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Citizens’ juries backfire on Moon Jae-in

An experiment in deliberative democracy yields unexpected results
Aug 08,2018
The Moon Jae-in government’s practice of entrusting everyday folks with policy decisions through a mechanism known as citizens’ juries has become a headache for the administration as most of the committees are failing to reach a consensus or producing outcomes that are at odds with the administration’s initial policy stance.

The government has been using these deliberative bodies, typically composed of randomly selected people, to set the direction of high-stakes agenda items in the name of reflecting the voice of the populace. The practice, first codified as a “citizens’ jury” by the Jefferson Center in Minneapolis during the late 1980s, has been the model for the Moon administration’s experiment in deliberative democracy.

But many policy analysts have raised questions about the effectiveness and appropriateness of these panels, which deliberately exclude people who are not experts in the field they are debating, whether that’s nuclear energy or education policy.

The latest case shedding light on the failings of citizens’ juries involves one group tasked with reforming Korea’s notoriously rigid college admissions process. After months of deliberation, the citizens’ jury of 490 people failed to reach a consensus.

The group was almost evenly split between two options: expanding the importance of the national college entrance exam known as CSAT and keeping its pressure-cooking bell curve, or introducing absolute grading, which would diminish its significance as an admissions factor.

With the outcome inconclusive, the citizens’ jury on Friday recommended a compromise: increase the number of students admitted based on CSAT scores starting with the 2022 academic year while tabling the issue of expanding absolute grading to all CSAT subjects.

In the current test, only scores on the English and national history sections are evaluated absolutely, while scores on other subjects - Korean language and literature, mathematics, a second foreign language, traditional Chinese characters and two elective subjects from among the social sciences or natural science - are evaluated on a bell curve.

In absolute grading, a student is graded solely on his or her performance, irrespective of the scores of other students in the pool. With a bell curve, a student’s grade is relative to the performances of others in the pool, and the poorest performances fail. In absolute grading, it’s possible for all test-takers to pass.

Expanding absolute grading to all CSAT subjects would give more weight to high school grades since universities want a metric that can compare a prospective student with others. Absolute grading would therefore diminish the importance of the state-administered test.

A presidential commission on reforming the college admissions process followed the panel’s recommendation on Tuesday and advised increasing the number of students admitted through the CSAT starting with the 2022 academic year but did not set a target rate.

On absolute grading, the commission recommended adding only two subjects - a second foreign language and Chinese characters - to absolute grading while leaving other subjects on the bell curve.

This isn’t the first time the Moon administration has relied on randomly selected citizens to make important policy decisions. In another experiment with deliberative democracy, the government last year entrusted a jury of 471 people randomly selected by a polling firm to decide the fate of two nuclear reactors in Ulsan.

The group did not include experts from academia or the industry, but they would decide whether construction of the two reactors, which were almost 30 percent complete, should resume after the president ordered a suspension of the project.

The jury voted against the president’s initial campaign pledge. A majority of 59.5 percent said construction should resume.

Critics of the process said it was irresponsible for the government to empower such a panel to decide on matters that are difficult and tricky even for experts.

“If an issue were so easy to solve that it could be addressed and dealt with by a public panel, it wouldn’t have been a disputed topic in the first place,” said Kim Chul-keun, a spokesman for the centrist Bareunmirae Party, adding that the Moon administration was simply avoiding its responsibility of making policy decisions.

“Allowing randomly selected citizens to determine the fate of policies that are challenging even for professionals and experts is just nonsense,” said Rep. Ham Jin-gyu of the Liberty Korea Party, the largest opposition.

For the remainder of this year, a number of contentious projects await decisions from citizens’ juries. Among them include a project to build an opera house in Busan and construct a second subway line in Gwangju.

Hahn Kyu-sup, a professor of journalism at Seoul National University, said the government should use public opinion as a reference rather than absolute guideline for devising polices.

“We are now in a situation where the outcome of a public survey translates into the final directive itself,” he said. “Instead, public surveys should serve as litmus tests for public opinion that is taken into account when the government contemplates new policies.”

BY KANG JIN-KYU, YOO SUNG-WOON [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]