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Engaging Everyday Individuals for Better Public Policy

A driving force behind much work in the D&D field is centered around the belief that individuals are the expert of their own experiences and should be the key consultants in shaping the policies that shape their own lives. The Jefferson Center – a NCDD sponsor org, shared an article on their blog this week, How can everyday citizens create better public policy? by Annie Pottorff, which offers tips on bringing in “everyday” individuals during policymaking. The article gives several key insights on why this is important and talks more about how the process of Citizen Juries can increase civic participation and more direct democratic practices. You can read the article below and find the original version on the Jefferson Center blog here.

How can everyday citizens create better public policy?

Each election, the United States Congress looks a little bit more like the country it represents. In 2018, we celebrated a record number of congressional firsts, including the youngest woman elected, first Muslim congresswomen, first Native American congresswomen, and many other ‘firsts’.

While representation is improving, there are still clear differences according to Pew: the share of women, people of color, and immigrants in the House and Senate lags behind the overall US population. Congress members are also typically highly educated and wealthier than the general public. These distinctions show a clear mismatch, and lead us to wonder: how can we better include diverse experiences, perspectives, and aspirations in decision-making?
Direct democracy approaches, including Citizens Juries, invite “everyday” people (like you, your neighbor, and your grandma) to participate. By using our incredibly different life experiences and personal expertise to shape public policy, we can create a more representative, transparent, and trusted democracy.

Turning to “Everyday” Experts

Average citizens have an incredible resource too often overlooked: their unique expertise. In the current Congress, 96% of House members and all senators have a bachelor’s degree or higher. But in 2017, only about a third (34%) of American adults 25 and older said they had completed a bachelor’s degree or more, according to Pew.

But education and degrees shouldn’t determine your contribution to democracy. Most of us have been shaped by our work, travel, volunteering, relationships, and more, in addition to traditional schooling. Within a Citizens Jury, you’ll find people of all education levels working together to create recommendations to a given challenge.

Participants have the rare opportunity to listen to one another, hear different perspectives, build off one another’s ideas, empathize, and establish common ground. This helps Jurors create recommendations that utilize one another’s expertise and experiences, and are more representative of the population as a whole.

Listening to the People Most Impacted

Last summer, we conducted a Citizens Jury in the Forest of Dean, United Kingdom. Two local hospitals, which were closely intertwined with the community, were set to close. The National Health Service wanted to hear from residents on where a new, centrally located hospital should be built.

Citizen input isn’t always clearly invited (or even welcomed) by representatives in similar situations. People may not be able to travel to their representative’s office, and if they do get there, their representatives might be booked or have other issues on the agenda. In the Forest of Dean, while the closure of the hospital was a sensitive topic for many, a Citizens Jury helped create a recommendation for the location new hospital that was actually trusted by the wider community.

As one participant put it, “People trust the outcome a lot more, they think there’s a fairer representation of views and that the people who are actually going to be using the hospital have a chance to give some insight into their needs which should be valuable feedback for the decision makers.”

Making Participation More Accessible

Getting informed on local, state, national, and global issues can take a lot of time that many people simply don’t have. Citizens Juries, meanwhile, pay people to participate and cover things such as childcare expenses, so participants can more easily take time to participate.

Juries also make participation easier for young people. In the United States, Senators have to be at least 30, and House Representatives must be over 25. And even though people younger than 25 will obviously be impacted by many of today’s issues, barriers such as moving often, work, and difficulty registering to vote all present big obstacles to civic participation. Citizens Juries typically invite participants 18 and older, providing much needed insight into these missing perspectives.

Free from Outside Influence

Instead of the policy issue at hand, politicians might be focused on winning the next election, gaining favorable public opinion, or keeping campaign funders happy.

But your average person isn’t usually worried about these issues. And if there’s ever extra pressure felt by Jury members from their peers, participants can remain anonymous. The experts that inform Jurors about the topic don’t advocate for a specific stance, but provide neutral background information for participants to reference. This sets the stage for more trusted policy, as Jurors made their decision based on high quality information and a transparent process.

Combining Direct & Representative Democracy

Wider citizen participation can complement representative democracies around the world: we’d more fully capture the range of citizen ideas and hear from underrepresented groups. Officials would have a much clearer picture of what the public thinks on complex issues, instead of just hearing from the loudest voices in the room.

Although Citizens Juries don’t always create immediate policy adoption, the recommendations guide legislation and community initiatives. These recommendations aren’t influenced by money or power, but represent the aspirations, interests, and needs of everyday people, creating a stronger democracy we can all believe in.

You can find the original version of this article on the Jefferson Center blog at https://jefferson-center.org/2019/03/how-can-everyday-citizens-create-better-public-policy/

Keiva Hummel
Keiva Hummel serves as NCDD’s Communications Coordinator. She graduated cum laude from San Francisco State University with a B.A. in Communication Studies, Minor in Global Peace, Human Rights and Justice Studies, and a Certificate in Conflict Resolution Studies.

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