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October 23, 2003

competing forms of deliberation

We are now two days into the "Researcher & Practitoner" meeting that I described yesterday. We tried to get consensus (among 40 people) on a set of factual statements about public deliberation that we could post on a website for public use. For the most part, the academics in the group rejected the statements that the practitioners proposed, on the ground that the research base was too weak. Therefore, we harvested a very long list of plausible, informed hypotheses about deliberation. This may be a more useful product than a set of consensus propositions.

The conversation has generally been very rich and disciplined (and hard to summarize). Instead, I'll report the following thought that occurred to me. We seem to have a choice between two general approaches. We can randomly select people to deliberate on a public issue (giving them incentives to participate, as if in a kind of jury); or we can try to motivate a large and diverse segment of the population to seek out voluntary opportunities for deliberation. Both approaches are widely used by practitioners in the field of Deliberative Democracy.

Randomly selecting a small sample cannot change the habits or skills of the overall population, who are not involved. Furthermore, if a random group is given the power to make public decisions, then other citizens may feel that they have no right or means to influence the results. And the random group must get its power as a grant from some authority, which can always withdraw that power. In short, deliberation by randomly selected groups generates very interesting results, but it cannot change the overall dynamics of a society.

Mobilizing people to attend (or demand) various kinds of public meetings can change the overall power structure. However, this approach is subject to manipulation. Special interests can make sure that their people show up and speak from a script. Voluntary participants tend to be privileged, because deliberation is easier for people with more education and higher status. Therefore, good organizers deliberately work to increase the participation of disadvantaged people. Unfortunately, if it's possible to influence who attends, then it's possible to stack the deck in favor of one's own position.

Posted by peterlevine at 12:17 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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