Comparing Deliberative Democracy & Conflict Resolution

There has been a lot of interest over the last few years in exploring possible links between public policy conflict resolution and deliberative democracy. Are these two fields related to each other or completely separate or even incompatible? So far, I’m coming up with a yes-yes answer and hopefully that’s not just my mediator mind trying to pull opposites together. Here’s my rough-hewn, decidedly non-academic way of thinking about the two approaches to formulating public policy.

The Interest-Based Model

Most practitioners in the collaborative public policy arena spend their time working with competing interest groups, often in an intensely political atmosphere, to reach agreements that can directly influence specific governmental policies and decisions. Success depends on understanding the interplay of interests and the relative power among participants. It’s assumed that the public interest is captured because, hopefully, all of the organized constituencies have had input to the agreement.

The Deliberative Model

Deliberative democracy depends on a model of decision-making that addresses the public good through informed agreement among ordinary citizens. The various processes associated with this approach rule out involvement of the organized interest groups and select citizens through some form of random sampling method. One of the criteria for participation in such groups is usually that the person is not a partisan of any particular view. There is a better chance, it’s thought, for this type of group to consider larger interests of society than it is for a group consisting of partisan activists.


Putting it that briefly leaves out many exceptions and practical differences. For example, public agencies and public interest organizations will raise pitchforks at the idea that they are representing anything but the broader public good when participating in consensus building. And deliberative democracy processes may be deeply influenced by interest-based thinking, depending on who convenes, how participants are chosen, what information they are given, among other factors. No process follows a perfect model; there are always practical adaptations to deal with specific issues and locations. We’ll get to these critical concerns in later posts.

Points of Comparison

But looking just at the basic assumptions usually associated with these two approaches, what could they have in common? I find several elements.

  • Convening. They are usually convened with the help of influential leaders. The citizens and activists concerned about the issue may, in some circumstances, try to get a process going, but it usually takes the pull of a widely respected individual or organization as well as the availability of funding and other resources to set things in motion. Leadership and funding can have an impact in creating pressures on a group, no matter how much deference is paid to the idea of participant control over both process and outcome.

  • Professional Facilitation. These processes are complicated and not nearly as familiar to participants as other approaches to conflict resolution, in the one case, and formation of public policy opinions, in the other. The quality and objectivity of facilitators is critical to success since these professionals are the ones who not only keep discussion focused and moving toward consensus but also keep participants from veering into confrontation or argumentative posturing.

  • Consensus-Seeking and Collaborative. Both types of processes seek some level of consensus in order to produce outcomes that have the broadest possible support. And they do this in a collaborative manner that may be closely guided at the outset but must by its later phases become a genuine group effort if it is to succeed.

  • Need for Information. Both types of groups start off by determining what information they need and then obtaining it from the sources that are most trusted by the group. Members of a multi-stakeholder collaborative are familiar with those sources and usually have to negotiate exactly how they will get the data they need. Participants in a deliberative process, however, start off with little or no knowledge of the subject matter and depend on the organizers to provide them with trustworthy information. Getting the best information is the critical first step in both approaches.

  • Group Intelligence. Both approaches depend on the dynamics of groups to generate ideas and solutions through a collaborative process of dialogue leading to agreement. In consensus-seeking collaboratives, the creativity of a group comes into play in the effort to generate innovative solutions through brainstorming, lateral thinking, values-based thinking and other structured methods. This phase is critical to reaching resolution of difficult problems and reconciling opposing interests. A deliberative process depends of effective dialogue through which participants also consider new ideas and ways of thinking about problems. The basic flow of these two types of processes strikes me as similar in these respects.

There are many other points of comparison that I’ll take up in later posts. This is a subject that needs a lot of exploration at a practical level as well as a theoretical one. I’d like to know what your ideas are about these two important trends in developing public policy.


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