The Covid-19 pandemic has brought drastic, and possibly permanent, changes to our lives. There has been a shift in our lifestyles, ways of thinking and living that we could not have imagined merely two years ago. The pandemic also revealed more about the underlying inequities and systems of oppression which affected society. From the climate crisis to child poverty and police brutality, many ongoing issues were finally brought to the forefront of mainstream conversations.
The effect that these events had on individuals and organisations alike is still felt as we enter the third year of the pandemic. As practitioners of deliberative democracy, we have also had to ask ourselves tough questions around our practices and more generally the sector’s role, legitimacy and power in this social context. Involve and Sortition Foundation are undertaking their own internal work in this area, and as a result wanted to prompt and develop a wider conversation with the practitioners’ network. We know that other organisations in the sector are also considering these issues and exploring them internally.
Two initial workshops on Power and Privilege in Deliberative Mini-Publics (DMPs) were held in October and December 2021.These sessions explored what more needs to be done to address issues of structural inequality through the different stages of a DMP. How do these processes navigate structures and cultures of systemic oppression that marginalise many of the voices that we seek to include? What is possible, or needs to be done differently, in deliberative mini public processes to truly address inequalities of power and privilege? The group was also externally challenged by Talat Yaqoob, a Scottish campaigner, writer and consultant; their contribution was particularly valuable as an exercise in co-learning for all of us.
What was said?
Considering these questions as starting point, and with the input and challenge of the external consultant, the network discussed the following areas of a DMP:
- Commissioning and convening
- Design considerations including planning, evidence, advisory groups
- In the room - teams and facilitation practice
Commissioning and convening
In small groups, practitioners explored the challenges that the current commissioning and convening process presents for tackling issues of systemic oppression. The following themes emerged:
- Commissioners and decision makers have the power and authority to set the agenda and framing of a DMP, though this is dependent on the commissioning body, their focus and non-negotiables. There also are assumptions in the topics chosen for a DMP.
- Decisions about mini-publics are not led by the public, how these are regarded, and attitudes towards them, also vary between commissioners.
- Commissioners can be open to being challenged on issues or accepting opportunities, but ultimately they have the authority to be part of the design process and choose how to use or respond to the feedback from the participants.
- There is an issue around ‘who’ challenges the commissioners’ question and authority, and from where they too derive their authority and legitimacy. This is also coupled with oversight groups lacking diversity of backgrounds.
- There can be a disconnect in understanding of what could be good practice between commissioners and the people delivering the DMP.
- Participants can want to reframe discussion, but can't due to the scope of the project which can cause tension. There is the need for time, space and resources for challenging to happen, and for the most excluded to participate.
- There were concerns raised about the trade-offs of changing some of the underlying principles of DMPs to account for power and privilege. Should principles flex and if so which ones and how far?
Though there are numerous challenges, a similar number of opportunities were also identified in the group discussions:
- Increasing awareness of and clarity on good practices in commissioning and convening through, for example, conversations with stakeholders before commissioning.
- Using oversight groups and engagement with diverse stakeholders to scope the questions and content of the DMP.
- Building time into the process for participants to have some say over who they hear from and reframe, or even challenge, the discussion.
- Skill-sharing around critical thinking can support participants to critically engage with the process.
- Institutionalisation of these processes can lead to the agenda being set by deliberative mini-public processes.
- Some commissioners have taken opportunities to address concerns so there is room for commissioning bodies to learn from each other.
- Over the course of these processes, there is a sense of 'coming together' which to a certain extent makes it inherently inclusive.
- Co-covening and co-commissioning could open up the process to include the perspectives of a wider variety of stakeholders.
For the recruiting stage of a DMP, the groups identified the following as the main challenges to making this process more equitable:
- Need to use intersectionality as a framework to understand the various experiences of the public. For example, ‘ethnic minority' is not a homogenous label.
- Need to rethink the methods used to recruit and account for factors such as trust, language and style of the invitation.
- There are questions around whether the power of the DMP model is in the fact that it is reflective of demographics or whether we need to skew recruitment towards minoritised groups. On this note, it is also important to reflect on the possibility that different processes might be better equipped to address these issues.
- Inequalities are inevitably reproduced in the space of the DMP.
- Need to assess the value and expectations of representation as participants can’t realistically represent the concerns and opinions of their whole community whichever this might be.
Still, there is scope for some opportunities to emerge in the recruitment process:
- Having an advisory role included that is focused on challenging and breaking out of the tunnel vision that is inevitable without external contributions.
- Having interviews on the recruitment process with different individuals from marginalised communities and feeding the findings from these into the DMP.
- Organising parallel processes.
In discussing facilitation the following challenges and opportunities were noted:
- Participants might benefit from having safe spaces for preparation, building confidence and trust, and reflection. This might be particularly helpful for underrepresented groups who might use these spaces to create trust, share their lived experiences and reflect on the process, though it is important to acknowledge the variety of experiences even in these communities.
- A wellbeing role that is separate from the facilitators to offer broader support to the participants should be considered.
- Co-producing guidelines to encourage reflections and collective rule setting.
- Developing a feedback loop through which we can learn from past participants and their experiences. This approach could prove useful also to understand why certain groups are less likely to participate in DMPs.
- Facilitators themselves could benefit from having a structured time and space to share their experiences as well as do prep and training ahead of the DMP sessions to reflect on power and privilege as it plays out in that particular process..
- Having another person supporting the facilitator in the small group discussions might help with having a second pair of eyes to ensure that the conversation is equitable and that everyone is able to contribute.
Finally, to conclude the series the practitioners made some considerations related to the design process:
- Co-designing the DMP might help with addressing some concerns related to power and privilege, though it is important that the collaboration is meaningful rather than consultation re-labeled.
- During the design stage continuous self-reflection and questioning are vital to understanding how systems of oppression operate through and inside us.
- Building spaces for wellbeing, and informal sessions and discussions into the design can encourage and support participation.
- Allowing time and making space for trust building and reflection between participants as well as between the delivery staff and the participants.
Where do we go from here?
Though these workshops only scratched the surface of the issue, they have contributed to ongoing conversations that are taking place inside and outside the deliberative democracy sector. It is vital to keep the momentum, and already take action and make changes where appropriate. In their small group discussions, the practitioners also reflected on some priority actions for the immediate future:
- Continuous and structured reflection and skill development (e.g. with regular feedback systems) at an individual and organisational level.
- Learning from previous experiences and collaborating with others to address issues across the sector.
- Encourage co-production and/or co-design of a process to allow for greater participant involvement.
- Working towards embedding considerations of power and privilege into practice.
- Recruiting facilitators from a variety of backgrounds and reaching outside our immediate networks.
These are just a few of the suggestions that were made during the sessions. There is still much more to explore, discuss and change at the individual, organisational and network levels. We, however, still hope that these initial findings can be used to enable us all to reflect on all our practice and develop new questions, expectations, and ways of working and moving forward.
If you want to talk more about some of the issues raised here, what your organisation is doing or hear more about how Involve is internally thinking through power & privilege do get in touch with: