Citizen advisory groups involve 10-30 members of the public who sit as a committee to inform and advise decision making over an extended period of time. Advisory groups can create effective and on-going dialogue that allow issues and concerns to be explored in depth, and ideally addressed, while the participants are still involved.
Advisory groups can take many different forms depending on the exact purpose of the group. The group may meet either over a couple of days as a one-off event, or regularly over a longer period.
Otis White has identified four key principles to consider when organising an advisory group:
- The selection of participants is crucial. Those who are most affected should be considered first and there should be an attempt to benefit from a spread of expertise amongst the participants.
- Participants should be provided with all the necessary information to reach informed decisions on issues.
- Participants should understand that there is a goal to be sought and the different values, problems and benefits of each decision should be weighed accordingly when attempting to reach it.
- The participants’ decisions and/or recommendations should be respected. Whilst this ought to apply for every instance, it is of particular importance for those groups that meet over a long period of time and cover a spread of issues. If the participants feel their time is being wasted they will not attend or contribute.
- Can either be a representative sample of the local population, representatives of particular groups (for example, older people) or specific individuals, such as community leaders.
- The events themselves are usually not that expensive, but the cost of recruiting, supporting and rewarding the participants can be high.
Approximate time expense
- Allow a minimum of three months to set up and run an advisory group.
- The scale of the project undertaken and the level of expertise required to grasp the issue can affect the time required.
- Can provide an early warning of potential problems and be a useful sounding board to test plans and ideas.
- Regular meetings over extended periods of time give participants a chance to get to know each other, which can help discussions.
- Citizens can introduce a fresh perspective to discussions, encouraging innovation.
- Citizen involvement increases accountability in governance due to the more transparent process.
- Requires a long term commitment from participants; hence recruiting and retaining participants can be difficult.
- Can appear exclusive to those who are not included.
- Involves only a small number of people and therefore does not provide statistically significant data.
- Participants can become less representative over time; advisory groups may need to be renewed regularly.
External advisers to government decisions are not a new phenomenon. However, over the past decades it has become increasingly common for citizens, rather than just established experts, to fill this role.
For Otis White's principles see:
White, Otis. 1995a. How to make decisions people will accept. Planning Commissioners Journal: 17, p. 9.
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