Across the world we are seeing an increasing trend towards citizens wanting to have a voice in how they are governed. We have seen the emergence of a plethora of online tools designed to raise the voices of individuals, build communities of similar thinkers and ultimately influence the agendas of government. Whether it be Facebook, Twitter, online petitions or others… citizens’ want to have a say and they want governments to respond accordingly.
The challenge of course is that the views expressed through these mediums are invariably polarised and more often than not, ill informed.
What should a government do when it has two petitions with similar levels of support but opposing views? Or what should a government do where the weight of community support is for an approach/ policy that doesn’t stand up to the briefest analysis or is in direct conflict with the weight of academic research and scientific evidence?
Undeniably governments and the public sectors that support them are in an invidious position. As not acting in accordance with the weight of community view results in a disenfranchised community and undermines trust between citizens and the government; but acting in accordance can have significant risks or negative consequences.
So what does government do? How can government work to build understanding of the complexity underpinning key policy issues? How can governments help to bring citizens across the spectrum of views together to discuss those issues and come to conclusions together about the best way forward? Directions that all citizens can live with and even support?
There is hope!
The practice of deliberative democracy offers a range of principles and approaches that can help in creating the right environment to bridge divides and share information; thus, building the relationship between government and community. There are a range of deliberative democratic processes that you may have heard of…. Citizens’ juries, participatory budgeting and deliberative polling. Used appropriately these methodologies can be transformative in assisting you to overcome the challenges identified earlier in this article.
However, they only work in certain circumstances and for the right problem or issue. Not all issues lend themselves to these specific methodologies and sometimes the specific approaches contained within these methodologies can be challenging or difficult for governments to pursue in full unchanged.
However, this doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bath water!
It is our experience that using key elements underpinning these deliberative approaches but in a more flexible and responsive way can be more effective at assisting you in hearing the diverse voices of your community than the application of a specific prescribed methodology such as the citizens jury.
In our experience applying deliberative practice we have identified the following seven elements as critical to success;
- Seek to hear from the diversity of views
- Do it together
- Start from an open question on a problem or opportunity (not from a solution/idea)
- Balanced Information
- Establish mechanisms to ensure the process cannot be led
- Allow enough time
Seek to hear from a diversity of views
Most commonly when governments engage they hear from those with strong opinions and the loudest voices. Traditional engagement techniques, such as advertising public meetings etc result in only those who have become impassioned on the issue and have time turn up. The same is true of government’s attempts to engage online or through responses to discussion papers.
Hearing only from those with loud voices / with a strong view is generally pretty unhelpful as it doesn’t help the government to understand the views of the majority of citizens. It also doesn’t help in bridging the divides or building consensus between different views because the conversation will be dominated either by one side of the debate or by those at the polar ends of the debate who aren’t open to considering the possibilities.
Hence it is essential to extend engagement processes beyond the usual suspects and involve a diversity of citizens – those with strong views, those without, a diversity of age groups, men and women, different cultural groups etc.
There are many ways this can be achieved. The way we most commonly use is to randomly select citizens and then invite them to participate. From those who respond, we do a random stratified sample to ensure that we reach a diversity across the demographics that we have identified as being important to hear from. This will ensure that you not only hear from those who a strongly interested in the issues but also from those who have a view but are not necessarily impassioned.
To make this approach work the commitment you make to the process (see point 6) is critical as people will only give up their time to help if they think you are serious about asking them and intend to respect the process and take on board their advice.
Do it together
Bring these diverse voices together in one room. Don’t be afraid of bringing those voices together. There is no point in them not talking to each other.
Undeniably this will be hard. We don’t pretend otherwise. This is where having skilled and experienced facilitators is vital, as is making sure that the facilitator is independent of government.
Start from an open question
If at all possible, try not to start from a way forward … an idea, initiative or approach for resolving a problem or pursuing an opportunity. If you can start from a blank page. Instead of spending time identifying ideas to put to the community commit the time to deeply understanding the issue you want to resolve and then articulate that well. Then engage the community around developing solutions or ideas around this open question.
Don’t make the mistake of trying to sell a particular way forward … instead share the breadth of thinking, information, research and/or scientific evidence around an issue and let the community assess the veracity of the information they receive. You will be tempted to choose only those academics or experts who you think (or the government more broadly thinks) are most authoritative/appropriate but resist this urge.
Citizens are smarter than you think! They can, will and do assess the information they receive to determine the legitimacy of what they receive, providing they have sufficient time to do so.
Establish mechanisms to ensure the process cannot be led
The credibility of the process relies on ensuring that nobody has led it in a particular direction. This includes ensuring that it isn’t led by yourself of the government you are working for.
Achieving this is also critical to ensuring ongoing engagement of the community members participating in the process. If they feel it is being led, the chances of their ongoing engagement will become diminished.
Allow enough time
Deliberative processes require some time. How you structure this time to make it accessible for people is up to you, but people need time to consider the information and to talk to each other about it.
Government needs to be committed to the process. What this commitment looks like and how you articulate it are up to you, but it needs to be clear to the community that the outcomes from your process are being heard; that government is listening, and it is committed to acting in some way.
In addition, it is important and useful that the broader public is brought on the journey of the process – offer opportunities for anybody to share their views with the deliberative group that is participating in the process and ensure you have sufficient communications strategies in place to share information about the process and its outcomes.
The key elements of deliberative democratic practice are extraordinarily helpful in enabling you to get beyond loud, impassioned voices and hearing the views of the mainstream majority, but in a way which helps to build understanding and consensus between people with divergent views.
They will also improve the quality of government policy and ensure it is directly relevant too and meeting the needs of the community.
If applied broadly and with respect to the community these processes demonstrate to the community that government is listening to them and is committed to raising their voices as part of the political process.
Interested in learning more?
We are running our first 2 day training for this in February 2018. To find out more and register, click here