To save content items to your account,
please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies.
If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account.
Find out more about saving content to .
To save content items to your Kindle, first ensure email@example.com
is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings
on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part
of your Kindle email address below.
Find out more about saving to your Kindle.
Note you can select to save to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations.
‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi.
‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.
A decade ago, it would have been impossible to imagine that a caregiver, a bus driver and a rail worker, together with 147 other ordinary citizens, could shape France's policy on climate change. Ordinary citizens have long been disparaged for their political apathy. They could not be bothered to vote or join a political party. They trust experts less, share fake news and fall for the dark charisma of populist demagogues. Why would anyone think that citizens can deliberate on the most challenging issues of our time?
And yet they did. Over six months, ordinary French citizens deliberated the nuts and bolts of climate change policies. They listened to experts, read scientific literature and formed thematic groups on agriculture, housing, transport, employment and lifestyle. They reached a consensus on making ecocide a crime, among other proposals, which are to be subject to a national referendum. Even the COVID-19 pandemic did not stop these citizens from deliberating, first online and then in socially distanced deliberations. The process was far from perfect, but it was groundbreaking.
If there is one important lesson that scholars of democratic deliberation could impart to political theory and practice, it is that the context of participation matters to the quality of participation. When citizens are given the opportunity to learn, engage with a diverse group of people and be in a space where changing one's mind is a virtue and not a vice, they are given the chance to reach a considered judgement. Decades of research on deliberative democracy demonstrate that citizens ‘are good problem solvers even if we are poor solitary truth seekers’ (Chambers, 2018: 36). The challenge, therefore, is to create a landscape of communication where people can make better decisions together.
Creating a context conducive for democratic deliberation is not an easy task. These democratic exercises require carefully designed spaces for participation, where norms of respect, inclusiveness, mutual justification and open-mindedness are fostered. In the academic literature, these democratic innovations are called ‘deliberative mini-publics’ or DMPs.
DMPs are a nebulous concept, sitting in between the catchall term ‘democratic innovations’ and more precise practices like citizens’ assemblies and deliberative polls. We therefore begin our introductory chapter by laying down our definition of DMPs and situating it within the broader political project of building a deliberative democracy. We then provide an overview of their core design features grounded in normative theory and informed by political practice.
Bringing together ten leading researchers in the field of deliberative democracy, this important book examines the features of a Deliberative Mini-Public (DMP) and considers the contributions that DMPs can make not only to the policy process, but also to the broader agenda of revitalising democracy in contemporary times.
In her latest book, Hélène Landemore (2020) writes of ‘open democracies’ in which ordinary citizens have a more significant role in our systems of democratic representation. For her, recent examples of DMPs, such as the ambitious Icelandic experiment of 2010–13 or the French Climate Assembly, represent important steps towards a renewed democratic system in which DMPs operate side-by-side with representative institutions. In this book, we, as a collective set of authors, remain neutral on the question of where these growing instances of DMPs may be heading; each one of us may have our own views on this subject, but we have deliberately steered clear of addressing such themes in this book. Rather, our aim has been quite specific, namely, to set out the core characteristics of DMPs (the focus of Chapters Two to Six) and to examine how these mini-publics connect to the wider public (the focus of Chapters Seven and Eight).
We conclude in this chapter by addressing three themes. We first set out some minimal standards that we think are central to a well-designed DMP, drawing from the core design features set out in the previous chapters. Second, we discuss the importance of robust and independent evaluation of DMPs, particularly those that have been established by political actors. Third, we consider the implications of a global pandemic for DMPs, both in regard to how DMPs – with their emphasis on close and intense discussion – can operate, and in relation to the contribution that DMPs can make to developing responses to such significant societal challenges.
Minimal standards for a DMP
We feel it is important to set down clear minimum standards. At a time when the number of DMPs is increasing rapidly, there is an ever-increasing risk to the DMP ‘brand’ that could result from a poorly designed process. In the preceding chapters, we reviewed the core design features of a DMP. In this section, we condense this into four key features that we feel any forum claiming to be a DMP should be measured against.
Who are the participants and how are they selected?
At the heart of a DMP is the random selection of its members. There are three features that we single out here.
The increasing popularity of DMPs raises expectations as to what these forums can achieve. A Financial Times editorial declared that ‘deliberative democracy is just what politics needs’, referring to the power of citizens’ assemblies to address political polarization (The Financial Times, 2019). A year later, an editorial in The Guardian echoed the same sentiment, calling for ‘deliberation, not confusion’ as it spotlighted the UK's first climate assembly (The Guardian, 2020). Calls for various forms of democratic innovations emerged in the early days of the pandemic as societies imagined what it would take to make the ‘new normal’ work for all.
The increasing calls for DMPs are testament to the normative force as well as empirical track record of these forums. However, we are cautious not to pitch DMPs as a panacea that can revive democracy in challenging times. In this chapter, we take the position that DMPs are best appreciated as forums in democratic systems. This means two things. First, DMPs are not an end to themselves, but one of many potential practices that fulfil particular democratic functions, like elections, representation and exit, among others (Warren, 2017). We find that DMPs are helpful in facilitating collective will formation due to these forums’ design features but less so for collectively binding decision-making due to the lack of accountability of DMPs to those affected by their recommendations. Second, appreciating DMPs as forums within democratic systems means linking democratic deliberation with other practices of participatory decision-making. In this chapter, we take a close look at two empirical examples – the Irish Citizens’ Assembly and Ostbelgien modell – to demonstrate how DMPs can be meaningfully linked to institutions of representative democracy.
While this book focuses on core design features, we find it necessary to present an extended discussion on the wider purpose of DMPs to clarify these forums’ relationship with existing institutions of representative democracy. Viewed this way, we offer a measured appreciation of the transformative power of DMPs. We recognize that DMPs are not always the best option in solving democracy's problems, and the challenge lies in determining the precise ways in which DMPs can contribute to democratic reform.
DMPs and democracy's functions
We begin our discussion by taking a step back and thinking about the problems that a political system needs to solve to count as democratic.
DMPs should be consequential. Participants who experience taking part in a mini-public may find the exercise valuable in its own right, but without impact outside the process, DMPs are at risk of becoming insignificant talking shops that do little to enhance the quality of collective decision-making. This, indeed, was one of the early concerns raised against DMPs. For Carole Pateman (2012: 9), their reach was limited, they had little influence in decision-making and the public did not know a lot about them (see also Rummens, 2016).
Fast-forward to a decade later and, today, DMPs are increasingly becoming visible in public life (see OECD, 2020). They are commissioned by national leaders like President Emmanuel Macron in France or parliamentary committees in the UK. They are part of the global environmental group Extinction Rebellion's core demands. Belgian political party Agora won a seat in the Brussels Parliament by running on the single issue of calling for a citizens’ assembly. Similarly, editorials in publications like The Financial Times, The Guardian and The Economist recognize the merits of DMPs. As the popularity of DMPs grows, the concern shifts from their insignificance to the implications of giving power to an unelected, randomly selected group of individuals.
At the heart of this issue are concerns about the legitimacy of DMPs. To what extent should DMPs shape decision-making? Should DMPs be empowered to make binding decisions? Are they better off taking an advisory role? What is the basis of DMPs’ legitimacy in the first place?
These issues, among others, point to the challenge of finding the sweet spot of ensuring that DMPs are neither too powerless, nor too powerful. This chapter examines this challenge in three parts. We begin by establishing the premise that before any mini-public should seek to influence decision-making, it should first establish its internal legitimacy. While there is no established consensus on what count as ‘legitimate’ DMPs, we can draw on a range of literature that defines what counts as good deliberation in mini-publics. We are cautious that before any calls for mini-publics’ consequentiality are made, it is necessary to first establish whether the procedure was run with integrity and demonstrated good-quality deliberation. We then turn to the second section and consider what makes DMPs legitimate from the perspective of non-participants. We draw on the growing empirical work on this topic.
The burgeoning literature on DMPs has studied and debated the merits of this form of democratic innovation. It is striking that this field of research contains no unanimously accepted definition of DMPs. As explained in Chapter One of this book, our goal is not to determine which definition is the most appropriate. Rather, we work with a definition of DMPs based upon two basic constitutive elements: (1) it should be a mini-public, meaning participants are selected through a process that generates a representative sample of the public; and (2) it should be a deliberative process, meaning that participating citizens reach their conclusions or recommendations after receiving information and engaging in a careful and open discussion about the issue or issues before them. We build from this to examine the diversity of real-life examples of DMPs that have taken place over the last two decades.
Real-world DMPs are indeed diverse, ranging from planning cells to citizens’ assemblies, consensus conferences and deliberative polls. This chapter derives from the empirical diversity of DMPs a general description of their organization and core design features, and the ways in which they have been implemented across countries. In particular, we will build upon the inventory of DMPs instituted by national and regional public authorities across Europe produced within the POLITICIZE project. This data set, which has been gathered by one of the authors of this book, has identified and described over 120 different cases since 2000. We have chosen this data set because it provides a comprehensive inventory of mini-publics. We recognize that this data set only covers European cases and that there are other data sets with broader coverage, such as the one compiled by the OECD or the Doing Mini-publics project. Nonetheless, we find this data set valuable, for it provides detailed information regarding how the mini-publics were composed and organized, as well as on the topics deliberated and on the outcomes. To enrich our analysis, we also bring in insights from other DMPs that have occurred outside Europe or before 2000 that are not covered by this inventory.
Capitalizing on this original data set, the chapter describes the core features of DMPs along three dimensions: their composition; their format and topic of deliberation; and their outputs.
The purpose of this book is to set out core standards that we, as academics specializing in the field of deliberative democracy, consider to be essential components for an event to be categorized as a ‘deliberative mini-public’ (DMP). As we witness the widespread application of deliberative forums around the world, we find it important to take stock of what it is that makes their design distinct from other procedures of citizen engagement and public participation.
The genesis of this project was a roundtable discussion in the Gold Room of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin on 10 May 2019. The meeting was hosted by David M. Farrell and Jane Suiter. The other participants were Nicole Curato, Brigitte Geissel, Kimmo Grönlund, Sofie Marien, Jean-Benoit Pilet, Alan Renwick, Jonathan Rose and Maija Setälä.
Among the issues identified in the May 2019 discussion is a tendency to apply the term ‘deliberative mini-public’ loosely to refer to a range of practices of public engagement. This is a cause for concern, for a DMP is a specific process committed to the virtues of deliberative democracy. As we set out later, deliberative democracy should not be equated with DMPs; indeed, the practice of DMPs preceded the emergence of deliberative democracy as a theoretical discourse. Nevertheless, the growing prominence of DMPs requires closer scrutiny by academic scholars. Beyond serving as an academic exercise, conceptual precision in defining DMPs is important in building a shared vocabulary among scholars, practitioners and policymakers that recognizes good practice consistent with normative principles of deliberation.
The group agreed to co-author a brief document with the aim of distinguishing DMPs from other citizen-centric forms of engagement. David M. Farrell and Nicole Curato took the lead in drafting this document, with input from other colleagues, and it was published as a working paper by the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra (Farrell et al, 2019b). On foot of that experience, it was decided to produce a book-length treatment of the topic (albeit with a slightly amended list of authors).
Our intention here is not to suggest that DMPs are superior forms of activities. DMPs are not a magic bullet and they are not the only ways to engage citizens. Other methods include public inquiries, town hall meetings, online consultations and informal discussions – all of which have their place in a modern, innovating democracy.
Taking part in a DMP is a unique experience. Even though these processes are gaining increasing popularity, only a handful of citizens will have the privilege of being selected to participate in a DMP. Being in a mini-public is comparable to being selected to a jury – a unique experience designed to reach a considered judgement among a diverse group of people.
The uniqueness of the deliberative experience rests on the forum's design. Well-designed mini-publics can facilitate respectful conversations, an informed exchange of ideas, active listening and reflection. All these are crucial for citizens who may have conflicting values and preferences to come together, work out complex issues and generate outputs that can inform policymakers and the wider public debate. The academic literature on mini-publics has chronicled the positive effects of the deliberative experience on participants. Participants feel more politically attuned, interested and informed about politics (Grönlund et al, 2010; Fournier et al, 2011; Boulianne 2018). Others demonstrate shifts in preferences once they learn more about an issue (Himmelroos and Christensen, 2014). The impact of deliberation on social learning and generating a shared identity has also been documented (Hartz-Karp et al, 2010; Fournier et al, 2011).
Not all mini-publics, however, generate the same experience. DMPs can also reinforce inequalities that exist in the public sphere. Some mini-publics have been criticized for supporting an already-decided policy (Johnson, 2015). Others raise concerns about participants carrying their biases in deliberation, as in the case of women's arguments not getting the same amount of uptake compared to their male counterparts making the same argument (Beauvais, 2019). All these are concerns about the deliberative experience.
DMPs are not simply forums for discussion; they are also designed to reach conclusions. In a few cases, as explored in Chapter Seven, these conclusions are treated as binding upon subsequent decision-makers. In most cases, they are instead intended to inform downstream decision-makers, whether elected politicians, officials or referendum voters. The outputs of a DMP – which are the focus of this chapter – thus comprise two key components: first, the conclusions of the mini-public in themselves; and, second, the manner in which those conclusions are presented to wider audiences. The chapter examines the nature of those outputs, how they are developed and what meaning can be attached to them. The first section describes the two types of outputs in further detail, exploring the different forms they take in different minipublics. The second section then explores how these outputs are determined, that is, how deliberation is converted into conclusions, and the degree to which DMP participants are involved in presentation. Finally, the third section goes into the deeper question of what meaning we can ascribe to outputs, focusing on three key questions that people encountering the idea of DMPs often ask.
The nature of outputs
As just explained, the outputs of DMPs comprise two elements: the content of the conclusions reached by participants; and the ways in which those conclusions are presented.
Taking the conclusions first, DMPs yield what James Fishkin (1995: 162) – one of the most long-standing advocates of such methods – describes as ‘a representation of the considered judgments of the public’ on specific issues. A DMP thus yields very different information from either a standard opinion poll or a conventional public consultation. A typical poll elicits what people think now. These views may be based on limited information about, or reflection on, the issues in question. Indeed, polls often ask about matters that respondents have never much thought about, and answers can thus be volatile and susceptible to slight changes in question wording or context. By contrast, a DMP allows participants to learn about the issues, discuss them with others and reflect in depth. Participants’ views are thus likely to be much more considered and more stable. Furthermore, most people would say that these are views that should matter: the collective decisions that we take in a democracy matter for us all, and we should care that they are well grounded.
Successful recruitment is key to a meaningful mini-public deliberation. There is a need to ensure that the deliberating sample represents as many interests as possible that will be affected by the decisions at hand; otherwise, the whole endeavour risks losing legitimacy. This is because the basis for engaging lay citizens in deliberation relies on the idea of inclusion, and since it is impossible in most cases to invite all the affected people to deliberate in small groups, the deliberating sample needs to be representative. Mini-public deliberation is not built on representativeness in the electoral sense, where people first vote and give their representatives powers to decide for the whole demos, and then have the possibility to hold the representatives accountable for their actions at the next election. The accountability of DMPs relies instead on their demographic representativeness – on the idea that the wider population can see the DMP as a mirror of themselves (Farrell and Stone, 2020). Whereas representative systems based on elections produce institutions in which the representatives are typically highly educated and often resourceful, the goal for DMPs is to achieve a sample of representatives whom the people can view as their genuine peers.
The chapter is organized as follows. It starts by briefly reviewing four different methods for choosing representatives: elections; corporatism or appointment by interest groups and NGOs; selfselection; and random sampling. We then set out arguments in favour of random sampling, including discussion of the merits and limits of pure random sampling in recruiting for DMPs. This is followed by a review of the methodology underlying stratified random sampling, building on issues discussed in Chapter Two.
Different methods for selecting participants
There are a range of possible mechanisms for appointing people to represent a wider public. Table 3.1 lists four such mechanisms: elections, corporatism, self-selection, and random sampling – all methods that are known and in use across different societies. Table 3.1 focuses on the dimension of representativeness regarding each of the mechanisms, and summarizes the relative advantages and disadvantages of each from this perspective.
In contemporary democracies, elections are the most commonly used method for selecting political representatives. ‘One man, one vote’ was used as an argument in the 19th century to achieve universal (male) suffrage (Howell, 1880).
Citizens’ lack of knowledge is often used as an argument against their participation in policymaking (for example, Schumpeter, 1943). How can we expect citizens to deliberate if they lack information, feel disinterested in politics and are unable to convey coherent policy preferences (Achen and Bartels, 2016)? Compared to politicians and lobbyists, citizens spend little time thinking about politics. They have little access to information beyond what is available in the media. For democratic participation to flourish, it is important to bridge the knowledge gap between citizens and policymakers.
Bridging that gap is one of the purposes of DMPs. Central to their design is the opportunity for citizens to think, reflect, listen to each other and engage with the range of evidence presented to them. In this way, mini-publics can help address the cognitive challenges of modern citizenship (Warren and Gastil, 2015).
Learning takes place both between DMP participants themselves, and through the provision of structured learning materials. It can be easy for DMP organizers, who put great effort into writing briefings and organizing programmes of witnesses, to forget the importance of peer-to-peer learning. However, such learning is vital: DMP participants often speak of how much insight they gain from hearing about the lives and perspectives of people very different from themselves. The development of such mutual understanding is at the core of good deliberation. Our focus in this chapter, however, is on the learning that is structured and enabled by DMP organizers. Research shows that briefing materials and interactions with subject-matter experts help to explain much of the participants’ learning in mini-publics (Setälä et al, 2010). Acquiring knowledge and deliberating with their peers based on credible evidence enables citizens to reach a considered judgement. Thus, evidence, as discussed in this chapter, refers to written and oral expert information, as well as arguments and personal testimonies by advocates and stakeholders who are invited as witnesses to a mini-public.
In most mini-publics, evidence is given in the form of briefing materials and witness testimonies. While evidence gathering is an essential part of all DMPs, practices vary in terms of the selection and presentation of evidence in deliberation. Concerns are often raised over how sponsors and organizers of mini-publics might use expert evidence to manipulate the deliberative process.