The simplest forms of consultation, and those that are most common at present, amount to little more than public opinion polls. They focus on ‘consultation’ rather than ‘deliberation’. Community members are seen as “customers” whose pre-defined needs and preferences must be met, rather than fellow rational agents with valuable contributions to make to the decision-making process itself. As Coleman and Gotze explain:
Methods of public engagement can be described as deliberative when they encourage citizens to scrutinise, discuss and weigh up competing values and policy options. Such methods encourage preference formation rather than simple preference assertion.
That is, rather than looking at existing ‘public opinion’, the democratic state should encourage citizens to investigate the issues, deliberate with others, and draw informed conclusions. Community consultation should aim to harness local decision-making skills, rather than merely serving to highlight pre-existing opinions.
The key enabling conditions for such deliberation (identified by Coleman & Gotze) include:
- Access to balanced information
- An open agenda, rather than constraining the community’s input to a binary decision
- Time to consider issues expansively
- Freedom from manipulation or coercion, as for legal juries
- A rule-based framework for discussion (to clarify expectations and promote productiveness).
- Participation by an inclusive sample of citizens. This may require efforts to overcome the “digital divide”, but also providing meaningful opportunities for the socially marginalized, or those that are less confident or literate, to contribute.
- Scope for free interaction between participants. The standard one-way flows see governments asking questions and citizens responding with their opinions. Deliberative democracy involves citizens asking questions in return, and also exchanging views and learning from one another.
An obvious problem for snapshot polling, by contrast, is the uninformed nature of the opinions solicited. By merely skimming the surface thoughts of respondents who might not have given the issue a moment’s thought, it’s unclear whether the feedback received has any real value. I would expect that some participants, recognizing this, might even be annoyed at the government for wasting everybody’s time by asking them questions they know nothing about. (At least, that tends to be my reaction to local government surveys!)
Further, such consultations fail to empower participants in any meaningful sense. Citizens are treated as nothing more than repositories of opinion – a mere input to the decision-makers – and deprived of any opportunity to themselves participate in the decision-making via more deliberative involvement. Thus, such “snapshot consultations” seem lacking in value to both State and Citizen, and should probably be avoided.