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Participatory Deliberative Democracy





Comments on and excerpts from

Elizabeth Meehan's

"Reconstituting Politics:  Democracy Unbound" 


Elizabeth Meehan describes the theory behind participatory and deliberative democracy (compiled from many referenced sources) and then applies that theory to the challenging situation in her homeland of Northern Ireland.  The challenge, she says, is how "to bring about policies and provide services that adequately reflect the needs and aspirations of all citizens."

She notes that "Modern versions of 'government by discussion' can be found in the ideas of Anthony Giddens on 'dialogic democracy',[12] David Miller on 'deliberative democracy"[13] and lain McLean on democracy and information technology'[14]" who aim "to regenerate the abstract value of participation as a democratic norm, to make participation worthwhile in practice, to overcome weaknesses in 'winner takes all' systems of making social choices, and to avoid negative spirals in which disagreement leads to destructive conflict."

She notes that elite theorists and political powerholders belive that "'ordinary people' would be too preoccupied with the day-to-day scrabble for personal survival to be able to exercise the disinterested rationality necessary for public life. Thus, their role should be restricted to the periodic electing of competing teams of people experienced in political arts. In between elections, according to such theories, it was best that ordinary people remained passive, being administered but not contributing to administration."

However, she says, "The more participatory approach has the pragmatic benefit that people will accept and work with institutions if the making of them has been seen to be fair."  Furthermore, " bringing people in who have direct knowledge of a problem can help to avoid mistaken solutions.  It is more likely that people will accept institutions and policies if they have had a hand in the making of them or feel that solutions have been devised reasonably and fairly."  Participatory methods assume that "the best outcomes will be those which reflect what has come, through discussion, to seem reasonable to all concerned."  However, "it is necessary also to think about the nature of the political system within which dialogue takes place and [the less win-lose] forms of debate that encourage fruitful outcomes."

But will people participate in such dialogues:  Meehan says " it is clear that a good many people are willing to do more than vote or deliberately abstain."  "Experience shows a willingness among significant numbers of citizens to be involved, and a desire to have some real influence; it also offers practicable ways of achieving this."   What is needed is "participation by those who want to participate - not necessarily everyone... [and] participation means not only voting but freedom to enter into debate about what arrangements would be best for all concerned." However, she warns us that "if people are included in debates whose voices have not been heard before, and if debate is conducted rationally and fairly, the outcome will embody outlooks that may differ from what has previously been taken as reasonable, sensible or just..."

Meehan tells us that "Samuel Beer places considerable significance upon the 17th-century English poet and thinker John...Milton's theory of 'government by discussion: Free thought and free debate will for individual members of society heighten their grasp of truth and also bring them into agreement upon it.'"  However, Meehan also notes that the modern feminist Selma Sevenhuijsen suggests that discussion can be used not only to reach consensus on a common interest or single truth, as Milton stresses, but also "to find agreement on how to accommodate different interests in a consensual manner," as philosopher David Hume proposes.

She is explicit about the tools available for all this:  "New fora and forms of negotiation - in moderately severe conflicts and in conflicts of core values - have been used elsewhere. The practical possibilities are summarised by J D Stewart. He deals with innovations which build on communities and councils and ways of improving participation in institutions that already exist. The innovations described by Stewart which seem best suited to a situation such as ours, where we want to take part in designing new institutions from scratch - institutions through which we can have fair participation in the future in developing substantive policies - are citizens' juries and consensus conferences [what I call "Danish technology panels" -- Tom]. Others of his proposals - deliberative opinion polls, study groups, citizens' panels, advisory, focus and community planning groups, open council meetings, co-options to councils from voluntary bodies and so on - seem more suited to attempts to guarantee democratic practice once new institutions are agreed."

She also describes 'associative democracy," in which "voluntary self-governing bodies act as partnerships between the recipients and providers of services" and describes "neighbourhood committees in Bradford, Tower Hamlets and Somerset and community groups in Middlesborough, comprising elected residents and representatives of voluntary groups, which have the right to be consulted. There are also focus groups, as in Hammersmith and Fulham, on social services; advisory fora, as in Hampshire, on waste management; and, elsewhere in England, panels which bridge gaps between government and the elderly or young people. Such sub-municipal councils or advisory committees have been accepted in most continental European cities since the 50s" -- all of which harken back to Richard Spady's Citizen Councilor groups.


-- Tom Atlee