A citizens' jury – or citizens' assembly – is a forum where citizens can address a complex or contentious issue. Juries are usually organized by a neutral non-profit organization devoted to democracy building. The project begins by hiring a polling company to identify a large random pool of potential jurors. This pool is boiled down to a representative group of jurors who will consider an issue over three or four days. The ideal jury is a microcosm of the community from which it is drawn.
The jury receives a charge, one or more questions it must try to answer, and is briefed on the issue. Jurors then hear evidence from experts and various intervenors. They ask questions, discuss the issue amongst themselves, and finally issue a "verdict."
The project organizer must take care to ensure all sides of an issue are represented and that biases do not creep in during the selection of jurors, the presentation of information, or the choice of witnesses.
Jury "verdicts" are usually recommendations for how government or some public authority should proceed. Because of this the project organizer should get some prior commitment from the public body to take the recommendations seriously and provide a genuine response. Devoting insufficient resources to what-comes-after is a common weakness of jury processes.
Citizens' juries get good reviews when they are properly organized. They build citizen capacity and reduce public suspicion when decisions are eventually made in line with jury recommendations. Some political scientists have suggested that citizens' juries should review every proposed new law as a way of democratizing government. On the downside, citizens' juries are expensive and tend to involve relatively small numbers of citizens. To avoid accusations of bias, a jury needs to be run by an organization with a reputation for neutrality. Little-known organizations need to assemble a public oversight committee that includes respected people such as retired judges, church ministers, and even-handed journalists.
In England, the Local Government Management Board has experience running citizens' juries. In the US, the Jefferson Center has developed a successful citizens' jury process. In Canada, a good example is the British Columbia Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform.
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The Citizen's Handbook / Charles Dobson / citizenshandbook.org
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