Deliberative democracy – a way of engaging the community

Dr Stan Capp

I would like to offer a tangible way that citizens can be involved in deliberating on issues that are difficult to resolve.

Many jurisdictions around the world have tackled these challenging issues by applying a process known as deliberative democracy. Deliberative processes are particularly useful for complex issues where there is no right or wrong answer and promotes an understanding of the values and trade-offs the community would make in addressing an issue.

An outstanding example is the Irish Citizens’ Assembly, which addressed five critical matters and gave advice to the Irish parliament. One of the most notable led to a national vote on abortion rights. The Assembly views were remarkably close to the national vote reflecting the representative nature of the Assembly.

Locally, as required by the Victorian Local Government Act 2020, the City of Melbourne’s community engagement policy includes deliberative engagement practices. Indeed, it “supports council’s goal of being a deliberative city, and realising our vision as a bold, inspirational and sustainable city”.

While slightly nuanced, the terms “citizens’ juries”, people’s panels”, and mini publics” are are used synonymously as common applications of deliberative democracy.

Deliberative democracy is highly regarded as it has several advantages over traditional models of community engagement. By assembling a randomly selected representative sample of the affected community, the group brings diverse perspectives, backgrounds, knowledge, and ways of thinking to the challenge of identifying how to respond to the matter under consideration. 

Traditional community engagement usually involves people who have a pre-existing interest and opinion on an issue, and generally provides decision-makers with multiple perspectives which they then must sift through, evaluate, and weigh up to determine what actions to take.

A preferred model combines traditional and deliberative processes. Data from traditional engagement can provide excellent input and perspectives to a deliberative process. A citizens’ jury or like process then weighs up the traditional input plus expert information presented throughout the process and then evaluates all of it based on their own personal values.

With the support of facilitators, participants work together to understand the issues and the views of experts and others, identify options, and come to a consensus about what would be the best way forward on behalf of the community. This process allows the diversity of the group to generate a more creative approach to problem-solving than a traditional community engagement process would offer.

When the City of Melbourne wishes to initiate its deliberative process, there are four essential elements to consider:

  • The topic(s) or question(s) to be asked; 
  • The optimal size of the group of people participating in the process and the method of recruitment;
  • The amount of time that should be allocated for the process to take place; and 
  • The desired clear level of authority and legitimacy granted to the group.

As these processes are not about asking people to respond to pre-developed proposals or choosing between prepared options, council would need to be open to whatever answers come from the deliberative process. While the decision is ultimately one for council, there would need to be good and transparent reasons given for moving in another direction.

This is a serious matter for City of Melbourne to contemplate as it will be a highly public initiative and potentially generate controversial responses from stakeholders invested in the outcome.

If the Irish parliament was up for it, I am confident that the City of Melbourne can be an exemplar in deliberative democracy and demonstrate in a very real way its commitment to community engagement.

This article draws upon a course at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) entitled Leading Deliberative Democracy. Dr Stan Capp is a committee member of Residents 3000, President of EastEnders, and a long-term advocate of deliberative democracy. •

To join Residents 3000, visit residents3000.com.au

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