13 March 2023

In a wide-ranging study, the OECD gathered evidence from countries around the globe in order to discover what the non-negotiables for good deliberative practices are. Working with a range of stakeholders from government, civil society and academics in the OECD’s Innovative Citizen Participation Network and the Democracy R&D Network, a list of 11 guiding principles were identified. They are designed to guide policymakers seeking to develop and implement their own deliberative democracy processes – let’s see how they work!  

PURPOSE: Defining the problem.

Identify and clearly define a public problem to address in the deliberative democracy process. Agree on a corresponding task to tackle it. Aim to phrase it in the form of a neutral, plainly worded question. For example, in the case of Barcelona, the local government was aware of a growing sense of alienation and disillusion among its  youth. They asked the question: what can we do to help the young people of Barcelona, live their best lives? 

Key take-away: Clear problem definition is key! 

COMMITMENT: Make it public.

The public authority in charge, makes a commitment to responding to and acting on recommendations from participants in a timely manner. It is important to provide regular public progress reports. In the case of Barcelona, an online public platform was set up based on Decidim. It provided regular updates including videos, documents and other information. This allowed all citizens to check-in and see how the process was progressing. The response from the public was strong. 

TRANSPARENCY: On all aspects of the deliberative process.

Announce the deliberative democracy process, publically, before it starts. The process design and all materials should be shared with the public including the selection methodology. The funding source should be disclosed and a clear communications strategy should be in place. The city of Barcelona used the above mentioned platform to share information. Systems for evaluation were put in place by those involved. This process is still in progress. 

Key take-away 2 & 3: digital democracy tools can be especially helpful in ensuring transparency and accessibility for all.

INCLUSIVENESS: Leaving no one behind.

Deliberative democracy needs to include under-represented groups in order for it to be truly inclusive. This can be a challenge but there are ways to tackle it. In Barcelona, they worked hard to ensure that their youth assembly of 99 people, was socially, culturally and economically representative. All participants were paid a small hourly rate for their participation in order to enable participation of those from less affluent backgrounds.

Key take-away: modest remuneration can ensure participation from under-represented  groups. 

REPRESENTATIVENESS: How best to achieve it.

Random sampling via sortition or similar is often used to ensure that the selected group of participants matches the demographic profile of the community. In the case of Barcelona, 20 000 letters were sent to youth from across the demographic spectrum of the city. The muncipality recieved 1600 responses and used random selection to gather a final group of 99 participants.

Key take-away: Maintaining representativeness throughout the process is a challenge. 

INFORMATION: Informing participants for optimal results.

Participants should have access to a wide range of accurate, relevant, and accessible evidence and expertise. They should have the opportunity to hear from and question speakers, including experts and advocates chosen by the citizens themselves. For the Barcelona Youth Forum, the participants identified a number of different topics that were important to them. Finally, they settled on three broad themes – jobs, accommodation and financial independence. Approximately 30 participants were allocated to each of these three topics and experts were then invited to separately address each group.

Key take-away: be realistic about how many topics can be tackled! 

GROUP DELIBERATION: Give them time & space.

Participants need space and time to absorb and deliberate over the issues at stake. This requires careful and active listening, weighing and considering multiple perspectives. All participants should have the opportunity to speak and develop their ideas. Use a mix of formats, including larger and smaller groups and skilled facilitation to ensure optimal participation. The Barcelona Youth Forum divided participants into smaller groups of 9 or 10 who worked with at least one facilitator. They would also gather together for larger plenary sessions involving 30 or so participants. 

Key take-away: Facilitation of group deliberation is key! 

TIME: Again, deliberative democracy takes time.

Most participants will be new to the process and many have no prior expertise in policymaking. For this reason, the OECD recommends that participants meet for a minimum of four full days, in person, in order to help them make informed recommendations. Allow time between meetings for individual learning and reflection. The Barcelona Youth Forum took place over a period of 4 months — two months before and two months after summer. Organisers admitted that they lost some participants over the summer break. Over the whole period, there were 8 sessions of 4 hours each. 

Key take-away: Maintain a balance between maintaining momentum and giving participants enough time to absorb and reflect on their discussions.   

INTEGRITY: Maintaining independence.

Aim to ensure the independence of the team running the project, from the commissioning public authority. In some cases, it is advisable to have oversight by an advisory board or monitoring group made up of a variety of stakeholders. The municipality of Barcelona has small, dedicated teams of people who specialise in deliberative democracy initiatives. They are answerable to the politicians in power, but also typically work with outside agencies that specialize in participatory projects. 

Key take-away: Finding a balance between independence and the need for political backing of deliberative democracy initiatives is important. 

PRIVACY: This includes personal data protection.

Respect for the privacy and personal data of participants is essential. Keep group discussion private – participants should not be bribed or lobbied by interest groups or activists. The identity of participants may be published, with their permission, when the process is ended. Ensure protection of particpants’ data via compliance with regulations like the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. The Barcelona Youth Forum set up a private online platform, designed for use by participants only. This helped ensure privacy for discussions and interactions online.

Key take-away: ensure that all participants are fully aware of their rights regarding privacy, from the start.

EVALUATION: There can be no real progress without it!

Anonymous evaluation by participants, based on objective criteria, is important. The OECD report also recommends internal evaluation by the coordination team. In the long term, the deliberative process should also be evaluated on final outcomes and impact of implemented recommendations. Young participants in Barcelona came up with 22 recommendations, 20 of which will be implemented. The process of implementation has begun and the municipality has invited some participants back to provide feedback on progress so far. However, some recommendations will take time to implement and assess.

Key take-away: Build evaluation into the deliberative process from the beginning.

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