As we prepare for the first Citizens’ Assembly for Northern Ireland, we have invited key stakeholders and our own Advisory Group members to reflect on the significance of deliberative democracy in Northern Ireland. In this guest post, Kaela Scott, Head of Democratic Engagement at Involve, discusses what makes deliberation different to other forms of overcoming complex issues.
Deliberative democracy has been gaining popularity in recent years, both locally and internationally. Citizens’ Assemblies – like Citizens’ Juries, Consensus Conferences, 21st Century Town Hall Meetings and Deliberative Polling – are all methods for undertaking deliberation with the public. While each might use different techniques to engage people, at the heart of them all is a 3-stage process of:
1. learning about an issue;
2. considering and discussing it in depth; and
3. then reaching an informed, considered collective decision or recommendation(s).
It is this 3-stage process that makes deliberative democracy events distinct from other forms of public consultation: because they give participants the time and resources to understand an issue from a range of perspectives, and interact with the views of others, before committing to an opinion.
Deliberation is an approach to decision-making in which citizens consider relevant facts from multiple points of view, converse with one another to think critically about options before them, and enlarge their perspectives, opinions, and understandings.
Deliberation is best used when the issue in question involves uncertainty or conflicting values, understandings and experiences, leaving decision-makers genuinely undecided and keen to consider the views of others.
To enable deliberation to take place most effectively, it is important to incorporate each of these three stages:
1. The Learning stage
Regardless of the topic, if you start asking a random group of people questions about a public policy issue, you will likely find some with strongly held opinions and others who have never thought about it before. Likewise, alongside those whose experiences have left them well informed about the topic, others will have little or no knowledge, and quite probably some misconceptions.
The learning stage establishes a baseline understanding of the issues that participants can use to inform their discussions. The information provided to participants could, depending on the topic, include factual, neutral information about why the issue has come up; arguments from interests on different sides of the debate; and/or testimony from people most likely to be affected by any decision. It could also be presented in many different ways: written background briefings, presentations, Q&A sessions, videos or expert panels.
The learning stage is not just about bringing information in to the room for participants. It is also about participants learning from each other through the stories they tell of their own experiences, and the things they’ve heard from friends and family or seen in the media.
2. The Discussion stage
Central to the success of any deliberative process is that the discussions encourage ‘dialogue’. Dialogue is a particular form of conversation that focusses on building a greater understanding of why people hold different positions. Getting dialogue to work well requires people to view the conversation as a process of shared exploration, listen without judgement and reflect openly on what has led to their own opinions.
This does not happen automatically when people talk, particularly about contested issues. The type of discussion we are most used to seeing on difficult political issues is ‘debate’ – which literally means ‘to beat down’. This form of discussion tends to emphasise differences, encourage polarisation and reinforce established positions. In a debate the purpose is to ‘win the argument’; in dialogue, the aim is to understand different opinions.
Supporting dialogue between participants is therefore something that must be actively developed as part of any deliberative process. One way of doing this is by bringing in skilled, neutral facilitators to ensure that all participants are given the space and support to contribute to the conversation without fear that their opinions will be dismissed or ridiculed. They can also help unblock conversations by asking questions that encourage people to look below the surface of their own views.
3. Reaching conclusions
Another thing that distinguishes deliberation from other forms of consultation is that its goal is to reach a collective conclusion. Depending on the question posed to participants this could be, for example, a yes/no decision, a set of recommendations, a prioritised set of preferences or a new solution.
Fundamental to achieving this is the task of ‘deliberation’ – which literally means ‘to weigh up’ options. Deliberative processes require participants to consider the needs of competing interest groups and the trade-offs or compromises that that may be required in reaching a conclusion. Deliberation, therefore, is about more than just having the chance to share opinions with others, but challenges participants to provide reasons for their preferences and re-examine (and perhaps even change) their starting positions.
Throughout a deliberative process decisions are, where possible, made by consensus: a situation that does not require total agreement but, realistically, an outcome that ‘everyone can live with’. At times however voting processes are also used to make decisions. This ensures that minority perspectives are also captured in the results. Together this helps to ensure that, while not everyone who participated will be completely satisfied with the conclusions they will, hopefully, still view the outcomes as a fair result from the process.
Overall, however, it’s not just the process that makes deliberation different to other forms of public consultation. It is also the end results. Quite often the outcomes of deliberative processes do not replicate the ‘opinion of the public at large’, as measured by surveys and opinion polls. These methods tend to focus on finding an individual’s ‘gut reactions’ to an issue, which can change dramatically depending on how questions are asked and what information people have access to.
Taking participants through a deliberative process provides a different, though complementary, type of evidence: one based on informed and considered opinions derived through processes that explicitly explore the reasons that people feel the way they do. This makes the outcomes of deliberation particularly valuable for decision-makers interested in understanding what lies behind public attitudes and values.
While deliberation can be undertaken with any group of people, processes like this are increasingly being undertaken with ‘mini-publics’. A mini-public is a group selected to be a representative sample of the wider public on the basis of a range of demographic factors. Deliberative processes involving a representative sample of the public are increasingly being recognised by decision makers as a proxy for views of the wider public – if they had had the opportunity to engage in a similarly deliberative process.
For more information:
For some examples of where deliberative processes involving a representative sample of the population have been used to inform decision making see:
- Claudia Chwalisz’s The People’s Verdict (Australia and Canada)
- The Irish Citizens’ Assembly / An Tionól Saoránach
- Estonian People’s Assembly
 Some of these methods are trademarked by their developers which restricts how and when they can be used.
 Definition from The Deliberative Democracy Consortium http://www.intellitics.com/blog/2009/03/04/what-is-deliberation/
 Escobar, O & Elstub, S. (2017) Forms of Mini-publics: An introduction to Deliberative Innovations in Democratic Practice. New Democracy Foundation. https://www.newdemocracy.com.au/research/research-notes/399-forms-of-mini-publics “The principle here is that everyone affected by the topic in question has an equal chance of being selected, and this underpins the legitimacy of the process. Participants are typically selected through stratified random sampling, so that a range of demographic characteristics from the broader population are adequately represented –e.g. age, gender, ethnicity, disability, income, geography, education, religion, and so on.”