The only way. For trust in government.

The only way? A must for trust in government? Yes says this post, of deliberative style public decision-making.

Deliberative citizens’ juries, forums, assemblies and panels are now commonplace. In fact I know two people who have been recruited on to juries in two different states. Two people who are proud of the experience.

I called one of them last week. I was preparing to offer deliberative democracy training. Trust in Government was the theme.

‘Right now I don’t feel very optimistic about government myself, but I’ve since I’ve had the experience over and over of seeing people grapple with difficult issues in juries,’ I said. ‘I’m certain it is a way to increase trust in government.’

‘It’s the only way,’ she replied.

‘What makes you so sure?’ She came back immediately with …

Key ingredients

Firstly, I would never have joined forces with the others selected on to the panel. They came from different age groups and backgrounds. They had different skills. And they all brought commitment to solving the problem at hand.

We were put in a position to concentrate entirely on council’s problem. The remit for the panel was clearly focused. The trade off challenge was obvious.

Council was incredibly transparent. I was really surprised how frank and courageous they were. They laid (not very optimistic) information on the table. We understood from this information exactly what the problem was.

Our recommendations were presented at a closed Council Meeting. They asked questions and the report’s now in the hands of Council staff to apply. One councillor didn’t get the central premise of the report, perhaps hadn’t read it. But overall the panel’s work had landed with those who commissioned it.

trust in government
Photo credit: Byron Echo, Amy Phillips

These are key ingredients in the recipe for successful deliberative forums. They account for a change in perception by inviting trust.

With council acknowledging its has a trust deficit with the community, a citizens jury panel of 28 randomly selected anonymous ratepayers has been brought into decide how the rate rise funds will be spent the critical local paper wrote in advance of the panel.

Avoid erosion of trust

If my friend had had to put up with the council’s past attempts to consult the community again, trust would have been eroded by:

The perception they were consulting with a few people of a certain sort who they happened to decide were relevant. By contrast my friend felt that there was an interest in the whole community and its future.

The feeling of wasting precious time. They want my ideas and views in five minutes/one hour/half a day for nothing. It was clear that this problem could only be addressed by deep consideration, exchange of views, debate, review, and above all the willingness of participants not to hold fixed views. It would take some time.

Perhaps the aspect my friend most appreciated was that the deliberation was realistic and authoritative since the council put its trust in the panellists and gave access to relevant council documents and other material.

After devoting so much time to an agreed outcome, she felt what was decided was worthwhile and would make a difference to council in the coming period.

I’m afraid that all Canberra workshop participants saw their own agencies casually and regularly eroding trust with people. This happens through consulting people too late when the outcome is already decided, and through missing strategic opportunities to ask real questions. Senior managers lack trust themselves and make false assumptions about citizens’ interests and capabilities. Unfortunately the habit of eroding trust is hard to break, and so we see people who claim to be consulting trashing a very important brand, government.

p.s. my other friend appears in this footage that I played at the Trust in Government workshop in Canberra.