Deliberative democracy scaling up, out and forward

If several years ago there were only isolated examples of practical applications of deliberative democracy and democratic innovations, today we are witnessing an extraordinary time of scaling up, out and forward.

Svetla Petrova
October 18, 2019

Over the last two decades, another approach to democracy, based on greater deliberation among the public and its representatives, has become increasingly prominent. Deliberative democracy, which is based around communicative principles, offers a mode of shared decision-making involving public deliberation(s) among demographically representative participants, who reason together under conditions that promote mutual respect and understanding, to arrive at a broadly supported, coherent voice, which then influences policy development and decision making. After many years of criticism that it has a utopian view of politics and society and that it has no life beyond its experimental forums, deliberative democracy is attracting the attention of citizens, activists, reform organisations and decision-makers around the world.  Despite its critics, so far, deliberative democracy has proven that it works.

The last 2 years have marked an exponential scaling up, out and forward of deliberative democracy across the globe. The practical uptake provides grounded evidence that it is a real-life phenomenon that can influence change and help us address some of the toughest problems our societies are facing today.

Deliberative democracy is realistic, stretching far beyond experimental forums. It has already proven this with rapidly increasing number of diverse deliberative democratic innovations implemented in a variety of contexts and political systems across the globe.

Deliberative democratic institutions can influence real change – Unlike many of the deliberative democracy examples from 10 – 15 years ago that were carried out more just as a demonstration of the potential of deliberative democracy, the current ones have influenced real change. The most prominent example –  the Irish Citizens assemblies (2016 – 2018) helped the government to address tough societal issues such as marriage equality, abortion and climate change.

Deliberative democracy has the potential to respond to today’s toughest challenges, and this is not just a theoretical aspiration anymore. Following the Irish success, we are currently witnessing a boom of citizens assemblies, with over 20 being announced in Europe since the beginning of the year (2019).  Citizens’ assembly (CA) is a form of deliberative democracy, which brings together 50 or more randomly selected members of the public to engage in open, respectful and informed debates on specific issues and recommend how to deal with it.

2019 is shaping to be the year of Climate Assemblies. With faith in politics at a near-record low and raising concerns over the environment and the planet, more and more governments at both national and local level across Europe are turning to citizens assemblies for answers how to deal with climate change. The UK, Scotland and France have already announced national Citizens Assemblies on issues related to climate change. Canada and New Zealand are currently discussing it.

At a local level, CAs on climate change were pioneered in an unusual place of all, the Polish city of Gdansk. This example if gaining popularity among local governments in the UK. Oxford was the first UK city to hold a climate assembly  to help address the issue of climate change, and consider the measures that should be taken locally.  Seven other local councils across the UK followed suit and announced CAs on climate change to take place in the near future.

Deliberative democracy applies to deeply divided societies and is the solution to group polarization.  In September,  a total of  523 citizens, representatives of Americans who are registered to vote, were invited to spend a weekend together and discuss issues around policy proposals in five areas that had been singled out by voters as the most important issues of the day: immigration, health care, the economy, the environment and foreign policy. These are topics quite polarising for the American society at the moment. After two days of learning about the issues, listening the stories of other fellow citizens and heated deliberation, the results that America in one roomproduced were shocking. Far right and far left policy proposals have lost support among Republicans and Democrats respectively and more centrist proposals moved to the forefront. Yet again, a deliberative democracy experiment demonstrated that there is a better way to disagree and deliberation in deliberative mini-publics in particular can be the way forward.

These are only a few of the hundreds of deliberative democratic innovations taking place across the globe as we speak. More good news and stories to come.

Further reading