Graphics by Renee Shuey

Restoring Democracy: Policy Juries

In an era of “alternative facts,” policy juries can take conversations out of a hyper-partisan frame

Letting Go
Published in
5 min readJul 1, 2021


America today has a problem: its citizens fundamentally don’t trust each other.

The level of partisanship in American politics has reached historic levels. This division is often personal. One recent study found that roughly half of Republicans say Democrats are “more immoral” than other Americans, while a similar number of Democrats say the same about Republicans. Another survey found that a third of Republicans and nearly half of Democrats would be “very unhappy” if their child married someone from the opposing party.

Social scientists have termed this “negative partisanship”: disdain for the opposing political party now outweighs affection for one’s own party.

To state the obvious, it’s bad for democracy when people across the political spectrum harbor deep resentment toward those who do not share their views. It makes the daily grind of policy making nearly impossible, turning issues large and small into a life-or-death political cage match. More fundamentally, it fuels the notion that America has become ungovernable. Indeed, academics have found that “pernicious polarization”–when a society is split into mutually distrustful “Us vs. Them” camps–is a prelude to democratic collapse.

But as Ezra Klein and others have argued, these topline numbers on polarization can be misleading. When it comes to individual issues, Americans aren’t nearly as polarized as they seem. The COVID-19 relief bill that passed in early 2021 barely squeaked through a divided Senate, but its provisions–relief for state and local governments, stimulus checks, and funds for expanded testing–were supported by more than seventy percent of Americans, regardless of party affiliation. There’s similar majority support around other hot-button policy questions, from expanding gun control to increasing border security.

Still, it’s hard to understand this beyond an intellectual level, because for the most part, we never talk to each other. We live in self-imposed political bubbles, based on where we live, how we get our news and what we see on social media. In one recent study, the most isolated Democrats say they expect that ninety-three of their encounters will be with other Democrats; Republicans provided a similar response.

Advocates of participatory democracy see one potential solution to this problem of broken trust and divided allegiance: policy juries.

Jury duty for policy questions

Policy juries are independent commissions that convene a representative sample of citizens to weigh in on a public policy issue. Like trial juries, they emphasize deliberation and cooperation. Members of the jury hear from experts and spend hours or sometimes months discussing and debating with people who were recently strangers.

Policy juries are a relatively new invention, but they already have a remarkable record of lowering the temperature in intense political environments. For a recent example, we can look to the Republic of Ireland, where citizens came together to find a solution to one of the most polarizing issues in the world.

Abortion is a politically sensitive topic in Ireland, to say the least. More than seventy-five percent of the country population identifies as Catholic, and many of the country’s laws reflect the church’s influence, including a nineteenth-century ban on abortion in the country’s Constitution.

In 2016, the Irish government partnered with Atlantic Philanthropies to run a “Citizens’ Assembly” on the topic of abortion, as part of their “We the Citizens” project. They selected a random sample of ninety-nine Irish citizens (Their selection method? Hiring a market research firm to knock on doors and ask people if they wanted to participate.) The gathered citizens were posed with the question of whether or not to effectively legalize abortion by amending the constitution.

The process was intensely deliberative. Over the course of one year, the ninety-nine Irish citizens attended weekend-long sessions, where they listened to presentations from legal and ethics experts, activists and people with lived experience around abortion. Each presentation was followed by small-group discussions led by trained facilitators. The idea was to get the participants not just to parse what they heard but also to connect with one another. After weeks of deliberation, the Citizens’ Assembly recommended repealing the abortion ban. The outcome triggered a national referendum vote in 2018, and after historic turnout, the Irish electorate surprised the world by voting in favor of the amendment’s repeal, legalizing abortion in one of the most Catholic countries in the world.

This process succeeded where elite decision-makers had failed. But the larger point is that it got people talking to each other.

Policy juries have recently started to take hold in the United States. The following organizations aim to advance this kind of public deliberation, restoring citizens’ (loosely defined) trust in each other, and in our democracy:

  • Healthy Democracy is a nonpartisan organization based in Oregon that designs and coordinates policy juries and other deliberative democracy programs. This organization has pioneered the Citizens’ Initiative Review process in Oregon, Massachusetts and California, which brings together randomly selected and demographically representative members of a particular region to debate and produce a report on ballot measures. Healthy Democracy also designed a replicable model for citizens’ juries on the municipal level that go one step further: These policy juries provide city councils with detailed policy recommendations on the topic at hand.
  • Policy Jury Group works to advance the use of policy juries in a non-partisan and impactful way, primarily focused on the state and local levels. They collaborate with political reformers, policy entrepreneurs, academics, journalists, and public officials to “identify the lessons learned and opportunities for reform based upon cutting-edge work in the field, put forward key insights and strategies to help reformers nationwide, and provide model programs and best practices for implementing Policy Juries as a function of government.”
  • Center for New Democratic Processes promotes a Dialogue-to-Action model in their Citizen’s Juries, which can be seen in action here. They hope to “restore legitimacy, hope, and trust to collective decision-making and the institutions we interact with every day,” to produce truly representative and sustainable solutions around the world.

Jury duty is one of the last remaining ways that people tangibly and constructively interact with government, beyond voting. Policy juries double down on what already works. They are designed to make policy debates constructive rather than divisive; to keep the temperature lower than in electoral bodies like the US Senate; and to blunt the natural incentives for partisanship.

In an era of “alternative facts,” tasking citizens with identifying what matters most takes the conversation out of a hyper-partisan frame and brings it into a community-centered one.

Letting Go is written by Ben Wrobel and Meg Massey. You can read more excerpts, learn more about participatory funding, and order a copy of the book at Click below to learn more.