There is a big gap at the heart of civil society in South Australia.
The same thing has come up time and again in different guises over the last few years. The very first Engage2Act event highlighted LOKAAL, a civic intermediary unlike anything we have seen locally. I also learned about the empty space between politics, community and public administration running the City Grill event recently (which I called there the Great Wall of Government). Last night’s Engage 2 Act event exploring citizens’ juries brought this gap up again.
South Australia has no established independent organisations fighting for the strength of civil society, that can act as an intermediary and support active citizen participation.
Current organised civic activity is predominantly led by government. I don’t want to undersell the contribution of independent citizen groups (like residents’ associations and activist networks) and non-profits (like community centres), but this activity seems small scale and scattered.
What I do see happening is that governments across the state (at both tiers) are talking about active citizenship, citizen contribution, cocreation, partnership and collaboration… but there is a gap between these governments and citizens. Each innovative project bridges this gap… but it is often a very narrow bridge, with little support.
There is also little leadership from outside government, to provide an external perspective on citizen engagement and advocate for participation that is really citizen-led, and meets citizen needs; too often, it is government-centric, focusing on government problems like budget shortfalls, or public buy-in for decisions.
New Democracy Foundation demonstrates what intermediation and support might look like. It is the independent Australian non-profit leading (and supporting) uptake of citizens’ juries across the country. It is researching, developing and spreading the process – as champion and research institution – and partnering with local agencies to provide not only advice, but independent oversight (especially of sensitive activity like juror selection).
New Democracy does not provide everything that is needed to support a jury process; most projects engage (local) facilitators, to coordinate much of the operations of the jury, and be the independent facilitator and support to the jury.
Last night’s Engage2Act event highlighted how critical this role is, to ensure the independence of the jury from political interference. By the sounds of it, the facilitator present (Emily Jenke) did an exceptional job ‘standing in the middle’ of diverse competing interests, and stewarding a very successful process for the State’s most recent jury. This success relied entirely upon the personal integrity and capability of Emily as a facilitator and passionate community advocate.
SA is luck to have a handful of other capable and passionate engagement practitioners. But surely this reliance upon the individual is not ideal? Is this really the best way to facilitate the coming together of a goliath of government (who are also the client and project sponsor), and a small panel of citizens? How can we really provide assurance and the critical public authority in the face of questions over politics and government interference? What checks are there against a government (the client) thwarting the process, or ignoring and undermining it?
What would really bring integrity to the process would be an independent, locally grounded intermediary to act as project partner. An institution which operates transparently and with integrity and the needs of citizens at its core.
This is only one case, but it is one speck a gaping hole in South Australia: independent voice and support for a strong civil society.