Deliberative Systems

Deliberative Systems is relatively new strand of inquiry within Politics as an academic discipline, arising from wider debates on Democratic Innovative and Deliberative Democracy. Deliberative Democracy debates have tended to be focused on interventions such as Citizens Juries, Citizens Assemblies and other forms of ‘mini-publics’. The mini-publics strand of Deliberative Democracy is based on making a selection of participants (e.g. via something like selection for a jury trial or via some kind of representational sampling) who then go through a process of becoming informed on an issue so they can then deliberate and provide recommendations to formal decision makers.

Yet while there is widespread recognition of the significant contribution mini-publics can play – and there are some widely acknowledged and celebrated success stories such as in framing the abortion referendum in Ireland – some criticisms have been made. For example, the issue of how few people are involved, the reliance in mini-publics on some kind of representational logic (either by random or sampling), the way mini-publics fit within representational democracy (do they shift public opinion or just create a legitimacy problem?) and whether ‘deliberation’ with its focus on reasoned argument might be an exclusive mode of political interaction.

These issues were addressed in a 2012 article by many of those who have been pioneering a more distributed and networked idea of deliberation. Jane Mansbridge, James Bohman, Simone Chambers, Thomas Christiano, Archon Fung, John Parkinson, Dennis F. Thompson and Mark E Warren argue:

[…] most democracies are complex entities in which a wide variety of institutions, associations, and sites of contestation accomplish political work – including informal networks, the media, organized advocacy groups, schools, foundations, private and non-profit institutions, legislatures, executive agencies, and the courts. We this advocate what may be called a systemic approach to deliberative democracy. (2012: 2)

The distinctive features of conceptualising ‘deliberation’ in this way has been to move away from deliberations being sited only in specific forums and institutions, whether parliaments or mini-publics. Instead Deliberative Systems moves attention to large scale deliberation rather than specific mini-publics:

This approach enables us to think about democratic decisions being taken in the context of a variety of deliberative venues and institutions, interacting together to produce a healthy deliberative system. (2012: 2)

Deliberative Systems also allow for a division of labour:

A systemic approach allows us to analyse the division of labour among parts of the system, each with its different deliberative strengths and weaknesses, and to conclude that a single part, which in itself may have low or even negative deliberative quality with respect to one of several deliberative ideals, may nevertheless make an important contribution to an overall deliberative system. (2012:2-3)

Finally, Mansbridge et al. argue, Deliberative Systems enables a contextual or meta-analysis that can ‘see more clearly where a system could be improved, and recommend institutions or other innovations that could supplement the system in areas of weakness’ (2012:4). Through these interventions, Deliberative Systems has been understood as offering a ‘guide’ for ‘practical action, which confronts real-world issues of scale and constraints on time and knowledge’ (Knops 2016: 307).

In terms of normative functions of Deliberative Systems Mansbridge et al. draw attention to the ‘epistemic’, ‘ethical’ and ‘democratic’:

  • The epistemic function ‘of a deliberative system is to produce preferences, opinions, and decisions that are appropriately informed by facts and logic and are the outcome of substantive and meaningful consideration of relevant reasons’ (2012: 11), meaning ‘a healthy deliberative system is one where relevant considerations are brought fourth from all corners, aired, discussed and appropriately weighed’ (2012:11).
  • The ethical function is ‘to promote mutual respect between citizens’ […] ‘to understand the other as a self-authorising source of reasons and claims’ (2012: 11).
  • The democratic function is ‘to promote an inclusive political process on the terms of equality’ (2012: 12).

Mansbridge et al. see these as normative features which can be used to evaluate and improve a deliberative system as part of increasing its overall legitimacy. They argue:

The successful realization of all three of these functions promotes the legitimacy of democratic decision making by ensuring reasonably sound decisions in the context of mutual respect amongst citizens and an inclusive process of collective choice. Legitimacy in this strong sense maximises the chances that people who share a common fate will agree, willingly, to the terms of their common cooperation. (2012: 12)

While different people have schematized deliberative system in different ways, the characteristics have tended to include making links between:

  • everyday informal talk (Mansbridge 1999; Parkinson 2012)
  • public space
  • empowered space ‘where authoritative collective decisions get produced’ (Dryzek 2011)
  • transmission between the spaces (Dryzek 2009; Mendonça 2016), such as via the media
  • meta-deliberation on the characteristics and workings of the system itself (Dryzek 2009).

Deliberative Systems has given rise to an energetic debate. This debate is very well rehearsed in the literature (for example see, Smith and Owen  2015/ Handbook of Deliberative Democracy), so my focus here will be to crystalize the most significant unresolved questions, through a grouping and reconfiguring of what John Dryzek refers to as ‘intermural questions’ (2020).

Type of Talk: Everyday talk, deliberative talk, legitimate talk

  • How can you both expand the way people can contribute (beyond hyper articulate reasoned argument) to include stories, emotion, ‘everyday talk’ in Mansbridge’s terms and cultivate the ideals of deliberation (informed debate, weighing up different possibilities, persuasion)?

Knowledge and Democracy: Better outcomes and well as a better process:

  • How can deliberative systems lead to better understandings of complex issues as well as being more democratic in terms of process (in that more people affected are involved and issues are openly deliberated)?

Being heard: trust, responsive, decisiveness

  • How can you ensure people can be heard by decision makers and ensure their contributions and deliberations affect decision-making?

Expanding ideas of change

  • How might this way of working both influence formal decision making (e.g. through a council or parliament) and expand the definitions of change to include community-led change?
  • How might change be conceived as a long-term continuous process and in ways that work across scales?

A Democratic System?: Consensus, contest and protest

  • How can a process be designed to work towards emerging consensus and to work non-cooptively with protesters and activists?
  • How to work systemically from where we are now and expand ideas of (participatory) democracy (Pateman)?

Roles: Who makes the system work? ‘Institutional referees’ (Parkinson 2012)

  • What kinds of roles can facilitation usefully and legitimately play?
  • How might this role also enable ‘meta’ reflection on the system and how it can be developed?

Having set up the Deliberative Systems debate and arising questions, we will now look at the current debates with systemic thinking and whole system change – with the aim of identifying how they might enhance each other and set an agenda for action research.