Blair wants to introduce people's panels into policy-making. The timing of the announcement - on a day when few noticed - suggests the government itself is unsure of the reception the idea will get. But I think there's something to be said for it.
One advantage of such panels, in principle, is their openness. People's panels will be less susceptible to lobbying by special interest groups, and will not be swayed by partisan political advantage. Also - in theory - such panels will be able to consider proper evidence carefully, rather than be pressured by the mass media.
And, of course, people's panel's will be more egalitarian than the closed hiearchies that take decisions today. I'd rather trust the people than authority.
All this said, there are some doubts:
1. The panels' decisions have no constitutional standing, so they are non-binding. Governments can therefore cherry-pick the panels' proposals.
2. They could ignore the interests of minorities. As Philip Hensher points out, in the context of healthcare priorities, this could lead to under-spending on HIV or bowel cancer.
3. There are no incentives for panellists to get decisions right. Of course, we shouldn't under-rate the importance of pure public spiritedness; in my (naturally limited) experience, this works well in criminal juries. But there is a potential problem of accountability.
4. There's a danger of agenda manipulation. Who decides what evidence is put before the panel? Who decides what issues are decided by panels?
5. People's panels are not genuine empowerment. Individuals have no right to sit on them. Along with point 4, this means there's a danger that they'll only be used when it's in the government's interests to do so.
6. Are the panels a way of taking careful decisions on the basis of evidence, or just a way of bringing even more mob prejudices into policy-making?
On balance, I support the idea of people's panels not as an institution in themselves, but as the first - shaky and small - step towards a fuller democracy. They invite us to ask the right questions: are there alternatives to closed hierarchical decision-making? How can we use the wisdom of crowds whilst sloughing off the prejudices of the mob? Can we free policy-making from special interest groups? Is direct democracy feasible, and if not, why not? A good starting place to think about these questions would be Buchanan and Tullock's Calculus of Consent, available in full online.