Building sustainable democracies

Democracy as the majority of us experience it is an empty ritual. We are allocated a certain number of votes and a lifetime to spend them in. We could be forgiven for craving something more than the opportunity to put a cross on a ballot paper and the pretence that this is meaningful or active citizenship.

The term ‘democracy’ is misleading. We do not have democracy, we have representative government; we have an elective aristocracy (Manin 1997) or an oligarchy, and, increasingly, a plutocracy. Of course, we were never meant to have a democracy in the sense of a rule by the people; instead we inherited and endure a ruling elite and watch helplessly as unrepresentative politicians perform in our parliamentary assemblies. Most citizens remain outside the political system and barely get a look in. The possible reversal of this situation is fascinating to me: speculating on how citizens could be drawn into the system in a more meaningful way. Thankfully, these speculations have moved beyond idle speculation to contemporary practice. There is a very interesting project going on at the moment through the ANU, which is doing a democratic audit of Australia (Research School of Social Sciences, ANU, 2003,

One particularly interesting aspect of the ANU project is its work on participation and government responsiveness which the project leaders see as one of five key areas to be analysed. When democracy is being audited, to what extent do typical citizens have an equal chance of being heard in the political process? By typical citizens I mean the silent majority, the unengaged, the uninvolved, and not the vocal, usual suspects. This kind of question about citizen participation sits within the theory and practice of deliberative democracy. Carolyn Hendriks used the term deliberative governance (Hendriks 2004), which is essentially saying: let us recognise that the state is not the only player in decision making or in policy development, nor should it be. There are civil actors, not just lobbyists, corporate players, special interest groups and so on. What is important in the deliberative democracy framework is that we engage in deliberation, or build deliberative capacity (Blaug 1999). That is a very important principle for deliberative governance: informed discussion or dialogue, which differs considerably from the adversarial or aggregative (voting) practices we are used to. It is hoped that such practices would remedy some of the deficiencies of representative government. I am interested in the design, testing and promotion of democratic decision-making and problem-solving initiatives which can be classified as deliberative designs (Hendriks 2004).

Deliberative Designs
These processes are also called deliberative designs because they take non-aligned citizens or laypersons and place these lay citizens into deliberative spaces that are respectful and discussion based, and where considerable, balanced information is available. The deliberative space is independently moderated or facilitated to interrupt the usual power games that can occur in a group, and participants work toward a collective outcome. They either make decisions or develop recommendations for policy makers. The following diagram illustrates that process (Hendriks 2004):

Deliberative designs come in many forms: citizens’ juries, consensus conferences, planning cells, policy juries, youth juries, deliberative polls. I have had an opportunity to experience each of these designs except for planning cells (a German design) and I know how well they work. Deliberative designs can be community, corporate, organisational or government initiatives. We have had deliberative designs (or deliberative inclusive processes) for 30 years throughout the world so these processes are beyond innovation. They have withstood independent evaluation. Deliberative designs overcome the problem of ‘the incensed and articulate’, which is what happens when one convenes a public meeting. Public meetings can communicate a message that says: boy, have we got a deal for you! The decision has already been made. In public participation circles this is known as the DAD strategy: decide, announce, and defend. I am interested in how decision makers can build an early mandate through deliberative designs, to feel confident about making a decision by reflecting the views of their whole constituency. These are the principles of deliberative designs:

  • They involve unengaged citizens (activists are obviously engaged, the disengaged are people who have experienced engagement and they have just become so cynical that they have extricated themselves from it, so the unengaged are those who have barely tasted community engagement);
  • They are highly representative – they bring together diverse constituencies and diverse viewpoints; the chance of this happening is enhanced by the use of random selection or a lottery; and
  • They occur in a deliberative space and are based on dialogue and discussion and the development of public judgment because participants move beyond public opinion toward meaningful or informed judgment.

The following table gives an idea of when one should, or should not, consider using a deliberative design:

Deliberative Designs in Practice
One of the important things about deliberative designs, including citizens’ juries, is that the group finds its own way, under the direction of a skilled, neutral moderator who ensures the group makes its own decisions about group processes. Deliberative designs are one-off events, so the problem of commitment from busy people with little free time is solved. These events run over one to three days, so it avoids any long-term commitment and has the added advantage of involving people who bring fresh perspectives to the issue being discussed.

Deliberative designs should be influential and this is best achieved through a contract. The decision maker and each participant should agree to certain outcomes before anyone embarks on the process. This guarantees that the process is taken seriously by both parties and inevitably leads to strengthened relationships in communities when they work well. The principles that have been mentioned here are as relevant to us in our bedrooms or kitchens as they are in a public space, in a public process. They make good sense in terms of involving people in decisions that affect them, and doing it in a way that is very robust.

We can tell when we are in the midst of democracy; it makes the hairs on the back of our necks stand up. It seems such a natural thing that I sometimes wonder if we are born with a democracy gene. Democracy will simply break out if the right circumstances have been created. When we are in the midst of a democracy break out this is what we would note, according to Ricardo Blaug (1999): the noise – everybody’s animated and talking, or their silence, they are leaning forward and listening to each other; there is real exchange, leadership is very fluid, people assume leadership or back out of it when it becomes appropriate, they insist on others being heard, conflict is constructive and workable. It also needs to be proclaimed that deliberative designs are good fun. We can have an enjoyable time with them even though people are often drawn into the space very reluctantly; often no-one has ever asked them to participate before so they are understandably cynical or suspicious. It becomes a dance, to encourage participation by those who are reluctant to participate and by the end of it, it is difficult to get them out the door, you have to tell them: go home! But before then, participants are animated, democracy has broken out, they have had a good time and their input has been valued. I know because I have experienced it many times. This is democracy, it’s soaring, it’s powerful, and it’s wonderful.

Blaug, R. (1999). Democracy, Real and Ideal. Discourse Ethics and Radical Politics. Albany, State University of New York Press.
Hendriks, C. (2004). ‘Challenges of decision making when citizens are involved: from the stakeholder’s perspective’, Guest Lecture for Politics of Consultation at the University of Sydney, 23 July
Manin, B. (1997). The Principles of Representative Government. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

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