Smith and Dumienski: Citizens’ juries could reduce Auckland’s democratic deficit

Nicholas Ross Smith and Zbigniew Dumienski of the Politics and International Relations Department at the University of Auckland write at the New Zealand Herald, New Zealand’s largest circulation newspaper, arguing that using randomly selected juries to make some council-level policy suggestions may be a good starting point for organically growing a more democratic governance system:

A report by Bernard Orsman published in the New Zealand Herald on the state of Auckland City Council found that 88 of the 99 positions in the council’s boardrooms and executive teams were filled by “white men from wealthy suburbs.”

The reported demographic composition of the decision-making bodies in Auckland Council suggests that we are facing a potentially harmful democratic deficit. Yet, before anyone suggests quotas or other bureaucratic mechanisms aimed at diversifying the Council’s management structure, it would be good to consider a very different and far more democratic approach currently tried by our friends across the ditch: citizens’ juries as bodies that could breathe new, more democratic and vibrant spirit into our city’s old structures.

The democratic deficit evident in Auckland City Council is part of a broader trend in democracies worldwide, both at the local and national levels, which are increasingly seen as departing from the core democratic principles that they are supposed to uphold. Meaningful deliberations and political equality are the soul of democracy.

Increasingly, our electoral system is virtually devoid of the former and its outcomes suggest the erosion of the latter. Interestingly, such an outcome would have perhaps been predicted by the founders of democracy in classical Athens who were concerned that elections and campaigning contains in themselves anti-democratic and oligarchic seeds.

While the issue of democratic deficit is not limited to our regional bodies and is also present at the national level, a modest re-engagement with the core principles and practices of Athenian democracy at the local council level would represent a practical and potentially useful starting point in striving for a more equitable system.

Athenian democracy in practice was undertaken not through elections or appointments but rather through a process of selection by lottery in which all male citizens (clearly, a modern system would be far more inclusive) were eligible candidates.

Dismantling longstanding and embedded institutions and standard operating procedures at the council level is clearly no easy task and suggesting a “shock therapy” style full implementation of a lottery-based system is not only impractical but politically and socially unfeasible. At the same time, it may be useful for us to experiment with new, additional bodies that could start by advising and/or complimenting the existing decision-making structures.

Across the ditch in Australia, movements to explore the benefits of citizens’ juries have been gaining momentum over the last decade. The newDemocracy movement – led by a collection of business people, academics and ordinary citizens – has advocated for the use of juries at city councils across Australia.

More recently, the Melbourne City Council undertook a review of its 10 year budget through employing a citizens’ jury – similarly a policy-area of great relevance to Auckland. A jury comprising of 43 randomly selected citizens, meeting over a six week period, deliberated on and agreed a new budget.

Aiding their decision was access to financial policy experts and bureaucrats in order to help jurors develop informed-opinions. Nicholas Reece, a University of Melbourne fellow, called the outcome a “clear, sensible verdict about priority projects, services, revenue and spending.”

Consequently, as Australia’s experience with citizens’ juries has illustrated, starting with the modest goal of using randomly selected juries to make some council-level policy suggestions is arguably a good starting point for organically growing a system for Auckland which is more equitable and ultimately more democratic.

2 Responses

  1. Link doesn’t work.


  2. Thanks – fixed.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: