Debunking myths about ‘deliberation’

There is much being said and written about deliberation. This is not surprising, especially in Victoria, Australia, where the new Local Government Act stipulates this is the way to now engage communities. So, I thought I’d make a contribution as a practitioner who has promoted, designed and facilitated deliberative processes for over 20 years. In doing so I am hoping to help local government and other organisations to avoid the trap of limiting their thinking in terms of how to incorporate deliberation into their engagement.

Myth 1
There is a universally agreed definition as to what it actually means when it comes to deliberative community engagement.

I don’t believe there is, but there is broad agreement about principles of deliberative democracy, described by Professor Lyn Carson as inclusion (ie; recruiting an inclusive, stratified mini-public), deliberation (providing a process to assist the mini-public to make a well-considered judgment) and influence (the recommendations of the mini-public need to be genuinely considered and responded to transparently).

Deliberation is meant to enhance decision-making; to make it more democratic, more thoughtful, and less open to manipulation (eg. powerful corporations making political donations expecting favours in return). There is also agreement that deliberative community engagement goes beyond merely harvesting opinions. Collecting opinions by encouraging people to ‘have their say’ is quite different from a cross-section of the public hearing evidence, considering a range of viewpoints and arguments, and working toward agreed recommendations. Deliberation involves people being curious and using critical thinking skills to make well-informed judgments.

The process by which this happens is a different matter. Here are just a few of the areas where there is less agreement:

  • Do all participants need to be recruited randomly by a third-party?
  • Should the days of evidence be heard on consecutive days, or spread out several weeks apart?
  • Is the remit of deliberative panels and agendas set by process experts, by ultimate decision-makers, or panel members, or a combination?
  • Do presenters of information stay to observe proceedings, with a right of reply, or do they present their evidence and take no further part?
  • Does a panel need to reach consensus, or just a substantial majority, say 80%, to convey valid recommendations?
  • Should the panel be no more than 24 members, or is around 45 a better number? Can a panel of 300 people still work in a deliberative way?
  • Can people deliberate online, or must it be face to face? (Quite a few practitioners have attempted to facilitate deliberative sessions online in recent months).
  • Do all deliberative panels operate at the empower level of the IAP2 Spectrum?

I’ve found deliberative practitioners hold a variety of views about such questions. So, while there is fairly strong agreement about what deliberative community engagement is meant to achieve, there is not so much agreement about what it looks like in practice.

Myth 2
There is only one way to do it.

As you can probably tell from my response to Myth 1, there are many ways that a deliberative community engagement process can be organised. Citizens juries, citizens assemblies, deliberative polls, people’s panels, and deliberative forums, all differ in some respects, but are informed by principles of deliberative democracy (or should be). The illustration below is my attempt at describing a number of variables.

Let’s see how different two deliberative processes might be. The first is Australia’s First Citizens Parliament, held in Old Parliament House, Canberra in February 2009, which I proudly contributed to as one of the lead facilitators, alongside Professor Janette Hartz-Karp.

The scope was a broad, codesign style question, about how Australia’s Democracy could best serve the people of Australia.

In terms of influence, where there was no commitment by government to act on it. It was more of a research exercise to show how deliberation can work, and the extent to which citizens can appreciate complex issues. It was partly funded by the Australian Research Council.

In terms of composition, citizens expressed interest in participating and from there were randomly selected, so that we had one citizen representing each federal electorate.

Regarding duration and scheduling, it was held over 4 consecutive days.

In terms of size we have 151 citizen parliamentarians, one for each Federal electorate.

Process governance? Expert Advisory Committee.


In terms of transparency it was a closed session, so no public gallery, although a team of researchers observed and recorded the process (in fact a book was produced with much of the research results).

Witnesses were selected by the process governance group.

Regarding relationship to broader public, a series of workshops and forums were held to promote the research project, and where people were encouraged to register their interest, so broader engagement fed into this deliberative process.

The response to each variable for Australia’s First Citizens’ Parliament is coloured red, as shown below.

By contrast, and without going through each of the variables, the deliberative process I ran with Anna Kelderman, Shape Urban with the City of Vincent (Perth), to develop a thirty-year vision looked quite different. It was called Imagine Vincent. One noticeable difference was running the process at the Empower end of the Spectrum. It was the community’s Vision being articulated, and Council then responded to it in terms of how Council could support progress toward this Vision. Another variable which differed was the iterative nature of the relationship between the deliberative panel and the broader public. The deliberative panel first worked together to frame questions for the process. After extensive board engagement, the panel reassembled to consider some of the challenges and issues which emerged, and then finalised the vision. Take a look at this video to get an idea about how this worked.

Again, without going through each of the variables, the deliberative process following on from the Hazelwood Mine Fire to design the air monitoring system looks quite different again, as shown below. The main difference with this was the involvement of stakeholders in helping to design the process, scientists working with the panel through the process of codesigning the solution, and the level of influence was at the level of Empower.

(If you are interested in Codesign process you may wish to join our Community of Interest, and receive a free step by step guide).

Phew, the next three will be quite a bit shorter. The key message from all this is that there are many different variables, and there are definitely different ways to do deliberation.

Myth 3
It’s best to get out of the way to let the experts do it for you.

I’ve written about this in a recent blog. I firmly believe the best processes are ones where the consulting team work collaboratively with the organisational project team, and even working collaboratively with some key stakeholders. Co-designing the process is the best way of building support for the process, and making the most of collective knowledge and insights. Don’t let anyone tell you, the client, to get out of the way to let them make all the process decisions.

Myth 4
Deliberative engagement is the only worthwhile type of engagement.

Deliberative engagement is superior in quite a few respects, but other forms of engagement also have value, and sometimes are much more appropriate. Take for instance a project to engage the community in new ways to help prevent suicide. It is not about deliberating over any single decision (although deliberation could be useful to work out how best to allocate resources for a suicide prevention strategy); it is about a movement for system-wide change, to involve as many as possible in the process of being more aware of risks, and groups and organisations working better together to provide support appropriately. It is a different kind of community engagement required for systems change, which I have written about previously.

Of course, it is not about choosing between participative engagement (where large numbers of people being involved is a key objective) or deliberative engagement (where smaller numbers examine a matter at depth). Some of the best processes are ones where the two kinds of engagement work together (such as the Imagine Vincent example). Only doing deliberative community engagement, without any broader engagement, can be criticised for involving too few people to be valid, and depriving people who are keen on the opportunity to contribute.

Myth 5
Deliberative engagement is really, really expensive.

It can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. For complex projects investing in a robust deliberative process, along with other forms of engagement, is likely to be a great investment (especially when compared to the alternative – see Nick Fleming’s article Taming the Flames).

A really inexpensive process that leads to greater mistrust, domination of the process by powerful interest groups, and which does not impress decisionmakers or the broader community, is very costly.

Having said that, it is fair to say that local government cannot afford many deliberative processes run in the form of a classic citizens’ jury. However, a large panel recruited for a longer period of time (say two years) can be used in a very cost-effective way. Smaller groups selected out of the larger group, can be invited to deliberate over different kinds of issues over this period of time. Online deliberation is also more possible; although it might not be the same as face to face session, online tools are being refined all the time toward achieving a greater level of deliberation. Tools like Synthetron, Ethelo and Text, Talk and Act are quite affordable for local government and can take participants on a journey whereby a much higher level of deliberation can be achieved (compared with online discussion forums).

There you go. Five myths and my response to them. In summary, here is my advice about local government doing deliberation:

  1. Be clear on principles, be open about the methods.
  2. Work with consultants who are willing to collaborate with you.
  3. Co-design the process with a diverse range of people, including consultants, internal and external stakeholders.
  4. Consider how broader engagement can complement, and inform, your deliberative processes (and yes, I believe this can occur in an online environment, though it’s more challenging).
  5. Trust your community. Be confident that if you make space for community members to deliberate you will be rewarded with their wisdom, your reputation will be enhanced, and you will meet all the requirements of the new Local Government Act (if you operate in Victoria).

So, do you have any other questions, or maybe other myths, relating to deliberative community engagement?

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