A bold new trust-building project called a Community Solutions Panel

From the Byron Shire Council website:

Community Solutions Panel
What infrastructure spending should we prioritise, and how should we fund these priorities if the rates alone are not enough?

This is the question that Byron Council will put to a randomly selected group of 28 people as part of a bold new trust-building project called a Community Solutions Panel.

Council has chosen to work with the newDemocracy Foundation to see if a community deliberation can be designed which delivers an informed voice of everyday people.

We will undertake a bespoke jury-style process – a Community Solutions Panel – so that a group of randomly-selected local residents armed with time, free access to information, a clear authority and given the starting point of possible solutions (prepared by active interests and Council), can reach a shared, considered judgement.

Further details are provided on the newDemocracy Foundation website at www.newdemocracy.com.au/byron.

Panel sessions are open to observers
We are keen for everyday members of the community, stakeholder groups and others to visit sessions in order that they can form their own assessment of the merits of this approach.

The Panel will have sessions that are open and others that are closed, much like a criminal jury. Observers are welcome during open sessions and will be asked to leave for closed sessions.

This doesn’t specify what the “clear authority” is, but the newDemocracy page adds that “[c]ouncil has committed that the Panel’s recommendations will be implemented in the Delivery Program when it is adopted in June 2018.”

The newDemocracy page is dated January, but according to a recent story in the Echo it appears that the project has progressed and the selection of the panel members has been made:

After acknowledging it has a ‘trust deficit’ with the community, Council has created a ‘citizens’ jury’ of 28 ratepayers, selected randomly and anonymously, to make the decision on what infrastructure projects the rate rise money will be spent on.

“Anonymous” selection may imply that the identities of the members are kept secret (and indeed no names are mentioned in the story), but this would seem to conflict with the statement that some of the sessions would be open to the public.

The Echo highlights an objection raised to the selection of panel members:

But Saddle Road Local Area Management Association (SRLAMPA) president Matthew ‘Cleva’ O’Reilly says he has ‘major concerns with including non-residents’ and a planner on the Council’s Community Solutions Panel.

While stating that he believed that NewDemocracy’s panel selection reflects ‘a fairly good representation of the shire’, and that he has ‘confidence in the process’, O’Reilly said, ‘It’s not a good look having the representative of large Byron property developers – who does not even live in the shire – as a member of the panel’.

NewDemocracy’s response:

NewDemocracy’s executive director Iain Walker replied to O’Reilly in an email supplied to The Echo, saying that the individual was ‘captured within this exercise by owning property within the shire… that is sufficient to be eligible.’

‘We would consider any ratepayer as part of the community and likely representative of others in the community in a similar situation.

‘The nature of random groups is that we pick up people broadly in proportion to their prevalence in the community, and the team reported after the first meeting that the group as a whole covers all walks of life. In general terms, we can’t see any skews in the sampling/recruitment,’ he said.

Walker claims ‘no one person can single-handedly skew the deliberations.’

‘That is why we design the panels with this larger number of participants. If you have presented a community solutions submission with the most merit, then I have confidence in a random sample of people from across the Shire being able to judge that on its merits.’

Walker then went on to explain the adversarial nature of politics and how his organisation is trying to address that issue.

‘I would ask you to note our decade-long investment in trying to find ways to do democracy better with projects around the country and the results they have produced,’ he said.

‘We see the purpose of democracy not as a venue for conflict, but as a means of finding social cohesion by actively exploring where common ground exists. Pursuing conflict is everyone’s right… but it’s not exactly leading to a better society. The reason we took on a project in Byron is because of the current tendency toward adversarialism and the difficulty of reaching trusted decisions. Therefore it’s the perfect experimental environment for a different democratic model – one that we look to share with other local government areas. We did it with an awareness that the big picture democratic reform opportunity could splinter into a dozen “gotcha” news articles exploring minor points.’

4 Responses

  1. With full respect for NewDemocracy’s great track record of good work, I side with Matthew ‘Cleva’ O’Reilly on this one

    A specific personal interest should be an exclusion criterion for any type of interactive design, to be checked before entering the sortition process. My reason for saying so: In a recent prediction market community of 30 participants we observed an optimism bias regarding a (low likelihood) future result by a factor of 2.5 to 3 times the actual outcome, attributable to a member being invested in the outcome. After we found out and the participant agreed to square his positions, the prediction fell materially but after re-balancing still remained 60% too high, we believe through some behavioural framing effect.

    While I note that this was a predictive process and not a prescriptive one, a distorted prediction of benefits may well impact the decision quality of the jury negatively, leading to a wrong decision. Better not risk it.

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  2. Hubertus,

    Surely “investment in the outcome” applies to behavioural framing effects beyond specific personal interests? Anyone with good persuasive powers and/or a high perceived status will be likely to sway the decision outcome. I found this myself when I did jury duty — I managed to persuade a sufficient number of my colleagues over several days of deliberation to deliver a split verdict. At the re-trial a new jury convicted unanimously after half an hour’s deliberation. This is why I argue that if a legislative jury is to reliably represent the target population it needs to be a) large and b) mute.

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  3. It seems that, quite reasonably, the common practice of eliding the details of the random selection mechanism undermines trust in sortition. Maybe having some sort of a fully transparent public institution for random selection would be useful.

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  4. A worthy project is to devise a publicly visible and verifiable method of random selection that any group around the world can simply adopt when conducting a sortition sampling. It would need a system for putting the pool of potential members in some order (this could be alphabetical, or any easily verifiable order) that is published in advance of the drawing. Then it needs two independent variables that could not possibly both be manipulated… the first variable might select a starting point for the first person selected from the pool list, and the second variable would determine the number of skips before the next member is chosen. As an example… the starting point could be the four digit read out of a digital barometer maintained and reported continuously online by some weather organization at exactly noon on a given day, while the second variable could be the digits of some commodity price on a given public trading body at the exact same time. The two variables need to have their OWN primary function, and not be specifically for the purpose of the sortition process.

    These examples lack the pomp and ceremony of a traditional drawing a starting name from a jar by a small child, but the system has to be unarguable non-manipulatable.

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