Saturday, March 25, 2006

Customer Consultation vs. Democratic Deliberation

One potential shortcoming of modern democracy is that, insofar as governments feel the need to engage the public at all, they tend to assume what we might call "the customer service model" of government.

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.


  1. The current approach to consultation which you rightly criticize derives from the pernicious effects of the neo-classical economic model of democracy. Anthony Downs' 1957 book, based on Kenneth Arrow's work, viewed citizens as nothing more than "consumers" of political ideas, each acting individually as a selfish utility-maximizer when electing a Government, or when engaging with political ideas. In contrast, the subsequent deliberative model of democracy views citizens as also "producers" of political ideas, actions and programmes. I am not sure most politicians yet understand their constituents as producers of politics and political actions; certainly, only a very few politicians have any respect for such a position by their constituents.

  2. if you asked citizens for citizens bills off the top of their heads you would tend to get "get rid of politicians" type bills. If oyu design the system to avoid this then it is the system that chooses the bills to a large extent.
    Still I guess the input of more information is a good thing and since runnign a country is a hard job more participation is better (as long as at some point contradictory policies, stupid policies, and prejudiced policies are filtered out)

  3. The problem with democracy is it works only to the degree that the populace becomes informed and active. Ideally, at least in American politics, the idea was to find someone representative of the local body and then that person become informed on the ideas.

    The problem is that as government becomes involved with more and more things and as issues are involved in more and more complex thinking, it's impossible for anyone - the populace or the official - to really be sufficiently informed. A few people might become informed on some issues. But by and large both the elected officials and the populace are ill informed about most issues.

    The issue then becomes appeal to experts or simply emotional voting. Unfortunately, at least in the United States, the balance is far more towards emotional voting.

  4. An alternative is to create "mini-publics" of (soon to be) informed representative citizens, e.g. through citizen's juries, deliberative polls, and the like. That way a statistically random/representative sample of the population becomes informed about the particular issue, without the risk of biased interests (not to mention public suspicion and democratic illegitimacy) that could result from investing political power directly in the educated elite ("experts").

  5. But would the public be willing to abdicate their democratic power to allow such things? And would the powers that be who gain from the current system be willing to let it change?

    My personal feeling is that the best alternative is blogging and the internet. But I think it'll take a decade or two for this kind of distributed processing to be noticed by the public and thereby shape the democratic process enough.

  6. I suggest you give a certain group of extreemly smart people ultimate power but not ability to use it for their own benefit (except maybe in as far as their own benefit reflects that of the population?). Supported by technology as appropriate.
    A sequested ultimate jury...
    they could also be totaly exposed to review but not subject to significant knowlege of that review.


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