Why public deliberation?

Who defines the issues?

In many traditional societies, collective decisions are still reached through a discussion process involving the group as a whole. Most other forms of organizations leave collective decisions to an individual or a small subgroup: whether self-selected by force in authoritarian societies; because of their founding role in small enterprises; chosen by peers and/or selection processes in bureaucracies; or elected in representative democracies. Direct democracies such as Switzerland, as well as many cooperatives, use a voting system to reach actual decisions, but citizens (or members) chose among options selected by an elected sub-group of the collectivity. In many cases, the options are examined by study committees before this selection process, and optionally debated in the media; in many cases, however, practical committee size, and the structure of information flow in mass media still limits considerably the number of members of the collectivity able to actually provide direct input to the set of options that will be subjected to collective choice, much less to the definition of the issues. This is also an issue with traditional forms of polling.

This is not generally seen as a problem, insofar as various mechanisms allow for adequate channels of indirect input: civil society can express itself through access to the media, or to parliamentary representatives. However, as societies become more diverse, and problems more complex than before, mass media become more fragmented, and also rarely provide the level of analysis adequate to address collective decisions; and local representation also fails to address the new lines of identity in society, which are less and less bound to location. Also, many collective issues now transcend national boundaries, and supra-national decision-making bodies may be even less well equipped to deal with social complexity than the national ones. In the private sector, or in the world of cooperatives, inter-organizational decision making is quite ad hoc; and when bodies exist that should reach decision on behalf of many of these entities (such as a chamber of commerce), representation of the interests of smaller organizations can be even more of an issue.

We believe that we have hit a new scaling problem for the legitimacy of collective decision making, and that new approaches are needed to allow for diverse communities to share in the decision-making process. Mechanisms for public deliberation that would allow for direct suggestions to be made by members of a collectivity would allow the following:

  1. Harness collective intelligence to find better solutions

    Collective intelligence refers to the capacity of groups to find answers to problems that no single specialist could find. Wikipedia has made us familiar with this phenomenon. Simply having a wider base of contribution can lead to more creative solutions, a phenomenon explored by InnoCentive; this does not even address the gains to be made by collaboration. Team collaboration cannot (yet) practically go beyond a certain scale; but even beyond that, it has been found that the aggregation of independent, decentralized opinions can be more accurate than any individual opinion. This is referred to by James Surowiecki as the wisdom of crowds [/]Surowiecki, James. The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations. Little, Brown, London, 2004.. Large-scale deliberation is a distinct process, which according to Surowiecki loses the characteristic of independence and may converge on an erroneous opinion; but it is possible to design deliberation in such a way that dialogue is mostly used to explore the space of possibilities, and yet the option selection process would retains the characteristics of independence identified by Surowiecki. (As has been done in the Delphi process [http://web.njit.edu/~turoff/Papers/CDSCMC/CDSCMC.htm]Murray Turoff, Starr Roxanne Hiltz, Michael Bieber, Jerry Fjermestad, Ajaz Rana. «Collaborative Discourse Structures in Computer Mediated Group Communications». Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 4(4), jun 1999. .)

  2. Avoid options that are not acceptable to some groups

    Involving most members of a group to discuss decisions helps ensure that objections to an issue are raised at the beginning of the process, rather than when the proposal is enacted. Of course, many issues that may arise for a group may not be known by that group at the outset; this is why it is important to involve both experts that may be able to foresee unintended consequences, as well as other stakeholders for whom those consequences might become critical.

  3. Get commitment to the decisions from people involved in their design

    As part of discussing options, it is important to ask people to formulate their commitment to options that they are supporting. Commitment may take many forms, such as commitment in resources, in time ("I would volunteer extra time to make this happen"), or in financial terms. (If that is the main form of commitment, what we have is a participatory budget.) Negative commitment is also to be considered: somebody going on record as committed to oppose a proposal may have a good reason. In that case, it can be interesting to analyse how the original proposal could be altered to turn this person around. Of course, that is not always possible; yet the effort generally yields insight into issues. Analysing public commitments helps distinguish what members of a community consider merely desireable from what they attach real value to.

  4. Encourage a reflection on the issues among the participants

    At best, the process of deliberation encourages the participants to go beyond opinions, to explore the reasons behind differences, and may help transform their views on the problems they face as a community.