31 October 2023
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Deliberative democracy is experiencing a moment in the spotlight. After decades confined to the pages of academic textbooks, it is finding its way into major newspapers, social media campaigns, and climate activist manifestos. Some voices in Silicon Valley are even calling for it to be used to help shape the future of AI regulation.
A lot of the time, when people talk about deliberative democracy, they mean citizens’ assemblies and other forms of mini-public. These are crucial – yet they are only one part of a much bigger picture. Deliberative democracy is an entire culture, based on the simple idea that democracy only really works when we engage in productive discussions with one another, and when the reasoning behind political decisions is shared with the public.
“Productive discussion” probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the internet. Indeed, many suggest that the internet is in part responsible for an ongoing crisis in democratic legitimacy. But beyond the noise of social media platforms, there is a growing range of tools that aim to improve the quality of political discourse in ways that would have been unthinkable in the pre-internet age.
The term deliberation refers to the act of carefully and thoughtfully considering or discussing a given topic. Chances are you’ve heard it at some point in an American courtroom drama – at the end of a trial, the jury “deliberates” before reaching a verdict. They are given time to discuss and weigh the evidence that was presented to them over the course of the trial.
In a political context, it is typically used to refer to processes where members of the public are invited to contribute to discussions on a specific issue. Whether it’s climate policies, constitutional amendments, or EU reforms, the idea is to gather input from a broad, representative public. Doing so leverages collective intelligence, and also ensures that decisions taken don’t impact negatively on marginalised groups, whose voices often don’t get heard.
The variety of inputs is crucial – but so too is their quality. The idea is not simply to gather people’s off-the-cuff opinions on a topic. Rather, the aim is for them to engage in a genuine discussion, weighing arguments and posing questions to experts before reaching a conclusion. That’s why James S. Fishkin has called it “democracy when the people are thinking.”
The most well-known deliberative tool is the mini-public, which often takes the form of a citizens’ assembly (CA). A group of citizens, typically around 100, is selected at random to convene and discuss an issue at length, usually over several weekends. They receive inputs from a wide range of experts, and also get the chance to ask them questions. At the end of the process, the participants draw up a set of recommendations, which in some cases is submitted to the relevant parliament for consideration.
Prominent examples of CAs include Ireland’s Citizens Assemblies on constitutional reform, France’s citizens’ convention on assisted dying, as well as a whole series of Climate Assemblies carried out in recent years.
Some argue that these mini-publics could eventually replace elected officials altogether. But you don’t have to be committed to this idea to think mini-publics are a great idea. They are an effective way of allowing citizens’ voices to be heard in a context where too often, elected officials, lobbyists and the media dominate the narrative.
Ireland’s citizens assemblies have contributed to constitutional change. Macron promised to draft a set of legislation based on France’s citizens’ convention on assisted dying – though he has yet to deliver. Nonetheless, the CA was closely followed by national the press throughout. While it is not yet clear whether it will lead directly to any policies, the CA has helped shape a broader public discussion.
Online or offline?
Many argue that CAs should always be carried out in person. Nonetheless, during the pandemic, several were successfully conducted online. Among them was the Global Assembly, who presented their recommendations on climate change at Cop26. The online format made it possible for 100 people from around the world to deliberate.
Online formats also help to reduce the cost associated with CAs, making it more plausible that they can be held on a regular basis. They can make it easier for users to take part by eliminating the need for travel – though they exclude anyone who doesn’t have access to the internet or adequate technical know-how.
Mini-publics are considered the gold standard of deliberation, bringing people together for extensive discussions, guided by expert advice. Yet even in their online form, they are expensive and complicated to run. As more and more people get used to conducting conversations online via social media, a range of digital participation tools provide a simple way for communities to engage on fixed topics in a designated space, away from the noise of major social media networks.
Platforms such as Polis, Your Priorities, and Delib fall into this category, and explicitly refer to what they let users do as deliberation. Among other functionalities, they gather citizens’ inputs on an issue, and encourage users to engage with each other’s comments. Of course, some people may do nothing more than post an opinion, and move on, which can hardly be considered “deliberation”. Other platforms with similar functionalities Yet the platforms are designed to expose people to contrasting points of view. Moreover, the processes run using these platforms often incorporate offline elements and face-to-face discussion, as in the case of Polis and Uber in Taiwan. In these cases, the inputs gathered effectively serve as the basis for more detailed deliberations.
As these tools continue to expand their functionalities, we may even see more genuinely deliberative features become part of their core functionality. Meanwhile, startups such as DeliberAIde are exploring ways of using AI to improve the quality of online deliberation.
Deliberative democracy is an entire culture
Individual deliberative tools can be a great way of dealing with specific challenges. But they are most likely to succeed where they are part of a broader culture of deliberation. That means: where people are used to playing a role in discussions, to having easy access to all the relevant information, and to being able to voice their views.
There are plenty of obstacles to maintaining a healthy deliberative culture. Social media is largely competition-based, with provocative posts attracting more attention than others. Many of us end up locked into social-media bubbles, which prevent us from being exposed to alternative views. And as disinformation floods the internet, discussions can become entirely unmoored from reality.
Yet there are grounds for hope. Anyone who has ever attended a deliberative process will know that people are remarkably good at breaking out of their bubbles and engaging in productive discussion when they are given the chance. The more people grow used to being asked to participate in processes like these, the more ingrained it will become. Who knows – perhaps it will even change how they talk about politics in other contexts, too.