Why we need radical democratic innovation post-COVID

By Silvia Cervellini, Founder and Co-ordinator of coletivo Delibera Brasil

Although we have talked about inequality and sustainability in Brazil for a long time (we held the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992 and the first World Social Forum in 2001 in Porto Alegre), the COVID-19 pandemic struck us in the middle of a “quasi” economic crisis, a declining Gini Index and increasing evidence of biomass destruction in Brazil’s Pantanal, Mata Atlântica and Amazonia forests.1

We have seen some consensual and immediate solutions to the different crises Brazil faces, e.g. quarantine and extra resources allocated to public health to fight the sanitary crisis; temporary financial support and food for the most vulnerable to tackle the hunger crisis; and firefighting to extinguish fires in the jungle. None of these measures, however, address the root causes of these problems, nor can they be sustained as permanent policies.

“We wanted to provide three clear disruptive orientations for any type of leadership or community seeking long-term solutions to tackle inequality and sustainability issues.” #DevMatters

When we at Delibera Brasil, decided to “bet our chips” on citizen deliberation through “mini-publics” (i.e. citizens’ assemblies and citizens’ juries) we wanted to provide three clear disruptive orientations for any type of leadership or community seeking long-term solutions to tackle inequality and sustainability issues :

  1. “Citizen mode”: all actors involved must work towards a common and well specified goal, with citizens at the centre, seeking what is best for the whole community. Through a process of sortition – selecting citizens to fill representative posts – citizens feel responsible for those who are “outside the room” and will be affected by their recommendations. In turn, the leadership feels supported by the public to dialogue with society as a whole and take action.
  • Balanced, honest and critical information to make decisions: experts and stakeholders, with different and sometimes opposing views on a subject for deliberation must form a “reference group” where they are challenged to express their positions and support them with concrete evidence and informative material to be presented and open to question to citizens participating in the mini-public.
  • Engaged and considerate public debate: the transparent mini-public process and widely disseminated deliberation results, function as a “proxy” for political and scientific information for the general public. We must aim to replicate the kind of metrics achieved by the French citizen’s assembly on climate change: 70% percent of French people surveyed had heard about the convention, 62% were supportive of most measures which were considered realistic and effective and two popular referenda are expected to take place on some of the proposed measures.

In our last project, “Conselho Cidadão de Fortaleza”, citizens deliberated and delivered 19 recommendations on solid waste management. In co-operation with local authorities, with support from the newDemocracy foundation and financed by the United Nations Democracy Fund’s “Democracy Beyond Elections” programme, a plural and representative reference group produced an information kit which they sent to speakers of diverse interest groups for them to share and discuss. A representative sample of 200 residents spread throughout the entire city of Fortaleza was recruited, and 40 were selected through sortition at a public event held at the municipality parliament.

“Radical democratic innovation is useful and necessary to face the challenges in the enduring and uncertain post-pandemic context.” #DevMatters

The “Conselho” consisted in five facilitated whole-day sessions from October through December 2019, with the production of the citizens’ recommendation report in the last session. Additionally, a series of meetings were held involving technical and management staff of the related areas, the reference group and some “conselheiros”. And on 5 March 2020, the mayor of Fortaleza, Roberto Claudio presented the implementation plan of the recommendations at a public event. Among the proposals were household selective waste collection in partnership with “catadores” (waste picker) associations. The pandemic, unfortunately, put the plan on hold.

Our experiences in Brazil, and all actors involved, tell us that our bet is worth it and that radical democratic innovation is useful and necessary to face the challenges in the enduring and uncertain post-pandemic context. For those who want to join forces in advancing the participatory and deliberative path, here are two recommendations, but also some words of warning as we move forward:

  1. Education: the decision to open schools or not became a “war” between interest groups and within the educational expert community. Science cannot solve the dilemma. Surveys with parents here show majority support to keep schools closed, but when looking closer the majority also say that they would send their children back to school “in case they open”. What if we changed the question to: how can we educate our children during the pandemic? Experts could then put together the best solutions available (sanitary and educational) and, with public managers, create a few alternative scenarios, clearly communicating the conditions, budgets, priorities and risks involved in each one. Mini-publics representative of school communities (employees, teachers, parents and students) could in turn study the alternatives, questioning experts and public managers, and deliberate and recommend the solution they consider to be the best for that municipality.
  • Public budgeting: resources were already scarce before the pandemic, and now some governments, especially at the local level, may face choices between basic expenditures such as salaries, public building maintenance and social programmes. Many Brazilian municipalities are making progress in terms of transparency policies, so it would be feasible to organise the information, presenting the administration’s “mapping” of “hard choices” to make, and opening the discussion to public consultation. This would then enable a transparent and sufficiently representative, well-informed2 deliberative process through mini-publics and other participatory tools.

Based on our learnings I would like also to issue some words of caution:

Be specific and explicit about the “hard choices”: open-ended questions might appear more democratic, because they may seem to open the floor for a wider or lengthier debate. But we the citizens do not have time for that. Experts, stakeholders and public servants can and should do the “homework” together, placing citizens at the centre of the political decision.

Be public and loud: citizen deliberation is not a panacea and should not be trivialised. It must be used for problems that current democratic, civil society and other participatory mechanisms are unable to address. When that is the case, the media, opinion leaders and the general public must be made aware of the importance of the decision being made.

I know this might sound like a “utopia”, but it can be done and it has been done in places like Toronto, Oregon, Australia and Europe.3 In developing countries, such as Brazil, middle and small cities have the conditions and will benefit more and faster from these experiences, although an “exemplary” inspiration from a larger city could help pave the way.


1. Sources INPE, Imazon and Marcelo Neri/FGV Social: Moving average (3years) of fires in Pantanal raised 38% in 2019 and 94% in 2020 until November; in April 2020 there was a record of deforestation in Amazonia, the highest rate in 10 years; “A Escalada da Desigualdade”.

2. A practical guide Democracy Beyond Elections handbook (also in Portuguese)

3. To know more about experiences around the world go to www.democracyrd.org