Deliberative Approaches 101
In the 1990s, there was a shift in thinking among democratic theorists, about the role of collective, deliberative decision-making in democratic institutions such as local government. This thinking around deliberative democracy began as an attempt to make deliberation central to decision-making, on a mass scale. Today, it is practised more typically through ‘mini-publics’ where small groups of citizens (from ~20 up to ~ 2000) come together to carefully examine a problem, deliberate together and work towards a shared resolution or set of recommendations (Estlub et al., 2016; Dryzek and Niemeyer, 2012).
There has been a growing interest, and literature, on various participatory approaches which foster deliberative practices, such as citizen juries, consensus conferences and participatory budgeting. There has also been a focus on the design of deliberative institutions and ways of embedding deliberative democracy in decision-making, not just as a one-off process, but rather as a habit (Winstanley and Cronin, 2012).
There are several drivers behind the growing interest in deliberative democracy; these include the complexity of contemporary issues in which multiple stakeholders are involved; a perceived dissatisfaction with traditional approaches to engagement; and the emergence of organisations and networks promoting deliberative theory and practice.
Hundreds of new articles now appear on deliberative democracy each year and, in Victoria, an increasing number of councils engage through deliberative approaches as part of their broader engagement strategy. These practices are also being used, increasingly, by industry organisations and NGOs.
How do Deliberative Democracy techniques differ from traditional approaches to engagement?
Deliberative process typically take the form of workshops involving citizens recruited to be broadly representative of the local population (often referred to as ‘mini-publics’). Over an extended time period, often a few days, the selected mini-public is given time to learn about the issue to be explored, to call on outside expertise and to think deeply, together, on the questions they have been asked to consider.
Two of Australia’s leading practitioners on deliberative techniques suggest that they can be distinguished from the usual community consultation in at least three critical ways; they are representative, deliberative and influential (Carson and Hartz-Karp, 2005):
Representative in the sense that they involve a representative cross-section (or mini-public) of the community, usually selected at random;
Deliberative allowing for extended consideration of a key question; and
Influential which refers to the presumption that decision-makers will take direction from the outcomes of the deliberation.
Why should Councils consider using deliberative approaches?
Advocates suggest that there are a number of good reasons for organisations to consider deliberative approaches:
- A focus is put on the fundamental idea of democracy with an emphasis on listening, participation and cooperation and the opportunity to consider, respectfully, a range of views and ideas.
- The random selection of participants gives access to quiet voices and to people who may not otherwise have had any engagement with council.
- It can lead to better, more sustainable decisions by providing people the time and opportunity to take a ‘deep dive’ into difficult issues.
- People are more likely to trust the outcomes of a process which is seen to be representative and informed by ordinary people, ‘just like me’.
Examples of evaluations of deliberative processes and their outcomes can be found at the Deliberative Democracy Hub's Resource Library.
Depending on where you look, different people offer different descriptions of the techniques or approaches that can be considered as inclusive or deliberative and there are different ideas on who should deliberate and where deliberation should take place, for example.
The table below captures some of the key deliberative techniques. This is not a comprehensive list and you should refer to the Resource Library for resources which will give you further detail on the different techniques and when they are best used. In particular, the NCDD’s Engagement Streams Framework is a good place to start and will help you understand and navigate the range of deliberative techniques available: see www.ncdd.org/stream.
It is also worth bearing in mind the observations of Carson and Hartz-Karp (2005) who note that whilst Australia has imported many deliberative methods, practitioners have also adapted and combined methods to suit our particular circumstances. The critical point is that any adaptations should remain responsive to the challenge of maximising inclusion, deliberation and influence.
Research about public deliberation
The Journal of Public Deliberation is a peer reviewed, open access journal full of useful papers about research, opinion, projects, experiments and experiences of academics and practitioners in deliberative democracy: www.publicdeliberation.net.
The newDemocracy Foundation is actively pursuing the question of whether there are ways in which democracy can be done better in Australia and has run several juries for a range of government bodies around the country. The Foundation’s website has a wealth of information and resources, including case studies, research papers and videos: www.newdemocracy.com.au.
Victorian Auditor-General’s Office, 2015, Public Participation in Government Decision-making: Better Practice Guide: www.audit.vic.gov.au.
Deliberative Approaches 101 Handbook