Deliberative democracy is one of the major growth areas in contemporary social science and community engagement in the world. The use of deliberative methods of community engagement has increased in the last 30 years, partly in response to public discontent with previous public participation experiences and a decreased in the trust of government decisions without community input. In Scotland in particular, there has been an increase in the emphasis on openness, accountability and a focus on the citizen. This has provided some impetus for the development of participatory methods, including deliberative consultation forums.
While in some ways similar to qualitative social research methods such as focus groups, deliberative engagement methods provide an opportunity for participants to find out more about a topic, consider relevant evidence and discuss this evidence with other participants before presenting their view. This can happen over a number of weeks or months, or in an intensive day or weekend event. It aims to involved the public in decision-making in a meaningful way.
There are a range of deliberative approaches that are used. The most common methods are:
Deliberative polling seeks to examine what the public would think if given an opportunity to be informed of competing arguments and to deliberate with their peers on topics of social and public policy. Participants conduct pre and post-surveys to ascertain whether the deliberation process has changed their opinion on the topic.
Similar to deliberative polling, the aim is less about exploring whether people’s opinions change, but more about deliberating a topic to arrive at some decisions. Deliberative workshops can take anything from a few hours to several days to conduct and typically involve between 20-50 participants.
Deliberative mapping combines qualitative and quantitative methods to assess how participants rate different policy options against a set of defined criteria. The emphasis of this process is not on integrating expert and public voices, but understanding the different perspectives each offer to a policy process.
These are events that encourage discussion between the public and experts. During a consensus conference, contentious and complex issues tend to be explored, often on scientific or technological subjects. Conferences usually last 3-4 days and involve around 10-20 participants. The media play a key role and are invited to attend parts of the event. The main difference between Consensus Conferences and Deliberative Workshops is the intended outcome of arriving at a consensus opinion.
These are one-off events that enables 12-16 members of the public to make informed decisions on complex issues. Jurors hear from a variety of experts, cross-examine them, deliberate about the topic and present their findings at the end of the event.
Deliberative democracy in Australia
In recent years, deliberative democracy has been seen to be a successful approach to engage communities in a range of contexts, including in disaster recovery. Green Cross Australia was launched in 2007 with the vision of reconnecting humanity and the environment. Green Cross has recently embarked on a new research project, Deliberative Democracy in Disaster Recovery, exploring ways to empower innovative community recovery through post-disaster deliberation.
Good democracy in recovery calls for the involvement of community members in making decisions that will impact on their lives in the years to come. A good democratic system enables the participation of individuals throughout the community, provides a setting for them to talk through each other’s views and values, to be informed of facts and question expects regarding the issues at hand. These point to some of the key features of deliberative democracy, which can be used to support community-driven decision-making in disaster recovery.
Other examples of deliberative democracy events in Australia have include Rural City of Wangaratta: Citizen’s Jury, NSW Climate Consensus Project and NSW Climate Summit, and Ballina: Climate Action Plan.