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Core Design Features

Bringing together ten leading researchers in the field of deliberative democracy, this important book examines the features of a Deliberative Mini-Public (DMP) and considers how DMPs link into democratic systems.

It examines the core design features of DMPs and their role in the broader policy process and takes stock of the characteristics that distinguish them from other forms of citizen participation. In doing so, the book offers valuable insights into the contributions that DMPs can make not only to the policy process, but also to the broader agenda of revitalising democracy in contemporary times.

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The current process of devolving powers within England constitutes a significant change of governance arrangements. This process of devolution has been widely criticised for including insufficient consultation. This paper assesses whether that criticism is fair. Modifying Archon Fung’s framework for the analysis of public participation mechanisms, we begin by considering whether the depth of public engagement has been limited. Then, by comparing these consultation practices with other examples (including one we have ourselves trialled in pilot experiments), we find that deeper forms of public engagement would have been both possible (though at some financial cost) and productive.

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A decade ago, it would have been impossible to imagine that a caregiver, a bus driver and a rail worker, together with 147 other ordinary citizens, could shape France’s policy on climate change. Ordinary citizens have long been disparaged for their political apathy. They could not be bothered to vote or join a political party. They trust experts less, share fake news and fall for the dark charisma of populist demagogues. Why would anyone think that citizens can deliberate on the most challenging issues of our time?

And yet they did. Over six months, ordinary French citizens deliberated the nuts and bolts of climate change policies. They listened to experts, read scientific literature and formed thematic groups on agriculture, housing, transport, employment and lifestyle. They reached a consensus on making ecocide a crime, among other proposals, which are to be subject to a national referendum. Even the COVID-19 pandemic did not stop these citizens from deliberating, first online and then in socially distanced deliberations. The process was far from perfect, but it was groundbreaking.

If there is one important lesson that scholars of democratic deliberation could impart to political theory and practice, it is that the context of participation matters to the quality of participation. When citizens are given the opportunity to learn, engage with a diverse group of people and be in a space where changing one’s mind is a virtue and not a vice, they are given the chance to reach a considered judgement. Decades of research on deliberative democracy demonstrate that citizens ‘are good problem solvers even if we are poor solitary truth seekers’ (Chambers, 2018: 36).

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The burgeoning literature on DMPs has studied and debated the merits of this form of democratic innovation. It is striking that this field of research contains no unanimously accepted definition of DMPs. As explained in Chapter One of this book, our goal is not to determine which definition is the most appropriate. Rather, we work with a definition of DMPs based upon two basic constitutive elements: (1) it should be a mini-public, meaning participants are selected through a process that generates a representative sample of the public; and (2) it should be a deliberative process, meaning that participating citizens reach their conclusions or recommendations after receiving information and engaging in a careful and open discussion about the issue or issues before them. We build from this to examine the diversity of real-life examples of DMPs that have taken place over the last two decades.

Real-world DMPs are indeed diverse, ranging from planning cells to citizens’ assemblies, consensus conferences and deliberative polls. This chapter derives from the empirical diversity of DMPs a general description of their organization and core design features, and the ways in which they have been implemented across countries. In particular, we will build upon the inventory of DMPs instituted by national and regional public authorities across Europe produced within the POLITICIZE project.1 This data set, which has been gathered by one of the authors of this book, has identified and described over 120 different cases since 2000.

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Successful recruitment is key to a meaningful mini-public deliberation. There is a need to ensure that the deliberating sample represents as many interests as possible that will be affected by the decisions at hand; otherwise, the whole endeavour risks losing legitimacy. This is because the basis for engaging lay citizens in deliberation relies on the idea of inclusion, and since it is impossible in most cases to invite all the affected people to deliberate in small groups, the deliberating sample needs to be representative. Mini-public deliberation is not built on representativeness in the electoral sense, where people first vote and give their representatives powers to decide for the whole demos, and then have the possibility to hold the representatives accountable for their actions at the next election. The accountability of DMPs relies instead on their demographic representativeness – on the idea that the wider population can see the DMP as a mirror of themselves (Farrell and Stone, 2020). Whereas representative systems based on elections produce institutions in which the representatives are typically highly educated and often resourceful, the goal for DMPs is to achieve a sample of representatives whom the people can view as their genuine peers.

The chapter is organized as follows. It starts by briefly reviewing four different methods for choosing representatives: elections; corporatism or appointment by interest groups and NGOs; self-selection; and random sampling. We then set out arguments in favour of random sampling, including discussion of the merits and limits of pure random sampling in recruiting for DMPs. This is followed by a review of the methodology underlying stratified random sampling, building on issues discussed in Chapter Two.

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Taking part in a DMP is a unique experience. Even though these processes are gaining increasing popularity, only a handful of citizens will have the privilege of being selected to participate in a DMP. Being in a mini-public is comparable to being selected to a jury – a unique experience designed to reach a considered judgement among a diverse group of people.

The uniqueness of the deliberative experience rests on the forum’s design. Well-designed mini-publics can facilitate respectful conversations, an informed exchange of ideas, active listening and reflection. All these are crucial for citizens who may have conflicting values and preferences to come together, work out complex issues and generate outputs that can inform policymakers and the wider public debate. The academic literature on mini-publics has chronicled the positive effects of the deliberative experience on participants. Participants feel more politically attuned, interested and informed about politics (Grönlund et al, 2010; Fournier et al, 2011; Boulianne 2018). Others demonstrate shifts in preferences once they learn more about an issue (Himmelroos and Christensen, 2014). The impact of deliberation on social learning and generating a shared identity has also been documented (Hartz-Karp et al, 2010; Fournier et al, 2011).

Not all mini-publics, however, generate the same experience. DMPs can also reinforce inequalities that exist in the public sphere. Some mini-publics have been criticized for supporting an already-decided policy (Johnson, 2015).

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Citizens’ lack of knowledge is often used as an argument against their participation in policymaking (for example, Schumpeter, 1943). How can we expect citizens to deliberate if they lack information, feel disinterested in politics and are unable to convey coherent policy preferences (Achen and Bartels, 2016)? Compared to politicians and lobbyists, citizens spend little time thinking about politics. They have little access to information beyond what is available in the media. For democratic participation to flourish, it is important to bridge the knowledge gap between citizens and policymakers.

Bridging that gap is one of the purposes of DMPs. Central to their design is the opportunity for citizens to think, reflect, listen to each other and engage with the range of evidence presented to them. In this way, mini-publics can help address the cognitive challenges of modern citizenship (Warren and Gastil, 2015).

Learning takes place both between DMP participants themselves, and through the provision of structured learning materials. It can be easy for DMP organizers, who put great effort into writing briefings and organizing programmes of witnesses, to forget the importance of peer-to-peer learning. However, such learning is vital: DMP participants often speak of how much insight they gain from hearing about the lives and perspectives of people very different from themselves. The development of such mutual understanding is at the core of good deliberation.

Our focus in this chapter, however, is on the learning that is structured and enabled by DMP organizers.

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DMPs are not simply forums for discussion; they are also designed to reach conclusions. In a few cases, as explored in Chapter Seven, these conclusions are treated as binding upon subsequent decision-makers. In most cases, they are instead intended to inform downstream decision-makers, whether elected politicians, officials or referendum voters. The outputs of a DMP – which are the focus of this chapter – thus comprise two key components: first, the conclusions of the mini-public in themselves; and, second, the manner in which those conclusions are presented to wider audiences. The chapter examines the nature of those outputs, how they are developed and what meaning can be attached to them. The first section describes the two types of outputs in further detail, exploring the different forms they take in different mini-publics. The second section then explores how these outputs are determined, that is, how deliberation is converted into conclusions, and the degree to which DMP participants are involved in presentation. Finally, the third section goes into the deeper question of what meaning we can ascribe to outputs, focusing on three key questions that people encountering the idea of DMPs often ask.

As just explained, the outputs of DMPs comprise two elements: the content of the conclusions reached by participants; and the ways in which those conclusions are presented.

Taking the conclusions first, DMPs yield what James Fishkin (1995: 162) – one of the most long-standing advocates of such methods – describes as ‘a representation of the considered judgments of the public’ on specific issues.

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DMPs should be consequential. Participants who experience taking part in a mini-public may find the exercise valuable in its own right, but without impact outside the process, DMPs are at risk of becoming insignificant talking shops that do little to enhance the quality of collective decision-making. This, indeed, was one of the early concerns raised against DMPs. For Carole Pateman (2012: 9), their reach was limited, they had little influence in decision-making and the public did not know a lot about them (see also Rummens, 2016).

Fast-forward to a decade later and, today, DMPs are increasingly becoming visible in public life (see OECD, 2020). They are commissioned by national leaders like President Emmanuel Macron in France or parliamentary committees in the UK. They are part of the global environmental group Extinction Rebellion’s core demands. Belgian political party Agora won a seat in the Brussels Parliament by running on the single issue of calling for a citizens’ assembly. Similarly, editorials in publications like The Financial Times, The Guardian and The Economist recognize the merits of DMPs. As the popularity of DMPs grows, the concern shifts from their insignificance to the implications of giving power to an unelected, randomly selected group of individuals.

At the heart of this issue are concerns about the legitimacy of DMPs. To what extent should DMPs shape decision-making? Should DMPs be empowered to make binding decisions? Are they better off taking an advisory role? What is the basis of DMPs’ legitimacy in the first place?

These issues, among others, point to the challenge of finding the sweet spot of ensuring that DMPs are neither too powerless, nor too powerful.

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The increasing popularity of DMPs raises expectations as to what these forums can achieve. A Financial Times editorial declared that ‘deliberative democracy is just what politics needs’, referring to the power of citizens’ assemblies to address political polarization (The Financial Times, 2019). A year later, an editorial in The Guardian echoed the same sentiment, calling for ‘deliberation, not confusion’ as it spotlighted the UK’s first climate assembly (The Guardian, 2020). Calls for various forms of democratic innovations emerged in the early days of the pandemic as societies imagined what it would take to make the ‘new normal’ work for all.

The increasing calls for DMPs are testament to the normative force as well as empirical track record of these forums. However, we are cautious not to pitch DMPs as a panacea that can revive democracy in challenging times. In this chapter, we take the position that DMPs are best appreciated as forums in democratic systems. This means two things. First, DMPs are not an end to themselves, but one of many potential practices that fulfil particular democratic functions, like elections, representation and exit, among others (Warren, 2017). We find that DMPs are helpful in facilitating collective will formation due to these forums’ design features but less so for collectively binding decision-making due to the lack of accountability of DMPs to those affected by their recommendations. Second, appreciating DMPs as forums within democratic systems means linking democratic deliberation with other practices of participatory decision-making.

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