The Key Ideas

#21 Use mini-publics as the default way to provide advice to government, avoiding 'expert only panels'

We should look closely at how government receives advice. At the moment the usual practice is to set up an 'expert group' to consider the issue and give advice. This immediately has the problem of 'everyone coming into the room thinking the same thing'. It also has serious problems with representation ('experts' are virtually never in low pay, marginalised, or vulnerable groups) and continually raises the problem of vested interests (the financial sector has been enormously over-represented on expert groups over recent decades—and we all paid the price). But there are problems even in the case of more balanced 'stakeholder groups' where not everyone thinks the same. Primarily, these can become inherently risk averse, reaching a lowest common denominator between vested interests, and they generally tend to result in the status quo rather than change.

There is a better way to do this, and in Scotland we already use it every day of the week all over the country. It is known as a 'mini-public' (literally a group of people selected to represent a smaller cross section of the population as a whole) and most people will know them as juries in the court system. Here ordinary members of the public represent our collective interests by listening to evidence from experts, drawing conclusions, and making decisions from what they have heard. The same process can be used for almost any decision-making process. If you want to think about why we should extend the use of mini-publics to public policy decision-making, think about it the other way round. How would you react if jury trials were removed and instead guilt or innocence were decided by a group of people appointed by government who were all wealthy and who made their decision completely in secret. It wouldn't be acceptable—and it shouldn't be in public policy.

Every time government needs to seek advice it should set up a mini-public to provide that advice. These must represent society—women, minorities, and those in low pay are groups that are particularly likely to have their voice excluded from or marginalised in decision-making and so particular care should be taken to ensure that they are represented in mini-publics. There are a number of forms—citizens’ juries, planning cells, consensus conferences, deliberative polls, and citizens' assemblies. It is important to be clear that the use of mini-publics should not imply that expert opinion is not essential or that it should not be what drives the final decision, it’s just that the expertise and the decision should be separated. A mini-public should be given the question on which advice is sought and presented with a range of expert views in evidence sessions (and presented with consultation responses where available). They should then be free to cross-examine witnesses, ask for additional information, request other witnesses, and so on. They should then come to a conclusion and present it to government. Of course, as with Policy Academies, government is the democratically elected body and must always be free to reject advice, but they should by law provide written explanation available in the public domain for why they decided to reject the advice of a mini-public if they decide to do so.

There will be some occasions where it is not appropriate to use a mini-public. For example, in the event of a sudden public health emergency or in extremely detailed legal matters. However, exemptions will mean that there is a tendency once again to 'do what we always did' and get in the same group of experts. The government should therefore be required to use a mini-public whenever advice is sought and while there would be a right to an exemption, the government should be required to produce a written explanation of why an exemption was enacted. 'The people are too stupid to understand this' should never be a reason.