Citizens Assemblies Or Management Consultants? | francescoch

In Australia, political correspondents are asking, “Why is the government spending billions for others to do its job?”. In the UK, The Guardian has reported “Ministers quietly scrap limits on Whitehall spending on consultants”. In Canada, “There are very real questions to be asked about the amount of money the federal government has been spending on the advice of private-sector consultants. But it’s not clear that any federal party is actually interested in asking them”.

Undoubtedly, governments are inviting in management consultants because the issues we are facing nationally and globally are getting more complex. But the problem lies in the fact that overly relying on unelected representatives, who don’t take into account the needs of the many, is creating the clash between representative and direct democracy. This isn’t helped when conflicts of interests enabled “PwC partner to leak government tax plans to clients”

In a recent Senate estimates hearing Senator Deborah O’Neill asked Tax Practitioners Board chairman Ian Klug, “Mr Peter-John Collins of PwC took that [government tax plan] information back to his company and shared it with colleagues, who then monetised that for profit. Is that it, in a nutshell?”. “In a nutshell, that’s correct,” he replied.

But this isn’t only about tax and financial services, this is about the broad use of global management consultant by government in creating and evolving policy. For example, Lisa Cox’s Guardian article, Labor plan for nature repair market rehashes old proposal and risks failure, experts say, states Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek “noted a report by the consulting firm PwC had estimated a nature restoration market could inject $137bn into conservation measures by 2050…Businesses tell me all the time that they want to invest in nature.”

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The conclusion was reached by the consultants to support the government’s strategy of creating a market in nature, not to find the best possible solution to reversing biodiversity loss.

From the climate crisis to biodiversity loss to dealing with social and economic inequality there is an acceptance that our political representatives don’t have all the answers to these complex issues. What is not acceptable is that when a government isn’t up to the job of finding long-term solutions to long-term problems it turns to global management consultants. At these times governments must go wide to the ensure its decisions represent the needs of the many and not narrow business interests, which all too often results in action to fulfil the desires of the few.

If governments what to rebuild trust in political institutions, then at the very least it is time to ditch the management consultants and develop new policies by commissioning citizen assemblies. Ireland’s use of a Citizens’ Assembly as a part of the country’s abortion referendum shows how they can successfully deal with intractable issues, where it is difficult for politicians to do so. This is a pragmatic example of how democracies can renew themselves.

After decades of missing every target to stem the climate crises, biodiversity loss and overcoming social and economic inequality, should citizens assemblies be given the chance to drive the necessary change? As the saying goes, if the current strategy isn’t working, it is time to change the strategy.

Citizens assemblies address problems in the same way that juries deliberate.

Key benefits are the levels of transparency they bring to the political decision-making system and the fact that they can take adversarial politics out of deliberation. While the citizens assembly may only consist of a few hundred, randomly selected, people they enable more open and public deliberation. They are considered more inclusive, including having more female and minority representation.   

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They are also considered to be less susceptible to the influence by ‘special interests’, being short-lived and diverse by design it is much harder for them to be  captured by corporate interests. They overcome elitists driving the agenda and the lack of trust associated with politicians who are dependent on the wealthy for campaign funding. 

Undoubtedly the first level pushback on citizens assemblies would be they are too costly in both dollars and time. There is no justification for either. As the caps on what can be spend on management consultants are being scrapped in some countries, in others there are calls for the auditor general to investigate government spending on consultants. In Victoria, Australia for example, a state with a population of just 6.7 million people, the Andrews government has spent AUS$1 billion over eight years on just a handful of such private sector companies. The Australian Financial Review reported the government paid the five biggest consulting firms, PwC, EY, Accenture, Deloitte and KPMG, $2 billion for the FY21/22.

As for time investment involved, if a citizen’s assembly can break the 40 years of inertia in in tackling climate crisis and biodiversity loss, then I think they could be termed highly productive! This means that they can be given the time to ensure they are briefed in a balanced, diverse and accurate way, hearing from expert witnesses, stakeholders, advocates repressing all aspects of the problem and debate, including correcting misinformation.

Certainly, this will be threatening to incumbent power structures. Some say that citizens assemblies undermine the trust in political parties but given the hand wringing happening about the fragility of democracies, it appears that the trust ship has not only sailed but also sunk

Is it time to test if a citizen’s assembly of a few hundred people, from all walks of life, of all ages and bringing a wisdom of a range of life experiences can reinvigorate democracy and become the normal practice in developing government policy?

Maybe the best answer to that is to ask:

  1. What percentage of your country’s citizens believe that wealth MUST be shared more equally? Remember for Australia 93% of the benefits of economic growth between 2009 and 2019 went to the top 10%, while the bottom 90% received just 7%.
  2. What percentage of your country’s citizens believe that government subsidies to fossil fuel companies MUST be stopped to help deal with the climate crisis? In Australian for example, fossil fuel subsidies surged to $11.6 billion in 2021-22 (the figure is $620 billion globally), an increase of $1.3 billion in the last year.
  3. What percentage of your country’s citizens believe that US$1.8tn a year government subsidies to biodiversity damaging industries MUST be stopped to tackle biodiversity loss? The global agricultural sector revived US$520 billion in subsides, forestry US$155 billion and US$35.4 billion in annual fishing subsidies, 80% of which goes to a handful of industrial fleets.
  4. What percentage of your country’s citizens believe that protected areas for nature MUST mean exactly that ‘protected’ and not allow unchecked overextraction of natural resources? In Australia, for example, only about 4% of the continent’s landmass is designated National Park with full protections, while 44.87% of Australia’s land mass is used for grazing native vegetation. And, some pastoralists are known to overstock by 440%, without fear of repercussions.

It is clear that the use of management consultants is not bringing the necessary balance to tackle the socials and environmental challenges we collectively face. And the billion-dollar fees they collect from their government clients means that they are unlikely to tell these clients anything other than what they want to hear.

Could citizens assemblies be the catalyst to rebuild trust in governments, stop democratic backsliding and executive aggrandisement and break the decades of political inertia in dealing the existential crisis we collectively face? They certainly seem worthy of consideration as a counterweight to the continued corporate capture of our governments and democracy.  

Lynn Johnson

Lynn Johnson is a physicist by education and has worked as an executive coach and a strategy consultant for over 20 years.  In her work she pushes for systemic change, not piecemeal solutions, this includes campaigning for modernising the legal trade in endangered species, to help tackle the illegal wildlife trade.