The People’s House is an initiative which brings together local community members with their MP, enabling community members to actively participate in democracy between elections.
Problems and Purpose
This method aims to improve democracy.
Our democracy faces a significant risk of crisis due to a lack of trust in politicians, governments, and institutions and an increasingly polarised community.
The combination of these phenomenon is making substantial reform by governments very difficult and creating substantial risks to our system of democracy.
Giving citizens a way into the political process through large scale collective engagement methods offered by deliberative democracy offers a way forward. However, to date those with the fundamental task of giving citizens a way into democratic politics have to various extents failed to use these methods effectively.  There are several issues underpinning this failure including, a lack of understanding/ knowledge of engagement practice, philosophical perspectives on representative democracy and bureaucratic structural constraints.
We know that both Australians and politicians want to address the problems of polarisation and distrust, however they have very different perspectives on ‘how’ to do it.
At the centre of our democracy, are our MP’s – those people elected by the community to represent them in parliament – in creating the legislation and laws which governs our lives.
This process is a way to nurture and take care of that critical connection between an MP and their community. By deepening the way in which local people can participate in democratic life, we will have better understanding, better trust and ultimately better outcomes.
For community, the process will build cohesion, as it will enable the community to find agreement on issues which are polarising. It will also enable the community to share the diversity of its views – supporting the MP to hear from people beyond those who have strong views or are active with the political office.
For MP’s this process will help them better do their job – both for the community and in the parliament, enabling them to be confident they understand the breadth and depth of where the community lies on an issue. This provides an opportunity to demonstrate mutual trust and secure a stronger mandate for action, when required.
One other benefit of this process is that it will raise awareness and understanding across the community of the role of MPs and also improve understanding of how the parliamentary system works.
Origins and Development
Local Members want to represent the needs and interests of their communities.
On the face of it, this sounds simple enough, however it is of course challenging in any community because the views are not homogenous. It is also getting harder because our communities are also becoming increasingly polarised – with views moving to the right and the left of the centre.
Local members also most commonly only hear from loud voices when people are upset, it can be challenging to hear from the full diversity of the electorate.
Given this, (and due to simple logistical issues of representing such a significant group of people), it can be hard for local members to easily determine where the weight of the views of their community are or better yet, where their community might be able to find ‘agreement’ / common ground on a way forward. As it stands, local members hear different views from their communities and are left to either choose sides, guess at a possible middle ground, or not act at all. Local members use their best judgement, given their personal knowledge of their community, to decide what is best. Sometimes this is enough, but often members feel that they would like to have a deeper level of understanding & insight.
There are also challenges associated with disparate levels of information / knowledge and understanding of the ‘facts’ or ‘truth’. It is not uncommon for local members to be party to information (research, scientific analysis, etc) that most people don’t have access to and hence they develop a different level of understanding than most of the community they represent.
Further amplifying these problems, is that we know Australians don’t have high levels of trust in their parliamentarians– those very people who they elect every few to represent them!
In a recent study undertaken by the Museum of Australian Democracy (MOAD) and the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis (IGPA), nearly 1500 Australians were surveyed to understand their trust in the political system and in our democracy.
Key findings include:
- Satisfaction with our democracy is at its lowest level since 1996
- The trust we have in government and politicians is the lowest since 1993
- Baby boomers no longer trust their politicians
- People don’t care who represents them
- We don’t trust Federal, State or Local Governments – however of these three we trust local government more than the rest
These findings are reinforced by the 2019 Australian Electoral Study, which found
- Trust in government has reached its lowest level on record in 2019, with data covering a 50-year period since 1969.
- Trust in government has declined by nearly 20% since 2007.
- 56% of Australians believe that the government is run for ‘a few big interests’, while just 12% believe the government is run for ‘all the people.
It is this combination of factors – a keenness from local members to reach a deeper level of connection and understanding of their communities and the need to improve trust and respect in the institutions of government that have spurred us to develop the concept we outline here.
What do politicians want vs what Australians want?
A survey by the Museum of Australian Democracy of 98 Federal members of Parliament found that
- Federal MPs are sufficiently concerned about the trust divide between citizens and politicians to favour substantial actions to improve confidence in our institutions.
- On balance Federal MP’s want to adjust and strengthen the way that representative democracy works; to make parties better at performing their three roles in providing community linkages, effective governance, and democratic integrity.
- Our Federal political appear to have limited desire to open up the system to direct influence from the public. At the same time parliamentarians embrace other reforms that enhance the community-linkage role including: less voting on party lines based on manifesto promises and more free votes (46%)
Only 13.5% of Federal MPs thought citizens juries based on the criminal jury system and comprised of a random sample of up to 15 Australian citizens should be used to solve complex policy problems that the Australian Parliament can’t fix.
The report concludes by stating that, “Historically, reform choices have been presented as a binary choice between reforms that strengthen the representative system of government and reforms that extend greater public participation. It is increasingly evident, however, that both Australian citizens and politicians think that participatory reforms can be used to bolster the legitimacy of representative democracy and enhance trust between government and citizen.”
“We need to get more involved but they [government and politicians] don’t have time for us and our views. Apart from election time. Then they’re interested in us. Maybe that’s what needs to change. They need to be as interested in our views when they’ve been elected.” ~ First Time Voter
How does the field of deliberative democracy help?
Deliberative democratic processes involve - a diverse group of people having time to consider evidence (information, facts, perspectives) on an issue and come to a decision about what to do (judgement) … and there is a commitment by the commissioning agent to respond.
Because of these features, deliberative democratic processes are particularly effective in:
- Addressing polarisation – by bringing together people with diverse values/experiences in a positive, constructive environment and supporting them with information (research / facts / evidence). Deliberative processes help people to find a place they can agree (a middle ground). This in turn provides greater legitimacy to make hard choices. These processes help policy makers to better understand policy priorities, the values and reasons behind them, to identify where consensus is and is not feasible, and to overcome political deadlock.
- Building trust – In relationships, a good way to start building trust is to demonstrate trust. So it can be expected that trust will be built where governments or leaders show faith and trust in their communities. Trust is also built where governments are willing to be open with information and communicate effectively and honestly. Involving communities in policy making is also cited as a solution to distrust. Central to deliberative engagement practice is government’s demonstrating trust in communities, government being open with information (improved transparency) and honest communication on important policy issues, so it can be expected that deliberative practice is one useful tool for addressing trust issues. Unfortunately, there is limited specific research into whether deliberative processes build trust between governments and communities, however democracyCo have asked our own participants about their trust in the government when they come into the process and then about their levels of trust at the end and we note substantial improvements.
- In addition, citizens are more likely to trust the decisions of people in their community or network over the decisions of politicians. So, trust can be built around the solutions on that issue being deliberated on by the deliberative forum. This will assist in building a social licence for reform on the issue being deliberated on.
- Addresses knowledge asymmetry – by virtue of their position, members of parliament have access to more information than the public – and it is their job to make sure that they are across this information. On the other hand, the public are typically time poor and in part because of this most often aren’t across the current research, data or facts on any given issue. Deliberative democratic practices equalise this knowledge asymmetry substantially – providing the public with access to the different perspectives, facts, research, and data in a way which is well organised and easily accessible, as well as quarantining time to adequately consider the issues.
A notable outcome of deliberative processes is that the outcomes or recommendations from the community involved in these processes are almost always strategic – taking a long-term view of the issue and the appropriate long-term solutions. In this way deliberative processes can help address the forces driving ‘short termism’ within governments.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Recruitment for this method uses sortition, and the database used is the Australian trials is the Australian Electoral Role. Given voting is mandatory in Australia, the electoral role is arguably the most diverse and substantial database of Australians.
How it Works: Process, Interaction, and Decision-Making
DemocracyCo are currently trialling a number of different approaches to The People’s House – in response to the needs of MP’s who are participating. These options explore what the process looks like when the Community set the agenda vs when the MP sets the agenda – both of which are possible under this model.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The People’s House will have a series of benefits and opportunities to local members:
- Better enable MPs to hear from the diversity of their electorate – and proactively understand what people are thinking – rather than just hearing after the fact (complaining)
- Build community cohesion – address polarisation on key issues in the community, improving community resilience
- Confidence that when they go to Parliament the MP understands the breadth of where the community lies on an issue
- Demonstrate to the community that they are valued and that they are being open with them about the challenges and opportunities
- Provides an opportunity to demonstrate mutual trust – and secure a stronger mandate for action – where desired
- Opportunity to hear from voices they might not otherwise hear from proactively– open events hear from the same types of people (old / retired (because they have time) or grumpy/ frustrated (because they are disgruntled)
- Legacy – improving Australia’s democratic systems and leading innovation in what it means to be a ‘representative’ in a modern democracy
- Leadership – establishes them as a leader amongst their peers –setting a new path for MP’s to follows.
- Is a mechanism to assist MPs from the major parties to respond to similar mechanisms being used by emerging independents through the “Voices of …” movement)
Ultimately, the process is designed to be an additional tool in the tool kit to help MPs represent their community.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
DemocracyCo are currently trialling and prototyping the method with two Australian Federal MP's - one from each of the major parties. Significant data is being captured, and evaluations are being undertaken by both community organisations and also some of Australia's major Universities.
One of the key lessons currently being documented, is how best to undertake citizen-led agenda setting. DemocracyCo will be releasing more about this soon.
 How Australian Federal Politicians would like to reform our democracy” https://www.democracy2025.gov.au/documents/Democracy2025-report5.pdf
 Ian McCallister and Sarah Cameron, ”The Australian Electoral Study 2019”, https://australianelectionstudy.org/wp-content/uploads/The-2019-Australian-Federal-Election-Results-from-the-Australian-Election-Study.pdf
“How Australian Federal Politicians would like to reform our democracy” https://www.democracy2025.gov.au/documents/Democracy2025-report5.pdf
 http://www.governanceinstitute.edu.au/magma/media/upload/publication/408_Democracy100-report-IGPA.pdf  OECD, https://www.oecd.org/gov/open-government/innovative-citizen-participation-new-democratic-institutions-catching-the-deliberative-wave-highlights.pdf
Dianne Rutter, Victoria Yates, Simmone Burnett and Gul Kan, Price Waterhouse Coopers, https://www.pwc.com.au/government/government-matters/earning-and-sustaining-citizen-trust.html
 OECD, https://www.oecd.org/gov/open-government/innovative-citizen-participation-new-democratic-institutions-catching-the-deliberative-wave-highlights.pdf
Trial 1 - The People's House Canberra - for Alicia Payne MP
Trial 2 - The People's House Casey - for Aaron Violi MP