Deliberative Systems Thinking

Deliberative systems thinking is an approach to understanding and analysing democracy that is concerned with how different perspectives are represented and interact within society.

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.

The work of deliberative theorists such as Jane Mansbridge and John Dryzek moves from seeing deliberation as happening in a series of disconnected, one-off process to thinking about the characteristics of a deliberative democratic system. In doing this they move from thinking about the role that deliberation can play within individual public engagement processes and institutions towards thinking about the whole democratic system and what capacity it needs to have to be thought of as democratic. Central to this understanding is the role that power, as well as control of debates and narratives, plays in strengthening or undermining deliberative democratic control by citizens.

One driver for the development of the deliberative systems approach was the rise of transnational governance arrangements and concerns about how to understand and analyse their democratic qualities. This is partly because, at the global level, there is no ultimate elected democratic body. As a result, decisions taken have limited democratic legitimacy from a traditional perspective. It is also currently impossible for citizens to hold the decision-makers to account through the ballot box. Instead, there is a network of institutions and organisations framing debates, taking decisions and enacting policy decisions. There is a democratic link as many of the institutions and networks are formed and controlled by nationally elected governments, but the link is extremely weak. In many of these governance networks civil society and business are also important actors. The challenges identified within transnational governance are replicated at other levels of governance as well.

 “No single forum, however ideally constituted could possess deliberative capacity sufficient to legitimate most of the decisions and policies that democracies adopt. To understand the larger goal of deliberation, we suggest that it is necessary to go beyond the study of individual institutions and processes to examine their interaction in the system as a whole. We recognize that most democracies are complex entities in which a wide variety of institutions, associations, and sites of contestation accomplish political work—including informal networks, the media, organized advocacy groups, schools, foundations, private and non-profit institutions, legislatures, Executive agencies, and the courts. We thus advocate what may be called a systemic approach to deliberative democracy.” 1

Deliberative system thinkers are realists. They recognise that for all but the smallest of populations genuine democratic involvement and control at every stage of the decision-making process is impossible. As a result, from a systems perspective, not all individual elements or institutions within the system need to be deliberative, but the system as a whole must be. This removes the focus of attention away from trying to democratise every institution or decision within a democracy. The systems approach instead focuses attention on trying to understand how different institutions interact, and which institutions and interactions have the most chance of increasing the deliberative capacity of the system as a whole.

One of the criticisms laid at the door of deliberative democrats is that their main focus is on building democratic consensus and that in doing so they marginalise already marginalised viewpoints and communities in favour of the majority. However, theorists such as Dryzek and Mansbridge highlight the importance in deliberative democracy of broadening the range of debates and narratives that are considered, of opening up the issues under discussion rather than closing them down. Indeed, they don’t define deliberative democracy in opposition to many of the underlying elements of electoral democracy, e.g. self-interest, bargaining, voting or use of power. 2 The question for deliberative systems thinkers is when is deliberation appropriate and when would other forms of decision-making be more democratic?

Viewing UK democracy within the framework of electoral democracy suggests a relatively simple system, at its crudest with voters holding Parliament to account, and parliament in its turn holding the government to account. However, the briefest of glances demonstrates that the situation is far more complex. Drawing on the work of the deliberative systems theorists has a lot to offer when trying to analyse the UK’s democracy.

The components of a deliberative system

John Dryzek has developed one theoretical framework for analysing governance systems for the their deliberative capacity. He identifies seven components of a deliberative system. 3  Mapping these components onto a national system of governance may offer one way of evaluating the impact that different democratic reforms can have on the system as a whole. It may help identify gaps in activity and areas where energy is currently being spent which might have more effect if focused elsewhere in the system.

Deliberative theorists place strong emphasis on the discourses, or narratives, that are present within the different components of the system. Their concern focuses significantly more on the extent to which there are competing discourses which can be openly engaged with by anyone within the space described. This is an important shift from the notion of representation of individual voters, to placing equal weight on the importance of representation of ideas.

The seven components of a deliberative system that Dryzek identifies are as follows:

1. The public space is made up of a wide range of views and discourses which interact and affect each other. There should be few legal restrictions on what can be said within this space. Actors within this space will include politicians, activists, interest groups, academics, journalists and citizens. Such interactions and discourses will happen in both physical and virtual locations. These spaces may exist already or be specially created for the purpose of generating discussion and debate.

2. The empowered space is where legitimate collective decisions are taken and include parliament and council chambers, courts, international negotiations, and spaces such as stakeholder dialogues which have been given power to act and decide by the government. Such spaces will have formal or informal rules for how decisions are taken.

3. The transmission between the public space and empowered space is important for ensuring that the empowered space is influenced by the development and interaction of narratives in the public space. Such transmission can take place in a number of ways. Narratives developed in the public space can have direct impact on the debate within the empowered space through political campaigns and protest, formal submissions of evidence, the development of new evidence bases and through actors in the empowered space contributing to the public space and taking the views expressed there back into the empowered space. Transmission can also occur in more indirect ways, such as for example through cultural change started by social movements which change the perspectives of those in the empowered space.

Dryzek identifies this component as involving (1) the transmission of public space constructed narratives to the empowered space, where (2) they have the chance to influence its deliberations and decisions.

However, Involve’s practical experience with invited deliberative spaces clearly suggests that one barrier to this happening is that the debates in the public space all too often show a lack of understanding about the debates within, and constraints acting on, the empowered space. We would therefore add that transmission from the empowered space to the public space is just as important if a system is to be truly deliberative. The spaces are interlinked and there are both positive and negative feedback loops between them. For example, the quality of the debate in the empowered space will also affect the quality of the debate in the public space and vice versa.

4. The accountability of the empowered space to the public space is a critical component of a deliberative system as it requires holders of power to give account for their decisions. Dryzek notes that elections are the most common and important final accountability mechanism, but identifies no other mechanisms. 3 However, in the national context others will include parliamentary hearings, ombudsmen, courts and public hearings, for example. Such accountability mechanisms will need to be underpinned by strong transparency and whistleblower protection, for example.

5. The private space is made up of the political conversations and interactions which take place everyday in spaces which are non-civic in nature, i.e. they don’t contribute directly to political decisions made within the system. These could be between family and friends, with colleagues, or in communal meeting places such as restaurants, crèches and so on. Such conversations do not necessarily have a direct link to the debate in the public space, though they will reflect it and impact on it in indirect ways, and offer a way for citizens to test ideas and develop the skills necessary for democratic engagement in the rest of the system.

6. The public examination of the qualities of the system itself 3  by those involved in it at all levels. This examination should consider how well the system as a whole reflects the discourses and narratives within society, and acts on them. Reflection is not enough however; the system must also be able to change and adapt based on the reflection. Dryzek is relatively vague about how such a public examination might occur, but it will clearly require mechanisms for collecting and evaluating information about who is participating in, and missing from, the system as a whole and how well the different components are interacting. It will also require the periodic creation of an empowered space authorised to restructure the system, or components within it, if required.

7. The decisiveness of the system and its components is also critical; to what extent is its power dissipated thus leaving the system unable to take or implement decisions? Dryzek defines decisiveness as the extent to which the deliberative system in question has the power to take decisions in relation to other political forces. In other words, power should not lie outside the system in practice or in theory.

While this is undoubtedly one way in which a deliberative system can dissipate power (and therefore lack decisiveness), there is at least one other as well. This second dimension relates to the extent to which the system can identify and deal with the largest threats and opportunities facing it. In other words, does it have the institutions, spaces and processes within which it can develop new narratives about the future and act on them?

Each of the seven components is clearly made-up of a number of different elements, or institutions. Most deliberative theorists agree that while individual elements need not be deliberative in nature, (defined in terms of a way of communicating that encourages reflection, promotes equality of contribution and is non-coercive) the system as a whole can be judged on its deliberative nature.

The central question this publication tries to address is whether applying deliberative systems theory will help individuals and organisations interested in strengthening democracy to identify reforms which are more likely to increase the democratic quality of the system as a whole, whether there are any gaps in the work of the reform movement, and whether there are reforms that are currently being pushed which might decrease the democratic quality of the system. The next section starts to draw a partial map of each component of the system and how a small sample of reforms might contribute to the health of the system overall. The aim is to start a wider conversation about how the work of different actors might fit together better.

Although the approach below analyses the democratic and governance system of the country as a whole, it is important to be clear that democratic systems operate at different levels; there are systems within systems. Thinking through how the components of a deliberative system fit together can be used in many different contexts, at the local authority or town council level, for individual government departments and even for new forms of deliberative governance arrangements. Indeed, as mentioned above, the deliberative system was developed by Dryzek in an attempt to analyse the extent to which global political decision-making processes are, or can be, democratic.


Room for a View: Democracy as a Deliberative System

Reading and listening list

This is an annotated bibliography of the most significant publications and a radio programme which informed the writing of this publication.

Dryzek, J. (2009) Democratization as Deliberative Capacity Building, Comparative Political Studies Vol 42, pp 1379-1402, Sage

Focuses on creating a framework for analysing deliberative systems. For a one stop shop the Owen and Smith paper (see below) is probably more useful because it is more recent and summarises wider literature too. However, this provides useful depth. It contrasts deliberative systems theory with theories about electoral democracy, noting in particular that the presence or absence of a particular set of institutions is not indicative of the health of a democracy. It provides a useful definition of a deliberative system, and what some of the components are (his later work as summarised by Owen and Smith expands on this). It also provides some useful international examples to explore how deliberative systems theory can help analyse processes of democratic reform. These provide some insight for how Involve’s work might support reform within (national or international) networks of governance where elected politicians are largely absent, or only one of many actors.

Dryzek, J. and Stevenson, H. (2011) Global democracy and earth system, governance, Ecological Economics, Vol. 70, issue 11 pp 1865 – 1874

This paper analyses global climate negotiations as a deliberative system (identified as having six components): public space; empowered space; transmission from public space to empowered space; accountability of empowered space to public space; meta-deliberation about the deliberative qualities of the system itself; decisiveness in relation to other political forces. A later formulation (Stevenson, Hayley and John Dryzek. 2014. Democratizing Global Climate Governance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) summarised in the Owen and Smith paper identifies a seventh component; the private sphere. The paper describes the six spaces in a little detail and then analyses each of the components for its deliberative quality. Helpful in expanding and clarifying what Dryzek means by the different components.

Lee, C. et al (2015) Democratising Inequalities: Dilemmas of the new public participation, Chapter 1: Rising Participation and Declining Democracy, NYU Press

Recently published critique of much public participation, including deliberative processes. Chapter 1 contains a good summary of many of the standard critiques. These are largely fair enough as they boil down to my key concerns when working with government, what is the purpose of the deliberation, and is the government willing to engage authentically? However, while I’d agree with the critique of many stand alone participatory processes, I’m not sure I’d agree if viewed as a way of contributing to building up the deliberative capacity of the system as a whole.

Mansbridge, J. et al (2010) The Place of Self‐Interest and the Role of Power in Deliberative Democracy, Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol. 18 (1), pp. 64-100

Identifies a fault line in deliberative democratic theory about the role of conflict between self-interested parties in deliberative systems. Clearly identifies theoretical reasons for moving beyond consensus on substantive (i.e. about the content of the deliberation) issues to process issues such as the boundaries of the conflict and terms of negotiation. It introduces bargaining, voting and negotiation within non-deliberative forums as key elements of deliberative systems. The article identifies four types of deliberative communication with very different aims. Attempts to rationalise the reality of power politics and majority rule within deliberative systems and succeeds to some extent. However, more normative theorists will be tearing their hair out.

Owen, D. and Smith, G. (2015) Survey Article: Deliberation, Democracy, and the Systemic Turn, The Journal of Political Philosophy, 23(2): 213-234

An academic discussion of the development of deliberative systems thinking. Focuses on the development of what the authors call a Manifesto for Deliberative Systems Thinking. Largely focuses on the academic question of how to analyse such systems rather than Involve’s concern about how to create such systems (or elements of such systems). But it is a useful summary of some of the different ways to conceptualise such systems. It also includes some helpful thinking on some of the key dilemmas faced by deliberative systems.

Pateman, C. (2012), Participatory Democracy Revisited, APSA. Vol. 10 (01), pp 7-19

A defence of participatory democracy which is a reaction to the rise of deliberative democracy theory. A central tenant of her view of participatory democracy is that it must increase the capacities of citizens to participate, and that structures must do this, as well as reform democratic institutions to make their participation meaningful (and therefore support further capacity enhancement).

Saward, M. (2003) Democracy, Polity

A good primer taking the perspective of understanding the narratives of democracy theorists in order to examine how democratic innovations create a narrative in relation to classical theories of democracy. Useful in unpacking the difference between participatory and deliberative democracy (spoiler alert: it appears to be a question of emphasis and taste largely, when thinking practically about establishing more participatory structures the distinctions are helpful for remaining grounded, but largely irrelevant when dealing with political realities. Helpful for the longer-term vision, less useful for the tactics.)

  • 1Mansbridge et al, quoted in Owen, D. and Smith, G. (2015) Survey Article: Deliberation, Democracy, and the Systemic Turn, The Journal of Political Philosophy
  • 2See, for example, Mansbridge, J. et al (2010) The Place of Self‐Interest and the Role of Power in Deliberative Democracy, Journal of Political Philosophy, March, 2010. 10.1111
  • 3 a b c Stevenson, H. and Dryzek, J. (2014) Democratizing Global Climate Governance, Cambridge University Press.