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Can we fix democracy through public deliberation?
On a chilly autumn day, a group of 56 randomly selected citizens met to discuss how to address climate and energy issues in their city. These 56 strangers would participate in six days of information session with experts, exercises to identify their own values, and small group discussions about proposed policies. They met for six Saturdays ending in December at which point they voted on policy recommendations that would form the basis of a full report on how the City should address energy and climate issues. Six months later, this report was discussed at City Council and after another two years, City Council decided on a strategy to address these issues, considering the recommendations from the citizens’ report. The process described is an intense form of consultation – a public deliberation. Governments across the globe are experimenting with these types of public deliberation exercises. In addition to obtaining policy advice, these consultations are expected to rebuild faith in the democratic system.
Dozens of studies have explored the impact of these public deliberation exercises on participants’ trust in government as well as perceptions of their ability to influence government. The majority of studies find evidence that citizens report higher levels of trust after the public deliberation exercises, compared to before the exercise. In terms of whether participants feel they can influence government decision-making, the results are evenly split. Half of the studies find that the exercises increase participants’ political efficacy, the other half of studies find no effects. The conflicting findings pose many questions: what features of the deliberative process might influence whether there is a positive effect? Does the length of the event matter? Do positive results depend on whether government is involved in the design and administration of the event?
In two new articles in Political Studies, I examine the extent to which these positive outcomes extend over the long term as well as whether the positive outcomes are restricted to those who directly participate in the event.
First, I track participants’ trust and efficacy over two and a half years as the deliberative event concludes, as a report is tabled to City Council, and then City Council issues a formal response in relation to the topic of the deliberative event. The findings suggest some fluctuations in levels of trust and efficacy, but there is some evidence that the positive outcomes are enduring. In addition, event participants’ views are compared to random samples of people who did not participate in the deliberative exercises. These comparisons offer the strongest and most consistent evidence - the participants report higher levels of trust in government and perceived ability to influence to government. Why do the positive outcomes extend well-beyond the event? I propose that City Council’s response to the citizens’ report is part of the explanation. City Council read the recommendations report and while their formal response took some time to develop, they did consider the recommendations report when devising their strategy to address energy and climate issues.
Are the positive outcomes restricted to those who were in the room during the six Saturdays? The event received very little media coverage. Six months after the deliberative event ended, I devised a telephone survey experiment in which respondents were asked about their levels of trust and efficacy. Half of the respondents were given a short description about the group of 56 citizens who met for six Saturdays to hear presentations about energy and climate issues, then discuss proposed policy solutions. They were given this description, then asked about their own levels of trust in government decision-making about climate change as well as their own ability to influence government. Hearing about this group of 56 citizens did indeed influence responses. Those respondents who heard about the work of these 56 citizens reported higher levels of trust and increased ability to influence government. The findings suggest the effects of public deliberation exercises extend beyond those sitting in the room.
I am not proposing that a single public deliberative exercise could address citizens’ faith in democracy. However, the findings from this case study, combined with the systematic analysis of other public deliberation exercises, suggest that there are some positive outcomes. We expect to see these positive outcomes under certain conditions.
The first condition is an extensive consultation process. My own research with other types of public consultation events, as well as a systematic analysis of dozens of other studies, suggests that a two hour meeting to discuss policies is not sufficient for addressing faith in democracy. We might see the positive outcomes from a weekend event, but it is unclear whether the positive outcomes would endure over the long-term.
The second condition that led to these positive and enduring effects relates to the role of government. Again, my own research with other types of public consultation events, as well as a systematic analysis of dozens of other studies, suggests that government needs to be involved in these events. What role should government play? This is a matter for debate. In this case study, the design and administration of the public deliberation exercise was a partnership between the City and a network of scholars and practitioners.
A third condition for positive impacts is a robust communication strategy to inform and engage citizens who are not in the room. The telephone survey experiment suggests that citizens who hear about this exercise, i.e., the intense work of their fellow citizens sitting in a room for six Saturdays, demonstrate greater faith in democracy. As such, these types of events should receive their due attention. Whether this attention should occur during or at the conclusion of the event, I cannot determine based on the existing evidence. Nonetheless, to build faith in democratic systems requires some publicity of these types of intense public deliberation exercises as well as citizens’ attention to these events and their outcomes.
Shelley Boulianne is an associate professor of sociology at MacEwan University. She completed her PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research focuses on media use, civic and political engagement, as well as survey research methodology. She has two recently published articles in Political Studies. See here for ‘Mini publics and public opinion: Two survey based experiments’ and here for ‘Building faith in democracy: Deliberative events, political trust and efficacy’.
Image: Mark Wathieu CC BY-NC-ND