The role of expert witnesses in mini-publics: exploring perspectives on the experience and the evidence in deliberative engagement, and how this compares to other citizen forums

  • Roberts, Jen (Principal Investigator)
  • Lightbody, Ruth (Academic)

Project: Knowledge Exchange

Project Details


This work will explore options for involving experts in deliberative mini-publics such as citizens’ juries. We aim to establish how contested evidence can be put forward in a way that is most useful (supportive, informative) to participants and most fair to the witnesses presenting the evidence. To this end, we will examine the role of witnesses in presenting expert information, the processes of doing so, and how different roles or formats affect the experience of the witness and the audience, in order to recommend processes or approaches that will encourage a fair environment.
In mini-publics, the participants (citizens) must, through deliberation, arrive at a collective, reasoned, decision on a given issue of political relevance (ref). The role of experts within these processes has received increased interest in recent years (ref). As Moore (2011, p. 3) points out, expert advisory groups or scientific/ technological research often guide or shape which issues are on the political agenda, and the micro and macro level discussions around these. Experts may have already played an indirect yet significant role in determining the topic and scope of a mini-public. What role then, if any, should experts play in these processes? Some deliberative democrats suggest that there is no further role for expert evidence; decision-making led by citizens should be isolated from those with technical expertise (ref). More commonly, expert evidence is considered an intrinsic part of the process; information from experts help participants to understand the complexities of the issues, including any complicated terminology. This ‘information phase’ usually precedes the ‘deliberative phase’, but there are different formats for providing the information is to participants. For environmental decision-making, technical and scientific evidence is deemed crucial for suitable outcomes (Abels 2007, Brown 2014).
The citizens’ jury is the most commonly used form of mini-public. A jury lasts between 3 - 5 days and typically involves a group of 15-25 members of the public who hear evidence from a range of witnesses to learn about an issue, before producing a collective recommendation to address that issue. While the involvement of witnesses is crucial to the citizens’ jury model, to date there has been little exploration of the role of the witness and its bounds, and also the most appropriate format for presenting evidence. A Stewarding Board typically oversees the selection of witnesses, but there are different approaches for how jurors select witnesses, and the styles in which witnesses provide evidence can vary greatly. It is important to consider how to ensure that the evidence providing process is fair, both in terms of supporting the jurors to make sense of conflicting evidence, and also supporting the witnesses to present their perspective. Together these factors will determine the extent to which the role of expert evidence in the mini public is successfully fulfilled.
To explore these issues, we will first summarise the current literature on this topic, and synthesise the formats adopted for mini-publics (on environmental topics), and where possible, the perspectives of practitioners for these projects. We will evaluate in detail the approach adopted for our recent ClimateXChange research project involving citizens’ juries on wind farm development in Scotland. For example, we will examine the research data on the jurors’ responses to the witnesses, and the perspectives shared by jurors and witnesses following the project. We will also invite the witnesses‘ to share their views on the nature of the evidence that they should provide to citizens and the role that the witnesses should take.
The findings from this research will help to shape future citizens’ juries to accommodate expert evidence into the process most effectively. This is timely and topical given the rising interest in citizen participation in decision-making about issues such as energy and the environment and health.

Layman's description

Experts hold a prominent position in guiding and shaping policy making and often work closely with governments. The nature of expert input to decision making has recently become a topic of public debate. The particular saliency of debates about the role of experts can be set against what we already know about how people form opinions on complex topics – views can be shaped by many factors, including the perspectives and arguments put forward by others. In light of this, we have looked at how experts and evidence are used in deliberative public forums, with a focus on the citizens’ jury model, to draw out lessons for practitioners and organisers of such ‘mini publics’ on how to best manage the contributions of experts.
Short titleThe role of expert witnesses in mini-publics
Effective start/end date1/11/151/10/17


  • experts
  • deliberative democracy
  • democratic innovation
  • citizens juries
  • decision making
  • policy


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