Home On the Agenda How Public Engagement Needs to Evolve, Part 4

How Public Engagement Needs to Evolve, Part 4

October 3, 2017

We can give citizen voices more authority by blending two forms of engagement: deliberative democracy, in which people discuss issues and direct democracy, in which they make public decisions at the ballot box, but usually don’t discuss the issues first.

How can public engagement evolve to meet the challenges and conditions of 2017? My previous post explored ways to scale up engagement to involve much larger numbers of people in state and federal issues. This time, I’ll address the need to give engagement opportunities more authority, so that people are clear on how their voices will be heard and confident that it will make a difference.

We can give citizen voices more authority by blending two forms of engagement: deliberative democracy, in which people discuss issues, but usually do not make public decisions directly, and direct democracy, in which they make public decisions at the ballot box, but usually don’t discuss the issues first. Deliberative democracy gives people a voice; direct democracy gives them a vote.

Deliberative democracy has produced many instances in which the informed, common-ground recommendations of participants did not seem to affect policy or lead to other kinds of problem solving. These kinds of experiences can leave citizens frustrated and may deepen popular mistrust of government. Similarly, examples of direct democracy have occurred in which voters seemed to make uninformed, ill-considered decisions that might harm not only the common good, but their own interests. The most notorious recent example is the United Kingdom’s (UK) vote to exit the European Union. Known as Brexit, the results of the referendum may have profound and long-lasting ill effects on the UK economy. Immediately after the vote, websites explaining its potential consequences received huge numbers of hits and many citizens expressed remorse at having voted “yes” on the initiative.

The rapid expansion of participatory budgeting (PB) in America shows the power of combining the two forms. 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; the vote on the proposed ideas at the end of the cycle exemplifies direct democracy. People come out for PB because they feel they will have some authority over how public money will be spent; the process helps ensure that the decisions they make are well-informed and well-considered.

So one way to aid the development of public engagement is simply to expand and improve the practice of PB. (Our friends at the Participatory Budgeting Project are leading the way on that front, supported by Public Agenda’s work to coordinate and summarize the research on PB in North America.)

Another way is to embed direct democracy opportunities into other kinds of engagement. If leaders want to engage citizens in addressing an important issue, is there a specific policy decision on that issue that they are willing to put to a public vote? This could take the form of a ballot initiative or referendum, but it could also be an unofficial, non-binding vote that gives officials a sense of where the community stands. Unofficial votes can still carry a great deal of political weight, as long as voter turnout is high and diverse. After all, most PB votes do not officially bind a city councilmember to adopting the community’s preferred allocation of funding. In almost every case, councilmembers uphold the results of the vote because they agreed to do that in the first place and because they are satisfied with the soundness of the process.

A third way is to organize public deliberation around initiatives and referenda that have already been placed on the ballot. This is the approach of the Oregon Citizens Initiative Review, which convenes a citizens’ panel and an array of other engagement opportunities to help people learn about and make decisions on how they will vote.

As governments struggle to gain the trust of an increasingly educated and skeptical public, more of them may begin offering citizens a greater degree of power and authority over public decisions. PB will probably continue to spread and so may other kinds of processes that give people a direct vote on policy questions. Despite examples like the Brexit vote, these variations on direct democracy could proliferate simply because they give officials a seemingly straightforward way to give the people what they want.

But as the Brexit vote has illustrated, direct democracy doesn’t necessarily lead to smarter, more broadly-supported policy decisions. Incorporating public deliberation in various ways may be critical not only for strengthening policymaking, but also for maximizing public satisfaction with these new forms of participation. Direct democracy assumes citizens can be effective public decision makers, and deliberative democracy assumes they can be effective learners, advisors and volunteers. Those assumptions seem compatible with one another, and in fact, they support and may even require one another.