Published on October 20, 2015

Room for a View: Democracy as a Deliberative System

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

RfaV front coverIf the health of UK democracy is to be improved, we need to move away from thinking about the representation of individual voters to thinking about the representation of views, perspectives and narratives.

Read Room for a View here (PDF)

Democratic reform comes in waves, propelled by technological, economic, political and social developments. There are periods of rapid change, followed by relative quiet.

We are currently in a period of significant political pressure for change to our institutions of democracy and government. With so many changes under discussion it is critically important that those proposing and carrying out reforms understand the impact that different reforms might have.

Most discussions of democratic reform focus on electoral democracy. However, for all their importance in the democratic system, elections rarely reveal what voters think clearly enough for elected representatives to act on them. Changing the electoral system will not alone significantly increase the level of democratic control held by citizens.

Room for a View, by Involve’s director Simon Burall, looks at democratic reform from a broader perspective than that of elections. Drawing on the work of democratic theorists, it uses a deliberative systems approach to examine the state of UK democracy. Rather than focusing exclusively on the extent to which individuals and communities are represented within institutions, it is equally concerned with the range of views present and how they interact.

Adapting the work of the democratic theorist John Dryzek, the report identifies seven components of the UK’s democratic system, describing and analysing the condition of each in turn. Assessing the UK’s democracy though this lens reveals it to be in fragile health. The representation of alternative views and narratives in all of the UK system’s seven components is poor, the components are weakly connected and, despite some positive signs, deliberative capacity is decreasing.

Room for a View suggests that a focus on the key institutions isn’t enough. If the health of UK democracy is to be improved, we need to move away from thinking about the representation of individual voters to thinking about the representation of views, perspectives and narratives. Doing this will fundamentally change the way we approach democratic reform.


A series of blogs in response to the report are being published on the Democratic Audit website. Links to these blogs will be added below as they are published.

  • John Dryzek, Centenary Professor and ARC Laureate Fellow at Canberra University, Australia
  • Graham Smith, Research Director and Professor of Politics at the Study for the Centre of Democracy at the University of Westminster
  • Jessica Studdert, Deputy Director of the New Local Government Network
  • Paul Braithwaite, Building Change Trust, Northern Ireland
  • Oliver Escobar, Lecturer in Public Policy, University of Edinburgh
  • Ed Hammond, Head of Programmes (Local Accountability), The Centre for Public Scrutiny
  • Temi Ogunye, Policy Researcher, Citizens Advice

Simon also spoke to The Participatory and Deliberative Democracy Specialist Group about Room for a View. Listen here.

33 Responses to “Room for a View: Democracy as a Deliberative System”

  1. October 21, 2015 at 2:28 pm

    Your very useful framework set me thinking whether it could be used for participative processes beyond “democracy”, where there’s similarly a need to combine public and private discussion and deliberation with decision-making spaces. That in turn made me think that in democratic and other processes there will, in practice, be many spaces for decisions. Some things citizens can do for themselves, some only with others, and some only with the involvement of elected representatives … so the framework is necessarily a complex system whether applied to democracy or more widely.
    Then we have to start thinking about networks as ways to represent the system of connected people and spaces, public, private, and empowered … and who helps make sense, connect and enable people to take part.
    This is no criticism of the model – just a suggestion for further development. Any use?

  2. Simon Burall
    Simon Burall
    October 21, 2015 at 8:57 pm

    David, thanks for the comment. It’s an extremely stimulating suggestion that clarifies a thought that was struggling to break free.

    As I was writing Room for a View one thing that struck me was that, in an ideal world, ‘Transmission’ between the Public Space and Empowered Space would be a natural part of the way government operates; indeed one could argue that the proliferation of managed spaces to engage the public are a direct admission that more organic forms of Transmission have broken down.

    The solution can’t be more managed spaces; your comment raises the question of how does our understanding of networks, and our research into what works and doesn’t work, change our approach to dealing with the poor transmission that exists between the public and empowered spaces?

    As an aside, this is an idea that is picked up in a different way in a Facebook comment (“tn”%3A”R0″%7D) someone made about the need for us to have greater blurring between the public and empowered spaces.

    I’d love to explore what all this means for reimagining democracy and supporting institutions to make themselves more open to the views and perspectives of a wider range of citizens.

  3. October 21, 2015 at 9:45 pm

    Thanks Simon – that Facebook comment from Sven resonates:”Most of the “deliberative democracy” stuff I have seen strikes me as a result of sectoral tribalism or politicos speaking to politicos. It is a system to empower politicos, but over-estimates general public interest in politics. Why theorise in terms of spaces when space is getting blurred?”
    Your model is Government-centric in defining democracy, the spaces and transitions. Similarly participation frameworks are generally designed around power-holding organisations. The task then is conceived, as you say, to reimagine how organisations can be more open to the views and perspectives of a wider range of citizens.
    I think a complementary task is to help citizens understand how power is shifting in a digital-enabled network society, often to Silicon Valley billionaires running so-called sharing economy systems. They are creating, managing and mediating many of our social spaces – but their interest isn’t democracy, it is money.
    How do we define the domain of democracy?

  4. Simon Burall
    Simon Burall
    October 22, 2015 at 8:26 am

    David, that comment from Sven resonated with me too.

    The model is government centric. This is partly an artefact of where we see Involve in the system; our focus is unashamedly on government. But it is partly because, in the end, it is government that will need to set the rules and frameworks for companies to operate in. This has become increasingly challenging over the past 20 years as the global reach of companies increases.

    However, one of the challenges our Trustees threw at us during our strategy away day was to use the model to analyse how power flows (or is held) within the system. My hypothesis is that this analysis, which we’ll attempt soon, will bring companies to the fore much more prominently.

    Which leads me onto your final question, defining the domain of democracy. For me it is centred around the state. Private entities – not just companies – are under no obligation to act democratically. However, they are under obligation to comply with democratically decided laws that apply to them (which I suppose could demand they operate democratically, but that would just be nationalisation by another name). If they break the laws then it is the judicial system that kicks in, if they are complying with the laws, but the social, economic or cultural outcomes are ones that society does not like, then it is the role of our democratic structures to solve them.

    The challenge for me lies not in the extent to which democracy extends beyond the state to other sectors, but rather how it extends beyond the nation state downwards to local levels, and upwards (outwards?) to the supranational level where nation states acting alone cannot solve the challenges they identify.


    PS we need to sort our website, for some reason your posts are needing to be approved even though they don’t contain any hyperlinks, apologies!

  5. October 22, 2015 at 10:27 am

    Thanks Simon – it sounds as if there is lots more mileage in the model. The power analysis will be interesting. Perhaps the next challenge is to make the model easily understood and explicit in democratic/engagement processes, so people can see not just the deliberative methods, but the assumptions behind them. Maybe a game/simulation?

  6. Simon Burall
    Simon Burall
    October 22, 2015 at 10:32 am

    I think that could be very interesting if we can find a way to resource it. One for a longer conversation?

  7. October 22, 2015 at 10:58 am

    Thanks Simon, lets do that. For what it’s worth, here’s some thinking on a framework for social ecosystems that may be relevant.

  8. October 22, 2015 at 4:14 pm

    Rather than leaving a 500 word comment I imagine polite 21st century response is to blog post, but a few brief comments

    I think your analysis of the state of affairs is excellent.

    Although I think that separating the civil service, schools, nhs into its own sphere (the delivery sphere) , gives a better frame work.

    Elections for fixed terms, while an important tool for house-cleaning the corrupted powerful, set up a terrible incentive structure to corrupt public debate in many ways.

    MP recall would probably be the most useful for post-fact accountability (vicious twisted fudges not withstanding).

    “The technology, and its impact on society, is too recent to be able to predict how it will play out in the longer term”.
    Just stop that talk. If deliberative democracy is to be meaningful it will be online. We have a system from the age of steam. Power’s appreciation of the possibilities has been one-sided.

    One simple digital reform – National GovBook – all your interactions with government on an easy social media profile based site. Cue privacy hysteria (luddites).

    For Point 4. strengthening accountability – To change the debate you have to change the incentive structure for politicians and give more meaningful power to citizens.

    I believe costed manifestos and voter rights to adjust government spending would be the best way of constraining governments to their manifestos and including all voter preferences in an additive, non-divisive way.

    This is especially relevant to Europe where the only shared language is Arabic numerals.

    There is a typo in the last paragraph on page 15.

    Er that’ll do for here, I’ll blog you a thing

  9. October 22, 2015 at 4:38 pm

    A feasible civil society boost to add a deliberative dimension to the transmission space would be a Green Paper Wiki.

    Although the version and editing system would be a not insignificant challenge.

    • Simon Burall
      Simon Burall
      October 23, 2015 at 10:04 am

      For some reason this was sitting in the system waiting to be approved. A good idea, though how to ensure that the platform for editing isn’t hijacked and remains civil will be a substantial challenge, I firmly believe that this is the way to go.

      • November 5, 2015 at 1:58 pm

        Always best to throw up a beta version and run it in the sand storm.

  10. Simon Burall
    Simon Burall
    October 23, 2015 at 8:05 am


    Thanks. You pick-up on a lot and appreciate it. I’m not going to try to answer them all here, but will be mulling them over and may come back to them.

    Your challenge about splitting policy-making from delivery is a really interesting one. It’s certainly true to say that there’s a complex network of organisations and quasi-organisations within the empowered space. The challenge of trying to split delivery from policy making is a big one though. It seems like it should be simple, but when does delivery become policy? Many parts of government do both. I fear that it would actually lead to some significant fudging if you had to make decisions about whether a particular part of the system were delivery or policy-making.

    We also know that most members of the public don’t make the distinction between the different parts of the system and often don’t know who is responsible for specific decisions. Describing the whole mess as the empowered space better reflects the perspective of the vast majority about how government is organised. But your challenge is whether it is the best analytical frame and I think this needs serious consideration.

    You pick me up on my view about the impact of technology quoting me “The technology, and its impact on society, is too recent to be able to predict how it will play out in the longer term” and responding, “Just stop that talk. If deliberative democracy is to be meaningful it will be online. We have a system from the age of steam. Power’s appreciation of the possibilities has been one-sided.”

    My response is just stop that dreaming. It’s nice to imagine a warm ideal world, but we don’t live in one.

    I totally agree that technology has already changed the way the public can access information, network and challenge government. It has undoubtedly been the engine of considerable accountability and is providing a context within which organisations like Involve can more effectively advocate for more open government. I get its power and am a substantial beneficiary of all of its silicon goodness.

    In addition, technology also has the power to radically change the way we interact and make decisions. However, there is precious little deliberation online at the moment, and we are only at the beginning of understanding how to get both the technology and the culture right to allow that to happen; this is not a trivial problem that will be solved by technologists dreaming of utopia.

    I list three challenges to the dream below, these are important but not exclusive.

    Digital exclusion means that the perspectives, views, needs and desires of nearly 10% of our population cannot currently be part of any national debate that happens online – at least not if we put our faith in technology alone. Spending money to put broadband and a smartphone into the hands of the digitally excluded will not solve the problem because digital exclusion is a symptom of a much deeper exclusion that explains why most of our MPs and Peers look and sound so similar.

    This is even before I get onto the chilling effect that casual online misogyny and trolling has on online deliberation.

    And it’s only one step from there to us discussing the state abuse of power to eavesdrop and stop certain views from being expressed.

    Technology will not suddenly make our democratic deficit go away. The impact it has on the health of our democracy will be directly linked to the laws we pass, the culture we all create as we interact online and the (on and offline) resources we provide to the most marginalised to ensure that their views are heard. In short, we need to make it happen, not just wish it to be so. Online, as with offline, democracy will be a hard slog. We’ll never achieve democratic nirvana, those in power will always try to subvert it. It’s up to us to be ever vigilant.

    As you can tell, I’m not going to ‘just stop that talk’!

    • November 5, 2015 at 12:36 pm

      Excellent reply and thanks. Apologies if any of my flippancies cause offence.

      The delivery space comment was to suggest the idea of analysing the possibilities and/or existence of democracy or deliberation in government services. E.g. school governors and nhs patient boards (do they still exist?). This could all be empowerment space, but the issue of mandates and legitimacy in civil service decision making is in tension with parliamentary democracy.

      And I agree the political causality is difficult, but I am given to continue in restless waking dreams.

      Here is said promised blog post (I wrote something in reference to your report, but it made no sense without reading the report so I did this way instead)

      • Simon Burall
        Simon Burall
        November 5, 2015 at 1:27 pm

        No offence taken, but I have met too many technologists seduced by a utopian vision of how open software is going to change the world; it was a bit of a red rag to a bull!

        I like your post a lot. I don’t agree with all of it, but you raise significant challenges, many of which I agree with. I’m not going to get round to unpacking and thinking through all you raise immediately, but am going to try to come back to it.

        Interestingly your point about service delivery within the empowered space has been picked up separately by two other people in comments to me, one in email and one at the launch event last night. Something to be thought through much more and I understand better what you are thinking now with this comment.

  11. November 5, 2015 at 12:43 pm

    As to the trolls issue, flaming seems to be problem inherent to text communication and the lack of facial cues, so definitely presents a design challenge for any online forum.

    But part of the issue is that the web brings us voices that we didn’t hear before. Some of those voices say bad things. We can still apply the standard frames while wading the grey area.

  12. Anonymous
    January 8, 2016 at 3:38 am

    Room for a View suggests that a focus on the key institutions isn’t enough. If the health of UK democracy is to be improved, we need to move away from thinking about the representation of individual voters to thinking about the representation of views, perspectives and narratives. Doing this will fundamentally change the way we approach democratic reform.

  13. July 9, 2016 at 3:51 pm

    Hi Simon

    I am very late to this discussion but here is an idea I have been kicking around for years I also think campervans can be great conversational spaces, hence

    • Simon Burall
      Simon Burall
      July 11, 2016 at 4:17 pm


      My apologies by return for being late in approving the comment.

      I hadn’t seen your work on this before, I agree with your diagnosis relating to meeting points, and love the idea of a digicamper van. Maybe we’ll see you in London on 22nd? If not, hopefully at another event soon.


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