A week ago Gordon Brown was announcing citizen juries, the latest consultation technique to allow government to listen and learn by sitting in a room with that magical category, ‘ordinary voters’. Politicians and officials would use these chats to inform policy by drawing on “the wisdom and experience of the British people”. A new book casts light on government-citizen relations in the UK, with one insight that might be telling for the value of citizen juries and other such exercises. In Media Consumption and Public Engagement, Couldry, Livingstone and Markham present a study showing that however informed citizens may be about political issues, they felt unable to act on this and make a difference at any level of politics. It may be that they were able to act, but they didn’t feel that way, often because politicians offered little signal that they actually listen to citizens. The authors argue governments must ‘take fuller account of not just citizens’ choices but also their reflexivity’ (p190, italics added). This corresponds to research I’ve been involved in, in which interviews with policymakers suggests they have a very limited view of the public. They often have simplistic assumptions about how citizens think about politics, and are surprised that citizens, when presented with a news story, will interpret it in various different ways and on a number of levels; moreover, it is in the process of interpreting news and talking with friends or strangers that their knowledge of politics is often generated.
How a government could take account of citizens’ reflexivity is a thorny challenge, however. Brown and Cameron cannot sit listening to every citizen work through their thoughts and confusions. Would citizen juries offer a step towards what Couldry, Livingstone and Markham call for, or do they raise questions about representation that only muddy the matter further, e.g. which citizens are chosen, who do they speak for, and if they are juries, what powers do their judgements have?