Developed in South Australia by DemocracyCo, the People’s Policy is a citizen-led approach to deliberative policy development.
Problems and Purpose
The People’s Policy is a citizen-led approach to policy development. The methodology was developed in South Australia by DemocracyCo, a professional deliberative practitioner and facilitator organisation, and a group of stakeholders, made up of government, business, and public service representatives. The process consists of a panel of citizens working collaboratively and deliberatively with experts and stakeholders to develop a policy together over the course of four days. The first use of The People’s Policy was the development of a child well-being policy in South Australia. Central to this approach, and a departure from previous mini-public approaches in the state is that the process is entirely non-partisan and independent from government, and the policy issue is identified and developed by citizens.
DemocracyCo, the initiators of The People’s Policy, identified a constellation of problems underpinning the need for a citizen-led approach to policy making. Australia is facing a crisis of trust in politics, with trust in politicians in steep decline. Whilst trust and participations in politics is at a low ebb, increasingly complex problems demand complex policy solutions. In an attempt to gain the interest and engagement of citizens, short-term and simplistic policy options are presented by politicians as feasible answers: ‘the problem is that it is a short-term solution because simple solutions don’t and won’t ever solve the complex challenges facing our society’.
The People’s Policy aims to provide long-term policy solutions to complex problems that are developed by citizens rather than politicians, and that are not tainted by party politics. The purpose of The People’s Policy is to develop policy through a combination of facilitated deliberation and public input. Underscoring this approach is a desire for the public to develop and actually write policies, ‘turning the system inside out’.
The approach is non-partisan and led by citizens and experts working together to set the agenda and develop a policy. The aim of this approach is to develop long-term policy solutions to complex problems that are not the domain of party politics and not subject to the short-termism of electoral campaign promises. The first People’s Policy on child wellbeing was timed to be introduced to political parties in the run-up to the state elections in March 2018, to provide an antidote to this. The end policy was presented to all political parties and all parties are invited to meet with panel members and adopt the policy in whole or in part.
Origins and Development
South Australia has a strong record for engaging citizens in decision-making and has convened a number of extensive consultation programs and deliberative mini-publics. However, these processes are typically convened by the state government under Labor Premier Jay Weatherill. In addition, policymakers and politicians set the policy issue or agenda in advance and ask citizens, in the form of a citizens jury and wider engagement process, to make collective decisions or recommendations to the government.
The People’s Policy stands apart from this in its non-partisan approach and having citizens and stakeholders identify the agenda and develop the content themselves. The process is funded by a range of organisations and stakeholders who are invested in the specific policy issue. In the case of The People’s Policy on Child Wellbeing, this was a group of non-profit and community organisations committed to child welfare, as well as DemocracyCo.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Central to this approach is citizens working closely with experts and stakeholders relevant to a given policy area. Citizens were recruited through a combination of self-selection and random stratification. The opportunity to participate can be advertised through social media, local radio and other networks. Out of those who express interest, a random stratified sample is taken to reflect demographic characteristics. In The People’s Policy on Child Wellbeing, an initial sample of 200 citizens resulted in a panel of 38 people following stratification. The ultimate aim regarding participation selection is to achieve a random, stratified sample of citizens. This is dependent on funding, however, since recruitment usually carries a high price tag.
Experts are also invited to give evidence and talk to citizen participants more informally.
How it Works: Process, Interaction, and Decision-Making
A range of tools and techniques were used during the People’s Policy on Child Wellbeing. The tools used will likely vary according to the topic and structure of future uses of the method. The People’s Policy involves a combination of in-person facilitated deliberation and an online portal for panel members to continue conversations. Citizen Panellists meet for a total of four days over a three month period. The in-person deliberations were also open to the wider public for people to come and observe the process.
Techniques may include:
- Briefing and induction processes - to allow participants to meet and greet and aso to brieff them on the topic being considered
- Facilitated workshops - facilitated by a deliberative facilitator including consensus techniques
- Evidence consideration from business, industry, government, community and academic sources from jurisdictions all over the worlds
- Self managed work and advocacy - research study groups, surveying of friends and family members
- Interviews and conversations with people affected / impacted
- Online platforms to support out-of-session deliberation
- Celebration events at key milestones
- Requirement of participants to be advocates for the work.
As well as the policy being citizen-led, the same approach is also used for the process itself, ‘where panel members influenced the way in which they spent their time together. This resulted in them creating a ‘master plan’ for their policy document, working in small writing and conversational groups, at times having consensus conversations culminating in them convening a small writing group to refine the final policy 5 document’. For the People’s Policy on child wellbeing, this citizen-led approach also entailed the panel developing a survey for the wider community to help refine their thinking. Participants shared the survey through their own networks and the results were used to help finalise the final policy document.
Participants also hear from a wide range of experts during the process, in a variety of formats. As well as formal presentations to the panel, more intimate interactions take place through small group conversations. The aim is for panelists to hear from a broad range of perspectives within a relatively short period of time in order to build knowledge on the topic and have the opportunity to question and challenge experts.
In-person deliberations are supported by a group of volunteers recruited and managed by DemocracyCo. For the People’s Policy on child wellbeing, there were volunteer counselors on hand to provide pastoral support for participants as they were exposed to harrowing evidence related to the issue at hand.
Given this citizen-led approach, it’s feasible that during future iterations of The People’s Policy, the precise process should vary as it is determined to a large extent by the participants needs themselves.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The end product from The People’s Policy is a policy document - produced by the citizen panelists that provides a comprehensive, long-term policy position in a format ready for government to adopt. This document is intended to be more detailed and in-depth than the final report produced by a citizens jury, because the aim is for the citizens to actually write policy, rather than give a set of recommendations or decisions on an already proposed policy. The end policy is then presented to all political parties (in SA, six political parties). Panel members also meet with their local representatives to discuss the policy and advocate their work through media and community networks.
Given that the first use of this approach has just published its policy, we don’t have any information about the wider influence and effects such as policy adoption and implementation. DemocracyCo, who instigated and led the first case, hope that the People’s Policy will be used by others in the future.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The method is currently being evaluated by the Jefferson Center’s Kyle Bozentko and a report will be made available at the earliest date. The evaluation will help establish whether the People’s Policy is an effective method of democratic innovation both in terms of citizen participation and policy outcomes.
Despite the lack of concrete analysis, it is worth noting that the People’s Policy marks a departure from previous approaches to deliberative mini-publics in Australia in that it is non-partisan, not funded or instigated by government, and utilises a citizen-led approach to identifying and developing a comprehensive policy. Whilst previous mini-publics have been organised independent from government in Australia (e.g. Australian Citizens’ Parliament), this is the first approach developed and led entirely by a practitioner organisation. It is also unique in the focus on developing a comprehensive policy.
Peoples' Policy on Child Wellbeing
 DemocracyCo 2017a
 DemocracyCo 2017a, p3
 DemocracyCo 2017b, p4
 DemocracyCo 2017b, p6
 DemocracyCo 2017b, p4-5
DemocracyCo (2017a) The People’s Policy: Developing common sense policy together, South Australia: DemocracyCo. [PDF]
DemocracyCo (2017b) People’s Policy on Child Wellbeing: Methodology Overview, South Australia: DemocracyCo. [PDF]
This entry was written in collaboration with Lucy J Parry.