ON THE AGENDA | FEBRUARY 7TH, 2017 | PUBLIC AGENDA

Deliberative + Direct = Better Democracy?

Could a combination of direct and deliberative democracy better meet the (rightful) demand of the people to have a greater say in the decisions that affect them?

Following the Brexit vote in mid-2016, many U.K. voters who elected to exit the European Union expressed remorse at their decision. Immediately following the vote, websites explaining its potential consequences received record traffic. Though the decision has yet to play out, the results of Brexit may have profound and long-lasting ill effects on the U.K. economy.

The Brexit vote was an example of direct democracy. Direct democracy enables the public to decide on policy decisions without a proxy, typically through ballot measures or referenda. California is well-known for its use of direct democracy in its many ballot propositions, a practice that started in 1911.

The counterpart to direct democracy is called deliberative democracy. In deliberative democracy, people discuss issues but usually do not make public decisions directly. In contrast, while people do make decisions in direct democracy, they usually don’t discuss those decisions first.

Each form of public engagement has its pros and cons. As we see in the case of the Brexit vote, direct democracy may not necessarily lead to well-considered decisions that benefit the common good and inspire public confidence. Meanwhile, deliberative democracy can and has led to informed recommendations based on common ground from citizens. However, in many instances those recommendations did not affect policy or other decisions. These experiences can leave citizens frustrated and even more distrustful of government.

Could a combination of direct and deliberative democracy better meet the (rightful) demand of the people to have a greater say in the decisions that affect them? Could it rebuild trust and reduce alienation between the public and its leaders? Could it lead to common ground on decisions that benefit the public good?

These are questions that the present political moment, and its accompanying anxiety, demand that we explore. Luckily, there is a testing ground available for it right now.

Participatory budgeting (PB), a process that enables residents to have a say in how local tax money is spent, is the fastest-growing public engagement process in the U.S. While processes differ from community to community, PB has incorporated both direct and deliberative democratic practices to varying degrees.

As Matt Leighninger points out in a white paper we published in December, the steering committee meetings and neighborhood assemblies that occur at the beginning of the PB cycle, the delegate meetings that take place during the proposal development phase, and the idea expos held before the final vote can be (but are not always) deliberative. Meanwhile, the vote on the proposed ideas at the end of the cycle exemplifies direct democracy.

Can PB improve democracy? Can a combination of direct and deliberative practices achieve a balance that is both well-considered and actionable? To determine those questions, we need a critical mass of communities employing PB in a way that uses both deliberative and direct practices. We also need research that explores these questions specifically.

In the meantime, Matt, who is our vice president of public engagement, starts the conversation in the above-mentioned white paper, “Power to the People! (And Settings for Using It Wisely?)” “Power to the People” examines the extent to which North American PB processes are applying deliberative principles and practices, explores the tensions and challenges in making PB more deliberative, suggests questions for further research and offers recommendations for public officials and practitioners for improving their PB processes.

As Matt writes, “Through the creative exchange between people who care about public participation and approach it with different tools, assumptions and areas of expertise, we may gain the next wave of much-needed democratic reforms.”

To learn more about the extent to which PB employs deliberative principles and processes, click here.


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