Decisions by the people
It was a bold experiment in democracy: asking 43 citizens to help shape the Melbourne City Council’s $5 billion, 10-year financial plan. How did it go?
WHEN Shuwen Ling received the letter from the City of Melbourne, she thought it was spam. Or maybe it was a fine? “It was on good quality paper,” she explains. “But when I read it carefully, I thought: ‘This is pretty cool’.”
Ling is nearly 20 years old and it’s three years since she left her hometown, a few hours from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She studies finance and civil engineering at the University of Melbourne and lives in an apartment near the Vic Market.
She was one of 6,500 people who received the letter, 600 who responded, and finally, 43 who were randomly selected to reflect the city’s demographics. Their task? To make recommendations on the council’s budget for its first ever 10-year financial plan – spending that is worth, in sum, up to $5 billion.
It’s an experiment in “participatory budgeting”, a subset of the political theory known as “deliberative democracy”.
Citizens’ juries, such as this one, are being used increasingly often around the world. They’re another kind of representative democracy, one that steers policy making away from the entrenched positions of political parties, lobbyists and squeaky wheels, and towards the considered voices of ordinary, well-informed citizens.
In Melbourne, the “People’s Panel” was coordinated by the newDemocracy Foundation, a not-for-profit research organisation that says it’s aiming to move our democracy out of “the continuous campaign cycle”.
The panellists were posed this question: “How can we remain one of the most liveable cities in the world while addressing our future financial challenges?”
I spoke with five of them, including Ling, from the panel’s inception to its aftermath. The process began in August, and in the following weeks, they spent six Saturdays hearing evidence from councillors, staff and experts of their own choosing. They read reports, did sums, asked questions, and wrangled over the answers. It was a bigger commitment than they'd expected, but most poured themselves into the challenge. Would the council act on their recommendations?
Councillor Stephen Mayne is the chair of the city’s finance and governance committee. He says there’s a “genuine malaise” in our democracy, one we suffer in our municipalities just as much as in the state and federal arenas. “People are jaundiced about politics. There is quite a bit of disengagement and a lot of negativity. This is a model that potentially rebuilds trust and engagement.
“As long as I’m on council I’ll be pushing to implement a credible amount of the recommendations,” Mayne said, before the panel had finished its deliberations. “I think that if you give 50 people a lot of information, just like with juries, they’ll usually get it pretty right.”
When Maria Petricevic entered the first session, she felt a little intimated. Dr Petricevic is a Collins Street dentist – her practice overlooks the town hall. “I was scanning the room and thinking: ‘Are other people better informed than I am?’”
She is enthusiastic about Melbourne – throughout university, for seven years commuting on the V/Line train from Geelong, she dreamed of one-day moving north. “I just love this city,” she says.
By the second session, she felt more confident about her ability to contribute, but slightly overwhelmed by all the information. “It’s been an eye-opening experience,” Petricevic said in the lunch break. “I just have so much more insight into how much goes into operating a city”.
It was a bright Saturday in September and the panellists were gathered in a grand room on the lower level of the Melbourne Town Hall. Through the windows, you could see the legs of pedestrians and the bodies of trams passing by on Swanston Street.
The City of Melbourne’s chief finance officer, Phu Nguyen, gave the group a rundown on the current budget, and its longer-term projections. “We’ve reached a level of what I call ‘Peak Parking Revenue’,” he said. “People are complying more than they used to.”
He laid out the broad challenges for the city over the coming decade, all with implications for the bottom line: rapid population growth, climate change, technological transformation and economic uncertainty.
The renewal of the Queen Victoria Market site could cost up to $250 million, and serious upgrades to infrastructure and facilities will be required. On current estimates, he said, the council will fall short of cash.
The panellists split into small groups for a “speed dating” session with councillors and senior staff. With the weight of town hall above them, and established voices in their ears, it was hard to imagine the panel’s advice straying too far from the status quo.
But one of the panellists, Hani Akaoui, an architect with a thin moustache, a considered manner and an office at the top end of Bourke Street, noted that his fellow citizens weren’t shy about asking critical questions. “We want to be informed,” he said.
Cr Mayne used the speed dating to pitch his agenda, including rate rises, more efficient staffing practices, and selling Citywide, the council’s wholly-owned waste service company. “I can see the potential political power of the recommendations, so I was very keen to push them to focus on the big material issues,” he said later. Some were swayed, others irked; all noted his forceful approach. (The panel recommended against selling Citywide.)
For the third session, the panellists were able to request any experts they wanted – among those chosen were demographer Bernard Salt and climate scientist Graeme Pearman.
In the break, Bruce Shaw, a barrister who lives in Southbank, expressed his scepticism about the ubiquitous cheerleading for the city: “If I hear one more person say Melbourne is the world’s most liveable city, I’m going to scream.” (Later, he did – quietly.)
While they aren’t hemmed in by party politics, the panellists do bring their own concerns. Shaw thinks our public transport is poor, especially the sluggish trams, and must be made more reliable. Ling was interested in high-rise developments – her dad is a property developer in Malaysia. In Melbourne, she thinks, there are too many new towers, too tall and too small inside.
Renee Hill recently moved to Kensington with her partner. She works in marketing in the finance industry, and her primary worry is about how the city is promoting sustainability and preparing for climate change. “If we don’t start planning now, we won’t be in a position to deal with it,” she says. “That’s really top of mind for me.”
This represented one of the main struggles for the panel. The council’s powers are constrained. Decision-making on critical issues such as public transport, planning for big buildings and systemic responses to climate change all rest elsewhere.
“We always have to remember that the purpose of the exercise is to improve the budget of the city,” Akaoui says. “It’s not theoretical, and it’s not master planning; it’s literally financial.”
An annual budget of $400 million takes some reckoning. Can the hoi polloi analyse it? And can they do it on Saturdays?
Professor John Dryzek, from University of Canberra, is one of the world’s experts on deliberative democracy. He says there’s been an “explosion” of citizens’ forums in the last decade, and experience has proven lay people worthy of the task.
“All you need to do is give people time,” Dryzek says. “Give them access to information, enable them to ask questions of the experts and people really can get their head around incredibly complex issues.”
The Danish Board of Technology has been running these juries for 20 years, seeking citizen’s views on controversial issues such as genetically modified food and electronic surveillance. Recently, South Australian premier Jay Weatherill has convened deliberative panels on questions of how to reduce alcohol-related violence and how motorists and cyclists can share roads.
Participatory budgeting, too, has a rich recent tradition. It began in 1989 in Porto Alegre, in Brazil, where thousands of citizens participate in directing an average of about US$70 million from the city’s budget.
Earlier this year, the Darebin City Council in Melbourne’s north convened a citizen’s jury to direct $2 million in spending on community infrastructure. The residents returned with eight recommendations, including a new neighbourhood house, exercise equipment and sports courts.
Dryzek says citizen’s juries are a way of refreshing our political realm and injecting qualities otherwise in short supply, such as listening and reflection. “Australian parliament in particular is unremittingly adversarial,” he says. “People are interested in scoring points rather than really seriously reflecting upon the issues.”
Each jury requires careful planning and hard decisions about demographics. The task of making the panel demographically representative is not straightforward. Age and gender splits are obligatory, but what about wealth, ethnicity or sexuality?
In Melbourne, there are over 116,000 residents and nearly 18,000 businesses, but two-thirds of rates revenue comes from the latter. The facilitators, newDemocracy Foundation, recommended that the People’s Panel should comprise an even split of residents and non-residents (both business owners and workers). As a consequence, 60 per cent of the panellists were male – a proportion said to reflect the over-representation of men in CBD businesses.
Professor Dryzek describes the high proportion of non-resident panellists as “very unusual”. Iain Walker, the foundation’s CEO, says representation among the 40-odd panellists is descriptive rather than statistically exact. “The test for the community is: ‘Do I see people like me involved?’”
On the fifth Saturday, the citizens deliberated. But they didn’t finish, so they had to return for an unscheduled sixth day. To pass a recommendation, the panel required 80 per cent agreement. Each person was given an electronic voting paddle and five options from “Love it” to “Loathe it”. The results flashed on the projector screen immediately.
This process – the jury’s deliberation – is the system’s promise, its claim to legitimacy. For outsiders, however, its merits were impossible to judge. The panellists had resolved that in order for everyone to feel comfortable venturing their opinions, they would close some sessions to observers. And so, whenever they were debating or voting, they excluded their fellow citizens.
Shaw maintains that when the room was closed, no one dominated. “The word ‘democracy’ describes it well,” he says. “Whether or not the council will regret it is another thing.”
Ling observed that some people who came with strong opinions softened them, or compromised significantly. The facilitators instructed voters to apply the following test before spiking a proposal: “Can you live with it?”
For the most part, agreement came easily. “There’s been a lot more consensus than I expected,” Hill reflected.
On the final day, as the clock ticked, the pressure rose. “The people who were pushing wacky ideas saw that the game was up,” Shaw says. “We finished up with a good report, with a realistic number of ideas presented fairly.”
Their 11 recommendations, released in mid-November, include proposing rate rises each year of up to 2.5 per cent above inflation, more spending on mitigating and adapting to climate change, extra bike paths, selling “non-core” properties, reducing new capital works and pressing the state government for a higher tax on developers.
There’s a pitfall common to many of the citizen’s juries, however: their recommendations are often ignored. In this case, the council promised the People’s Panel a formal response at its meeting on November 25. At the council meeting, Mayne was effusive as he presented the official reply: “I think they’re excellent recommendations,” he said.
The councillors postponed their response, however, and instead, referred the proposals to staff for analysis and modelling. When the council’s draft 10-year financial plan is released in April, the panel’s report will be included in its entirety, along with an explanation about whether or not each recommendation has been adopted.
Hani Akaoui was in the gallery – he’d returned early, especially, from a business trip to Sydney. He was pleased with the outcome. On the question of rates, he believes increases are reasonable. “The overall mood of the panel was that the council is doing a good job. We’re happy with the city and we want to keep it at the forefront.”
Among the panellists, the process engendered loyalty and pride – and, also, not a little chagrin that they weren’t given more time. But they had an opportunity to participate, deeply and meaningfully, in civic debate.
“You really should know that people have been so passionate and committed to participating,” Maria Petricevic says, citing evidence: one man sent his views by text message from hospital, where his wife was in labour; another woman was undergoing chemotherapy, but continued to attend.
Petricevic feels like she has made a contribution to the city she loves. She’s also gained trust in the council for its commitment to community engagement. “Other levels of government could take a leaf out of that book,” she says.
Ling will – “probably, hopefully” – still be here in a decade, but if not, perhaps her younger brother will instead. She, too, feels she’s made a contribution to the community, and it has kindled her interest in the affairs of her adopted city.
Now this panel is over, Akaoui believes others should begin. “I think this shouldn’t be done once in a blue moon,” he says. “It should be done every year.”