Deliberative democracy – a way to engage the community

I would like to offer citizens a concrete way to participate in the deliberation on issues that are difficult to resolve.

Many jurisdictions around the world have approached these difficult questions by applying a process known as deliberative democracy. Deliberative processes are especially useful for complex problems where there are no right or wrong answers and foster an understanding of values ​​and the trade-offs the community would make to solve a problem.

A notable example is the Irish Citizens’ Assembly, which addressed five critical issues and provided advice to the Irish parliament. One of the most notable led to a nationwide vote on abortion rights. The opinions of the Assembly were remarkably close to the national vote, reflecting the representative nature of the Assembly.

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

Although slightly nuanced, the terms ‘citizens’ juries’, ‘people’s panels’ and ‘mini publics’ are used synonymously with common applications of deliberative democracy.

Deliberative democracy is highly valued because it has several advantages over traditional models of community engagement. By bringing together 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 answer the question at hand.

Traditional community engagement typically involves people who have a pre-existing interest and opinion on an issue, and typically provides decision-makers with multiple perspectives that they must then sift through, assess, and weigh to determine what action to take.

A preferred model combines traditional and deliberative processes. Traditional engagement data can provide excellent input and insight into a deliberative process. A citizens’ jury or similar process then evaluates traditional input as well as expert information presented throughout the process, and then evaluates it all against their own personal values.

With the support of facilitators, participants work together to understand the issues and perspectives of experts and others, identify options, and reach consensus on 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.

When the City of Melbourne wishes to engage in its deliberative process, there are four key elements to consider:

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

Since these processes are not about asking people to respond to pre-developed proposals or choose between prepared options, the board should be open to all responses that come from the deliberative process. Although the decision ultimately rests with the board, valid and transparent reasons should be given to go in another direction.

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

If the Irish parliament were up for it, I am convinced that the city of Melbourne can be an example of deliberative democracy and demonstrate in a very concrete way its commitment to community engagement.

This article is based on a University of Technology Sydney (UTS) course called Leading Deliberative Democracy. Dr. Stan Capp is a committee member of Residents 3000, president of EastEnders and a longtime advocate of deliberative democracy. •

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