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What unmet needs could be met by deliberation?

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  • Picture of Dr Chris Forman FRSA
    Dr Chris Forman FRSA
    Biophysicist. Advocate of sortition, deliberative democracy and circular economy. Musician.
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The RSA US-affiliated network, Deliberation Gateway, invite you to a discussion of the profound effect that deliberative democracy could have.

In the U.S., and other democracies, new administrations often rip out and replace the previous incumbent’s policies. In contrast, less democratic competitors of western style democracies don’t have to worry if policies will survive a change of office. Does this scenario create a competitive advantage on the global stage for non-democratic countries?

Unfortunately, some huge problems—such as climate change—call for bipartisan policies that may have to last a hundred years or more, but who can see this happening? Installing dictators who can bang politician’s heads together might solve the problem but is fundamentally at odds with the core spirit of democracy. So, it seems that democracy only has one choice: it’s time to level-up!

We invite everyone to join an online discussion about public deliberations, such as citizen’s assemblies, and how they could address a wide range of needs that are often overlooked by contemporary democracy. Such community dialogues among randomly selected citizens help communities and elected representatives understand different perspectives and increase public knowledge about key issues, as well as overcoming divisions within communities and helping populations choose more appropriate representatives at high levels of government. Indeed, there may be many unmet needs that deliberation could address. Everyone is invited to register and take part in the discussion here, and the event will be on 27th July at 12.00 EDT. There is no cover charge.

Here are some thoughts to stimulate discussion:

The list of problems facing society is huge and seems way beyond the control of the average citizen.

Employment prospects in the face of automation, healthcare, immigration, climate change, forest fires, pollution, floods, threats from extremists whether fascist, communist or religious fundamentalists, inequality, high taxes, guns, and more.

We elect politicians to attempt to fix these problems, and, while we all believe in democracy, do we believe that politicians are doing a good job? Are they able to do a good job given their constraints, and the way that democracy is run globally?

Recently, across the entire world, the ability of democratically elected politicians to make effective changes for the common good seems to be reduced. Some explanations might include the cost of becoming elected—making politics a realm where only rich and successful individuals can play, warping the perspectives of the decision makers—or perhaps highly effective corporate lobbying means the needs of common folks are drowned out. The existence of political parties—in which the party becomes more important than the population it serves—can distort the wisdom and judgement of individual senators and representatives—however well-meaning they are or respected among their voters.

To solve these problems a new form of democracy is growing in popularity, and it is having a lot of success. Deliberative democracy is built on the idea that a randomly selected and representative group of people can be drawn from a community and—given a well-defined process and enough time and quality information—such a group can be trusted to make wise decisions, judgements, or recommendations, on behalf of everyone else.

Some of you might say that representative democracy already does precisely that.

But recently, politics in the US and UK in particular seems to be going through a metamorphosis, and if we are not careful it may change into something that is not in the interests of common folk. The systematic hamstringing of regulatory services, such as the EPA in the U.S. is primarily to benefit corporate profits. The political deadlock created by Brexit has exhausted the capacity of politicians in the UK to make long term decisions on other critical policies such as climate change, austerity and inequality which are not being addressed.

The democratic system seems to have systematic biases locked into it. Certain populations are not fairly represented and, in many countries, two parties flip-flop from term to term, endlessly doing and undoing each other’s opposing policies without reaching agreement and refusing to compromise for the common good on vital topics. It’s no one person’s fault. These are systemic issues, that need system wide solutions.

To combat similar stalemates all around the world, democratic countries like Ireland, Australia, UK, Norway, Belgium, Spain and more besides, have discovered that Citizen’s Assemblies are highly effective. Under the right conditions randomly selected groups of citizens can solve problems, with half the fuss and without the scandal that seems to plague the modern career politician, and absolutely none of the showboating.

Is the solution to climate change that easy? To trust a group of random voters to decide what the policy should be and then to make that policy legitimate?

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

There is a right and wrong way to go about engaging the public in political decision making. The manner of your approach can strongly affect the outcome. For example, the wild and reckless referendum of Brexit taken to resolve an internal party dispute and not to genuinely enquire of the population if they wished to remain in the EU, has split the country in two. On the other hand, well designed and mediated discussions among broad samples of the population can lead to improved understanding and well-conceived, community derived proposals against which the pronouncements of career politicians can be measured and weighed by each individual – as in the case of the recent constitutional changes in the Ireland.

What effect would a transition to a more deliberative democracy have on our society and if we think it might be better, shall we go ahead and do it? It’s your country! You decide!

The meeting on 27th July is organised by Deliberation Gateway, a thematic network of the RSA-US. You can visit the Deliberation Gateway website to register for the discussion event, to find out more about deliberative democracy and the aims of our network.

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