In 2012, the City of Canada Bay Council convened a citizens' panel to obtain the advice of citizens in making decisions for the range and quality of council services for the period 2014-18. The citizens' panel worked in parallel to a randomly selected group of council staff.
Problems and Purpose
In 2012, the City of Canada Bay Council proposed an innovative method of deliberative democracy to obtain the advice of citizens in making decisions for the range and quality of council services for the period 2014-18. With this in mind, the Canada Bay Council partnered with groups such as Straight Talk and newDemocracy to create a panel of 36 randomly selected citizens. This group worked in parallel to a randomly selected group of council staff.
On a large scale, the Panel was initially created to represent the views of the citizens of Canada Bay. This is comparable to the two goals that newDemocracy set for the Panel which include:
“1) To make an insightful and innovative set of prioritization decisions as to the desired range and quality level of council provided services and
2) To deliver widespread public confidence and acceptance of the priorities, tradeoffs and funding models used as being equitable and based on merit” (newDemocracy)."
Background History and Context
The question has often been asked "Is true democracy a fairy tale?" The non-partisan organization newDemocracy joined with Canada Bay Council to put into practise the concept of deliberative democracy- a more inclusive and less divisive method of government which asks for decision making participation by citizens. A governing body needs to have the courage to seek the opinion of its citizenry and to act upon its advice.
This idea of a true democracy became a reality when the city Council decided to implement a plan to put 36 citizens in power to make decisions for the people, by the people. In a sense, the 36 citizens were to “serve as a ‘mini-public’ that is representative of the wider Canada Bay demographic” (Inwood).
The City Council initially realized that there was room for improvement in public services and there was no question that the citizens who were directly affected by these services would make valid decisions. The concept that every citizen could be represented in the process of decision-making was a goal to which this program strove.This led to the problem of panel selection. First, the chosen individuals would have to display altruistic characteristics so decisions would be made for the greater benefit of society as a whole. Other questions were raised, primarily surrounding the issue of participant bias. Since all the members of the Panel were individuals, their perspective and decision-making involved some sort of inherent bias. However it was assumed that the diverse group of people in the Panel along with the involvement of other citizens, the Council and non-partisan organizations would mitigate for this.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Although newDemocracy created the idea of public consultation, the City Council put it into practice and other groups were also involved in the process. Straighttalk is a “boutique consultancy specializing in leading practice community engagement, stakeholder management and communication services.” This group participated as a facilitator to ensure that deliberation was in action during the meetings. More specifically, the group “ensured that even if bias exists, that constructive, critical thinking is applied.”
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Participant selection was key in the Canada Bay Citizens' Panel because Council wanted a group of random citizens to act similarly to a jury, and through a deliberative process, make decisions that were in the best intersts of the community. Council members computer-selected a panel of 1,500 citizens and sent them surveys to complete. These surveys explained the goals of the panel and asked the citizens to agree to be placed in a pool of eligible applicants. The selection process “puts into practice an idea from independent research body newDemocracy Foundation that a random selection of citizens has the least direct self interest in public decisions.”
Fifteen hundred surveys were created and distributed from the Council to citizens. Unfortunately due to restrictions imposed by the Electoral Commission, the surveys were not sent to individuals but rather addressed to anonymous To the Householder. This led to a high rejection rate. The newDemocracy Foundation expects to correct this issue in future projects in order to improve the efficacy of the sampling process. From the survey respondents, a group of 36 random citizens were chosen to represent the demographics of the council area with respect to predecided factors such as age, gender, home ownership. The citizens' panel was computer-selected to ensure randomness was achieved.
With computer-selected applicants, the Council members thought that they could obtain eligible applicants from a wide array of pre-agreed stratifications such as age, ethnic background, gender, educational backgrounds, and living situations. The ultimate goal being to achieve a group descriptively representative of the community even if one subset of the community had responded disproportionately to the survey. A randomised sample ensured the balance from individual bias or ulterior/ personal motives in the deliberation process. "It's a case of services for the people, decided by the people - and so it should be." The importance of selecting a random group of participants for the Panel has direct positive correlation with the outcome of the case. Without the right participants, the whole case would serve no purpose and could even result in a negative outcome. Power was put in the hands of ordinary citizens, and the number of participants along with the random selection, gave the best scenario for a wide range of diverse voices.
Methods and Tools Used
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Through five meetings over a course of three months, deliberation was in full effect with the guidance of the leaders of the community. Five meetings included five different stages of interactions of deliberation. Through this deliberation, one goal was to come to a consensus conclusion of a summary of findings and propose a future plan for Council. In order to come to these conclusions, the Council decided to aid the Panel with direction by having members of the executive staff attend various meetings. A variety of resources were available to the Panel which included ideas from the public and support from various organizations. To make the purpose clear for the Panel, members of the community were consistently invited and encouraged to voice their opinions and specific need requests.
The initial meeting of the panel members included an introduction to the group members and then, the group members were greeted with a copious amount of information. The Panel was introduced to the topic for their deliberation along with guidelines and expectations of their involvement. Along with an introduction, a training session took place where members became familiar with tools and the systematic process. The first meeting adjourned with the idea that deliberation was to be continuous with the sharing of ideas and perspectives on multiple media outlets. The second meeting was focused on furthering deliberation. After touching base with ideas and topics touched on the databases, the Panel was able to formulate their own idea. Time and diverse ideas from the public and external sources allowed the group members to become more educated on the different subjects through different perspectives. Alternatives were then debated on along with the pros and cons of each decision.
The third meeting of the Panel was an open Town Hall Q&A session. All citizens were invited to the meeting for further insight on perspective and information for all parties.
Public involvement helped the Panel keep in perspective the importance of the issue along with a diverse perspective on the issue at hand. This meeting also benefited the public to be more confident in the process and committee. Citizens were assured that the process was oriented for progression for society as a whole. Each previous meeting was a stepping-stone for this final deliberative meeting. The goal of this meeting was for all the members to sit face-to-face and deliberate towards a final decision. Many proposals were presented, weighed and discussed in small groups.
This last meeting between the group members was to reach a consensus of their decision. Projected summary and delivery plan was expected and met. This summary was put into both a visual and hard copy presentation that was presented to the city Council for further examination. As promised, the Council took all the ideas into serious consideration and implemented an all or nothing stance. The Council decided that they would either implement all the suggestions created by the Panel or not act on them at all. At this point, public awareness achieved an all time high which made it difficult for the Council to not take any action.
The panel made several significant recommendations regarding Council services. The degree of long-term maintenance was listed as a top priority by the panel because it involved the livelihood and OH&S of citizens. This long-term maintenance involved seawalls, storm water drains, and other Council infrastructures. The panel was also able to find a number of services that could be reduced eg frequency of street cleaning, frequency of park mowing, expenditure on events, and elimination of expenditure on the Sister City program. ( Final Report, 2012) The panel found that the previously listed reductions would help stabilize the budget. The panel also thought that revenue could be gained from three primary avenues: limited use of parking meters, user-pays services for non-residents of Canada Bay, and increased opportunity for commercial activity in public spaces. Ultimately, the most important finding of the Panel was that rate increases of up to 9% could be tolerated in certain circumstances. The Panel proposed simple changes (eg paperless correspondence to rate payers, the reduction of maintenance of disused buildings) . A number of services were out performing their needs and some services were in serious need of update. Perhaps the Panels's broadest and most overarching finding was that the Council needed to reevaluate its communication in general, so these issues could be addressed and not reoccur.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Effects of Citizens' Panel (as well as supporting other methods of citizen input), were seen with the 2013 decision not to amalgamate with another council.
Know what influence and effects this initiative had? Help us complete this section!
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Canada Bay Citizens' Panel was effective in finding economic shortfalls and areas for improvement; however, this panel was heavily criticized before any decision making even began. In fact, the initial proposal to create a panel of random citizens sparked controversy among some citizens.
It was argued that
(1) this system would be plagued with nepotism (detractors did not acknowledge the randomness of the participant selection);
(2) random citizens were not qualified to make complex decisions that often dealt with budget reform;
(3) the chosen citizens would not be able to come up with educated solutions that would actually impact the issues at hand;
(4) if consensus was achieved by the Panel, and solutions were drafted by citizens, would Council officers actually listen to the citizens' solutions and carry out their plan;
(5) the Council members may not agree with the some of the Panel’s decisions and progress on the issues would be lost; and finally
(6) the Council had decided that they would either take all suggestions for improvement or make no changes at all. (This doesn’t correlate with the values that were put in place by the Council to make decisions based on the best interest for society as a whole.)
Stakeholders were invited to present to the panel about mid-way through the process. Only a few took up this option, although this is possibly due to the lack of organised stakeholder groups in the area. Despite the third meeting being open to the public, there was no overarching community engagement process. Since this Panel, newDemocracy Foundation has sought to ensure that broad community engagement is integrated into their process designs.
Despite these concerns, the Panel was able to suggest and present a summary of their findings that was supported with evidence. Many overlooked services were brought to attention as well as important suggestions proposed. The Council received positive feedback in a way that broadened their perspective to make better decisions for the people they represented. One of the aims of the project was the to deliver widespread public confidence and acceptance of Council priorities, trade-offs and funding models based on merit and equity.
Panel Recommendations [BROKEN LINK]