Dialogue & Deliberation

Deliberating to Change Public Policy


With so much attention focused on the Obama Administration’s Open Government Initiative , it’s worth taking a look at recent nationwide and state efforts to bring the public closer to government through the use of deliberative democracy techniques. Two impressive examples among many are the Citizens Parliament in Australia, convened to consider ways of improving the governmental system, and CaliforniaSpeaks on Health Care Reform, a project using the Twenty-First Century Town Hall Meeting of AmericaSpeaks. Each of these used very different structures from that of the current White House effort, most notably by using face-to-face gatherings rather than limiting citizen interaction to written online exchanges. Nevertheless, they all share the goal of enhancing the role and impact of citizens in defining public policy.

It’s that hope of actual impact on policy that I’d like to focus on in this post. How can processes of deliberation by ordinary citizens, whose role in public policy is normally limited to voting in elections, achieve governmental adoption and implementation of their recommendations? The Australian Citizens Parliament and CaliforniaSpeaks both had difficulty moving citizen proposals and policy concerns into the existing political arena. At the time of this writing, there is great skepticism that the Obama Open Government Initiative will lead to real change.

Success of Deliberative Democracy

Problems with implementation, though, shouldn’t detract from the enormous successes of the Australian and California projects. (It’s too early to evaluate the White House initiative.) They organized and smoothly carried out extremely complicated events while attracting wide publicity and engaging top government leadership. Most important, they created effective deliberative experiences for the citizen participants that generated a sense of empowerment as well as enthusiasm about public policy and the political process. Helping to reverse widespread distrust of government and politics is in itself an important step.

The Citizens Parliament used the AmericaSpeaks model of the 21st Century Town Hall Meeting that creates opportunities for a large numbers of people to deliberate in individually facilitated small groups. An electronic voting technology instanteously shows participants their trending and final policy preferences. CaliforniaSpeaks added another dimension to that process by holding eight simultaneous sessions at locations across the state, all linked by computer, so that participants in all eight cities could immediately share the results of their deliberations. That technology supported the work of more than 3500 citizens.

Potential Impact on Policy Decisions

Nevertheless, the question is inevitably asked: What impact does all the energy and excitement of participation have on government policy? The hope of having such an impact on decisions is a major incentive for both conveners and citizens to invest considerable time and resources in sponsorship and participation. People want results. They want to see the adoption and implementation of the agreements and recommendations they have worked so hard to achieve.

In the video of his presentation to the Australian Parliament about the results of the Citizens Parliament, John Dryzek referred briefly to disappointment with the official response to its recommendations. That official reaction consisted only of a brief letter of acknowledgment from the Prime Minister with no commitment regarding follow-up action. Despite such a tepid reaction, the Parliament itself was highly praised for its success as a deliberative experience that included representatives from every political district in the country.

The initial assessment of CaliforniaSpeaks on Health Care Reform, while reporting general acclaim for meaningful involvement of the public and for the organization and efficiency of the event itself, said: “Despite the success of the process, external factors limited its impact on the policy outcome.” Legislators indicated that the timing was a little late and that they had already formed their opinions about health care reform. The citizen preferences could not, therefore, “fit into the context of local political negotiations.” The role of the interest groups, professional associations and advocates had a much more influential role in the policy debate.

Attempting to Change Politics as Usual

Such outcomes raise a question: Apart from the wishes of participants, and given the current domination of the political process by interest group lobbying, what is a realistic expectation about the impact on actual policy decisions that such processes can have?

The deliberative democracy projects intentionally avoid focusing on the organized advocates, who already have well-established methods for influencing public policy. Instead they choose a cross-section of the public at large, in order to create new channels of access to government for ordinary citizens. The organized advocacy groups usually serve as resources during each process to help educate citizens on the major points of view about the issues they are discussing but are not allowed to play a dominant role.

The sponsors of deliberative democracy projects, though, understand quite well the importance of reaching decision-makers, even while subordinating the role of influential political advocates. The Australian Citizens Parliament and the CaliforniaSpeaks project were privately sponsored, but each had access to the highest levels of their respective governments. California Speaks involved the Governor and legislative leadership in the citizen meetings. The final report of the Australian Citizens Parliament, which contained proposals for the general improvement of the governmental system, went directly to the Prime Minister and the National Parliament.

One hope of these projects for building influence on political decision-making centers on the credibility of proposals reached, not through customary interest group politics, but by the relatively disinterested deliberation of citizens with no professional stake in the outcome. By working with a cross-section of the population at large, the projects present to decision-makers the policy preferences – and enthusiasm – of well-informed citizens who have the opportunity to develop views on alternative policies through dialogue with their peers. This is an attempt to add a critical dimension of informed public will to politics as usual.

Numbers Count

In terms of the current political process and its methods for defining policy, however, policy makers attach a somewhat different meaning to the results of such projects.They focus on the numbers and passion of voters and the fact that they are devoting so much time to a major issue. That is much more important to them than the particular proposals resulting from the deliberative process or the process itself. This reality is captured succinctly in comments recorded during evaluation interviews following the CaliforniaSpeaks process. To quote the assessment report (available here):

Although the majority of the respondents talked about the influence of special interest groups, two legislative staff members stressed that, despite the influence of interest group lobbyists, the role of the general public was still of primary importance. As one explained, “public interest groups help to craft the legislation, but the motivational factor is the people.” The other stated, “Lobbying is effective, but so is the old-fashioned tallying up of phone calls and emails. We can’t ignore that. We can’t make up grassroots.” Another legislative respondent felt that public opinion should play an equal role to that of special interest groups and said, “It’s always surprising when we get a lot of constituent calls because they don’t normally get involved.”

In other words, those who are influential in the legislative and policy processes are already sensitive to the importance of grassroots movements and their impact on elected officials. Citizen responses in the aggregate clearly have an impact. The intensity of public concern as well as the weight of numbers of voters taking the trouble to comment on a pending decision have to be taken seriously by elected officials. But that’s always been true. CaliforniaSpeaks on Health Care Reform was especially impressive in this regard because it involved thousands of voters who were deliberating simultaneously in multiple locations across the state. Politicians and advocates of all persuasions would have to pay attention to such a concentration of citizen participation on one major issue.

A more limited response by the Australian government to reform proposals of the Citizens Parliament might be due in part to the much smaller numbers of citizens who were involved. It could also result from the fact that this project did not focus on a single issue under intense public debate but encouraged participants to develop ideas on the general theme of reform government so that it could better serve people’s needs.

It shouldn’t be surprising that advocates of deliberative democracy should run into problems with the established political system they are trying to change. The Australian Citizens Parliament and CaliforniaSpeaks on Health Care Reform are important pioneering efforts to find altogether new ways to give voice to the public in political decision-making. Getting people and institutions with established power to make room for a new approach is obviously a difficult and long-term goal.


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