Luckily, Minneapolis native Ned Crosby realized early on that he was “a mediocre manager at best.” So the gentle political scholar and philanthropist found a different path. For 45 years, Crosby has tapped into the best in human nature through Citizens Juries, in which a randomly selected microcosm of the population gathers to listen to and learn from experts on pressing societal issues before respectfully brainstorming solutions. Crosby, 82, has conducted or commissioned more than 50 juries in the U.S. and watched his model expand by the hundreds to England and Australia. An heir to the Washburn Crosby Co., he is founder of the Jefferson Center, for which he and wife, Pat Benn, are major benefactors.
Q: Your goal is to “rejuvenate American democracy.” Did you consider something slightly less ambitious?
A: Yes, my interest in a healthy democracy began decades ago with important, but more short-term, methods. The Jefferson Center worked in the 1980s and 1990s to develop the Citizens Jury process as a practical tool to create high quality citizen input on policies and to evaluate candidates on their stands on issues. But the more polarized American politics became, the more I turned to thinking about long-range methods for rejuvenating American democracy.
Q: How do you find your jurors?
A: Through mailings, digital recruitment, community bulletin boards and other means. Everyone is compensated and offered child care if they need it. Juries run for a few days to a week.
Q: You distinguished between “reasoned” discussion and “caring” discussion. Please say more.
A: Our juries are designed to promote reasoned discussion based on solid, fact-based information. We give expert witnesses from different points of view a chance to present their cases to our juries, but in a form that cuts down on rhetoric and focuses on the key aspects of the policy under consideration. The discussions are guided by experienced facilitators who help participants talk with each other in a reasoned way. The caring side of the process just comes out naturally as participants meet people from very different walks of life and discover how much they have in common.
Q: How likely are people to change their minds during this process?
A: It’s highly possible when participants are given time and factual information but also when they learn to care for each other. In a 2012 interview, American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt said, “…if you bring people together who disagree, and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other … Wisdom comes out of a group of people who have some faith or trust in each other. That’s what our political institutions used to do, but they don’t anymore.” In a setting dominated by tweets and often misleading social media claims, people will become further disengaged and detached from politics. When these same people are given the opportunity to think carefully about an issue, doing it in a setting where a meaningful discussion can be held, they will engage in an informed and considered way.
Q: Are juries always commissioned by a group with skin in the game? Or is the process more organic?
A: In the 1980s, we conducted several projects sponsored by people who welcomed the decisions of the jury. In the early 1990s we conducted some major national projects with the hope of selling the results. But that didn’t work out because the growing dysfunction of democracy had already gone too far. Our Citizens Juries were regarded like the person who steps into a barroom fight to break it up. Both sides push the person away, because they are so focused on the fight. We need new energy and additional funding for this process to make their voices strong enough to stop the fighting.
Q: Have you seen legislative changes credited to your juries?
A: In 1984, when legislators still were interested in informed citizen input, our project on agricultural impacts on water quality helped get an additional $10 million invested in conservation practices. In Great Britain, when the National Health Service decided in 2018 to close two hospitals in the Forest of Dean district and build a single new modern facility to serve the district, they called upon the Jefferson Center to conduct a Citizens Jury to recommend where this hospital should be located. The NHS adopted the advice of the Citizens Jury.
Q: Yours is a slow approach. How can you sell that in a 24/7 world?
A: Although our political discussions and policies are tweeted 24/7, some of America’s major problems fester at a much slower pace. America faces a huge problem of how to prepare our people for the disruptions in the job market that artificial intelligence and technology are creating. We must find common ground to prepare effectively for the major changes already occurring.
Q: What can we all do to honor the Citizens Jury principles?
A: First, we need the support of major donors to contribute enough funds to create a big win for democracy — to demonstrate that the Citizens Jury process can indeed make democracy work better. Then people can listen to what Citizens Juries have to say, act on their recommendations and find common ground. Minnesota has been very good to my family and me. I hope this important work continues long after I’m gone.
To learn more, go to jefferson-center.org.