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The Challenge of Populism to Deliberative Democracy

As populism sees a global resurgence, it is critical for our field to examine what this phenomenon means for our work. That’s why we encourage our network to give some thought to the insights offered in this piece from Lucy Parry of Participedia – an NCDD member organization. In it, Lucy examines the way citizens juries in Australia might violate core tenets of populism, and encourage us to consider how deliberative democracy – especially approaches using mini-publics – may need to evolve to avoid being delegitimized by populist challenges. You can read the piece below or find it on Participedia’s blog here.


When is a democratic innovation not a democratic innovation? The populist challenge in Australia

The following article by Participedia Research Assistant Lucy Parry was originally published by The Policy Space on October 11, 2016.

Democratic innovation is burgeoning worldwide. Over 50 examples from Australia alone are now detailed on Participedia, an online global project documenting democratic innovations. In some states, ‘mini-publics’ proliferate at local and state level. South Australia in particular has wholeheartedly embraced the notion of deliberative democracy and has embarked on an ambitious raft of citizen engagement processes including several Citizens’ Juries.

According to Graham Smith (2009) a democratic innovation must (a) engage citizens over organised interests and (b) be part of the wider political process. Mini-publics operationalise these aims through convening a group of citizens who are at least broadly representative of the wider population to deliberate on a given topic.

Despite fulfilling Smith’s criteria, democratic innovations in Australia run the risk of becoming neither democratic nor innovative. Scholarly debate over mini-publics peaked over a decade ago – isn’t it time to move on? Moving on necessitates moving with the times and dealing with contemporary challenges. One such challenge is the rise of populism. Australian democratic innovations typically rely on premises that are fundamentally opposed by populism: random selection and expert knowledge. This populist challenge cannot be ignored, and theorists and practitioners must meet it together.

Inside the room

A Citizens’ Jury is a well-known mini-public format: a small(ish) group of randomly selected citizens who meet several times to deliberate on a given topic. Random selection underpins the process in two ways. It aims to produce a descriptively representative sample, making the jurors literally a ‘mini public’ (Fung 2003; Ryan and Smith 2014): a microcosm of the wider population. Random selection also relates to deliberative quality: bringing together a group of random citizens reduces the likelihood of the loudest voices dominating. As Australian research organisation newDemocracy Foundation points out, ‘governments inevitably hear from the noisiest voices who insist on being heard’; lobbyists, Single Issue Fanatics (SIFs), Not-in-my-back-yards (NIMBYs) – call them what you will. Mini-publics are designed to foster a less adversarial, more nuanced debate with a group of random citizens.

I have observed Citizens’ Juries in the flesh and it is quite an extraordinary experience. Watching a room of disparate and diverse people evolve into a committed team negotiating technical topics like wind farm development leaves me feeling almost jubilant (I don’t get out much). When you are inside the room, watching the deliberative process at play, it really is wonderful. Australia is home to a number of practitioners including newDemocracy Foundation, DemocracyCo and Mosaic Lab, and it is undeniable that some great work is going on in Australia in this area.

But alas, the path of democracy never did run smoothly. Suffice to say that cracks begin to emerge when you are outside the room. If decisions are legitimate to the extent that they have been deliberated upon, then the decisions made by a mini-public suffer a legitimacy deficit, given the typically small group involved (Parkinson 2003). And although some recent Citizens’ Juries have sought to expand the number of participants, this diminishes the quality of dialogue (Chambers 2009). Furthermore, in the past 15 years a growing number of scholars have sought to move beyond the mini-public paradigm in deliberative democracy to tackle deliberation at the large scale – through deliberative systems (Dryzek 2009; Parkinson and Mansbridge 2012), deliberative cultures (Sass and Dryzek 2013) and deliberative societies.

Yet, the practice of deliberative democracy (in Australia at least) clings to the mini-public approach. South Australia is notable for its extensive citizen engagement yes, but is it really innovative? The Western Australian Department of Planning and Infrastructure undertook a similarly ambitious program of mini-public style engagements over a decade ago. This critique is not a reflection on the quality of democratic practice in Australia, nor is it a criticism of what goes on inside the room. It is instead a concern that further underpins the need for deliberative theorists and practitioners to work together.

Outside the room: the populist challenge

Remember those NIMBYs and SIFs that mini-publics aim to exclude through random selection? Their exclusion rests on the assumption that the quality and outcome of deliberation is better without those insistent voices. The aim is that through a process of deliberation, people will become ‘more public-spirited, more tolerant, more knowledgeable, more attentive to the interests of others, and more probing of their own interests’ (Warren 1992, p8). Producing deliberated public opinion involves weeding out weak and poorly informed arguments. Again, this is all very well if you are inside the room. If you’re outside the room, you may very well object.

And let’s face it, those objectionable voices are not going away. As Ben Moffit points out, ‘Populism, once seen as a fringe phenomenon relegated to another era or only certain parts of the world, is now a mainstay of contemporary politics across the globe’. The voices that a Citizens’ Jury wants to keep out of the room now have the room surrounded. If we continue down the mini-publics road, the very thing that allegedly legitimises mini-publics will also be its downfall. The assumptions underpinning random selection are that it is representative of the wider community; and that it facilitates better quality deliberation by bringing together everyday citizens rather than insistent voices. Whether these things are accurate or not is a moot point – what actually matters is how they are perceived by broader publics. It is sad but possibly true that for those outside the room, what goes on inside the room doesn’t matter. And I suspect that the argument that a Jury is representative and very well informed is simply not going to cut it.

Trust in the Australian political system is at a staggering low with very little trust in any level of government; mini-publics in Australia are almost invariably associated with a government body or statutory authority. Mini-publics rely on information presented by experts; populism rejects the knowledge of experts. With all the will and most independently-recruited-and-facilitated process in the world – people may just not trust it. And yet, even if there were greater trust in politics, the justification of random selection explicitly rejects populist public opinion – and vice versa. Bridie Jabour’s Guardian interviews with One Nation voters exemplifies this disconnect. One Hanson supporter is quoted as saying:

“I’m not a politician, I’m not an accountant, I’m not anybody who knows anything but I see stuff and think ‘that doesn’t look right to me’, the average Joe Blow feels things more than they actually understand or know, they feel things, they know stuff.”

The logic of randomly selected mini-publics goes against this. The question is how to respond; the populist challenge cannot simply be ignored or sneered at. Yet in a way, this is exactly what mini-publics can be perceived as doing.

The time is right

We are at a critical juncture in Australia. One option is to continue plying the mini-public trade and make extra efforts to engage more people in the process, and to better explain mini-publics to a wider audience. The question is whether we simply need to work on explaining ourselves better, or whether the populist challenge requires deeper reflection on the practice of democratic innovation and deliberative democracy. I am inclined toward the latter.

The challenge that populism poses should be seized as a catalyst to re-think the practice of deliberative democracy in Australia. Mini-publics are one of many worthy options; deliberative democracy is a far broader church – and democratic innovation even more so. Randomly selected mini-publics are not a cure-all. At best, they are an important piece embedded in a broader democratic process. At worst, they are a viable threat to the practice of deliberative democracy itself.

You can find the posting of this article on the Participedia blog at www.participedia.net/en/news/2016/11/13/when-democratic-innovation-not-democratic-innovation-populist-challenge-australia.

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Roshan Bliss
An inclusiveness trainer and group process facilitator, Roshan Bliss serves as NCDD's Youth Engagement Coordinator and Blog Curator. Combining his belief that decisions are better when everyone is involved with his passion for empowering young people, his work focuses on increasing the involvement of youth and students in public conversations.

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  1. Hi Roshan,

    Thank you for posting this. It’s interesting to read the author’s thoughts. I resonate with the perspective that we need many different approaches to deliberative democracy. That said, I’m puzzled by the assertion that mini-publics and random selection are inherently “anti-populist”.

    I am not up to date with what is taking place in Australia; however, I am in close touch with colleagues in Austria, where randomly-selected mini-publics have been spreading for the last 10 years. Austria, like Australia, like the rest of the world, also has a “populist” movement, yet the concerns that the author raises, don’t seem to be taking place there. I will share a more of the details of how they work with mini-publics, since as we know, “the Spirit is in the details”…

    But first… the dictionary I’m looking at defines “populism” as “support for the concerns of ordinary people”. That’s where the following sentence is quite puzzling to me; “the logic of randomly selected mini-publics goes against this.” How much more populist could one get, than a process that is based on listening to “ordinary people”?

    I do understand that, if we were to randomly select a small group of “ordinary people”, and only work with that small group, others could start feeling that this small group has now become an elite, even though it started out as quite “regular folks”. What is done in Austria to address this concern, is a multi-stage process. One part of the process does meet as a small group, yes – but then afterward, that small group offers their work to a much larger group, at a public meeting to which everyone is invited.

    At that larger gathering, everyone has the opportunity to not just hear what the small group did, but also to then discuss the findings with others present, using a World Café format that allows for all participants to engage in small-group conversation, before the closing large-group report-out. Only to the degree that the larger group resonates with the small-group findings, do these findings then become finalized as recommendations to whatever municipal, regional, or state body has sponsored the process.

    There is a further step to the Austrian model of working with mini-publics: a “Responder’s Group” is formed at that larger public meeting, tasked with meeting monthly to monitor to what degree the government is implementing these “bottom-up” recommendations that have come from the community itself. This group is composed of participants from the smaller mini-public, participants from the larger public gathering, and participants from the sponsoring agency.

    What I keep hearing from my colleagues there, is that process has become highly popular in Austria, across all political parties. The rise of an extremely conservative “populism” does not seem to have affected this. It seems that this may be in part, because these mini-publics are focused on addressing practical issues (not on discussing political candidates nor on party platforms. )

    Also, in addition to recommending what the community wants the government to do, these mini-publics have also had a tendency to focus on what community members themselves can do to address the issue they are exploring.

    One last item… while the mini-publics in Austria do bring in some amount of background information to offer some context for the issue they are exploring, they also work hard to keep expert presentations to a minimum. Instead, they work hard to draw out the feelings, perspectives, stories, personal knowledge, and experience of participants. Thus, the “average Joe Blow’s” feelings and knowledge are deeply listened to, with an appreciative and respectful attitude. And this in turn, may be part of why these mini-publics have become so popular there. For anyone interested in more of the details, my website has a page where I have been collecting English-language information about the work with mini-publics that is being done in Austria.

    In closing, I want to reiterate that I completely agree with the author that mini-publics need to be embedded as part of a broader democratic process. My friend and colleague Tom Atlee has written an entire book on all of the different ways and junctures where mini-publics could be embedded: see “Empowering Public Wisdom” on Amazon. And of course, that broader democratic process needs to include many other forms of participatory democracy as well, not just mini-publics.

    However, not being more familiar with the situation in Australia, I truly don’t understand how and why it is that mini-publics are being seen as constituting a “threat” to deliberative democracy, nor why working with random selection would be seen as an inherent threat to populism. I look forward to the learning that will undoubtedly come from this online dialogue!

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