2020 Summit: Meetings in the foothills

Lyn Carson, The University of Sydney

I had an opportunity to rub shoulders with Australia’s ‘best and brightest’ on 19–20 April 2008 at the Australian 2020 Summit. At the opening reception I met a fellow delegate (from a resource-strapped welfare organisation) who told me that he did not know how to relate to this new government—he no longer understood how to be. He’d been knocking for so long on the doors of government, only to have them slammed in his face. Now he wasn’t sure what to make of a government that warmly invited him in. I think many of us at the Summit shared this feeling or knew exactly how he felt.

As the Summit unfolded we began to have some confidence that things had changed, that we would be heard, and that our ideas would be considered. Part of this confidence arose from the undeniable openness we experienced. We wandered about Parliament House. We chatted with and openly criticised or corrected politicians. Media cameras appeared everywhere. There seemed to be no closed doors and I wanted other Australians to share in this.

Since returning home I have reflected on an alternative path that could have been followed, which would have resulted in a more diverse group and probably wilder ideas and greater community confidence in the Summit’s output. It was energising to be amongst many very inspiring thinkers and to experience a sense of achievement and satisfaction. Nevertheless, I’d like to speculate now on how the Summit might have unfolded if a different selection process had been used.

Participants in the Summit had self-nominated or been nominated by others. I can speak first-hand only from my experience in the Governance stream—a group of 100 that was heavily weighted with academics (including constitutional lawyers), former and current politicians, journalists, people from think tanks and non-government organisations, students, and a few members of the public (although I identified only one that came as an interested Australian not aligned to an organisation). This, then, was primarily a gathering of specialists.

Non-specialists are able to dream their wildest dreams aloud.

Much of the discussion concerned the republic, a bill of rights and reformed federalism. To me, these are all ‘no brainers’—boxes to be ticked so we can move onto new ideas to reinvigorate governance with specific methods to bring people at the forefront and ensure it is more open and accountable. I don’t mean that the republic, rights and federalism are boxes to be ticked because we all agree, but rather that they are ideas that are not new and can be discussed more deeply elsewhere.

I began to feel isolated as I proclaimed the virtues of my key interests: inviting randomly-selected citizens to deliberate on policy issues, in order to give typical Australians a stronger voice in political decision making. The constitutional lawyers would interrupt any mention of citizens’ juries or citizens’ assemblies to insist on a pedantically precise definition for the term citizen. It was going to be a long weekend.

My wildest ideas, for example an invitation to 1000 randomly-selected citizens to consider the ideas from the 2020 Summit or, heaven forbid a randomly-selected legislature, were clearly not going to be embraced by this group. A randomly selected representative and typical subset of a population is often called a mini-public. An example is newDemocracy’s forthcoming Citizens’ Parliament (see newDemocracy n.d.). I have facilitated many such groups who don’t hesitate, when asked, to consider their wildest ideas or to project their dreams twenty years hence. Non-specialists are able to dream their wildest dreams aloud. They are neither hampered by knowing too much nor constrained by what can be enacted immediately.

In our group’s meetings at the Summit I noted the way in which specialists censor themselves, speaking only of incremental change or not daring to flirt with anything seen as unrealistic. We received several directives to think outside the box and to be bold, but these were studiously ignored. The visions articulated seemed to be for 2010, not 2020. The conversation was too often about what was achievable in the short-term. The co-chair, Maxine McKew, expressed her disappointment when we regrouped at the end of the first day, noting that only three people believed we had offered a huge idea that satisfied the Australia 2020 Summit sub-title of ‘Thinking Big’.

This tendency to think small reminds me of James Surowiecki’s claims, in The Wisdom of Crowds, that:

… if you can assemble a diverse group of people who possess varying degrees of knowledge and insight, you’re better off entrusting it with major decisions rather than leaving them in the hands of one or two people, no matter how smart those people are. If this is difficult to believe … it’s because it runs counter to our basic intuitions about intelligence and business (2004, p. 31).

In other words, it’s best to harness the combined strengths of the smart and not-so-smart, specialists and non-specialists. Surowiecki offers example after example of situations in which diversity of selection led to more information, and insightful questioning resulting in improved decision making. I believe a more fruitful path for the Summit would have been having this diversity, with a combination of experts and non-experts.

Deliberating citizens need to be informed and experts play a major role in that.

Given the composition of the summiteers, the norms of the academy were in full view: pedantically critical stances and the need to qualify and justify each statement, delaying others who were ready to move on to the next idea. Specialists, to their credit, understand complexity and they understand the importance of being realistic. However, neither of these attributes is useful when a group is brainstorming big ideas. Sometimes, specialisation can be an impediment to creative thinking.

When I’m working with randomly-selected citizens, the convenor of the event (say, a local government) often expresses concern about the lack of knowledge by typical individuals. But as Surowieski has shown, it is the collective intelligence of the group that is important, to which each individual adds his or her part. Moreover, deliberative processes involving mini-publics usually include experts who are brought into the deliberative space (either physically as speakers or through their writings). It is important for deliberating citizens to be informed and experts play a major role in that. A diverse group of deliberating citizens will so often begin from positions of individual self-interest (asking, what does this mean for me?) and move to a place from which they deeply consider public interest or the common good. To some extent this happened at the Summit but its design promoted a much stronger attachment to individual agendas and ideas than is ever evident with a mini-public. By encouraging a generation of ideas, then demanding agreement on only a few, people desperately fought for the survival of their own pet project. Experts can be surprising rigid and tenacious in these circumstances.

Perhaps to avoid charges of government extravagance or junketing, delegates to the 2020 Summit were obliged to pay their own way to Canberra. But the 1000 delegates at the Summit were an elite group of people and typically supported by their organisations. A plan for bringing a genuinely representative mini-public would falter at the first hurdle if inability to pay to attend excluded some participants. Had randomly selected citizens been invited, there would have been cost implications because some who are less well off would have required support for travel and accommodation expenses. Having said that, I spoke with one citizen summiteer who had happily paid her own way for the privilege of attending.

The two days of the Summit were very intense. Considerable work was required from folks with very definite opinions and a propensity to argue those opinions, especially in the Governance stream. I noticed that we were following the stages of group development: we had been through ‘forming’ and ‘norming’ and we had begun to experience the ‘storming’ phase: frustration with the process and each other (Tuckman 1965, cited by Tyson 1998). There was grumbling about excessive time spent in plenaries for the benefit of television cameras. Lobbying around individual agendas occurred in a way that was consistent with our presence in Parliament House but was not particularly synonymous with harvesting ideas. People were negotiating a way forward as though a bill was about to be put before the House. Process designers in the group (those amongst us who spend their lives designing events such as this one) were working behind the scenes and over dinner to influence the chairs to switch to a more effective process. After spending much of the first day in technical discussions about the Constitution, I hungered to work with a group that shared my concern for citizens who have no viable voice in our democratic system.

We worked frenetically to extract the essence of our collective dreams.

Thankfully, the next day we entered the ‘performing’ stage as we coalesced around the ideas that enthused each of us: the republic, a charter/bill of rights, open and accountable government, and civic engagement. I was able to join the sub-group on civic engagement. I noticed a high proportion of young people in this group and, during one particularly productive phase, had the distinct impression that I was happily handing over the baton. They were excited, articulate and optimistic. The future of deliberative democracy in Australia suddenly looked very promising to me. We worked frenetically to extract the essence of our collective dreams, to accurately express our combined aspirations and goals.

This small energised group was pleased to offer several wonderful ambitions and big ideas. Unfortunately, some were either rejected by the larger Governance group (for example, optional enrolment for sixteen year olds and the Canadian approach to election campaign funding), or were eventually lost in the final presentation and the written report. We were advised that all ideas would go forward for consideration. I remain unclear or unconvinced that this will occur, although the Governance group has been furiously exchanging emails since the Summit to ensure that our report is accurate.

Although the focus was on the republic and other well-established ideas at the end of the weekend, the Governance group at the 2020 Summit did come up with some ambitious ideas for civic engagement. What surfaced in the final presentation was slightly different from the final wording that the civic engagement sub-group had developed together. Even more different was the final document which stated ‘… the need to strengthen the participation of Australians in their governance: a revolution in community and government interaction through grassroots and non-traditional community engagement …’.

The Prime Minister, in his closing remarks (during the ‘adjourning’ phase), noted that the idea of collaborative governance (the phrase we had preferred and put forward and was used during the presentation), was a new one which could involve, in his words, ‘rolling dialogues in relation to policies and programs’.

The recommendations from the civic engagement group within Governance had been painstakingly birthed and were as follows:

  1. The Big Idea: Collaborative governance: revolutionise the ways government and communities interact

    Increasing citizenship engagement on four fronts
    1. Our.gov.au: an online portal which offers direct community participation. Citizens can respond to parliamentary inquiries as well as sharing their views to drive new public policy. The site would also be a one-stop-shop of free and searchable government data, research and policies.
    2. Auspan network: an Australian CSpan [a public service website which covers national US politics].
    3. Deliberative inclusive processes that feed directly into government decision-making processes. For example: Democracy Day, citizens’ juries and participatory budgets.
    4. Active citizenship training as a universal component of primary and secondary school curricula and available to the broader community (this goes beyond current civics education to engage participants in democratic processes, such as preparing actual submissions on current issues, engaging in deliberative democracy processes, engaging with politicians on issues, etcetera).

  2. Electoral processes: A low cost/no cost idea
    Universal automatic enrolment to vote and compulsory voting for all Australians over the age of 18. Optional enrolment to vote and entitlement to vote, once enrolled, for Australians between 16 to 18 years old.

  3. Strengthening the third sector
    Recognise the importance of the NGO/third sector in public policy development and governance, and protect and promote policy advocacy.
    Concrete reforms: Remove tax roadblocks for third sector to fund raise, reform of charity law, etcetera.

  4. Political donations
    Abolish private campaign finances, including third party donations, with an exemption for small individual donors, to increase trust in political parties and help create the level playing field for elections.

Days later I’m still left with the feeling that we generally worked well together, that we shared many wonderful ideas across ten wide streams and that this navigation, indeed, may really be in the hands of an unusual government. This government seems to be courageous enough to dare us to imagine a very different future from the one we thought awaited us. I can’t help wondering what the aftermath would have been like had we drawn together an equal number of specialists and non-specialists, the latter perhaps emerging from the local forums that preceded the Summit. These people would have been watched with interest by their communities and the Summit would not have been dismissed as a talkfest comprised of intellectual elites. They would have taken their experience back home for further discussion and a more active citizenship would be engendered.

Communities are ready to insert themselves into government decision making spaces.

Through the Citizens’ Parliament, the newDemocracy project, on which I am working with colleagues, hopes to stimulate an interest in political reform. With Fred Chaney and Lowitja O’Donohue as chairs and former politicians such as Geoff Gallop supporting the project, we are confident that we can model the sort of process that I hear myself imagining for the Summit. This project is funded by an Australian Research Council (ARC Linkage) grant and involves leading academics from three Australian universities: Sydney, Curtin and the Australian National University. The 2020 Summit has strengthened our resolve to create something truly robust and worthwhile (Carson 2008).

Despite the caution with which I seem to be reviewing the 2020 Summit, I was thrilled to hear from a colleague that she had attended a community meeting after the Summit during which her fellow residents discussed an event they were planning. They, including some who were worn down by government inertia and resident apathy, began to refer to it as our 2020 and kept noting with surprise and genuine appreciation the fact that the Governance group and the Prime Minister had identified ‘Collaboration Governance: Revolutionising the ways that government and communities interact’ as a worthwhile goal. This, in turn, provided an incentive for them to proceed positively with their civic engagement activities. Communities are ready to insert themselves into government decision-making spaces and we summiteers underestimated just how much of an impact the Summit had for those who were not fortunate enough to be there.


Carson, L. 2008, ‘Creating democratic surplus through citizens’ assemblies’, Journal of Public Deliberation, vol. 4, no. 1, article 5 [Online], Available: http://services.bepress.com/jpd/vol4/iss1/art5 [2008, Apr 27].

newDemocracy n.d. Latest news [Online], Available: http://www.newdemocracy.com.au/ [2008, Apr 27].

Surowiecki, J. 2004, The Wisdom of Crowds, Doubleday, New York.

Tyson, T. 1998, Working with Groups, 2nd edn, Macmillan Education, South Yarra.

Lyn Carson is an associate professor at The University of Sydney (currently seconded from Government & International Relations to the United States Studies Centre). She is undertaking a collaborative ARC-funded research project which will culminate in a Citizens’ Parliament in Canberra in February 2009.

This is a revised and extended version of a paper previously published by Lyn Carson (2008) ‘Reflections on a new kind of government’, The University of Sydney News [Online], Available: http://www.usyd.edu.au/news/84.html?newsstoryid=2244 [2008, Apr 27].