Published on March 11, 2011

Why we need an institute for deliberation

By Annie Quick

Annie Quick is Researcher and Team Coordinator. She has a background in different methods of deliberation and participation and in youth democracy.

crowdLast week I wrote about some problems with the conversations around the AV referendum. In that blog I suggested that it should be more information-led, engaging and, crucially, more deliberative. In an attempt to address the unspoken question of who would take responsibility for these improvements, I ended with the rather weak assertion that ‘in the absence of any formal attempt to provide the space for such deliberation, we’ll have to take it upon ourselves to find, share, discuss and interrogate the options.’

But that’s not much of an answer. All the money in this referendum is channelled into the campaigns of those who want one result or the other. Given the nature of campaigning, they don’t necessarily have a clear interest in well-informed voters. Attempts at a more constructive conversation are swimming against a strong tide. It’s a bit late for any formal improvements this time round, but it highlights a major failing in our attempts at a more direct, participative democracy.

Today I want to propose an alternative: a permanent, independent, government-backed institution which holds specific responsibility for supporting and encouraging public deliberation about issues which matter to people.

In December, Sciencewise published some research carried out by Izwe which compared countries on the basis of public dialogue in science and technology. They found that countries with such institutions ‘have a strong basis for embedding public dialogue and participation as a core element in political considerations on the impacts, risks and priorities of science and technology development.’ The research focussed on institutions with a specific remit for dialogue in science and technology, but it’s easy to see how the conclusions might apply to those which deal with public dialogue more generally.

This suggestion might sound a bit unfashionable; the idea of a new, central institution for dialogue being ‘not very Big Society’. But I think that this misunderstands how dialogue and participation work; it also misunderstands the relationship between citizen and state. As the government agrees, rolling back the state won’t ensure society moves forward into its place. Citizens still need the support and resources to take matters into their own hands – and this is no different in public dialogue.

Other countries, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, provide inspirational examples. But we need a model which is right for our society and politics. Here are some things we’d need to think about.

  • In order to be credible, the independence of such a body is crucial. This may involve having a robust governance structure which includes a diversity of actors, checks and balances to prevent vested interests creeping in. In particular, public trust would be irrecoverable if such a body was seen to act in order boost support for government policy.
  • The focus of such an institution would not be responsible for creating dialogue itself, but rather for improving the circumstances for dialogue to flourish. Rather than running its own processes, it could wherever possible adopt a distributed dialogue’ approach, linking up and supporting conversations in a diverse range of settings. This is particularly important as one of the conclusions of the Izwe report was that countries with strong national bodies tended to score lower on informal engagement levels, and had less dialogue and public engagement run by third sector organisations and government departments. One way to avoid this pitfall is to create a body which really is an enabler, rather than a ‘do-er.’
  • An important consideration is whether such a body should have any responsibility to promote the results of public dialogue to government and policy makers. While it might seem that such an institution would be well placed to do so, many dialogues might not have ‘results’ per se. Trying to formalise processes to create policy aims would run the risk of creating consultations, increasingly lead by government policy questions, rather than citizens’ concerns. Instead, it would support citizens to take action themselves, perhaps at a local and regional as well as a national level, and to strengthen the ability of civil society to engage with the mechanisms of consultation and representative democracy already in place.

There are already fantastic organisations which take on various aspects outlined above. Sciencewise is particularly notable as a government funded body which has been a pioneer in science and technology dialogue over past years. But there is no one body whose interest is solely in the quality of deliberation, which operates wholly independently from government and which can respond flexibly to whatever issues need public attention. And given the current AV debate, I think our democracy is poorer for that absence.

Annie Quick – annie@involve.org.uk

Photo by Victoriapeckham

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