The Australia 2020 Summit will be held in April 2008. But try to imagine for a moment that it’s the morning after.

Surely the one thousand visionary experts chosen to participate were impressive. They were selected by a committee following self-nomination and institutional suggestions and may have represented Australia’s best minds. They had an enriching and expansive exchange of ideas about how Australia’s policy course should be set for the long term. The Ministers and Steering Committee members who chaired sessions in each of the ten pre-specified policy areas were pleased by the respectful and energetic endeavour of the participants. It was a networking paradise.

But then, what? Can we judge the event a success? You would think that the Government’s stated objectives for the Summit would be a good place to start. Here we scrutinise just two: harnessing the best ideas across the nation and producing options for consideration by Government.

Objective: To harness the best ideas across the nation.

This might be difficult to measure and doing so will be a very long-term exercise. For those who missed out on their opportunity to present their ideas at all, it is probably a sore point. Candidates had to write 100 words to justify their inclusion and many with wonderful ideas would not have considered themselves worthy of consideration. From amongst those bold enough to apply, can we be certain that the Steering Committee did not filter out potentially radical ideas in their participant selection process? No matter how open-minded the selectors, it is certain that the Summit was a select group rather than a genuine opportunity to generate the best ideas Australians could offer.

Objective: To produce options for consideration by the Government.

This is hardly a firm commitment to do anything in particular with the ideas. As well, there was a promise that a public response would be produced by the end of 2008. The decision-making process is hardly transparent; it is not clear who will decide which ideas are capable of being shaped into concrete policy responses. This objective, unfortunately, will most likely lead to contributors at the Summit passively awaiting the Government’s response. Moreover they will be unaware of how the output of the Summit will be processed. Of course they are the ‘lucky’ ones. Those who never made it, especially those who will potentially be affected by policy responses emanating from the Summit, will feel even more obsolete.

This article was previously published by the Centre for Policy Development, a public-interest think tank.

The authors rather wish that the Summit’s objectives had instead been modelled on some principles on best practice in community engagement that are expressed in The Brisbane Declaration 2005, endorsed by over 2000 attendees from 44 countries of the International Conference for Engaging Communities, a conference hosted by the Queensland Government and the United Nations. Article 13 calls for engagement processes to carry prescribed qualities of integrity, inclusion, deliberation and influence. In particular:

a) the real objectives and process methods should be transparent to all;

b) the conversation should include expressions of the values and perspectives of the broad population potentially affected by the outcomes;

c) dialogue and decision-making ought to be facilitated, encouraging reflective exploration of alternative options and common understandings;

d) participants should help determine aspects of the process itself and the implementation of the outcomes.

These objectives also reflect the core values of the International Association for Public Participation, which brings together thousands of individuals from public and private sectors around the world; practitioners with a career commitment to citizen engagement.

The Summit process has certainly come up short on these objectives. The critical difference is that Kevin Rudd, co-chairman Glyn Davis (vice-chancellor of The University of Melbourne) and their advisors might inadvertently be limiting discussions about our future to an elite and mostly affluent group of citizens. But how well do those people really understand the values and needs of corners of the population they may scarcely know? Are their ideas appropriate? And how will we know?

Options are ultimately generated for the benefit of the people, not just the Government. However, with any relatively small group of people who believe they have come up with something worthwhile, it is quite difficult for that accomplishment to be shared and endorsed by the broader public.

Here is a different scenario for what might happen the day after April 20.

The Summit itself is finished. Instead of locking the ideas up behind the closed doors of bureaucracy, they are now opened up to real public scrutiny. This starts with a random selection of one hundred citizens for each policy area – a microcosm of the actual Australian population. They are drawn just like a jury, but from across the country.

The idea of gathering together a microcosm via a lottery is advertised widely and selection take-up is encouraged as a democratic right and privilege. Random selection via the electoral roll is the key to getting beyond the ‘the usual suspects’ who found their way to the Summit.

The randomly-selected citizens are presented with ideas from the Summit and able to obtain clarification from the authors. Rather than just private submissions lodged through the Summit website, all Australians are encouraged to participate in e-panels (electronic issues-based forums) that simultaneously discuss the ideas. The randomly-selected citizens have access to all these views as well, including new ideas or concerns that emerge. They are given the opportunity and time to discuss the options in small groups and, with the aid of neutral facilitation, to unpack the benefits and impacts on their community on their own terms. Good facilitation encourages reflection and mutual regard without diminishing individual views or steering the conversation to particular ends. To reduce cost, some of their interactions are conducted online. Then they could individually endorse the ideas that had the most merit. The popular ideas would rise to the top, and their activity could be recorded for television and media commentary.

What then is to become of all the ideas that were, according to the Office of the Prime Minister, harvested? Kevin Rudd should make a more generous and open statement about what the Government will do with the ideas. Perhaps a regular Report Card should be issued which outlines the progress made by Ministerial departments in acting on them, with invited public comment.

Some critics might say that it is impossible for citizens to come to a consensus. But that is not the goal. It is sufficient to endorse a diverse set of solutions which are accepted as good for most people and harmful to none. This process acknowledges James Surowiecki’s claim that wisdom can indeed emerge from the crowd.

Critics have labelled Ministers who support such citizen engagement processes as weak-kneed and indecisive given their apparent electoral mandate. The question is what kind of leadership do we need? It takes courage to open up a process that attempts to draw on the collective intelligence of many, to introduce a different way of doing ‘democracy’.

The new Government certainly deserves accolades for responding to the growing trend toward shared decision-making. By sharing the task of generating and prioritising ideas with a wider constituency, we can focus on long-term challenges instead of the short-term electioneering which dominates the thinking of political parties and distracts us from solving pressing problems.

Here is a chance for Kevin Rudd’s Government to really follow through with the Australia 2020 Summit; transforming it from old-school consultation to exemplary public engagement that truly respects the people.

Peter Fray

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