Online Citizens Jury: Energy Generation in NSW

Early this year Bang the Table joined forces with the NewDemocracy Foundation and the NSW Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to support the creation of an online citizens jury portal as part of a unique experiment in participatory democracy.

Last week saw the publication of the findings of the PAC report on “The Economics of Energy Generation“, which, as far as I am aware is the first of its type to:

  1. Utilise a citizens jury as its major community engagement activity
  2. Integrate an online component into the citizen jury process
  3. Report extensively on the findings of the citizen jury within the final report.

The terms of reference for the Inquiry state:

That the Committee inquire into and report on the comparable economics of energy generation in New South Wales. In particular, the Committee will consider:

  1. the mix of energy sources used in New South Wales;
  2. a comparison of NSW’s energy mix with other jurisdictions both in Australia and overseas;
  3. issues relating to long term energy security in New South Wales;
  4. the potential for NSW sourcing energy interstate;
  5. the potential for, and barriers to, development of alternative forms of energy generation (e.g. tidal, geothermal) in New South Wales; and,
  6. best practice in alternative energy generation in other jurisdictions.

The Executive Summary to the final report notes that:

The Committee was keen to hear directly from consumers. To do this, the Committee worked with the NewDemocracy Foundation to conduct an innovative consultation process. The NewDemocracy Foundation formed two Citizens’ Policy Juries, with one group based in Sydney and the other in Tamworth. The Citizens’ Policy Juries comprised of randomly-selected citizens who volunteered their time. The methodology adopted by the NewDemocracy Foundation in this process is detailed in Chapter One [of the final report, and detailed below]. The groups subsequently each provided a report, and these are included as Appendices to this Report. Their views informed the Committee’s deliberations, and are also referred to in the main body of this Report. The Committee was particularly impressed by the commitment which the participants showed to the process, and the generosity they showed in giving their time. The Committee has recommended that the NSW Government consider adopting similar processes in other areas of policy where appropriate [emphasis added].

By way of very brief background, the newdemocracy Foundation is an independent, non-partisan research organisation aiming to identify improvements to our democratic process. It aims to replace the adversarial with the deliberative, and move out of the “continuous campaign” cycle.

The report sets out the methodology employed by newDemocracy is summary:

1.14  The NewDemocracy Foundation distributed 8,000 invitations to people living in Sydney and in the Tamworth region. Names were selected at random from a database provided by Telstra. From replies received, the Foundation selected approximately 45 participants for each group. The final number of participants was 54 across both groups. Composition of the groups was intended to represent as much as possible the demographic composition of the general population, though the Foundation advised that it was unable to recruit participants aged 18 to 25 for its Sydney group.

1.15  Each group met four times over a period of ten weeks, with the Sydney group voting to meet a fifth time. The deliberations of the groups were conducted by independent facilitators. Participants were provided with copies of submissions made to the Inquiry, and the groups also invited relevant experts to appear and provide further information. A number of experts did so, with most appearing via Skype.

1.16  Participants also had access to an online citizens jury portal hosted by the NewDemocracy Foundation, to provide information and documents to them. Mr Walker observed that 54 participants accessed a total of 2,089 documents via the online forum.

1.17  Mr Jonathan O’Dea MP, Chair, and Dr Geoff Lee MP, Deputy Chair, met with participants from the Citizens’ Policy Jury in Sydney on 16 June 2012, and Mr O’Dea and other members of the Committee met with participants from the Citizens’ Policy Jury in Tamworth on 21 July.

1.18  Mr Walker advised that both groups reached a unanimous consensus to support the reports that they had each produced. Consensus decision-making is one of the aims of deliberative democracy processes.

1.19  The NewDemocracy Foundation forwarded the reports produced by the two groups on 3 September 2012. These were tabled at the Committee’s meeting on 6 September 2012.

It is worth reading the full report when you have time. I was particularly impressed by the level of detail and the way the jurors dealt with highly complex and difficult subject matter.

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