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July 30, 2004

deliberation when the stakes get high

John Gastil and I are editing a book that will be published early in 2005, probably with the title Handbook of Public Deliberation. Each chapter is written by people who organize a different form of meeting or online discussion about public issues. The authors constitute a small but impressive international community of practice.

I've been thinking about the future of this movement and the challenges it will face if it really gains traction. To date, most public deliberation in the US has low stakes. In some cases, there is no serious effort to change public policy to match the results of the public conversation. The goal of a meeting may be to build networks of citizens, to develop new ideas, to teach people skills and knowledge, to change attitudes--but not to influence government. In other cases, deliberation does have direct consequences for policy. For example, the budget of the District of Columbia is much influenced by the annual Citizens Summit organized by America Speaks. However, such cases arise under especially favorable circumstances, when the local political leadership is either very enlightened or has special incentives to share power with a deliberating group of citizens.

If public deliberation ever becomes a (non-partisan) political movement, then citizen deliberations will be able to achieve concrete influence even when the conditions are unfavorable. But then I think deliberation will face challenges that have not been difficult so far, because the stakes have been low.

First, who's at the table? In a low-stakes deliberation, it's fine to recruit volunteers, as long one aims for diversity of background and opinion. However, as soon as the stakes go up, organized interests will start to send their own foot-soldiers, armed with instructions. Interest-group politics is an acceptable and unavoidable part of democratic politics: "sewn in the nature of man," as Madison put it. But interest groups are not evenly distributed; for instance, there are effective national groups for developers and landlords, but not for renters or the homeless. Second, some groups are not internally democratic or transparent; they don't represent the groups in whose name they speak. And finally, because of basic collective-action problems, interest groups tend to form around narrow concerns rather than broad ones. Narrow concerns can be legitimate, but interest-group politics introduces a bias against general values.

We are used to these problems in conventional representative political institutions. Public deliberation is supposed to be an alternative. But interest groups may be at least as effective in high-stakes citizens' deliberations as in Congress or the town council.

Proponents of random-selection use all these points in their favor. Since meetings of recruited volunteers can be stacked with committed partisans, they advocate randomly selecting citizens to participate. But random selection has its own problems. It's expensive and practically difficult. It's not embedded in local networks and associations, so its legitimacy may be questioned. And even in the best cases, the agenda and framing of the discussion can be biased, or perceived as biased.

Then there's the problem of fairness and equality within a discussion. In a paper entitled "Against Deliberation" that should be read by everyone in the movement (see Political Theory, vol. 25. no. 3 [June, 1997], pp. 347-76), Lynn M. Sanders notes that some citizens are better than others at articulating their concerns in rational, reasonable terms." Some are more learned and practiced at making arguments that would be recognized by others as reasonable ones." Some people are simply more willing to speak; for example, studies of US juries show that men talk far more than women in deliberations.

Furthermore, some people are more likely to be listened to than others." For instance, studies of US juries show that they tend to elect white males as forepersons. Studies of US college students show that white students have much more influence than Black students in joint collaborative projects, even controlling for age, socioeconomic status, height, and attitudes toward school.

I have observed the organizers and moderators of low-stakes public deliberations overcome these problems. They deliberately support participants who might be disadvantaged in the conversation. Today's public deliberations are likely to be more equitable than juries or teams of college students, because moderators are trained and focused on equality. But what about tomorrow's deliberations? When the stakes go up, individuals with more status or skill will fight back against efforts to support less advantaged participants. They will depict such efforts as "politically correct" or otherwise biased, and they will use their status, confidence, and rhetorical fluency to win the point.

July 30, 2004 10:36 AM | category: deliberation | Comments

Comments

You wrote about the challenges deliberative methods face if they really gain traction. You note that some of these problems can be dealt with through the random selection of participants, but that random selection itself has problems. Here are the challenges you present and answers to them.

Random selection is expensive and practically difficult.

Certainly it is expensive, especially when compared to what is spent on many local deliberative efforts. But the deliberative efforts designed to influence public policy are themselves expensive. The extra $10,000 to $20,000 expended to do the random selection properly will make up a relatively small portion of the total project costs (in the Jefferson Centers Citizens Jury projects, it was 10% to 15 % of the total cost). Also, the method does have some difficulties, but these have been overcome by over a decade of work by the Jefferson Center to work the kinks out of the process.

It's not embedded in local networks and associations, so its legitimacy may be questioned.

Those doing deliberation on the local level often count on gaining legitimacy from the volunteers they receive through local networks and associations. But the Jefferson Center conducted a number of statewide projects using random selection where that was an asset rather than a detriment. Focus group work in Washington state in 1997 about possible projects with high impact using randomly selected participants reinforces the legitimacy of this approach, in line with the positive experiences in Pennsylvania and Minnesota in the early 1990s.

In cases where the legitimacy is questioned, the final selection of participants from a larger pool of randomly selected people can be done in public in order to demonstrate the fairness of the project. This was done very successfully in a Citizens Jury project in 1995 on hog farming.

And even in the best cases, the agenda and framing of the discussion can be biased, or perceived as biased.

The agenda and framing of discussion can indeed be biased unless considerable care is taken. This is a more significant challenge to legitimacy than random selection. The Jefferson Center dealt with this by setting up an advisory committee of diverse stakeholders to help with the setting of the agenda and framing of questions. In high visibility projects, the Center would team up with some trusted group such as the League of Women Voters. In the early 1990s the Center experimented with citizen review of the agenda setting process to add to legitimacy. This led to a carefully designed structure for the board of directors for projects designed for high impact projects (more about this below).

Then there's the problem of fairness and equality within a discussion. Some citizens are better than others at articulating their concerns in rational, reasonable terms. Some are more learned and practiced at making arguments that would be recognized by others as reasonable ones. Some people are simply more willing to speak; for example, studies of US juries show that men talk far more than women in deliberations.

These indeed are problems inherent in any deliberative method, which is why the Citizens Jury process, as conducted by the Jefferson Center, always used trained and carefully monitored facilitators to insure fairness in discussions. The facilitators would give the jurors the option of how controlled or loose the discussions should be. They would start out in a fairly controlled fashion in order to give all a chance to talk and prevent anyone from taking too much time. There is no doubt that by the end of the 5-day hearings, the more articulate spoke more than others, even when the facilitators kept a tight control on the discussions. But the group as a whole could direct the facilitator as to how much control on the articulate should be exercised. It should not be assumed that the articulate simply speak up in favor of self-interested ideas. To the degree that the articulate spoke for the group as a whole, participants in a Citizens Jury were willing to have the facilitators exercise a looser control over how much the articulate could speak.

Some critics will assert that this is not good enough, even if much fairer than discussions in most civil and criminal juries. After all, a majority of participants in a Citizens Jury may be fooled by the most clever among them. This is of course possible, but it is a problem of negligible concern. What method is better? Often the strongest critics of deliberative methods are those who want to get rid of them in order to fall back on methods that are open to blatant unfairness, such as legislative hearings.

But what about tomorrow's deliberations? When the stakes go up, individuals with more status or skill will fight back against efforts to support less advantaged participants. They will depict such efforts as "politically correct" or otherwise biased, and they will use their status, confidence, and rhetorical fluency to win the point.

This is a significant concern. But there are ways to try to counteract this. Take, for example, the Citizens Initiative Review, a deliberative method designed to review ballot initiatives and report to the public. The citizens panels at the heart of this method are modeled on the Citizens Jury process and would be conducted by staff serving under an independent commission located in the Office of the Secretary of State. An attempt is being made to get this adopted in the state of Washington in such a way that public funds will be used to fund the citizens panels (see www.cirwa.org).

A great deal of experience and work has gone into the design of the commission that will oversee the Citizens Initiative Review process. This does not, of course, guarantee it will work. But the design is sophisticated enough that it cannot simply be written off as unworkable in the face of political pressures. We all know the many instances of reforms not working as intended. But new methods need to be tried. I would submit that as much, if not more, careful research and experience has gone into the design of the Citizens Initiative Review as into many elements of the U.S. Constitution as designed by the Founding Fathers. This does not guarantee its success by any means, but it makes it worth a try.

The goal of those trying to establish the Citizens Initiative Review in WA is to mobilize considerable support for it among those in the state who feel that ballot initiatives are a blunt tool for public policy and something needs to be done to improve the way they work. Many of those who currently support it are of high status and skill. If the Citizens Initiative Review is adopted in WA, no doubt an effort will be made to attack it, perhaps through attacks on its legitimacy or political correctness. Should this happen, the organizers hope that there will be a large number of people with status and skill who will defend it against those with status and skill who attack it. Perhaps politics in America has come to the point where there is much more status and skill on the side of the selfish than on the side of the public spirited. If so, then the problems of democracy in America are much deeper than any of the posited weaknesses of deliberative methods.

August 23, 2004 2:10 PM | Comments (1) | posted by Ned Crosby

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