Deliberative public engagement

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Deliberation is an approach to decision-making that allows participants to consider relevant information from multiple points of view. Deliberation enables participants to discuss the issues and options and to develop their thinking together before coming to a view, taking into account the values that inform people’s opinions.

To be deliberative, a process must involve:

  • discussion between participants at interactive events (including through online technologies). These events are designed to provide time and space for participants to learn from a variety of sources. The events follow a logical path through learning and discussion, so that participants build on and use the information and knowledge they acquire over the course of the exercise. This results in a considered view, which may (or may not) be different from their original view, and which has been arrived at through careful exploration of the issues at hand.
  • working with a range of people and information sources – including information, evidence and views from people with different perspectives, backgrounds and interests. This may include evidence requested or commissioned by participants themselves. Discussions are managed to ensure that a diversity of views from people with different perspectives are included, that minority or disadvantaged groups are not excluded, and that discussions are not dominated by any particular faction. 
  • a clear task or purpose, related to influencing a specific decision, policy, service, project or programme.

What makes deliberative public engagement different

Deliberation has come to the fore due to its ability to provide informed and considered public opinion data. Where historically government has relied largely on raw opinion gathering tools such as surveys and opinion polls to inform policy; deliberative public engagement offers decision-makers public views that are carefully considered. In particular it allows people to view opinion shifts that take place before and after deliberation, which can be useful for understanding the difference between informed and raw public opinion. Other characteristics are outlined in Appendix 1 and 2.

Forms of deliberative public engagement

There are currently three main types of deliberative public engagement in the UK:

  • deliberative research, which builds on market research techniques used by research agencies carrying out work for clients such as government departments. Examples include national citizens’ summits and policy consultations.
  • deliberative dialogue, which builds on dialogue and consensus-building techniques, enabling participants to work together (often with expert input) to develop an agreed view or set of recommendations. As participants may then be involved in taking their recommendations forward to decision-makers, this can encourage shared responsibility for implementation. Examples include national dialogues on science and technology.
  • deliberative decision-making, which builds on partnership methodologies to enable participants and decision-makers to decide jointly on priorities and programmes. Examples include partnership bodies and participatory budgeting exercises where power is genuinely devolved to participants.

These three types overlap. Each type may be appropriate in different circumstances and a single process may involve more than one type of activity.

The way a deliberative process is planned and designed, and the techniques used, depends on the circumstances, such as:

  • the purpose of the process, and consequently the nature of the results;
  • the numbers of people to be involved;
  • the timescale of the process;
  • the geographical spread (local, national, international);
  • the point in the policy circle at which the process takes place;
  • how complex, contentious or technical the topic is; and
  • what the mix of specialists and public participants needs to be.

Deliberative public engagement processes can take place on any scale – from ten participants (for example, citizens’ juries) to thousands of participants (such as citizens’ summits). A process may be a one-off event, or part of a series of activities running over several years. The diagram below illustrates how different approaches suit different numbers and timescales.

Deliberative public engagement methods

When to use deliberative public engagement

Deliberation is suitable when:

  • policy or decision-makers lack the range of experience or viewpoints to enable them to make a robust decision, are genuinely undecided, or are keen to listen to and take into account the views of others;
  • the decision, policy or service in question involves complex issues, uncertainty or conflicting beliefs, values, understanding, experience and behaviours; or where one viewpoint might otherwise dominate;
  • the decision will require trade-offs between differing policy options, and participants working together can explore in detail the implications of alternatives to result in a better-informed decision; or
  • the decision-maker cannot make and implement a decision alone; there needs to be buy-in from others.

Deliberative public engagement can be used:

  • across all levels of government, local, regional, national and international;
  • across all types of services, delivered by public, private or voluntary sectors;
  • across the spectrum of participation, to inform, consult, involve or empower people;
  • alongside other forms of participation such as, opinion polls, written consultations, community development, campaigning or lobbying;
  • at any point in the policy cycle:
    • when an issue is initially identified as being of concern (policy determination or agenda-setting);
    • when the process for tackling the issue and potential outcomes are set (policy direction);
    • in planning the key elements of the desired outcomes and how to achieve them (policy design); or
    • during implementation, monitoring and review (policy delivery).

Deliberative public engagement should not be used when crucial decisions have already been taken, or if there is no realistic possibility that the engagement process will influence decisions.

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