Deliberative Innovation: Research and Practice

This afternoon I was at a seminar on Deliberative Innovation: Research and Practice at Edinburgh University’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. This was presented by Oliver Escobar and Stephen Elstub, and chaired by Sara Drury. It was great to to meet and learn from Oliver, Stephen, Sara, some of Sara’s students from Wabash College and others in a very varied gathering.

As usual, this post is mostly composed of my tweets, slightly edited for comprehensibility. Larger amendments and additions are in [square brackets]. The block-quotes are my thoughts.

At seminar on Deliberative Innovation: Research and Practice. Thanks to @OliverEscobar and Sara Drury for getting me into this!

Sara Drury, Stephen Elstub, Oliver Escobar introduce themselves. Oliver and Stephen define deliberative innovation, and say it is trying to supplement representative democracy, bringing quality debate, and innovation. @OliverEscobar and @StephenElstub are editing a handbook of deliberative innovation and governance. Their definition of deliberative innovation is in the photo:

Some of this is based on their work on mini-publics (MPs).

@StephenElstub says in all forms of MP, citizens are gathered, given info from experts, then take part in facilitated discussion. He is doing research at Westminster and Holyrood on parliamentary committees. Here is his research agenda:

The yellow bit says ‘Deliberative Systems’.

@StephenElstub says some folk say democracy is in crisis: there is low trust in established representative political institutions. (See some relevant books on in the next photo.) Hence there is weak identification with political parties, and people change votes. [That is, people no longer vote as they always did.] But does this mean people are dissatisfied with democracy?

@StephenElstub says governments have given out powers to other organisations, e.g. privatisation, public services outsourced to voluntary sectors. Globalisation also adds to depoliticisation/weakening of democracy. And there are now many more media channels sensationalising stuff [to sell their products]. People are also becoming more critical – they want to be heard.

I used to work for a publisher that was part of a big media corporation. One of the key metrics was ‘advertising impressions’, i.e. how many times viewers of their television channels were hit with advertising, because that was how the channels got revenue. I hear from public servants that journalists dig for stories via freedom of information enquiries often not to expose wrong-doing but to have sensationalist stories that sell their product, regardless of the time and money that costs taxpayers. Both of these are abysmal, and I’m embarrassed that I worked for such a corporation. Maybe I should also burn my National Union of Journalists card! I also wonder why we are so hooked on sensationalism that it’s almost the only way news organisations can make money. Bah!

In seriousness, I think all of it depends on people respecting each other, even if they strong disagree with their positions.  (Of course, avoiding ad-personam arguments is nothing new!) My personal examples include the current plans to extend Edinburgh’s trams to Leith. By being involved in discussions which aim to be constructively critical, and hence contribute to development of improved plans, I have come to respect senior members of the trams team as very competent and approachable people. We disagree on certain things, but I have respect for their knowledge and experience which I probably wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t met them. I certainly don’t have the strength to face the public opprobrium they are receiving.

Another lesson for me is that so much is nuanced and full of grey areas, so that policies and decisions can only ever be compromises. In practice, politicians (amongst others) need to make heart-breaking decisions, e.g. do we fund schools, hospitals, law-enforcement, environmental action when there simply will never be enough money for all of this. Again, I am not strong enough to make such decisions!

[Going back to the question of whether people are dissatisfied with democracy], @StephenElstub says people want more ways to participate, but have limited time, and can’t take part in everything. @OliverEscobar says it depends how personal democracy is to people, e.g. in Spain, democracy is still fragile. There is a global ‘democratic recession’, based on evidence from the global attitudes survey.

Hence there are opportunities and challenges:

@StephenElstub says the greatest challenge is co-option: manipulation by the state (e.g. if a mini-public gives the answer(s) that the powers-that-be want, it’s lauded and the answer is implemented; but if the mini-public gives the unwanted answer(s), the mini-public and the answer(s) are forgotten.) @StephenElstub suggests that many calls for a citizens’ assembly on Brexit (for example) may be opportunism.

@StephenElstub says democratic innovation is not a cure for everything. He also seems to ask ‘cui bono?@Oliver Escobar adds that we should run away from short-termism trying to ‘solve the unsolvable’ because this will undermine developing long term improvements. But it’s great that democratic innovations get exposure.

I think this was the point where Oliver also said that we have had 40 years of pilots for democratic innovations. By now we should get on with implementing them, using a variety of tools to build systems that answer the needs of the situations. JFDI, I think!

Questions & answers

One of the ‘audience’ tells of his/her participative experience: s/he was much misrepresented by (local) government, as was relevant research. This recurs (i.e. untruth is taken as received truth), leading to frustration. She mentions ‘narrowness’ of the Scottish community councils system. @Oliver Escobar says it comes down to whoever adjudicates. [That is, petitions can show one position (the position of one of the many publics that simultaneously co-exist), but are not good for decision-making.]

Someone comments on the introductory mention of things that are not deliberative but are participative (e.g. boycotts, demonstrations) and of things that are deliberative but not participative (e.g. civil servants making decisions without inviting people to give ‘evidence’. Is there benefit in spaces that are participative but not deliberative. @StephenElstub says that supporters of participative means tend to be ‘ecumenical’, but supporters of deliberation have more focussed ideas of how to participate (IF I UNDERSTOOD CORRECTLY!). Sara Drury (who is @CivicSAM) mentions that US referenda tend to lack deliberation.

Someone asks about upstream v downstream: how and why, and what does ‘being informed’ mean?

I have no idea where the tweet about this went but in health economics, upstream means work to prevent illness (e.g. [spending money on] improving social conditions, prohibition of tobacco), while downstream means work after illness has occurred (e.g. [spending money on] doctors, nurses, hospitals etc) Oliver’s observation is that participants in mini-publics tend to start off believing in downstream approaches, but end up believing in upstream approaches. The audience question is about why this happens.

@Oliver Escobar says changes are due to exposure to expert evidence. This is consistent across mini-publics. If issues arise that can’t be handled by mini-publics alone, overview boards help.

Final questions

How does democratic innovation work in high-population areas? How does it relate to power to set terms? How can people be turned on to doing democracy.

The last one is my question: I know how much time I spend doing hyperlocal democracy, and the this is only possible because my wife earns enough to keep me. Yet another reason to write in public how wonderful she is!

@StephenElstub says people are in filter-bubbles, and don’t like to argue. Deliberation forces people to be exposed to viewpoints and ‘unknown unknowns’. He says good engagement breeds engagement! ‘Power?’ yes this is a huge issue – no magic solutions yet.

@Oliver Escobar says check out , e.g. for information on the success of Melbourne’s work. He adds, on agenda-setting power, that this a hard one because there are practical issues. So other things could be used to shape agendas, e.g. petitions, but mini-publics can decide who they hear from, where to go from there. He adds on ‘apathy’ that it’s not a human natural trait, it’s constructed. We have maybe built a system that encourages apathy. But there is research on expanding the boundary of politics, so he doesn’t believe in apathy. He adds that mini-publics pay people to reduce barriers to participation, then ends on a ‘bombshell’!

And of course I thought I would remember what that bombshell was. This is how the blog post ends, not with a bang but with a whimper about my fading memory.

My conclusions

  • Deliberative innovations are difficult but necessary.
  • So it won’t be perfect, but what about humans ever was?
  • As ever, it’s not about the technology, it’s about what you do with it, and about bringing humans together to talk and learn from each other.
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