As someone who has advocated for, and designed/facilitated, deliberative engagement process since 1998, I can honestly say I’m a fan. Time after time we see everyday citizens rising to the occasion to consider complicated or complex issues, work together and to provide sensible, wise and well-reasoned advice to decision-makers.
Deliberative processes lead to citizens appreciating the challenges of government, the trade-offs, and the creative possibilities. Critical thinking is encouraged and often just happens organically. It’s what happens when people are invited to think about something important; and something that is hard to resolve politically. I love them and seeing what happens. Sceptical public servants and politicians who witness the process and the outcome are often converted. They say things like ‘we have never seen citizens being so considered, so constructive, and so interested!’
Yet, as much as it pains me to admit, there are two disadvantages to deliberative processes. Firstly, they involve a relatively small percentage of the population group affected by and/or interested in a particular issue. Even with carefully stratified group selection, decision-makers ultimately have to weigh up what 20 to 45 or so citizens have recommended against potentially thousands of emails, Facebook comments, and the dramatic statements broadcasted by shock-jocks cheered on by their faithful followers. Although I always argue that ‘it’s best to know what people are thinking when they have really been thinking’, there is no doubt, for politicians, that numbers matter.
The second disadvantage is cost. It’s hard to run a decent deliberative process for less than $30,000 (although I have done that several times). That’s not much money for a project or issue worth hundreds of thousands of dollars; but it can be for tricky smaller projects. Deliberative processes deliver outstanding value for money in my opinion. Having to start all over again costs money, and building trust is also worth money. But for some projects this is more money than is considered justifiable for community engagement. So, project managers stick with doing online discussion forums, and advisory groups, a survey and a few pop-ups (and there is nothing inherently wrong about that either).
This is where digital deliberation comes in. I believe this will be commonplace before too long. It is already starting. The digital platforms are there already, and the potential for this to be refined, simplified and made more interesting is immeasurable. But as with any method, the same principles need to apply. It needs a solid commitment by decision-makers to seriously consider the efforts of those deliberating. The question or remit needs to be carefully thought through. Diversity is needed. A broad range of evidence needs to be presented and critiqued. There needs to be sufficient time for deliberation to occur, and for critical thinking to be encouraged. The final recommendations or advice cannot be filtered; and it needs to be published unedited.
The benefits of digital deliberation done well are significant. The potential for hundreds, if not thousands, to be involved. The potential for more respectful conversations across a greater percentage of the community. Critical thinking on mass, with ways of capturing any shift of thinking after a period deliberating online. It also means we can draw on the output of digital deliberators and feed into face to face deliberation. The possibilities are endless.
There is a lot to learn and plenty of experimentation to be done. I believe it’s well worth exploring and I’m keen to share the adventure with you. Megan Girdler, of Future.Boutique, and I are offering 20 places for a part-time immersive program over the coming months. Join us if you can. We’ll be rolling this out to other cities in 2019 as well so look out. In the meantime, tell me what you see as being the benefits and challenges of doing digital deliberation well.