71 – ‘Melbourne People’s Panel makes bold decisions where politicians fear to tread’, The Age, 1 April 2015.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         550 words

Peoples panel

“The public is smart if given the time and information necessary to work through an issue. And this has been demonstrated by a people’s “jury” which has delivered its verdict in a bold experiment in democracy by the Melbourne Town Hall.

The results should give hope to people despairing that Australia has lost its reform mojo, as it provides a new way for government to get hard but necessary things done.”

I read this article by Nicholas Reece, a Principal Fellow at Melbourne University, with some interest. Involving the community in budgeting is not new. All councils are required to advertise their proposed budget and invite public submissions. Some councils have been putting their budgets on the web and inviting residents to make ends meet. I had a go at New York’s budget a few years ago and failed to make it add up. In Australia there have been examples of councils putting part of their budget, usually new initiatives or capital works,  up for the community to rank projects. Usually expenditure on the ‘core’ services is not included, either on the assumption that they are too difficult for the community to prioritise or it is not the community’s responsibility to do so.

Melbourne City Council has taken a different approach. In 2014 they randomly selected a People’s Panel of 43 residents and business owners to deliberate and make recommendations on a financial plan for $5 billion of council expenditures. The panel met six times and was given open access to information and financial data about council. They received briefings from experts, senior bureaucrats and councillors. Part of their challenge was to close a $1.2 billion gap between promised expenditure and revenues on the current financial settings.

“The People’s Panel has now released its 10-Year Financial Plan for the Melbourne City Council and it contains a clear, sensible verdict about priority projects, services, revenue and spending.”

The headline claim that the People’s Panel had made ‘bold decisions where politicians fear to tread’ calls into question the capacity of the political system to determine the projects or services that people need and will value. This is not surprising given the multiple roles played by councillors.   Representing constituents, delivering value to rate payers, and regulating on local affairs, all call for different skills. Not every councillor has them. Nicholas Reece doesn’t see the People’s Panel as a replacement for councillors.

“Citizen juries are not a replacement for our elected representatives. The evidence suggests they work best when the jury is asked to answer a clear policy question that focuses on key trade-offs and principles. The detailed and time-intensive minutiae are still best left to the legislators”.

Involving representatives of the community in structured processes where they are properly informed about all interests and the costs/benefits of decisions has to be a good thing. Many of the debates that rage in local newspapers and on social media about council decision making are poorly informed and biased by vested interests. It makes it difficult for councillors to find any clear air for balanced discussion.

A People’s Panel should be required for every budget and major decision that commits significant amounts of community resources to projects that have long-term implications. It would really only take some resources and self-confidence to make it happen. Well done Melbourne.