The bees’ knees of online public deliberation has yet to appear. It’s about time I put my PhD degree to good use. After a long period of inactivity due to family and health issues and lack of opportunities in Melbourne, I have re-engaged my brain to begin the design of an open source project.
Public deliberation process designers are occasionally given the task by local councils and other governing bodies to engage residents to solve problems. This isn’t about the usual sort of public engagement in which residents tick boxes on satisfaction surveys. It involves facilitated jury-like events in which residents make substantial recommendations for action.
But some experts, public servants and politicians feel threatened by this apparent incursion on their leadership. Activists want to maintain the rage. Unaware of the irony, some residents believe their compatriots are too stupid to offer useful opinions. The mainstream media makes a meal of it.
The public deliberation enterprise is running up against a brick wall of cynicism and disregard.
So let’s re-think the activity of public deliberation. What should it do?
First of all, let’s not encourage more argument about pre-conceived solutions. In fact, let’s step back from solutions altogether.
More often than not, public officials who establish policies, set regulations and make operational decisions are disconnected from the complex diversity of beliefs, values and needs related to contentious issues in a community.
There are several causes. A few bad apples might be hanging on partisan or commercial interests. Some officials might arrogantly believe they have tickets on the truth.
But most civil servants do want to do a decent job.
The main problem is a lack of insight into the possible impacts of their decisions on residents. They don’t really know what is important to people. They don’t understand what really matters.
Rather than usurp the power of officials, public deliberation should collaboratively help them do their job well and correct their biases.
There are some innovative processes in which residents are invited to work directly with experts and officials to co-create policy from the outset. These processes are costly and demanding. I applaud those who enter into these processes, which produce exceptional results.
However, there should be an easier way to connect officials and residents at the start of a policy generation or decision-making process.
My mission is to promote the application of public deliberation primarily to the initial stage of identifying the relevant values in a community in relation to a contentious issue.
Too often public engagement processes just gloss over this stage. Like focus groups, they don’t investigate beyond surface attitudes.
Instead, public deliberation should facilitate a deeper exploration towards the foundations of resident sentiment. In a safe and supportive environment they need to be repeatedly asked “Why?”
In my doctoral research I discovered that deliberating participants spend most of their time listening and learning from each other. They use anecdotes to illustrate their situations. They have fun. This goes against the political theory that they “exchange reasons” in an effort to persuade one another.
With the help of active professional facilitation and structured group exercises, they can uncover and address the contradictions that inevitably lie at the root of their disagreements. They go beyond matters of mere preference for solutions and arrive at the values that are really important to them, their families and their section of the community.
Everyone who agrees to participate in a deliberative event comes with an open mind and a collaborative spirit. Deliberation privileges neither communitarian nor libertarian perspectives. I have witnessed deliberating citizens find unexpected agreement about what really matters, even after only a bit of digging.
An online event is cheaper to organise than face-to-face gatherings. It can be given many weeks to work slowly and patiently. Conversations can be organised in small groups, just as in face-to-face public deliberation. Participants can talk privately to their family, neighbours and associates before sharing their perspectives to their group.
An online event can attract a wider audience that is a microcosm of the community, often called a mini-public. This means that the range of demographic categories (e.g. age, gender, income, education level, owner/renter) and stances around the issue (e.g. conservative, progressive) exhibited in the community should be represented fully and proportionally in the conversation.
By weighing and qualifying the values, including minority viewpoints, preferred avenues for achieving common policy ground can also be identified. The participants then present the tapestry of deliberatively-normalised public sentiment to the governing body.
The final solutions presented by officials back to the community must include an explanation of how the tapestry of values exposed in public deliberation is taken into account.
Shifting such processes online and scaling them up poses significant technical hurdles. My current task is to figure out how lots of different participant statements in the form “X is important to us because of Y” can be automatically clustered and prioritised.
Google probably has it sorted already. I’ll let you know. My brain hurts.