On occasion over the past three years of research work, I’ve asked myself the question, “what am I doing (this for)?” And I write my mission statement, in words that I hope can be generally understood. Here is my current version, which will find its way into the introduction of my thesis. I invite your comments.
My work supports the type of public engagement in political decision-making that applies processes of facilitated, small-group deliberation. Increasingly, we see juries of people drawn randomly from a community to learn more about difficult policy issues that affect them, to talk civilly with each other to cut through the rhetoric, explore the sources of their diversity and identify common ground. Working with politicians, public servants, policy experts and stakeholders, these ‘mini-publics’ recommend policy options that would achieve broad and enduring community consent, beyond merely satisfying partisan aims or self-interests.
Unfortunately, few people are aware of this ‘deliberative’ approach, confuse it with focus groups, or deride the intellectual and collaborative capacity of citizens even though it has already worked in so many contexts and formats locally and around the world. The approach even lacks a consistent name, variously public engagement, participation or deliberation, and ‘deliberative democracy’ when formally integrated into the operation of government. A compelling narrative about public deliberation has not yet permeated our culture. This leaves the public and its commentators to view public deliberation as an instrumental ‘black box’ without any respect for the deliberators or the productive process they engage in, and to judge the output without careful reference to the embedded complexities that were resolved through deliberation.
I was invited to help organise and study, as a PhD candidate, a large demonstration project called the Australian Citizens’ Parliament, which was held in February 2009. 150 citizens were randomly-selected from around the country to travel to Canberra and deliberate over the question “How can Australia’s political system be strengthened to serve us better?” I recorded every conversation at 23 tables for 3½ days, and applied several methods of qualitative analysis to gain some sense of what had occurred for participants.
My work began with the premise that participants in public deliberation should be respected and motivated to give their best to the process. They should be celebrated. My first research question was, “what is the experience of public deliberation for participants?” In other words, what is the story they are creating through their effort? My second related question was, “what is the learning that deliberating participants experience?” After every deliberative process, participants claim to have learned a great deal, but what does that mean?
A final question emerged as I progressed, which was “what should deliberating participants contribute to public policy generation?” This is about the content of their conversation and the interplay of facts, comparative values and beliefs. It also begs the question of what participants should be asked to do. I am proposing some normative prescriptions in this regard.
Around these questions is an over-arching concern about how research about deliberative processes should be conducted. While empirical (scientific) methods are useful and important, my work is intended to generate narratives around subjective meaning rather than to prove universal truths. I take a post-modern research stance called ‘social constructionism’ that values subjective accounts including my own as a researcher, tolerates a plurality of meaning in society and views societal structures and categorisations as culturally-produced and reproduced. My thesis advocates this style of research as necessary for the cultural advancement of public deliberation, which correspondingly constructs future possibilities through social interaction and dialogue.
Ultimately, my mission is to nudge the deliberative enterprise towards presenting a more coherent and compelling story about itself, and this makes my work worthwhile.
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