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The urgent work of our democracy

Jay Weatherill - 13 July 2015

Involving more people in generating and debating ideas is not only right philosophically, it also helps government to make better decisions

As we go about our daily lives we are all confronted with choices that force us to consider new information, reassess our priorities and make compromises. Our capacity for considered judgment is one of the greatest resources we have, yet it remains largely untapped by governments around the world.

Faced with seemingly intractable problems - entrenched poverty, climate change, the spiralling cost of providing healthcare, to name just a few - and tighter fiscal constraints, it's a resource we must use more. I believe it is the key to creating a more certain and secure future.

Aside from a philosophical belief in democracy, there are good reasons to strengthen the participation of people who have not traditionally thought themselves capable of influencing government decision-making. In a practical sense more people should be involved in generating and debating ideas because it helps government to make better decisions.

Decision-making is not just about the rational or technical issues at hand but also the emotional effects and ethical implications of the choices we make. Pooling our capacity for considered judgment in these areas can help everyone to prosper. Furthermore, the more that people are involved in decisions that affect their lives, the more enduring the commitment to those decisions will be and the more likely it is decisions will deliver the intended results.

Too often though we have outsourced the responsibility for ‘big ideas’ or ‘solutions to big problems’ to experts. Too often those same ideas fail because, rightly or wrongly, they suffer from a perception of being grounded in an intellectual pursuit rather than an authentic effort to improve people’s lives. Experts and intellectual endeavour remain important but they should inform and serve the values and aspirations of citizens, not dictate them. The great challenge we have is to find ways that give people more opportunity to participate in identifying and solving the problems that confront us as individuals and as a community.

There are a number of ways we have begun to respond to this in South Australia. We have established citizens’ juries to deliberate on long-standing dilemmas. These panels of randomly selected South Australians draw on expert advice and have made recommendations to government on issues such as how to make our city nightlife both safe and vibrant and on how we can help cyclists and motorists share the road safely. Recommendations from these juries are driving legislative change and funding for initiatives identified as important by the community.

We have also supported citizens and community organisations with funds and professional advice to collaboratively develop solutions that respond to difficult social issues. These ‘community challenges’ have brought people from outside government together on issues that range from providing better information to new parents to changing the way we look at ageing so that we can better support people to live full and flourishing lives.

Most recently, we have put $1m on the table through Fund My Community for community organisations to describe projects that will address disadvantage. Rather than government selecting the winning ideas, Fund My Community encourages members of the public to go online and make the decisions about which projects should get funded and to what level. These funding choices will be implemented by government without modification.

Cabinet ministers and senior public servants continue to get out of the office more to listen to ideas and opinions from members of the community through our ‘country cabinet’ programme and cabinet meetings held outside of the city centre.

In isolation, none of these initiatives carries the gravitas of a single, expert  ‘institute’ or ‘centre’ charged with generating ideas and finding solutions, but that should not be the test of their value. Instead, they should be considered as an ideal complement to the host of organisations in civil society - thinktanks, universities, cultural institutions - that make outstanding contributions to intellectual endeavour.

If the decisions that governments make are ultimately about improving or enriching lives, then they should not be the sole province of academic, cultural or even political elites. People need to have more of a say in matters. The right to vote in a general election once every few years is no longer enough.

But finding new ways for people to have more influence on decision-making when they have busy daily lives is difficult. That is why it is important we look beyond the traditional ways ideas have been debated and decisions made. Digital technology offers some promise to involve more people but in South Australia we are finding that there is no 'silver bullet'. Only a consistent commitment to developing a range of tools that help people participate at the time and in the ways that suit them will do. It is the urgent work of our democracy.

Jay Weatherill is the premier of South Australia

The citizens' juries, Fund My Idea, and the country cabinets are some of the case studies detailed in our new Policy Network report by Claudia Chwalisz: The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change


Tags: Jay Weatherill , democracy , deliberation , representative democracy , policymaking , South Australia , citizens' juries , country cabinets , Fund My Community

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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