Book review

The people’s verdict – adding informed citizen voices to public decision-making by Claudia Chwalisz

Reviewed by Sophie Pornschlegl


Foto: Rowman & Littlefield International


With case studies from Australia and Canada and a short comparative analysis of deliberative formats in the UK, this short book tries to convince skeptical decision-makers that, given the right framework, people can be good, legitimate and efficient decision-makers.

 

How can we improve public decision-making and make it more democratic? This is the main question Claudia Chwalisz, consultant at Populus and a Crook Public Service Fellow at the Crick Centre of the University of Sheffield, asks in her latest book The People’s Verdict – adding informed citizen voices to public decision-making, published earlier this year by the think tank Policy Network and the publishing house Rowman and Littlefield.

Her objective is to explore whether “the use of long-form deliberations could be a more efficient and democratic way of resolving tricky policy dilemmas than the route of commissions, inquiries or referendums or more traditional public consultation forms such as town hall meetings.” Starting by a short analysis of the theoretical framework of long-form public deliberations, the author goes on to describe best practices from Australia and Canada. She then compares those best practices with the few attempts made at “citizen’s juries” in the UK, and how they differ from more traditional forms of public consultations, with three examples from Scotland, Sheffield and Southampton.

The People’s Verdict is, in its core, a handbook for decision-makers and an interested audience about the use of long-form deliberations: These new formats have helped public bodies to legitimise decisions and made policy more efficient in Canada and Australia, and should therefore be established in the UK. The book provides concrete examples of new forms of citizens engagement and sets out the factors to make deliberative decision-making successful: What political backing is necessary? What should the recruitment process of those consultations look like? What organisation should be commissioned to run those formats?

Whilst the book provides an overview of case studies, a range of broader issues are not mentioned in this book. First of all, the objective of such deliberative formats remains unclear: Does the public body which initiates these consultations want to increase political participation and make sure it is more equal? Or is the objective to devolve power to the people in certain issues where the outcomes are likely be better than through representative decision-making? Or both? Questions concerning the objective are crucial as they touch upon the legitimacy of the recommendations. The more the deliberative body is taken seriously by elected decision-makers, and the more the recommendations are transformed into legislation, the more those deliberative formats will be legitimate. In addition, the weight given by decision-makers to the deliberation often has a direct impact on the quality of the recommendations, as participants will be more keen to develop qualitative recommendations when they know that they will have some impact.

In addition, the success of any new deliberative format depends on a number of other factors, such as the question of power politics, the political culture of parties and politicians as well as the salience of the issues at stake. Chwalisz explains for instance that public inquiries and royal commissions have not worked out as successfully in the UK – but what exactly are the reasons behind this? And what is the impact of deliberative formats on representative democracy? Chwalisz mentions that opposition parties often reject new public consultations as it undermines their position. An interesting question is whether representative and deliberative formats can work together as complementary systems rather than competitive ones in the future.

Whilst the book is a great introduction to best practices and the role of deliberative formats, the limits of those formats could have been further developed. For instance, the book does question whether  more public consultations formats would mean more competition around decision-making. Would this mean the establishment of a “free market of decision-making”, where there are several decision-making options for one issue? Another topic that could have been addressed with more detail is the organisation responsible for these panels. Even if the cost of public consultations has shown to be reasonable, taxpayer’s money is being spent on private companies to organise those panels, which thus needs appropriate oversight. These organisations are deciding upon the methodology used, which has a significant impact on the outcome. The influence of such organisations would thus need to be closely monitored, in order to avoid an implicit privatization of the decision-making process.

After all, the main objective of long-form deliberations is to develop policy solutions that are free from particular interests and potentially have a better outcome with more legitimacy than the ones taken in representative structures. Finally, why are those long-form public deliberations better for some issues and not for others? Chwalisz mentions that deliberative formats have worked for infrastructure investment priorities, planning and housing development, public health choices, local fiscal decisions, digital transition dilemmas, environmental questions and constitutional matters. But why are those matters especially likely to have better outcomes with deliberative formats than with a decision taken by another public body?

All in all, the book argues – rightly so – that our liberal democracies require more innovation. Whilst the case studies chosen are a compelling read for everyone who wants to learn about democratic innovations, the broader argument in favour of more deliberation is not always apparent. Before diving into a comparative experiment, a longer analysis of the advantages and inconveniences of those formats would have been interesting for skeptical readers to understand the implications of using new forms of citizen’s engagement. However, it is still worth reading The People’s Verdict. It offers a sense of potential solutions to our current governments, that are increasingly skeptical towards their own population. The book addresses the implicit fears of the political class, especially in the UK, scared about giving too much power to the people. It shows that with the right framework, democracy works: “People are indeed capable of deliberating on complex issues and of offering realistic and pragmatic solutions. (…) The public is a resource to be tapped, not a risk to be managed.

In the current context of increased mistrust in the political class, weakened public institutions and a surge of populism, it is an important message to decision-makers in the UK and in other democracies that one should not be afraid to give back power to the people. Rather than another defeatist analysis of what is going wrong in our democracies, The People’s Verdict provides new perspectives on democratic decision-making and shows that there are new ways to innovate democracy.