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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.

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