Why Citizen-Driven Policy Making Is No Longer A Fringe Idea
Deliberative democracy is a term that would have been met with blank stares in academic and political circles just a few decades ago.
Yet this approach, which examines ways to directly connect citizens with decision-making processes, has now become central to many calls for government reform across the world.
This surge in interest was firstly driven by the 2008 financial crisis. After the banking crash, there was a crisis of trust in democratic institutions. In Europe and the United States, populist political movements helped drive public feeling to become increasingly anti-establishment.
The second was the perceived inability of representative democracy to effectively respond to long-term, intergenerational challenges, such as climate change and environmental decline.
Within the past few years, hundreds of citizens’ assemblies, juries and other forms of ‘minipublics’ have met to learn, deliberate and produce recommendations on topics from housing shortages and covid-19 policies, to climate action.
One of the most recent assemblies in the United Kingdom was the People’s Plan for Nature that produced a vision for the future of nature, and the actions society must take to protect and renew it.
When it comes to climate action, experts argue that we need to move beyond showpiece national and international goal-setting, and bring decision-making closer to home.
Scholars say that that local and regional minipublics should be used much more frequently to produce climate policies, as this is where citizens experience the impact of the changing climate and act to make everyday changes.
While some policymakers are critical of deliberative democracy and see these processes as redundant to the existing deliberative bodies, such a national parliaments, others are more supportive. They view them as a way to get a better understanding of both what the public both thinks, and also how they might choose to implement change, after being given the chance to learn and deliberate on key questions.
Research has shown that the cognitive diversity of minipublics ensure a better quality of decision-making, in comparison to the more experienced, but also more homogenous traditional decision-making bodies.
For politicians, one benefit of minipublics is the opportunity to share the responsibility of potentially risky policy decisions, with society itself.
In one famous example, President Emmanuel Macron promised the French climate assembly that he would implement whatever recommendations they made.
The climate assembly then produced ostensibly radical proposals, most of which Macron was not able to implement.
However, one of the more transformative ones, regarding the ban of flying within France, did get through. Having survived legal challenges, it will now be implemented.
My own experience working with a minipublic in New Zealand supports the contention that the citizens are ready to go in a policy direction that is both supported by evidence and also confront difficult realities.
From January 2020 to February 2023, I lead a team from the University of Auckland’s Koi Tū: Centre for Informed Futures.
In collaboration with the municipally owned water company Watercare, funded by New Zealand’s Ministry of Business, Employment and Innovation, we ran New Zealand’s first fully empowered minipublic on the future source of water for Auckland.
After four days of learning from a range of experts and materials, deliberation and consensus-making, citizens decided that direct recycled water is the source they would recommend.
In New Zealand, using this water source of water has been seen to be controversial. In the Māori culture, there are cultural restrictions around individuals being in contact with any form of human waste.
However, during the assembly, citizens were given the opportunity to learn about this issue both from Māori scholars and from representatives of the Mana Whenua Kaitiaki Forum, the governance forum of all the 19 hapū and iwi (roughly, clans and tribes) of Auckland.
Learning about the cultural context and understanding from the Kaitiaki Forum that the human right to water and the preserving environment are of highest importance in a dynamic and continuously transforming indigenous culture, then, gave them the confidence to propose this solution.
Since then, Watercare’s Board has accepted the recommendations and have begun to work towards implementation.
This successful example has increased the profile of deliberative democracy in New Zealand and will likely lead to more experiments of this kind.
This interest is still mostly at the local level, and what remains to be seen is how policymakers at the national level respond to them and whether they will be brave enough to trial these new forms of democratic processes, which in my view may be better suited for the big policy issues today.