Making participation more deliberative, and deliberation more participatory

5 takeaways from the Innovations in Participatory Democracy Conference

A few weeks ago, we attended the Innovations in Participatory Democracy Conference in Phoenix, Arizona. The conference, which we were excited to support as both participants and presenters, brought together community leaders, government officials and staff, practitioners, researchers, funders, youth leaders, and technologists to explore innovations in government participation.

We led a workshop on Citizens Juries, Assemblies, & Sortition, and participated in a panel on the similarities and differences across participatory budgeting, Citizen Juries, and citizen assemblies. While we were there, we saw democracy in action at Central High School, where students are part of a current Participatory Budgeting Project initiative.

At the conference it was clear the opportunities for participatory democracy are expanding. Participatory democracy is made up of two key parts: participatory principles, which often invite the public to share their thoughts and opinions, and deliberative approaches, which typically convene a smaller group of individuals to learn about an issue and create plans for action or policy recommendations. While these two unique approaches are sometimes thought of as opposing forces, we saw how people around the world are using both to make democracy more impactful and inclusive. There’s no longer one clear set of principles for the “right” way to participate in democracy, and it’s incredible to be part of this movement.

We wanted to share a few exciting outlooks for democracy that we took away from the conference:

1. Collaboration with governments will grow and change

In the United States, Citizens Juries and mini-publics are typically run by nonprofits (like us!), rather than officially sponsored by the national government. This is changing as governments are exploring new ways to engage with their citizens. But, that doesn’t mean the only outcomes of deliberation and participation need to be policy changes: we’ve learned throughout our work that participatory democracy can be used successfully for long-term, community-wide impacts.

At the conference, we shared the example of our Rural Climate Dialogue program in Winona County, where residents created recommendations for their community to adapt to climate change and extreme weather. Since the dialogue, the City of Winona has adopted an energy plan with goals to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. They’ve also invested in community education initiatives on energy efficiency and water savings. Urging policy changes while supporting long-term behavior changes, like we’re doing in Winona County, will help governments, their partners, and citizens sustain the results of engagement efforts.

2. It’s time to focus on the opportunities to combine participatory and deliberative approaches

By merging both participatory principles and deliberative approaches, we can make democracy more accessible and impactful. You might be familiar with the thoughts of Micah Sifry, of Civic Hall, on these two distinct tactics: “Thick engagement doesn’t scale, and thin engagement doesn’t stick”. Deliberation (thick engagement) can be productive, but needs lots of time and resources. Participatory approaches (thin engagement), like asking for input on social media, may be easier and quicker, but require little ongoing involvement or further opportunities for deeper engagement, as Matt Leighninger of Public Agenda explores. But, there’s a solution, and we saw countless examples of this at the conference: we can invite people to submit ideas and proposals online for consideration by participants who are meeting in person. Conversely, we can build on the recommendations and ideas generated at deliberative events to form the base of digital participation efforts.

We’ve been testing out this combined approach in a few different projects. Through Your Vote Ohio and Informed Citizen Akron, we used deliberative events to ask citizens in Ohio what they needed from their local news organizations. Their input set the stage for Your Voice Ohio, a project that explores community engagement approaches to help newsrooms across the state listen and respond to their audiences. With the deliberation recommendations as a guiding force, we host open community events, invite people to share their stories online and through social media, and are rolling out Hearken as a platform where local residents can ask reporters questions about the addiction crisis. By combining these forces we’re making democracy more accessible to everyone.

3. The entry to engagement is different in every community

One of the incredible projects we heard about was the Participatory Budgeting Project’s work with the Phoenix Union High School District, where they invited student input to decide how to spend district-wide funds. This was the first school participatory budgeting process in the U.S. to focus on district-wide funds, which started with five public high schools and has expanded since. While this may seem like a small step, this has begun to shift the relationship between students and administrators.

Administrators are now considering how they can adapt these participatory practices to the everyday culture of these schools, like inviting students to share their thoughts on changes such as scheduling and course offerings. Because the initial opportunity to participate was simple and manageable for both the students and the administration, they’ve laid the foundation for future collaboration and growth. Plus, young people got to use real voting machines in the process, which was a great opportunity to experience how voting and live democracy actually work. We’re excited to see how this can expand to other schools and communities.

4. Success means equipping others

In democracy work, we often focus on “bringing projects to scale”. This is important, but we also don’t want to leave communities behind without equipping them with the tools they need for sustained success. For too long, the dominant theory of change for deliberative democracy looked something like this:

  1. Select a topic
  2. Host a Citizens Jury (or other deliberative event)
  3. Generate a report
  4. Hope someone reads it and utilizes the recommendations.

But, we can do so much more. We can combine thick and thin engagement techniques to give people the resources to continue projects after engagement organizations and professionals leave the community. At the Jefferson Center, we are implementing this approach with our dialogue-to-action model. First, we co-define: we build relationships with stakeholders and community members to gain a deeper understanding of the issue at hand. Next, we co-design: working with project partners, we develop and implement an engagement process to unleash creative ideas which also provides participants with the expertise, tools, and time they need to develop solutions. Finally, we co-create: our partners use the public input to advance local actions, reform practices and processes, and guide policy development and decision-making.

5. We can frame impact differently to support broader results

Deliberation and participation can be misunderstood as having one narrow goal: to influence a policy decision. But instead, we can evaluate the success of Citizen Juries, mini-publics, and other engagement efforts not just by their policy influence, but by the opportunities to impact individuals, communities, networks, organizations, and governments. Unless they are expressly commissioned by a government sponsor, the projects that go beyond one policy objective will likely have the most impact. By taking a more holistic approach to change, we can build sustainable partnerships between individuals, leaders, local institutions, the media, and others, who can carry on the important work in the community.

For instance, Participatory Budgeting Projects don’t just enable people to direct public money to community priorities. Throughout the process, community organizations and networks are strengthened, as groups work together to focus on their shared needs. After the discussion ends, these groups may form new organizations and partnerships and continue positive and constructive engagement. All of the PB award winners at the conference, Cyndi Tercero-Sandoval (Phoenix Union High School District), Sonya Reynolds (Participatory Budgeting NYC), and Cecilia Salinas (Participatory Budgeting Chicago in the 49th Ward) represent this investment in long-term impact.

Looking forward

Participation and deliberation should not be positioned as opposing forces. Instead, it’s time to identify meaningful opportunities to make participatory practices more deliberative, and make deliberative processes more participatory. For those of us committed to democratic reform and innovation, combining these elements effectively, regardless of the issue, method, or context, will support our ambitions to create a stronger, more vibrant democracy for all of us.

This article was co-written by Kyle Bozentko and Camille Morse Nicholson.