Deliberative democracy: Lessons for practitioners

Here are some edited highlights of the Deliberative Democracy conference held in the Royal Irish Academy some weeks ago, including interviews with the participants there – some of the world’s leading experts on deliberative democracy in practice – on the prospects for the Irish Constitutional Convention.

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10 thoughts on “Deliberative democracy: Lessons for practitioners

  1. From the Editorial in today’s Irish Times
    “The faceless sixty-six

    It’s bad enough that the Government should severely circumscribe the agenda of the constitutional convention, but it is bizarre and unprecedented decision to turn it into an advertising focus group by allowing its 66 “citizen” members to remain anonymous takes the biscuit. What price transparency, supposedly one of our new core values?….

    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2012/1116/1224326666052.html

    Was is Weber who said that “Secrecy is the only power of bureaucracy”?

    • Donal,
      The sessions are open in that they will be streamed, and so the participants are not wholly anonymous. The logic of not giving out details of who they are and their addresses is, I think, that they might not want to be subjected to lobbying by various interest groups. While this is not perfect, it seems reasonable.

      • “The logic of not giving out details of who they are and their addresses is, I think, that they might not want to be subjected to lobbying by various interest groups. While this is not perfect, it seems reasonable.”

        So, we the rest of the citizens of this Republic, are expected to leave these 66 citizens (and their alternates) in the hands of the “experts” who have apparently been volunteering their services?
        With names and addresses being given, how can we be sure that they are actually representative?

        As you well know, trust in many institutions – government, public servants, financial – has been severely reduces by evetns over the past 5 years.

        In what way will the set-up and operation of this Constitutional Convention

        It is is not even clear if they are doing this on a pro-bono basis..
        Nor is it clear that how the “experts” will be chosen or who will choose them.

        What is wrong with lobbying by interest groups?
        Why not have countervailing opinions?

        So one group of Convention members (politicians) are to be open to ,lobbying by interest groups while another group (“randomly” chosen citizens and alternates”) are not going to be open to such lobbying?

        This form of “citizens assembly” seems a far cry from a means of rebuilding trust in even a process to start political and institutional reform.

  2. @Donal
    Not sure if anonymity is all that unreasonable, especially for such a small group (and also since they have not been given any real power except a consultative one). If there were several hundred involved there’d be a certain “safety in numbers”. I’d guess a sizable percentage of Irish people just wouldn’t take part in this if they felt there names might be later plastered across the media (especially for such an unpaid voluntary effort like this). The process would then self-select for those who wouldn’t be bothered by this.

    Of course, all the anonymity does beggar the question who actually is supervising and guaranteeing the integrity of the random selection. Supposedly this was to be the job of the chair (Tom Arnold, of Concern, not Roseanne Barr’s husband! :) ) but seemingly the participants were all selected before the chair was even appointed. I’d be curious as to the details of the process (how were stand-ins/replacements selected, how many people refused to take part and how many stand-ins were needed?). Anonymity is well-and-good but that makes it even more important that the selection process involved is not only above reproach but seen to be so.

    As an aside (and on the general topic of deliberative democracy) I found the following online paper, which I originally came across on the PSAI website, to be very interesting: http://www.tcd.ie/policy-institute/assets/pdf/Lottery_Report_Oct12.pdf (it’s overview of the possible reasons for and uses of juries/sortition/lotteries in democratic institutions). The author asks permission before citing as it’s a draft, but since this is publicly online anyway (and I assume by citing he means from academic publications) I guess it’s ok to simply link to online.

    • @Finbar
      see my response to Eoin O’Malley above.

      On citizens assemblies as a means of deliberative democracy, you might find that Ken Carty’s presentation of the British Columbia experience offers some insight

      http://www.tcd.ie/policy-institute/events/kencarty_seminar.php
      A text of his talk was not provided, but slides were
      http://www.tcd.ie/policy-institute/assets/pdf/Kenneth_Carty_18_10_10.pdf
      In his slides, he cites a joint Oireachtas committee as follows
      “It is the opinion of the Committee that the establishment of such an Assembly would facilitate greater popular engagement with the democratic institutions as well as enhancing the
      legitimacy of any proposed reform.”

      I have considerable doubts that the Constitutional Convention (in terms of agenda, membership and advisers) will be seen to enhance the legitimacy of any proposed reform, even if there is consensus in the Convention.

      With the lack of commitment by Government to act on any recommendation emerging from this Convention, it looks as though it will go down as yet another example of Irish political institutions displaying “very poor adaptive capacity” as UCD’s Niamh Hardiman put it in the concluding chapter of the collection she edited

      “Both the policy effectiveness and the democratic legitimacy of the Irish state and governance [practices are in question……But legitimating government activity in the national context requires both responsive and efficient political institutions. On both fronts, we have seen that Irish governance structures are deficient. The net effect is that Ireland’s reflexive learning capacity is low – political actors display a weak ability not only to learn from past mistakes but also to anticipate future adaptive needs and to act on them in a timely manner…Irish political institutions display very poor adaptive efficiency….”
      Hardiman, Niamh (2012) “Changing Irish governance” in Irish governance in Crisis edited by Niamh Hardiman. Manchester. Manchester University Press. 2012

  3. Fintan O’Toole on the Constitutional Convention in today’s Irish Times

    ‘Democratic renewal’ beyond parody

    You have to feel sorry for Mario Rosenstock, Paul Howard or anyone else who tries political satire in Ireland. Their mode is comic exaggeration of the absurdities of the system, but exaggeration proves impossible. The reality is consistently more absurd than the parody.

    Who, for example, could possibly have thought up the latest and most ludicrous twist in the Government’s “political reform” programme – the revelation that the citizens in the constitutional convention will be anonymous?…..
    ….Behaviour Attitudes, the polling company, was employed to pick the 66 citizens who will join 33 politicians on the convention.

    It found, we are told, that some of those it chose were “reluctant to be in the public eye”. This is like picking the Irish swimming team from people who are reluctant to get wet or putting together an Irish expedition to Everest from people who don’t like the cold and are afraid of heights. The obvious response to such concerns was to move on.

    There is, after all, an important symbolism in all of this. The whole point of a process of democratic reform is to restore to citizens their sense of collective self-respect. The Irish political philosopher Philip Pettit defines a republic as the condition in which everyone can be “sufficiently empowered to stand on equal terms with others, as a citizen among citizens . . . able to walk tall, live without shame or indignity and look one another in the eye without any reason for fear or deference”.

    That notion of being able to look one another in the eye is at the heart of any half-serious democratic renewal. A democratic renewal led by people who can’t meet the eyes of their fellow citizens is an oxymoron……

    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2012/1120/1224326838829.html

    • Had O’Toole bothered to ask what ‘anonymity’ meant he would have soon discovered that it means that their names and addresses will not be revealed. Perhaps he asked, and ignored that the plan is that the plenary sessions of the convention will be streamed on the internet. This is hardly anonymity.

      He might also have considered whether there was some rationale behind this. The convention, although unfortunately limited in scope, will debate some issues which people (perhaps surprisingly) have strong opinions against. So one can see those on the Catholic right trying to lobby convention members on gay marriage or changes to the blasphemy laws.

      He would like to see the members stand up to such pressures and articulate their views in public. So would I. And indeed some certainly will. However he misses the logic of deliberation with randomly-selected participants. The whole point is that you have ordinary people, not professional politicians, experts or lobbyists involved. They are chosen not to represent any constituency, but because they, having been chosen randomly, will be representatives of people like themselves who have no strong personal interest in the decision. These are not necessarily people who have his gifts of articulacy or strong opinions on each and every issue. Indeed it is a prerequisite of deliberative democracy that people enter the forum with a reasonably open mind.

      It may be that O’Toole disagrees fundamentally with having such people in decision making position – it would not be unreasonable to so so. But then he should attack the idea of using lotteries in decision-making, not that those people are afforded some basic protections.

      • “However he misses the logic of deliberation with randomly-selected participants. The whole point is that you have ordinary people, not professional politicians, experts or lobbyists involved. They are chosen not to represent any constituency, but because they, having been chosen randomly, will be representatives of people like themselves who have no strong personal interest in the decision. These are not necessarily people who have his gifts of articulacy or strong opinions on each and every issue. Indeed it is a prerequisite of deliberative democracy that people enter the forum with a reasonably open mind.”

        How does the combination of known elected politicians and anonymous randomly-selected participants fit with the experience and theory of citizens assemblies? It remains to be seen how this innovation in such assemblies works out, when fully-third of the participants are elected representatives with at least party interests in the outcomes.
        Or have I misunderstood something about the logic and/or promise and/or potential of these kinds of assemblies, as fora for deliberating on some options/aspects of how we govern oujrselves?

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