The last year has brought seismic shifts in all our worlds. The forces that shape the space, capacity, and appetite for dialogue and deliberation are changing.
What do these forces mean for the future of deliberative and participatory democracy and the role of practitioners within it? What are the new opportunities and challenges and where does the field navigate and aim for in the coming years?
In April 2021, the practitioners’ network reflected on the forces at play in our field, those creating pressure and opportunity for change, and those providing resistance. In doing so, we explored the question:
‘What does the current context mean for deliberative and participatory democracy and what do we need to do as we move into this changing landscape?’
Driving and Resisting Forces
In small groups, practitioners discussed the current driving forces in the UK that have the potential to positively impact the deliberative and participatory democracy sector. The following themes emerged:
- The opportunities provided by the increasing use of the digital space throughout the pandemic and how this can continue to contribute to our work. Many argued online processes are more accessible to a wider diversity of participants and speakers, allowing for more inclusive practice. Though it was also discussed that digital exclusion is still a barrier for many despite the training and provision of equipment through processes.
- The growing body of evidence of deliberative and participatory processes and how this supports the legitimacy and growth of the sector. Climate Assembly UK was given as an example of a high profile process that worked well, and continues to have meaningful impacts on participants, stakeholders, and the wider public. It was felt that a strong evidence base can demonstrate to senior leaders and commissioners the value, impact, and success of deliberative and participatory processes.
- The benefits of an increasingly collaborative approach within the sector. Many felt the growth of participant and stakeholder networks over the past year provide an excellent opportunity for broadening the range of advocates for these processes. Practitioners also discussed how greater collaboration has supported better understanding and working between practitioners, academics, and commissioners. This is allowing for a stronger and more united vision of the future of deliberative and participatory democracy and how to get there to begin to develop.
- The potential of current public distrust in established decision-making systems and a desire for alternative processes. Practitioners noted that the existing deadlock over key issues by mainstream political systems has left many looking for alternative people-led processes. Indeed, this has increasingly become the case around certain topical issues, such as the climate crisis, which has seen the notion of deliberative processes as central to informing decisions on this topic.
During the session, practitioners also discussed the resisting forces currently challenging the growth and innovation of the sector. The following forces were explored:
- Economic uncertainty in the wake of COVID-19 posed a substantial threat to deliberative and participatory democracy. Practitioners noted the possibility that the reduced availability of funding for these processes, in particular from local authorities, could set-back the aims of the sector to embed deliberative and participatory processes at all levels of decision making.
- An expectation from commissioners for cheaper and faster processes was also seen as a challenge for the sector needing to hold tight to maintaining quality processes fit for purpose. There was also the challenge that deliberative processes, from a standing start, are not able to deliver against the demand for quick decisions.
- Increasing social and economic inequalities across the UK on the strength and reach of deliberative and participatory processes. Indeed, it was felt that growing inequalities could lead to a reduction in certain people’s desire and ability to participate fully and equally in processes. Concern was also raised about the increased difficulty of reaching consensus in a space where there is greater inequality amongst participants. Processes might have to work harder to show and demonstrate they are able to overcome such a challenge.
- The negative impacts on the perceived usefulness of deliberative and participatory processes if they become too associated with specific political parties or groups. There was concern that deliberation has become too closely connected to left-wing political groups and is perceived as a way to push through liberal policies ‘by the back door’. This could mean certain political groups reject deliberative processes and risks undermining their credibility as a useful tool across the political spectrum.
In addition, practitioners felt there were certain forces that posed both opportunities and challenges for the future of democratic innovation in the UK. The following ideas were explored:
- Practitioners felt the growth of social movements and activism, for instance XR and BLM, was both a barrier and enabler to deliberative democracy. XR specifically was mentioned in a positive light as pushing deliberative processes higher up the political and social agenda, and making the language of citizens' assemblies a household term. It was also felt that the growth of social movements and activism demonstrated a wider expansion of civic engagement, supporting the aims and expansion of deliberative and participatory democracy. However, some practitioners argued that the omission of deliberative democracy from certain social movements demonstrates concerns over the relevance of our work. Concerns were raised about whether the sector is doing enough to work with and for all members of society equally.
- Additionally, practitioners discussed the impacts of the increasing interest in and demand for deliberative processes, and in particular citizens’ assemblies. The ‘deliberative wave’ has undoubtedly been positive for the visibility of deliberative and participatory processes and has provided great opportunities for evidence building and collaboration. However, it was also argued that the rapid expansion in demand can have downsides including: a reduction in the quality of processes and the need to establish good standards; the risk of stifling innovation as citizens’ assemblies become seen as the ‘only method in town’; and the potential for citizens’ assemblies to be commissioned without a full understanding of its purpose, outcomes, and implications.
What should happen next?
Following these discussions, practitioners explored ideas of what we could do, show, or tell differently to make the most of the changing landscape. The following ideas emerged:
- Create space for storytelling to share with the media, politicians, and the wider public. This could create a body of stories about the journey, meaning, and impact of deliberative processes that could help develop interest, broaden reach into different spaces, and show the value of deliberative processes. The stories also need to be told by a wider range of people - those with wider influence outside of the niche converts.
- Develop a strong evidence of alternative processes beyond Citizens’ Assemblies. This could break the perception that there is a hierarchy of deliberative methods allowing for the most relevant process to be used in a situation. This could also support continued design innovation in the sector, and help embed a wider range of deliberative processes into everyday systems.The sector needs to mature and show its relevance to wider systemic and institutional change.
- Provide better explanations of the differences deliberation and participation offer from traditional decision making. In highlighting the difference in training, recruitment, participant experience, and process, we could have a greater impact on commissioners' desire to use these methods.
- A participant alumni network. This could enable participants to act as advocates for deliberative networks and allow practitioners to measure the impacts not just of the recommendations but also personal experiences of taking part in processes.