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Book Club Week 2: Three Models of Democratic Deliberation

Below is the chapter summary by Juli Fellows of Noelle McAfee’s chapter of our summer book club book, Democratizing Deliberation. Read over the summary and add your own reflections and questions below — and check out last week’s great discussion here if you missed it.

Hi, everyone!  This is Juli Fellows, from Austin.  I’m an independent facilitator and mediator who’s been an NCDD member for five or six years.  I was on the 2008 NCDD conference team and also the planning group for the 2010 Austin regional conference.

I use and teach dialogue skills in my practice in several ways.  I’ve been a dialogue skills coach for the Leadership Austin Essential class since 2007.  I’ve collaborated with, and led workshops for, the innovative University of Texas at Austin Difficult Dialogues program.  I also regularly use dialogue as a tool in my facilitation work. Since I’ve had very limited hands-on experience with deliberation, I asked Sandy if I could summarize Noelle’s McAfee’s very approachable chapter, Three Models of Democratic Deliberation.

Noelle, who very kindly reviewed my work and gave me wise advice, differentiates three models of deliberation – the preference-based model, the rational proceduralist model and what she calls the integrative model.  She says her thinking about these models came out of her experience working at their intersection.  She states clearly that these models aren’t mutually exclusive and are often combined in actual practice.

Noelle initially points out that “those who take part in deliberative experiments (a lovely choice of words, I think) have rather different ideas of what deliberation means, even though we use the word as if everyone agrees on what it means… The differences are not merely semantic…” I see her chapter as an exploration of the underlying differences in meaning and an exploration, not of what is right or best, but what models might help us accomplish what ends.

I’m a very visual person, so what immediately came to my mind as I began reading the chapter was a table, comparing the three models.  (I also considered creating a mind map, but I liked the side-by-side nature of a table.)  Interestingly enough, when I shared my table with Noelle, she told me she had created something very similar before writing her chapter!  So here’s my take (with Noelle’s input) on some of the qualities and factors that Noelle examines, illuminated for each model.

In closing, Noelle says that “My concern in this paper has been that deliberative polling has been too informed by a preference-based model of democratic deliberation and not informed (nor, as a result, formed) enough by an integrative model.  In its concern to help individuals deliberate and refine their opinions, it has overlooked the public task of politics.”   She goes on to describe how often in deliberative polling, after the announcement of how much people’s opinions have changed through the process, she often finds the participants comparing notes, trying to piece together all the moving and conflicting parts, to answer the question “now what shall we do? In these rooms the people know that, in politics, at the end of the day, our task is not to decide what each of us wants, but to decide what we as a polity should do.”

Here are a few discussion questions to start us off.  I look forward to hearing from you!

  1. In your own deliberation experience, have you perceived differences in approaches that would fit these three models?  What differences do you perceive?
  2. What values do you believe underlie each of the models?
  3. What do you think about Noelle’s closing statement that “at the end of the day, our task is not to decide what each of us wants, but to decide what we as a polity should do”?
  4. How might Noelle’s explication of the three models help advance your practice or the field of democratic deliberation?
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  1. Quick correction in the chart… I believe the text under the preference-based model for premise should say “Democracy means rule by fully informed individuals” (fully informed, not fully formed).

  2. Useful summary and chart, Juli – thanks. I’d like to build on your questions 1 and 4.

    It seems to me that, in principle, deliberations following the guidelines of models 1 and 2 know when the process is done: the first, when you’ve gathered participants’s considered viewpoints as input for the decisionmakers; the second, when you reach consensus.

    But, particularly when there are deep disagreements, how do you know you’re done when following the integrative model?

    I’d guess that the ideal here is that participants reach a consensus about the process, not in the sense of “we all agree wholeheartedly with policy X”, but rather “we all agree that X is the policy that best takes into account our different agreements, recognizing that some of us, left to ourselves, would have preferred policies Y or Z”.

    I’ve seen this happen – situations where members of a group consider a certain group decision legitimate, even though they disagree with it.

    • Nancy J Hess says:

      Thank you Chris for introducing the term “legitimate” in the discussion. I think the word is helpful in understanding outcomes. A decision made by a governing body who makes a decision based on what is most rational may not be experienced as a legitimate outcome in the context of divisive or complex issues. But a decision by a governing body who allows a process to unfold where the community is able to dialogue and posit their views may be more likely to be experienced as legitimate. Would others agree? I have certainly witnessed this. The divisiveness in the community is contained because it has been expressed. It has not necessarily ended and may await another phase, but the community, at least for a time, can move on.

      In this way, the decision of the governing body may or may not be the most rational or reasoned, but I have to imagine that good governance dictates that the body be able to explain the decision within the context of the community deliberation. For example, “we’ve heard the spectrum of views, and we have considered our founding by-laws, a,b,and c. Our decision is based on our best interpretation of the needs of the community, principles of fairness and adherence to our founding documents. We acknowledge this is not the way others see this….” And so on, the point being the process allows for dissenting views to be recognizing and incorporated into the collective story.


      • Juli Fellows says:

        Nancy, I’ve often seen what you describe. Agencies that are eager to make the most “rational” or “scientifically correct” decision are often seen as not legitimate by many of the parties. But when a process has thoroughly unfolded the interests and the agency has demonstrated willingness to hear and work with many interests, the agency may have stronger support.

        Chris – I valued your point that in models 1 and 2 you know when you’re done. I’ve been involved in projects where the participants in the process reached consensus on a proposal that was so strong that there was a good sense of closure. I’ve also seen groups agree on proposals that were the best the group could do but not fully satisfactory. The sense of being “done” is very different in those two scenarios.

      • Nancy – I tend to slip in “legitimacy” wherever I can, but in this case it was almost unconscious. The experience I alluded to, where some participants clearly disagreed with the outcome and yet felt comfortable with it, has stuck with me.

        Your suggestion that “good governance dictates that the body be able to explain the decision within the context of the community deliberation” begins to meld models 1 & 3. Even if the people polled don’t participate in the final “aggregation and decision”, it’s a step forward if they understand and credit how the decision was reached.

  3. Lisa Hinely says:

    I was going to say kind of the same thing in response to “at the end of the day, our task is not to decide what each of us wants, but to decide what we as a polity should do”? I think what we’d like is to do both. The body needs to decide what to do (which might be nothing or wait or continue talking), but each person should have gotten something out of their participation that would clarify or refine what they want.

    fwiw, I just recently had an experience that was the opposite of “situations where members of a group consider a certain group decision legitimate, even though they disagree with it.” The final result was really just about what I would have done if it were totally up to me, but I was furious at the process, and at least some others were openly uncomfortable.

    • Juli Fellows says:

      As a mediator, I was taught that there are three kinds of satisfaction – substantive (did I get what I wanted?), procedural (was the process fair?) and psychological (was I respected?) My experience is that they are all important, as your example would point out.

  4. By framing the issue in terms of three distinct types of deliberation, Noelle implicitly introduces a fourth type, which is deliberation over which type or style of deliberation to use in particular situations. Assuming there is some type of distribution of preferences for results, procedures, or properly-derived results among a given population of potential deliberators, how is the choice of which approach to adopt to be made? Part of the sophistication of the integrative model, it seems, is that if planners of an event go one way or the other they can be overturned by the participants.

    It seems that not to choose is also actually a choice in this case: this may be the very functional result of ambiguity among many people using the term in different ways – with each pursuing their own vision of what ought to be happening within the same conversation. That seems, in fact, to be happening in a lot of actual cases at the point at which a “what are we supposed to be doing here?” conversation breaks out.

    And, what it suggests is that there ought to be at least two “products” or reports from every deliberation: One addressing results and one addressing process. But, then, wouldn’t that be a product/report premised on the third approach?

    I think what I’m saying here is that while it is useful to distinguish outcomes and procedures, the third, integrative approach may be more or less inevitable at least among contemporary democratic Americans: Regardless of the intentions of the planners or framers of the debate, groups have a way of taking their own direction (rather democratically, it seems) and anytime there is a mixed group of the results-oriented and procedure oriented, each is likely to get at least some of its own view of the right way of doing things: Results as a corrective to too much process, or procedural concern as a corrective to too much focus on results.

  5. Tom Atlee says:

    I believe that our task is BOTH to decide what each of us wants AND to decide what we as a polity should do. And I believe that the “should” (in the previous sentence) ultimately needs to be about what is wise. Individually and collectively, we should do what is wise. We urgently need both wise public policy and wise self-organized action and behavior.

    So I believe there is a (fourth? fifth?) model, which we could call “the collective wisdom model”. It would include all the others as part of the raw material for its greater task. It would assume that wisdom involves – and is, for this purpose, defined by – taking into account what needs to be taken into account for broad, long-term benefit.

    I suggest that the collective wisdom model would, above all, view diversity as a resource and our challenge as being how to use diversity creatively. It would recognize and try to integrate diverse sources of wisdom, including
    * Productive and generative conversations among appropriately diverse people, interests, perspectives (citizens, stakeholders, experts, etc.);
    * Quality diverse information (framings for deliberation, testimony, the web, etc.);
    * Diverse sources of holistic insight (systems thinking, patterns of nature and evolution, exploratory scenario work, multiple-viewpoint stories, common ground among wisdom traditions, studies of universal human needs, etc.)
    * Diverse ways of knowing – reason, emotion, intuition, aesthetics, action, imagination, etc.
    * Respect for all forms of dynamic tension – notably including conflict – as sources of whole-picture understanding and energy for creative resolution and transcendence.
    * Respect for coherence, mystery, self-organization and transformation – knowing that public policy and self-motivated activity by individuals, networks and communities will inevitably co-evolve (and can be helped to co-evolve consciously and with greater coherence and aliveness), all within a context of vision and aspiration on the one hand and grounded, humble exploration and learning on the other.

    There are few fully-realized examples of the collective wisdom model, but prototypes of its different aspects have been emerging, ranging from Consensus Conferences and Citizens Assemblies, to Future Search and backcasting, to Open Space and World Cafe, to Creative Insight Councils and Wisdom Councils, to various crowd-sourcing, collaboration and deliberative websites, and much more.

    So the collective wisdom model would be neither just theory nor applied method, but rather an evolutionary journey that includes both interacting. The heart of the collective wisdom model would be active inquiry and experimentation seeking the means to evoke and empower “the wisdom of the whole” in all its forms. It is a space for major innovation, with dialogue, deliberation, choice creating, empathic listening, knowledge systems, and all our other human interactive and consciousness-expanding methodologies as potential resources to help stakeholders and the public generate the wisdom that we so sorely need.

    • Juli Fellows says:

      Tom, I agree that we need BOTH. I like your idea of framing it as wisdom and as neither just theory nor just applied method. The few times I’ve experienced such a thing it was transformational… and a challenge for everyone involved!

    • Kim Crowley says:

      Tom Atlee said: “So the collective wisdom model would be neither just theory nor applied method, but rather an evolutionary journey that includes both interacting.”

      I love the idea of an evolving collective wisdom journey! Evolution moves forward because of interplay among threats to survival, creation of novelty, and a connection to the right niche at the right time. I’m wondering if you, Tom, or anyone here has observed noteworthy threats, novelty, or niches that might be in the process of nudging this collective evolution forward. For example, can anyone identify niches where practitioner-theorists are knitting together some of the starred items in new ways?

    • Those who currently participate in deliberation do so for many reasons. Those reasons are personal and unique to the individual. I am sure many approach the existing models and fully participate for the reasons and with the hopes that you outline in your post.

      I am having some trouble understanding what is considered wise, however. I have often thought of wisdom and the concept of what is wise as something best achieved through a combination of intelligence, experience and reflection. I think that if I were approached with wisdom as a goal, I personally might be intimidated to the point of not fully participating in any activity. I think it would be difficult to “create wisdom” through any kind of model. I realize that is not what is suggested, but deliberation can be a difficult sell for so many people because it is stretching their comfort zones and requires work. I could see where this approach could make acceptance on a large-scale difficult.

      • Kim Crowley says:

        I see “creating wisdom” as a process of learning to think better and combining perspectives to deepen insight. I don’t see it as an endpoint to arrive at, just a way of thinking about thinking.

  6. Jan Inglis says:

    I really appreciated the teasing apart and critiquing of the models that Noelle has offerred here. I very much agree that the first two can offer improvement to the usual uninformed reactive responses that voters often use, but they still leave us as individuals. We are then isolated parts only, not seeing ourselves as intrinsically connected with each other and also with the whole issue… players in how the issue developed and is maintained. This awareness can move the focus to being about ‘us’ as a collective public.

    My work with deliberation has been motivated by the need to support systemic understanding of issues which I beleive would have similarities to Noelles’s term integrative. Since public issues are complex, they need to be responded to systemically, and systemically designed processes therefore are required if we wish to resolve the issues. Part of working systemically is to see the multiple perspectives that surround the issue pushing and pulling our loyalties, and consider the implications and trade offs of taking various options. This kind of focused analysis and deliberation can truly push a synthesis or transformation to a higher level of response than was available amongst the isolated deliberators before the deliberation.

    • KK Aw says:

      Jan, I am with you that we need a systemic understanding of issues or an integrative approach as proposed by Noelles. Since the issues and deliberations are complex, there will be a need for analysis and reflection on the issues raised and how they affect different stakeholders. One way of putting is that we need to organize the information so that we can make sense of it. At the same time, we also need to be able to rearrange the information so that we can view them from different perspectives. The human brains are particularly weak in this and considering the diversity in our capacity, outlooks, values and situations, do you have any thoughts how this can be addressed.

      • Kim Crowley says:

        It might be worthwhile to collaborate with instructional designers, knowledge management professionals, and/or other cognitive specialists are issues of arranging information. I’m sure that cognitive load limits are a huge barrier to more effective perspective taking.

      • Jan Inglis says:

        Well KK I do feel there are ways to organize information so that we can make sense of it and also rearrange information so that we can view it through multiple perspectives. And Kim I agree that cognitive specialists can help. I have a background in adult cognitive development. Research shows there are natural sequences by which we ( human society ) engages with complex material and so when processes are designed to support those sequences then adults can engage and learn and make decision about their issues more effectivley. Prelimianry research done by Sara Ross and further developed by my application and research has shown that a process designed to support these developmental steps can increase the capacity of particpants to see and respond to their issues systemically.

  7. Kim Crowley says:

    Did anyone else react strongly to this line on p. 31 summarizing E. J. Dionne’s main point in _Why Americans Hate Politics_?

    “…Americans do not care about ideology, which seems to be the currency of conventional politics; rather they want solutions to problems.”

    It made me stop and wonder how “Americans” had been identified. In my world, I find many people prefer to vent personal frustrations by making ideological statements divorced from movement toward problem-solving. The subset of people who prefer problem-solving seems like a tiny portion to me, not representative of the whole. Then again, I tend to feel like more people would be interested in problem solving because if they were to see examples of success that would give them hope.

    • I’m glad you brought this up, Kim. We’ve been talking on the listserv about Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind,” and his premise is pretty much the opposite of E.J. Dionne’s — that people often align with the political party that seems to fit their ideology. He says that republican leaders tend to talk about idealogical principles (family values, free market, personal responsibility, etc.), which resonates a lot more than democrats’ strategy to talk about programs that will solve our problems.

      I’m sure many Americans care much more about problem-solving than ideology — but I wonder if those Americans are more likely to be liberals, first of all, and I wonder if those kinds of Americans are the ones who are much more likely to attend deliberative forums. If you are one of the many Americans who cares more about ideology, how much less likely would you actually be to attending an event designed to encourage you to think more deeply about a public problem and consider all viewpoints and choices?

      • Kim Crowley says:

        I’m wondering about conditions that exist when it’s true that Americans prefer ideology vs. when it’s true that Americans prefer problem-solving.

        I’m guessing that a preference for problem-solving might often really decode to mean a preference for doing rather than talking. I think people who prefer ideology like to talk about it, but may tend to differ in whether they talk “at” or “with” depending on where they are in the political spectrum. A much smaller subset of people may like to use discussion as a problem-solving tool, but I think the percentage of Americans who have the skills to do that without help is small, and a large percentage of Americans just don’t think it’s practical to try. That’s just my stab at it.

        I’m loving Jonathan Haidt’s work from what I’ve seen in his TED talk and a Bill Moyers interview. Here’s a link for those who might want it:


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