Earlier this year, Stanford University, in collaboration with the Center for Deliberative Democracy, completed an experiment that looked at whether deliberative democracy could depolarize US political debates.
In May 2021, 600 young students from across the US came together to discuss policy proposals, such as the new wealth tax, universal income and electoral college reforms. Online, the students participated in a structured an equitable conversation and attended plenary discussions with a panel of experts with different viewpoints. Smaller groups then discussed what they had heard.
This deliberative democracy process enabled students to have a better understanding of other opinions and, in some instance, change their minds after hearing the experts and debating the issue. Following the process, policy recommendations were produced which had the backing of students of all backgrounds and beliefs. This had been achieved thanks to a process which was able to reduce polarization because students felt they had been part of and owned the discussions.
Such deliberative democracy processes have recently been gaining momentum around the world. A 2020 OECD study outlined more than 300 deliberative democracy processes ranging from the UK Climate Assembly to the Bogota Itinerant Citizens' Assembly.
But what is deliberative democracy?
Deliberative democracy brings together everyday people who are rarely asked to weigh up the strengths and weaknesses of various policy options to consider difficult trade-offs and explore their common ground. This guides elected representatives as they make difficult decisions. The benefits of doing this include the chance to build trust in government, by working with a broad mix of people who are willing to stand alongside elected representatives to justify their decisions and thereby build a culture of participation amongst citizens and policymakers alike.
Here are four ways that deliberative democracy can reinvigorate our democracies:
4 ways deliberative democracy can reinvigorate our democracies
1. Deliberative democracy can enhance public trust in government and democratic institutions by giving citizens a more meaningful role in public decision making.
People are more likely to trust a decision that has been influenced by the considered judgment of everyday people, than one made solely by the government. In La Plata, Argentina, sixty-two randomly selected citizens took part in a representative deliberative process on transit and traffic issues in the city in 2009. Participants were surveyed before and after the process, and the results demonstrated a strong increase in trust in government after participation. Before deliberation, 60% disagreed strongly with the statement that “public officials care a lot about what people like me think.” After deliberation, this position dropped to 20%.
2. Deliberative engagement can create a much deeper form of dialogue and discussion that leads to effective and shared decision making.
It strengthens citizen voices in the workings of government and does so by including people of all ethnicities, classes, ages, physical abilities, and geographies in deliberations that directly affect public decisions. When government programmes on land use in relation to flooding in the Mount Elgon region in Uganda proved unsuccessful, a lack of educational resources and effective communication that strained the relationship between citizens and local government was blamed. So, a deliberative polling process involving 442 people was conducted. As a result of the deliberative process, government policy was implemented with greater nuance and understanding of how people manage in times of flood. This meant farmers could access land while the government had an understanding of what people would do – build homes on higher land and travel to stay with extended family outside the affected area – to avoid a blanket ban on using valuable land.
3. Deliberative democracy can lead to better policy outcomes because it delivers considered public judgements rather than off-the-cuff public opinions.
Most public participation exercises are not designed to be representative or collaborative. Consequently, they can be adversarial – a chance to air grievances rather than find solutions or common ground. Deliberative processes create the spaces for learning, deliberation and the development of informed recommendations which are of greater use to policy and decision-makers. As a participant of the Climate Convention, a French deliberative democracy process, Grégoire Fraty, put it “we confronted our points of view, we sometimes argued, and finally we managed to agree on the proposals and put them on the table. The result of this long process of collective intelligence is ambitious, reasonable and pragmatic proposals. So much so that today, no one asks us the question of legitimacy, we are only told about the substance: our measures”.
4. Deliberative democracy processes can provide greater legitimacy to make hard choices.
These processes help policymakers to better understand public priorities, and the values and reasons behind them, and to identify where consensus is—and is not—feasible. Evidence suggests that they are particularly useful in situations where there is a need to overcome political deadlock or make difficult trade-off decisions. This was apparent in the UK Citizen Assembly report, which details assembly members’ views on the advantages and disadvantages of the recommendations of different ways of reaching net zero - including the trade-offs and co-benefits, and the results of the votes by secret ballot that followed.
With a ‘new deliberative wave’ sweeping across the world, politicians and citizens have an incredible opportunity to save our democracies from polarization and lack of trust and build a strong democratic culture for the future.
WFD and new Democracy Foundation have launched a guide for members of parliament on deliberative democracy. This is supported by a series of blogs on our different topics pertaining to deliberative democracy. For more information, get in touch with Julia Keutgen, WFD’s Senior Transparency Adviser.