model that Gordon Brown seemingly wished to follow in his announcement in 2007.
What examples of their use have their been in Britain?
In 1998 the Labour Government established a ‘People’s Panel’. This was made up of 5,000 members of the public and it was put together to be representative of national age, gender and region. An additional 830 members were also recruited from ethnic minority backgrounds to ensure that the sample size from these backgrounds was large enough to adequately represent their views. The panels considered a range of issues including leaflets on genetically modified foods and whether Government Ministers should be involved in public appointments processes. However, a number of problems were found with the People’s Panel as identified by the Public Administration Select Committee in 2001:
- Many of the questions asked of panelists were extremely general in nature and were not therefore particularly useful in policy formulation.
- There was a high attrition rate amongst ethnic minority panelists with 9% being asked to leave and 21% refusing to take part in surveys. This left the panel increasingly white and middle-class.
- Panelists quickly picked up expertise and therefore actually became less representative of the public at large.
- Findings in the panel were often in line with that found by polling companies, therefore posing the question of whether the panel was really required.
Despite the People’s Panel not really having the desired effect, similar programmes were carried out under New Labour:
Your Health, Your Care, Your Say (2005): This consultation by the Department of Health saw 42,000 people take part. Following the initial consultation, four regional “listening events” took place in Gateshead, Leicester, Greater London and Plymouth, each of which were attended by between 50 and 100 people. Following this, a national summit took place in Birmingham in October 2005.
In 2006 the Government published a White Paper on their proposals for NHS Reform called “Our Health, Our Care, Our Say”. Some of ideas of the consultation informed the National Health Service Act (2006) and the Health and Social Care Act (2008).
National Pensions Day (2006): A ‘National Pensions Day’ took place on the 18th March 2006. 1075 people took part in discussions across six locations in the UK. A number of governmental proposals were put to the groups and they were asked to vote on them using electronic panels. In particular, panellists were asked for their views on the Turner Report, a report commissioned by the government on the future of pensions in the UK.
Climate Change Citizens Summit (2007): A citizen’s jury on climate change was held in May 2007. It was led by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs who said it had two main purposes:
- To help government design policy to maximize positive individual behaviour on climate change.
- To drive awareness, information and debate on climate change.
The summit involved a sample of 150 people from six locations.
How were Citizens Juries reinvigorated under Gordon Brown?
Following Gordon Brown’s announcement that he wanted to reinvigorate the ideas of Citizens Juries, there were a number of occasions where Citizen’s Juries were employed by government in order to seek views on proposed policy. For example, these included:
- The Department for Children, Schools and Families conducted five citizens juries. They were organised by Opinion Leader Research. They took the form of deliberative forums to help formulate policy.
- The Cabinet Office held a day-long forum to discuss draft the government’s draft legislative programme. This was was delivered by Ipsos Mori. This was attended y 76 members of the public.
Is there a future for Citizen’s Juries?
When he became Labour Party Leader in 2020 Keir Starmer asked former leader and Prime Minister Gordon Brown to lead a commission considering potential constitutional reform in the UK. The use of citizen’s juries was one of the areas that the commission considered. It concluded that there should be:
Greater use of deliberative and participative processes at a local level so people can have a greater say on how money is spent in their community. Some councils are already pioneering innovative approaches. For example, the borough of Newham has a standing citizen’s assembly to help forge consensus around local policies, such as tackling climate change. Participatory budgeting can also strengthen local political engagement, and shape local place based budgets.Commission on the UK’s Future – Page 98
In addition, on Labour’s plans themselves the Commission said that its recommendations themselves should be put to Citizen’s Juries:
We therefore recommend the Labour Party should consult widely on our plans and take in the thoughts and feelings of people in all four nations. One practical option would be a series of Citizens’ Assemblies as part of a ground up conversation with the people of Britain on the change they want to see.Commission on the UK’s Future – Page 144
As such, it may be that Citizen’s Assemblies made a comeback in the near future.
How significant have Citizens Juries been?
The fact that Citizen’s Juries are no longer presently used is an indication of their lack of broader significance. However, they do routinely take place under the guise of focus groups, often commissioned by Think Tanks, that political parties employ regularly. The difference between these and Citizens Juries is that they are not commissioned directly by the government and are controlled by political parties. Their results therefore do not need to be published.
Whilst Citizens Juries are an example of direct democracy, it is limited form of direct democracy, as no real control is handed over to citizens. The juries, their make-up and the questions they answer, are all determined by the government. Ultimately, government’s do not like giving such control to citizens. The media would report on Citizens Juries and may push the government into policy decisions that they are ultimately uncomfortable with. This is the key reason why they have not become ingrained in the political fabric of the UK. However, it may well be the case that they have a more significant role to play in the future.
Citizen’s Juries never really took off as a concept in the UK formally. However, they are regularly used by polling companies and directly by political parties in the form of focus groups. However, the difference between a focus group and a citizen’s jury is the impartiality with which a citizen’s jury is selected and the neutral way in which the research is conducted.
Citizen’s Jury – A randomly selected group of individuals bought together by Government to test a particular idea or policy.
Focus Group – A carefully selected group of individuals designed to gauge opinion of political issues. Focus groups are used by think tanks, polling companies and political parties to help formulate policy and understand potential voting behaviour.
Brown Commission – A Commission led by Gordon Brown that compiled a report for the Labour Party on the potential for future constitutional reform.