What impact can participating in a deliberative process have on citizens’ behaviour and attitudes?
Interview with Marjan H. Ehsassi
A governance expert, Marjan H. Ehsassi has worked to enhance space for civil society in some of the most complex environments including Iran, Ukraine and North Korea and is currently pursuing a Doctorate in International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) with a focus on democratic innovations and government initiated deliberative processes.
What brought you to the field of deliberative democracy, and the research questions you are tackling today?
For about 15 years, I have been managing governance and rule of law programs in the field of international development all over the world. I started questioning the governance innovations that we are bringing to developed or developing countries. Are these the right solutions? Established democracies are also displaying many deficits such as a lack of consistent citizens’ voice in between elections, the preferences of citizens are not taken into account in policy decisions. All of these factors are resulting in pervasive disengagement from political institutions. I was curious to see if government initiated representative deliberative processes, such as Citizens’ Juries and Assemblies, can provide an effective and impactful solution to some of our democratic malaise.
Your research zooms in on the experience and behaviour changes of citizens taking part in these processes. What are some of the positive effects that you have observed?
I am looking into how deliberation impacts levels of engagement and whether it can result in citizens who are more involved with their communities and political institutions. I identified five components for what an engaged civic and political citizen looks like. Relying on field observation, surveys and in-depth interviews, I analysed three deliberative processes in relation to these five components: the French Citizen’s Convention on Climate, the Brussels Parliament’s Deliberative Committees on Homelessness, and the Second Canadian Citizens’ Assembly on Democratic Expression.
The first component that I examine is Epistemic Growth. Participants increase their knowledge on the policy issue they are addressing, but can also gain a better understanding of government structure and decision-making.
Another way participating in a deliberative process has an impact on citizens is by fostering a sense of Connectedness. Closer ties develop between the participants and with good facilitation, differences in the group can diminish as they become more knowledgeable, learn from each other, gain an understanding and tolerance for the opinions of others.
Taking part in a Citizens Assembly also often excites people — they exude enthusiasm, which often lasts for weeks or months after the process is over. This quality of Effervescence is the third element that I study.
There are also potential changes in levels of Political Activity. For instance, joining a political party or voting in elections, but also reading the newspaper more often, paying attention to the public debate, engaging in discussions and becoming more involved in their community.
The final component is Consequential Voice. Do people who took part in a deliberative process feel that they have more voice and that their input was meaningful? There is potential to strengthen this feeling.
Are there ways that initiators and organisers of Citizens’ Juries and Citizens’ Assemblies can enhance the positive impact on participant behaviour?
In my research, I have observed shortcomings in design and implementation. I have created a blueprint that includes policy recommendations and encourages strategic decisions that will yield more positive results on participants’ levels of civic and political engagement.
An overwhelming percentage of survey respondents state that the number of experts that provided evidence was sufficient. However, they also add that a discussion between the experts would have been helpful. This is not a common feature, but one that should be explored. To be able to hear the experts speak to each other could improve participants’ learning experience enhance the quality of the recommendations.
Facilitation, especially in smaller group discussions, strongly affects participants’ sense of voice when some of the people at the table do not get to voice their perspectives. This is especially true then conversations are not guided well by facilitators. Sometimes implementers are pressed for time and looking for the recommendations to be drafted as opposed to thinking from the perspective of the participants and the quality of deliberation. Are they getting to speak enough? Are they sharing their thoughts? These perspectives could enhance the final recommendations.
Invitation to Participate and Selection of the Topic
On Effervescence, there are two things that I found surprising. The first one is the invitation. People repeatedly point out that they were excited the second they receive the invitation to participate. How we reach out, the content and messaging can really have a positive impact. The second discovery was that in cases where the topic of the deliberative process is driven by people, or at least perceived to be driven by people, this enhances enthusiasm and participants’ sense of voice. This was definitely the case in the French Citizens’ Convention where participants felt that the public had chosen the topic of climate change during the Great National Debate, as well as in the Brussels Parliament’s Deliberative Committee on Homelessness — as citizens drive the issue by way of a petition.
When you get citizens together for a deliberative process, make sure that you allocate time for people to get know each other. In the Canadian Citizens’ Assembly on Democratic Expression citizens went for an excursion, shared meals and walked together. Site visits to places relevant to the policy issue is also a helpful way to bring people together and enhance learning and a sense of community.
Models where members of parliament take part in a deliberative process together with citizens hold much potential. In addition to the benefits to participants, these platforms also provide elected representatives with a unique opportunity to observe the citizens’ collective intelligence in the room. Most parliamentarians also comment on the pleasure of collaborating instead of debating with MPs across the aisle.
Ensuring Follow-up and Impact
There seems to be a connection between participation in government initiated deliberative processes and an awakening of a sense of political agency. Whether it is spending more time reading the paper, engaging in political discussions or, for instance, in France where approximately 12 of the 150 members ran in the Regional Election, generally, participants become more politically active. However, government presence and follow-up play an important role in making citizens feel that their input is meaningful and that it matters to government. Ensuring follow-up and setting clear expectations for participants are important steps in this process.
Staying Connected to Citizens Outside the Room
When bringing citizens’ together in such a process, a measure of success should be that they feel they have a new voice, a commitment to being involved in social and political issues, and that they return to their communities and make other citizens feel empowered and keen to engage. The French example poses an interesting problem. Some observers were concerned that the participants felt a little removed from the public at the conclusion of the process. Deliberative process organisers and implementers should make sure they provide citizens with a stronger sense of voice without alienating them from the general public. Otherwise, we are creating another class of elites. It is important that they see themselves as representing other citizens who are not able to be in the room.
From Consultative to Binding
Finally, to maximize participants sense of Consequential voice, it is critical that these platforms move away from consultative roles to more binding mandates.
Government initiated deliberative processes can be transformative and provide a much needed positive complement to our current systems of democratic governance. Inspired by the potential of these democratic innovations, it is my hope that government representatives recognise the benefits of these mechanisms, helping them become more widely accepted and implemented.