Deliberation: ‘careful consideration before a decision’ (Macquarie Dictionary Online)

Representative democracy is essentially about aggregating public opinion through voting in elections where there are set options in the form of the policies of a relatively small number of parties. Participatory democracy focuses on “quantity”, aiming to engage with as many people as possible. By contrast, deliberative democracy is about quality processes where people deeply consider issues from different perspectives through respectful reason-giving.

When engagement practitioners hear the words ‘deliberation’ or ‘deliberative’ we usually think of deliberative mini-publics aka citizens’ juries or community assemblies. However, deliberation can and does happen outside of deliberative mini-publics. For theorists of deliberative democracy, deliberation should be happening in many settings, including in parliaments.

With a growing interest in deliberation and the explicit requirement in the new Victorian Local Government Act for councils to include deliberative practices in their community engagement practice, it is timely to consider deliberation more broadly than the formal deliberative processes of citizens’ juries and the like.

Traditional approaches to community engagement

Traditional approaches to community engagement focus on supporting broad participation and collecting as many perspectives as possible through processes like online surveys, written submissions and public meetings. The goal is to ensure quality through quantity.

But these types of processes often result in engagement primarily with people who have a strong interest and usually an equally strong position on the issues under consideration. Their perspectives are important but should not be the only source for seeking to understand the community’s perspectives on an issue. Where engagement seeks to reach beyond “hyper-engaged” people, tools such as online or telephone surveys tap people’s top of mind views, whether or not they have any knowledge of the issue.

Once this community input is collected public servants review the various ideas and suggestions and decide what to do with it. I’ve been a public servant in this situation and it is easy to review community input through the lens of your own (often unconscious) biases as well as what you know the Minister will like. This process gives rise to risks for decision makers. Firstly, there is little or no transparency regarding how the different perspectives were considered and valued. Secondly, it may result in decision makers misreading the broader community perspective beyond those with strong views and missing out on benefiting from more nuanced ideas and options that can come from deliberative processes.

Key aspects of formal representative deliberative processes

Formal representative deliberative processes take a very different approach to traditional engagement. They aim to:

  • reach beyond hyper-interested people to everyday citizens who are affected by decisions but are not actively seeking or aware of how to be engaged – the so-called ‘silent majority’;
  • involve a representative group of people, which provides more diversity in perspectives and commonly results in broader consideration and more creativity in addressing the issues;
  • provide these people with information from different perspectives on the issues, often through presentations from experts and stakeholders and input from the wider community, allowing them to gain a deeper understanding of the issue than community members might otherwise have and thereby enrich the quality of the engagement outcomes;
  • give these people time to collectively consider what they’ve learned and share their views about the different options for action; and
  • engage these people in a process where they consider the issues from the perspective of the broader community, not simply their own personal perspective, when developing a set of recommendations for decision-makers.

Using deliberation more widely

People often suggest that deliberative processes sit at the collaborate or empower level of the IAP2 Spectrum. This isn’t necessarily the case. Where a particular process sits depends on what the decision-maker is seeking to achieve and what their promise to their community is. For most deliberative mini-publics decision-makers are asking the participants to develop recommendations on behalf of the broader community and they commit to using these recommendations to ‘the maximum extent possible.’

Where an issue is of significant importance to decision-makers and the community and where it is complex, there is value in using a formal deliberative process such as a citizens’ jury. However, these processes are resource intensive for both decision-makers and participants.

Deliberation doesn’t always have to be at this level and incur the accompanying costs in time and money. Sometimes it is still possible to get the benefits of deliberation using less resource intensive approaches. Deliberation can add significant value to engagement at the consult and involve levels as well.

In a recent research project undertaken by the University of Queensland and Deliberately Engaging, Dr. Alastair Stark and I designed and conducted a hybrid process where randomly recruited participants were asked for their views on four policy issues. Two one-hour webinars were then held where participants were able to hear different perspectives. After the webinars, one group participated in two one-hour online dialogues using Synthetron, and the other group participated in a six-hour face-to-face dialogue (in late 2019, pre-Covid). Both the online and the face-to-face dialogues where moderated, with discussions taking place in small groups. At the end of the process both groups were again asked about their policy preferences. The views of participants about the issues before and after the webinars and the content of their discussions were analysed. It should be noted that neither group were asked to develop recommendations, although alternatives did develop during their dialogues.

Analysis of attitude change, in both the online and face-to-face processes, demonstrated that both of these deliberative processes can provide decision-makers with valuable insights about how people thought about these policy issues and how their views developed as a result of being provided with different perspectives on the issues and sharing their ideas and perspectives. More details on this research project will appear in forthcoming journal articles.

Key learnings

The key messages coming from this research are that

  • typical participatory processes capture snapshots of opinion that may be uninformed and misleading;
  • public deliberation can provide decision-makers with more considered input that emerges from deliberative sense-making amongst citizens
  • understanding how people discuss and justify different ideas can contribute to policy development.

This research project suggests that governments can gain valuable insights for policy development using small scale deliberative processes; insights that they would not gain through traditional participatory approaches.

Processes which provide people with an understanding of different perspectives and allow people to discuss these perspectives, plus their own, can provide many of the benefits of deliberation without the intensive resource commitment of citizen juries.

It is important that decision-makers better understand how citizens understand and weigh-up various perspectives on an issue and that engagement professionals assist decision-makers to understand how deliberative processes can be especially useful where there are conflicting views held by stakeholders and hyper-interested individuals.