A deliberative wave for development?

By Ieva Cesnulaityte, Policy Analyst, Open Government, OECD

Citizen-centred and citizen-led policymaking is no longer an abstract vision. Polarisation, populism, and low levels of trust in governments, have prompted academics, practitioners, politicians, and policy makers to reflect upon innovative ways of breathing new life into democratic institutions. And some of the tools being rediscovered and applied today, such as deliberation by a representative group of citizens, date back to ancient Athenian democracy.   

A new OECD study shows that public authorities from all levels of government are increasingly turning to citizens to tackle complex policy problems. They are doing so by convening groups of people representing a wide cross-section of society to learn, deliberate, and develop collective recommendations. The OECD ’s Open Government team has been looking into citizens’ assemblies, juries, panels and other representative deliberative processes as ways to meet citizen demands for more open governments and more agency in shaping public decisions.

A landmark among these processes is the Irish Citizens’ Assembly (2016-2018), which involved 100 randomly selected citizens who deliberated over and provided recommendations for five important legal and policy issues, including the 8th Amendment of the Constitution on Abortion. More recently, 150 randomly selected citizens, representative of the French population, met for seven weekends over six months last year, to form the French Citizens’ Convention on Climate. They had a mandate to define a range of measures that will enable France to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels) in a socially just and equitable way.

“By extending the privilege of decision making to citizens, public authorities create the potential for a relationship with citizens and stakeholders that is built on mutual trust and co-creation.” DevMatters

What opportunities can innovative citizen participation practices, such as representative deliberative processes, offer to developing countries?

First, deliberative processes can contribute to building trust. By extending the privilege of decision making to citizens, public authorities create the potential for a relationship with citizens and stakeholders that is built on mutual trust and co-creation. In these processes citizens accept the invitation and responsibility to participate in decision-making; stakeholders engage as experts; and public authorities respond to and act on citizens’ recommendations. In La Plata, Argentina, in 2009, sixty-two randomly selected citizens took part in a representative deliberative process on transit and traffic issues in the city. Participants were surveyed before and after the process, and the results demonstrated a strong increase in trust in government after participation. Before deliberation, 60% disagreed strongly with the statement that “public officials care a lot about what people like me think.” After deliberation, this position dropped to 20%.  

Deliberative processes offer all citizens an equal opportunity to participate, thus supporting inclusive development. One of the defining characteristics of representative deliberative processes is citizen selection by lot and demographic stratification on characteristics such as gender, age, location, and socio-economic data. The group at the heart of the process is a microcosm of society, meaning a much broader range of voices shape the policy. Many of those voices would never have been able or interested in participating in decision making otherwise, and as a result would not have been heard. Two stages of random selection of citizens (or civic lottery) provides an equal chance for all to be selected to take part, and ensures a diversity of views at the decision making table. During the first stage, invitations are sent to a random sample of the population, by post, email or phone. A second invitation to participate is sent to a selection of those who responded positively, and have been stratified based on various demographic criteria.  

Solving complex policy issues

The development process entails solving multiple values-based policy dilemmas, long-term questions, and issues with clear trade-offs. These are precisely the types of policy problems that representative deliberative processes are well suited to address. Urban planning, health, and environment are some of the policy issues that are addressed most frequently by these processes. In 2015, the Resilient Africa Network and the Centre for Deliberative Democracy conducted a deliberative poll (a type of representative deliberative process) in Ghana, Tamale Metropolitan Area. A group of 208 randomly selected citizens came together to deliberate face-to-face for two days over what the local government and donor agencies should prioritise when tackling issues of access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene, as well as livelihood and food security. Results of this deliberative poll show that even though trade-offs for these priorities were significant and included hard choices, citizens provided the policy direction that they considered most appropriate.

“The group at the heart of the process is a microcosm of society, meaning a much broader range of voices shape the policy.” #DevMatters

Sustainable policy choices

Representative deliberative processes give citizens the opportunity to provide an informed and substantial say in shaping development strategies, plans, and policies that directly impact their lives. For this to be possible, resources and time for both learning and deliberation are required. Deliberative processes are designed to provide such conditions. Whereas more traditional participation techniques, such as public consultations or town hall meetings, result in the aggregation of individual public opinions.  

Citizens are brought to the centre of shaping development policy. Given agency, and a chance to learn about the issue from experts and stakeholders, citizens have the opportunity to provide feedback on and adapt development solutions to a specific context, potentially avoiding policy failure in the future and improving chances of success. In addition, as deliberative processes bring together relevant stakeholders, they result in a network of actors who are informed about the process and its results, which facilitates subsequent policy implementation.

Building a culture of participation, accountability, transparency, and openness

It is important that representative deliberative processes are designed and implemented in a way that is fair and transparent, motivated by problem-solving. This is key in cases where foreign aid is used to support these processes, requiring transparency and accountability, and which also help strengthen the legitimacy of the outcomes (see OECD Good Practice Principles).  

When organised fairly, deliberative processes open up policy making in more ways than just direct citizen involvement. Making all stakeholder presentations, learning materials, and other non-confidential information publicly available ensures transparency and accountability of the policy making process. Even one-off deliberative processes have the potential to contribute to building a culture of participation, as both citizens and policy makers observe the benefits and gain experience in organising and taking part in citizen participation practices. 

Development has a place in riding the deliberative wave

Development processes can reap many benefits from representative deliberative processes. This blog has only scratched the surface of possibilities. Deliberative processes have been to date applied to a range of different policy contexts, issues, and levels of government. Multiple pilot deliberative processes have been conducted in a development context that demonstrate the universal nature of deliberation and its potential to bring citizens and governments together for a common purpose. These instances, where governments, citizens, and stakeholders meet and work together to solve a pressing issue, can offer a starting point for a renewed relationship amongst them. One that is based on trust, openness, and co-operation, and has the potential to inspire a social contract based on these same principles.