Deliberation Now: How Engaging Citizens Can Help Fight Democratic Crises

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Disclaimer: This article solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors

Across the globe, our democracies are fending off a number of challenges: sharply declining public trust in elected officials and democratic institutions, polarisation, making consensus-building increasingly difficult, and a worldwide trend towards authoritarian government and attitudes. Addressing these problems will require an innovative approach to democratic governance: how do we preserve democratic principles while reinvigorating failing systems? We propose that expanding instruments of deliberative democracy, and especially deliberative mini-publics (DMPs), is a vital first step to strengthening democracy and overcoming these challenges. 

What are deliberative mini-publics?

Deliberative mini-publics (DMPs) are specially-designed forums that bring together a “representative subset of the wider population” to participate in “open, inclusive, informed, and consequential discussions on one or more issues.” The discussions that occur in DMPs can thus be understood as a form of deliberative public engagement that offer a practical alternative to engaging every individual in a society. Instead, governments call together a group of diverse participants to consider a range of information, engage in managed discussions, and provide feedback that can be used to understand the public at large.

Two of the most common forms of DMPs are deliberative polls and citizens’ assemblies. Deliberative polls bring together a representative sample of the population to answer a questionnaire on a particular issue, deliberate with other participants under expert guidance, and then answer the same questionnaire again, with the underlying assumption that the resulting shifts in opinion are representative of the broader public’s conclusion if they had access to comprehensive, unbiased information on the issue in question. Citizens’ assemblies, unlike deliberative polls, bring together participants to put forward potential solutions and policy evaluations rather than measuring changes in opinion. Thus, while deliberative polls and citizens’ assemblies have different outputs, as DMPs, both aim to engage representative groups of citizens on important policy issues.

Ultimately, DMPs take many forms. The European Research Council’s politicize.eu project has created an inventory of 127 diverse DMPs across Europe, including citizens’ juries, panels, advisory groups, forums, and summits. These DMPs vary in size, their selection method, and which stage of the policy process they influence. Of course, DMPs are not solely a European phenomenon. Participedia has compiled  over 1,900 unique cases of citizen participation, including an array of DMPs around the world. 

Types of DMPs and forms of deliberative public engagement. Source: Involve. 

How do DMPs improve democracy?

Given the crises affecting modern democracies, research into DMPs offers reason to be optimistic about the ability of everyday citizens to make informed decisions about important topics. 

We see this most clearly in the inclusiveness that is central to DMP participation. Citizens participating in DMPs are encouraged to listen to and respect each other, reflect on different viewpoints and remain open to persuasion. Additionally, participants in DMPs consistently give positive reviews of their experiences, especially on important questions of procedural fairness, diversity of the opinions represented and mutual respect.

This emphasis on inclusiveness positively affects the quality of discussion and debate in DMPs. During the Irish Citizens’ Assembly, which considered several topics, including abortion, researchers found that citizens’ assemblies exhibit a higher quality of debate than parliamentary committees on the same issues. In this case, participants were unencumbered by the combative political culture that often defines parliamentary debates, resulting in discussions that were both more “multi-faceted” and accommodating of opposing viewpoints. Thus, while sceptics may doubt everyday citizens’ ability to engage in high-quality discussions, it seems that through DMPs, they are not only capable, but perhaps even more so, than politicians. This orientation towards inclusiveness and accommodation may be a remedy for the crises afflicting our democracies.

We can trace the current democratic malaise, in part, to the inability of many current democratic institutions to meet citizens’ expectations. One way to tackle this is by reintegrating citizens into decision-making through DMPs. Indeed, democratic legitimacy has become increasingly understood as the ability of citizens to participate in effective deliberation. We also observe this in practice, with research in Northern Ireland finding that decisions made by DMPs on tough identity issues such as language are viewed as legitimate even when they are contrary to citizens’  individual preferences.

Similarly, polarisation has become increasingly harmful across many democracies. The contribution DMPs make towards healing this comes through mutual recognition of others’ views. When this happens, participants become less extreme and partisan, and thus better able to make decisions by finding common ground. 

Why do we need DMPs now? 

Although DMPs have many potential benefits, is now the right time to expand their use? After all, greater citizen deliberation seems ill-suited to many of the pressing crises we are facing in 2022, such as international security threats and a global pandemic. These types of crises require rapid, high-stakes decisions from knowledgeable actors who can easily be held accountable for missteps— a job for elected officials, not brand-new bodies of ordinary citizens.

We argue that DMPs have a central role to play in the current political environment. While ordinary citizens are not necessarily equipped to define when and how to place a country on lockdown or consider the terms of international defence pacts, DMPs can be a vital mechanism for ensuring accountability and transparency. After elected representatives make decisions, a DMP may serve as a neutral institution providing feedback and lending legitimacy to these policies. In Scotland, a citizens’ panel supplemented a parliamentary committee in “scrutinising the Scottish Government’s strategic approach to the pandemic,” alongside which “priorities should inform any future restrictions.” The pandemic has revealed new ways that DMPs can strengthen democracy in the context of crisis. 

Additionally, DMPs, and especially citizens’ assemblies, have proven resilient in the wake of COVID-19. A number of citizens’ assemblies transitioned from in-person to virtual formats in early 2020, without sacrificing the quality of deliberation or final recommendations. Among these included a citizens’ assembly conducted by the Constitution Unit at UCL that considered the future of democracy in the UK.

Members of the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK. Source: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/research/deliberative-democracy/democracy-uk-after-brexit/citizens-assembly-democracy-uk 
Ultimately, perhaps the best response to the question of whether now is the right time to expand DMPs is: if not now, when? Democracies around the world, both old and new, are facing internal and external challenges; we can no longer take for granted that democracy will remain the “dominant global model.” Democratic innovations, including DMPs, may be our best bet for improving the quality of democratic policy-making and restoring citizens’ trust in democratic institutions and values.

By Nina Kambili and David Graham,

Nina Kambili and David Graham are MSc Democracy and Comparative Politics students at UCL. David’s research focuses on deliberative democracy in divided societies, while Nina’s research examines the relationship between new instruments of deliberative democracy and existing representative institutions.

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