Could a Citizens Jury help troubled institutions recover public trust?

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At Shared Future we feel it’s good to push the use of public deliberation into new areas, to solve new challenges. That could be about challenging “institutional power” through mini-publics. Or democratising spaces where only a few people seem to have convening or agenda setting powers. In our latest blog, by Jez Hall, we look at how a mini-public, or citizens jury might recover lost public trust.

I recently came across an academic paper on using deliberative democracy inside large co-operatives. Large co-ops are what might be called ‘closed pool’ democratic societies, where members or employees form an ‘electorate’ which, through aggregating the votes of members selects its leaders. A trade union might be another closed pool democracy. Though not quite a full co-op, John Lewis is another type of this ‘closed’ democratic institution, with a large number of staff forums that deliberate about the company, and help shape its culture. A recent proposal to dilute its staff ownership model, by accepting outside private investment, has raised all sorts of concerns. Mary Portas, retail guru, describes it as risking the soul of this popular high-street retailer.

Issues of aggregative and deliberative governance exist within the ‘open pool’ of society too. A common focus of debate within the political democracy world in which Shared Future generally works is how to govern electoral democracies better… like through a deliberative ‘mini-public’. Yet, some public, private or cooperative institutions (operating inside large countries) are at least as big as the populations of those smaller countries or administrations (Ost Belgium springs to mind) where deliberative democracy is becoming institutionalised. Have bigger economies. And arguably, they have very considerable undemocratic ‘closed pool’ power.

Democratising public institutions from within

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Its hard to be honest and open, when you have (or perceived to have) ‘skin in the game’. Hence maybe the problems the BBC is facing at the moment over impartiality? Or the NHS, where falling public faith as a real threat that might lead towards more privatisation. Or a large police service like the Met, which has lost public trust. All institutions struggling to show they are impartial, outward facing and in touch with public concern. They are massively complex, at the cutting edge of new technologies, and riven with internal inequalities and hierarchies. They interface daily with the public, are funded by taxpayers, and deeply politicised in the media. And work at arms-length to democratic control. We might elect politicians to oversee them, but internally, they are governed by appointees. And those appointees can struggle to manage that complexity and hold public trust.

How do we explain the failure of the Met leadership to accept a core finding of the 2023 Casey review that the Met was institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic? One reason might be such bodies are led by people ‘at the top’ who will have spent their whole working lives within yesterdays’ institution. Leading to criticism they are inflexible to challenge, cultural evolution or innovation, and too loyal to the institution that promoted them so high.

What about the rest of their staff? The employees of these large ‘closed pool’ institutions will have all sorts of professional and also lived experience, often organised through professional bodies, which represent their one bit of the system, and which jealously guard against lower grades or separate disciplines assuming higher grade responsibility or poaching upon their fiefdom.

Patient groups, victims of crime panels or similar ‘public interest’ forums arguably also only see one part of the system… especially where it fails… and are generally self-selecting, and without institutional teeth. Easy to ignore through derogatory terms like the ‘same old faces’.

It all needs joining up.

Change in a wicked world

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Change is hard in those circumstances. Could the use of institutional mini-publics be part of the solution to governance in such ‘closed pool’ situations? We tried a small example of a closed pool and ‘inverted’ citizens jury some years ago, bringing together a deliberative forum of NHS staff, from multiple grades and disciplines (senior managers, GPs, nurses, care workers etc) to work through another wicked internal problem… with patients and their families providing the ‘external’ expert knowledge of how ‘the system’ systematically failed them.

The topic was care at home, and why older people are being let down by the system. Here is the scenario… how to keep older people safe and living at home. Becoming increasingly isolated or vulnerable at home, with poor primary health care, what happens when they have a crisis, like a preventable fall? Typically, they will enter the hospital health system, and too many then get trapped in expensive inpatient wards due to underfunding in the care at home system (which is starved of funds). They can then quickly ‘decondition’ (a medical term for becoming incapable of looking after oneself, losing confidence, or being ‘institutionalised’). And so may never make it back home, into the (much cheaper) care of family, friends or primary health care in a community setting, where they feel safe and want to live… at best being forced into a publicly funded care home, to live out the remainder of their days in a much less rich environment. The home that they don’t want to be in, and often facing a shorter life than needed. An expensive, wasteful, inhumane outcome, which satisfies no one.

Connecting up the system

Problems like the one above are incredibly hard to solve. They involve connecting parts of the system with different cultures, working holistically across professional boundaries, or redirecting scarce financial resources from hospital (secondary) care to community (primary) care. Much needed reform, and moving to preventative care, long advocated by individual experts and the NHS, has never been properly achieved, despite the ground breaking 2008 Marmot report into health inequalities.

The process we tried seemed to work. Given time and new perspectives, innovative system change recommendations emerged from ‘inside the pool’, which should arguably then have more weight with their internal ‘closed pool’ leadership, or other professional colleagues? However, it was a limited experiment, not funded by the health service. A proof of concept, but no more.

Fixing the Met through staff deliberation?

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To solve the wicked issues identified in the Casey report, the Met must start to own its own problem. Here is the challenge and a possible solution. How do you have an honest conversation amongst staff about enacting the Casey report? I think the Met could do this by recruiting a diverse randomised cross-section of its workforce, stratified for all levels and from all parts of the system.

They would then work as equals, with expert facilitators, over an extended period, to come up with internally generated recommendations for rebuilding public trust. All officers, support staff, and specialists would see they had peers within the process. And the public, including those members of the public feeling over-policed and under-protected, would be invited to take part as the expert witnesses.

That wouldn’t be sufficient to fix the Met. Rebuilding trust is always going to be a long-term endeavour. But a well facilitated, independent deliberation, whether by citizens supported by expert advice as in our standard ‘open’ processes, or something like the Care at Home inquiry, can be a valuable tool for leaders to get ‘under the skin’ of a complex issue. But only if the leaders, with ‘skin in the game’, are prepared to listen, and to act.

We’d love to hear of your experiences of such ‘internal’ deliberation processes. Have you run one, or would you consider it?

Featured image: Photo by Ethan Wilkinson on Unsplash