20 September 2022

Democracy Technologies: What are the most important qualities of deliberative democracy?

Chwalisz: That’s a good question — it’s good to start by asking why deliberation is so compelling. For me, there are a few reasons. I first came to deliberative democracy through the work I did on populism. I was trying to understand people’s sense of disillusionment with politics and with the system – the feeling that they don’t have a voice or agency when it comes to shaping the decisions affecting their lives. Over the past ten years, I have grown more and more convinced of the potential of deliberative bodies to address some of those deeper underlying problems that we have with our current system of collective government. 

Deliberative democracy creates the conditions for broadly representative groups of people to grapple with the complexity of the issues facing their communities—and it does so in a way that is far more effective than any parliament or any other representative institution we have today. They get the chance to hear from experts and stakeholders, to listen to one another, and to then work with the explicit aim of finding common ground. And that is much harder than just voting and then aggregating those individual votes or preferences.

It’s hard work, and we have to admit that we won’t agree 100% on everything, because it is neither possible nor desirable for everyone to agree 100% on everything. But the question is: How can we get to the point where the vast majority of us can live with the decisions we take collectively?

We have hundreds of examples now that show why deliberative processes really work – in the sense of leading to good decisions, ideas and solutions, but also by creating conditions that could genuinely strengthen trust, overcome polarisation, and strengthen social cohesion as well. I don’t know of any other innovative democratic approach that gets to these deeper issues, rather than just treating the symptoms of the problems democracy faces today. 

DT: Do you favour any particular deliberative democracy formats? Are there basic conditions that any format should fulfil?

Chwalisz: Deliberative democracy rests on the premise that it is through conversation, dialogue, and deliberation amongst everyone in society that we can best reach political decisions together. The most common form that this takes has been through things like citizens assemblies. There are different models. But what is more important is the underlying principles that define them. One of the most important is representativeness. This is achieved through the use of sortition, or random selection, alongside stratification, in order to bring together a broadly representative group of people. 

Having enough time for deliberation to be really possible is also very important, because deliberation takes time. So when it comes to different models, I have a very strong preference for citizens assemblies, which involve a minimum amount of 40 hours of deliberation. When it comes to political policy problems, a rigorous, thought-through proposal is going to involve trade-offs and compromises, and there is no shortcut to getting there. You need to provide enough time, as well as skilled facilitation, to create conditions for people to be able to participate equally in the conversation. 

The final point is really something I think we haven’t seen enough of yet, and it was the main motivation for setting up DemocracyNext. We need to move to the point where we give genuine power to these assemblies. For the time being, they have been set up mostly as advisory, ad-hoc bodies. What happens to the recommendations they make depends on the political will of the people who set them up.

Over and over again, we have seen how these amazing conditions are created for people to deliberate on controversial, complex issues and to find a consensus — only for their recommendations to be fed back into an electoral system that has a different set of incentives in place, based on political parties, short termism, campaign financing, and lobbying. A lot of the time, the recommendations end up being watered down or ignored without any sort of accountability afterwards. 

I think we can see two different possible democratic futures here. We can either continue with our broken electoral politics; or we can try to transfer power, and establish [citizens assemblies] as new, genuine institutions for the future where the common good is the main, dominating force behind decision-making.

DT: How would you go about institutionalising these processes?

Chwalisz: I don’t feel like I have all the answers here. One of the things that we want to do with DemocracyNext is to open up a space to explore the different potential ways of doing this. I really believe there is a need to build new democratic institutions founded on these principles of citizens participation, representation and deliberation, and to transfer power to them. In the future — a future perhaps even without elections — I would envisage an ecosystem of different deliberative bodies that have different functions and roles, but which work together in a more holistic way.

For instance, there could be some kind of priorities assemblies or agenda-setting assemblies, but also one-off policy assemblies that report back to a more permanent education or health policy council, for example. Perhaps there could be different systems to decide how the judiciary works. And we need to think about proposals for how we could select an executive without elections. These are the kinds of questions that we at DemocracyNext are thinking about. 

I don’t believe in the simplistic proposals that some people have put forth – for example, let’s just replace the House of Lords or our elected officials with people selected by lottery. That alone does not get to the heart of the many, many problems of these institutions, some of which were set up two or three centuries ago. Building things anew is more practical, but it is also more feasible in strategic and political terms. There are too many people with a vested interest in keeping things as they are within our current institutions. The goal of building new democratic institutions and transferring power to them is a way of moving towards the bigger picture. 

We also need to ask what steps can be taken to get there. I’ll give you a tangible example to make it less abstract, at the local level. Can we establish a whole new system for city planning decisions, delegating authority to a sortition-based deliberative body? This could replace existing systems in many cities. This is just one example, but I feel like everyone hates the way these decisions are taken at the moment! Politicians hate it, civil servants hate it – and city planners and architects, but also regular residents are so frustrated with these consultation-based models where lobbying from big construction companies ends up swaying the decision. 

DT: A critic might argue: In an electoral system, everyone gets a vote. But in a sortition-based process, not everyone gets a say, because only a small number of people are actually selected. How would you respond to this?

Chwalisz: I would challenge the whole premise of this argument. Our current electoral democracy is actually very far from being a system where political power is equally shared. At the moment, people go to vote once every four or five years, and have no real influence over decisions in between. It is such a small proportion of the population that actually sits in those bodies like parliaments and other elected bodies. In terms of demographics, they are also very far from representing our societies. There are numerous ways we could try to improve representation – ways of sharing and redistributing political power equally, and making the system more reflective of the diversity of society today. 

There is also the question of citizenship. Citizens’ assemblies are often open to all residents, and not just citizens of the country. This opens up a lot of questions about how we make decisions together in the place where we live together. 

In terms of responding to the criticism — sortition addresses this issue using the principle of rotation. Of course, the number of people who are randomly selected is always small, but they rotate regularly. If there were multiple institutions like this operating at the same time, it would be normal that everyone would serve on a citizens’ assembly at least once in their lives — and probably more than that if you take into account the local, regional, and national levels. The goal is that everyone would take part. And that’s actually much more equal than the system that we have today. 

With such high populations, we cannot all be involved all the time, especially when it comes to complex decisions that require a lot of time and reflection. It’s not about just aggregating people’s off-the-cuff opinions on complex issues through a mass participation model. That is not the core function of democracy. Mass participatory methods can be complementary to deliberative processes, but I still believe that what we really need is more representation, and the right conditions for deliberation. 

DT: But you do think there is a place for non-deliberative mass participation methods? How would they relate to deliberative processes?

Chwalisz: I do see a place for them. I’m not saying that deliberative processes are all we need. But today, when we think of democracy, it is usually defined by elections and electoral institutions. For me, a more genuine democracy would involve an ecosystem of deliberative institutions with citizens’ representation at their heart. But they would also be complemented by more participatory, collaborative and direct forms of democracy at certain stages and for certain types of issues. It makes sense, for example, for a big constitutional reform to be put to a referendum, as is often the case today.

DT: You have written an article examining the impact of moving deliberative processes online during the pandemic. What were your findings? 

Chwalisz: Before the pandemic, digital deliberation formats were usually text-based exchanges, much shorter in form than in-person deliberative processes. The pandemic brought a lot of people who were used to organising in-person deliberative processes into the online sphere. That meant that a lot of the core good-practice principles were introduced to online processes.

We saw a lot more use of video technologies to allow people to have conversations with one another, sticking to the principle of at least 40 hours of deliberation (but without making people spend eight hours a day on Zoom!). This ensures access to expertise, detailed deliberation, and consensus-building. Even though it’s technically challenging, we’ve seen that it’s possible. 

We also learned that it is by no means easier or cheaper than in-person processes. In some cases, if you stick to the genuine democratic principles, it actually ends up being harder and more expensive! For example, in a random selection process, there will be people who don’t have a laptop or internet access, or don’t know how to use the tools. Providing people with the hardware as well as technical support is costly and time-intensive.  

There is also the crucial aspect of social moments during in-person exchanges. They create a sense of trust between people, especially when you are addressing controversial issues. This is much harder to do with a purely online format. I was involved in designing an assembly that took place entirely online. But because COVID-19 cases had eased, they were at least able to meet up in person once before the final session. The feedback we got was that everyone was so grateful for that in-person moment. It helped them with the final session, which is always the hardest, because you have to find a consensus between everyone. 

I don’t think online formats will ever completely replace in-person deliberation, but I do think that in future, we will need to have a mix of online and offline, because online formats are more inclusive for people who find it hard to attend in-person sessions, and vice versa. 

I think that at the moment, we still don’t have the optimal online technology to do deliberative processes really well. This is an area which needs more investment. For the moment, practitioners in the field have been cobbling together existing tools, which is suboptimal. 

DT: DemocracyNext, your new research and action institute, launched on September 15. What happens next?

Chwalisz: Our plan has three levels. The first is about opening up and changing the narrative and the bigger picture about democracy. What do we even mean by democracy, and how can we move into the next democratic paradigm? At the moment, the fields of democratic innovation and deliberative democracy are really dominated by the idea of complementarity: Citizens assemblies are not there to replace elections, they complement our existing institutions. From all the work I have done in this field, I am not convinced by this approach. We have been misnaming the system that we have today as democracy. It is actually an elected oligarchy, and was designed as one. 

A big part of what we want to do is to try to change the narrative and challenge the dominant way of how we see democracy. We want to say: Our future is not limited to a choice between saving our broken electoral politics on the one hand, or autocracy on the other. Instead, we could build genuinely democratic institutions for a different kind of democratic future. 

This may be abstract, but starting next year, we want to collaborate with other people to develop a more concrete picture of what this new, fully democratic system at the national level could look like in 10 years time. We intend to have some very concrete proposals for this within a year.

The second level is pragmatic: How do we get there? But also strategic: How do we make it happen? A big part of our work will be focused on developing position papers on how parts of the democratic system can be changed as a sort of stepping stone towards this goal. I mentioned some examples earlier: How can we envision a completely holistic system for city planning decisions, or a whole model for local government without elections? How could we choose an executive without elections? 

The third level is just as important. I think it actually has the most potential, and differentiates us from a lot of other deliberative democracy actors in the field. It isn’t just about government institutions. We have replicated these models of decision-making in a series of other institutions. We want to provoke changes in the governance models of trade unions, sport associations, company boards, the big tech companies, school boards, and all sorts of other organisations that are actually much closer to our lives.

It is much easier and much quicker to make changes there than within big government institutions. I have experienced a lot of interest coming from people like CEOs of companies, or the chair of a food bank. These changes are just as important if we are going to move towards a different democratic paradigm more broadly. 

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Do you think deliberative bodies of citizens selected exclusively by lottery should replace elections?