Citizen deliberation means better policy - RSA

Better than experts? How citizen deliberation can improve decisions

Blog 1 Comments

  • Economic democracy

For the third day of our citizens' deliberations on economic policy, they were joined by 12 experts on a variety of topics including health, transport, food, technology, migration and the environment. We spent the morning in detailed exploration of three key economic sectors in the UK – food, transport and health. Our citizens have been relishing the opportunity to learn and debate on key issues that matter to them. But what lessons did I learn in my role as an expert witness?

Observation #1 – Citizen voice vs consumer persona

Our expert witnesses included many who often deal with policymakers and senior executives within their area of expertise. The first surprise for them was the disparity between the generalities about consumer behaviour that drive decisions at the top, and the richness of citizen discussion that you find in a deliberative forum.

One reason for this could be the distinction between consumer and citizen. Consumption implies a passive acceptance of what is on offer. Although we have a choice, it is within a narrow envelope of options within a fixed system. In contrast, citizenship brings a sense of ownership and agency over the system itself.

Supermarket executives and policymakers repeat the mantra “consumers want cheap food”. They are right up to a point – they are only calling it as they see it at the tills, after all.

But what do citizens, as opposed to consumers, want? It seems our citizen councillors want food that is healthy, environmentally sustainable and fairly produced, with workers and businesses throughout the whole supply chain getting a fair return.

This may well be contradictory. In the melee of my busy life juggling food shopping with caring duties, work and social life I will not spend an hour in the aisles of Tesco contemplating the complexities of the global food chain. I will buy some stuff as quickly as possible that seems good value and then I will get the hell out of there.

But why should the food system be shaped by a combination of my harassed Consumer-self, vulnerable as I am to clever marketing and subtle ‘in-the-moment’ nudges in the supermarket aisles, and a few throwaway lines in a political General Election manifesto every few years?

Shouldn’t my more reflective Citizen-self also be heard, where I have a chance to express my higher aspirations for the society I live in? Humans are contradictory creatures and maybe we need to recalibrate our policymaking process to take account of that.

More reflective engagement with citizens in a space where we can be more expansive and measured in our thinking than when we are running down the high street waving a credit card is a new and valuable feedback mechanism for policymakers and corporate executives alike.

They might even find this liberating, as it offers the potential of being able to take more risks in ‘leading’ the market into closer alignment with our Citizen-selves instead of hiding behind ‘consumer preferences’. I would class this as a pro-market philosophy because we are gathering more information about choices that can improve markets otherwise riddled with failures such as unpriced environmental and social harm, and insufficient information on which to make sound decisions.

Observation #2 – Reframing the problem

An ambition of every new government is to rise to that mythical higher plane of policy existence known as “joined up thinking”. This is notoriously hard to achieve in an administrative system organised into departmental silos with their own budgets, cultures, goals and professional turf to protect.

So here comes observation number 2. Why not ask some citizens? Joined up thinking comes naturally because our lives are not organised into separate silos of activities that map onto Ministerial portfolios. In policy terms at least, our lives are already joined up.

Some concrete examples from the CEC:

  • In the discussion on the economics of transport, it was proposed that better community policing would encourage more people to walk and so ease traffic congestion.
  • In the discussion on the economics of the food system, it was noted that one of the biggest problems was not affordable food but unaffordable housing. The pressure on household budgets from a broken housing market is forcing families into choices on their food budget that do not represent their true preferences for healthy, high quality and sustainable food.
  • In the discussion on the economics of healthcare, citizens quickly related this to social care and broader issues such as regulation of fast food, lack of spaces for exercise for kids and the role of thriving communities in promoting good health.

Observation #3 – Opening up new possibilities

The third insight really just flows from the first two. The natural tendency of people to join the dots based on their everyday lived experience and the different type of decisions that emerge from giving time and space to our Citizen-selves can lead to non-linear and creative policy solutions, or indeed business strategies, that would have been hard to pick out from the short-term political noise of 24-7 soundbite news, or even from the weekly sales figures.

Here lies a source of potential untapped value for society.

Deliberative democracy is not a replacement either for the ordinary feedback mechanisms of consumer choice, or the usual feedback mechanisms of political choice.

But given the additive and complementary quality that deliberative processes bring to enhance both of these decision-making mechanisms, I find myself left with one final simple reflection on whether to deploy deliberative processes in decision-making.

Why wouldn’t you?

Join the discussion


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

  • Time-consuming, expensive & inconclusive are some arguments one hears! Personally, I believe it is essential to engage citizens in policy ideation, formulation and prioritisation at all levels of government if we are to close the democratic deficit that has emerged in recent decades. Citizens need to be central to renewed democratic processes (not consumers!) that take advantage of traditional tools of engagement and importantly, new digital technologies that inform and enhance the deliberative and collaborative processes, particularly for millennials, where renewal needs to start.