When to use and not use representative deliberative processes

This is a brief extract from the OECD report referenced below -


Drawing on the evidence collected and existing scholarship, deliberative processes have been shown to work well for the following types of problems:

Values-driven dilemmas: many public policy questions are values-driven. Representative deliberative processes are designed in a way that encourages active listening, critical thinking, and respect between participants. They create an environment in which discussing difficult ethical questions that have no evident or ‘right’ solutions can happen in a civil way, and can enable participants to find common ground.

Complex problems that require trade-offs: representative deliberative processes are designed to provide participants with time to learn, reflect, and deliberate, as well as access to a wide range of evidence and expertise from officials, academics, think tanks, advocacy groups, businesses and other stakeholders. These design characteristics enable citizens to grapple with the complexity of decision making and to consider problems within their legal, regulatory and/or budgetary constraints.

Long-term issues that go beyond the short-term incentives of electoral cycles: many public policy issues are difficult decisions to take, as their benefits are often only reaped in the long term, while the costs are incurred in the short term. Deliberative processes help to justify action and spending on such issues, as they are designed in a way that removes the motivated interests of political parties and elections, incentivising participants to act in the interests of the public good.

However, deliberative processes are not a panacea; they do not address all of the democratic and governance problems outlined in this introduction. Democratic societies face a wide set of challenges, which require different methods of resolution or participation. For example, deliberative processes are not sufficient to address the problems of political inclusion and collective decision making. The former is better satisfied through political equality in the form of universal suffrage, and voting is useful for broader participation in decision making (though often suffers from voters having low information). Nor are deliberative processes well-suited for urgent decisions, problems in the late stages of decision making where possible solutions are limited, for issues that involve national security, or for resolving binary questions. Democratic governance requires the use of different mechanisms for different purposes to take advantage of their strengths and weaknesses.

As James Fishkin (2009) has identified, there is a trilemma of democratic values – (political) equality, (massive) participation, and (meaningful) deliberation. They are equally important for democracy, but extremely difficult to acquire at the same time. Trying to realise two of these values will necessarily undermine the third.

Mass democracy, which refers to voting, referendums, and participatory processes (such as town hall meetings, open in-person and online forums, participatory budgeting), realises the values of equality and participation, but not citizen deliberation.

Mobilised deliberation, where participants are self-selected or nominated and not representative of the wider public, realises the values of participation and deliberation, but not equality.

Microscopic deliberation, which involves a small but representative sample of the population, realises the democratic values of equality and deliberation, but not participation. This is the focus of this report.