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To what effect?

How can deliberation by a microcosm of the public in a Deliberative Poll actually change policy or politics? While at first glance one might think that only a binding deliberative process could have an effect, the Deliberative Poll has been applied in a number of cases where it played an advisory role and had demonstrable policy effects. When a credible, scientific sample deliberates in a transparent and balanced way, in dialogue with public officials, its conclusions take on a recommending force. We have found that the conclusions of deliberative sessions have been implemented in Texas decisions about energy choices, in Chinese decisions about the choice of which infrastructure to build, in the choice of candidate for a party in Greece, and in a budget crisis in Italy.

In 2006, the Regione Lazio, the state in Italy for which Rome is the capital, held Italy’s first Deliberative Poll.14 The state faced budgetary difficulties, especially from a deficit caused by health care costs incurred by the previous government. A principal issue was the cost of maintaining the large number of hospital beds in Rome. With a large number of teaching hospitals, Rome has far more hospital beds than any other part of Italy. While policy makers had long hoped to cut the number of beds and use some of the health care money more efficiently, particularly by investing in poly-ambulatory clinics that could bring health care closer to the people, they were reluctant to cut the number of hospital beds. The fact that Rome had so many more than any other part of Italy was a point of pride and very popular.

The most notable result was that the percentage believing the Regione should ‘convert some of its beds into other resources that make the structures more efficient’ went from 45 per cent before deliberation to 62 per cent afterwards. Support for converting some of the hospital beds specifically into ‘polyambulatory facilities where you can go for some checks that now you can receive only through hospitalization’ changed only slightly, but was very high both before and after - 87 per cent before and 85 per cent after deliberation.

After the Deliberative Poll, the state government moved to implement a plan to reorganize the hospital network, lower the number of hospital beds and redistribute resources to poly-ambulatory clinics. Luigi Nieri, the state treasurer, commented on the Deliberative Poll: ‘It was an exciting experience that has shown how great is the people’s desire to participate and to express their opinion ... It’s exactly what we want: encouraging direct participation to democratic life and promoting new transparency practices’ (Buonocore 2007).

The Rome Deliberative Poll received extensive press coverage in Italy and its perceived legitimacy certainly helped to influence policy. But there is also a sense in which the results gave officials ‘cover to do the right thing’. The informed and representative conclusions of the sample could be invoked as a way out of the budgetary impasse.

The Poll encapsulated in a day’s deliberations a connection to policy making that played out over two years in eight projects in Texas. The transparent and representative deliberations of a sample, as it became more informed, acquired enough legitimacy to be invocable by policy makers. The involvement of stakeholders from different perspectives in the briefing document and in the question and answer sessions, combined with media coverage of both the process and its results to create a platform for amplifying the influence of the public’s considered judgements. Once the microcosm was seen as a legitimate representation of the views of ordinary citizens, and once its process was seen as transparent and balanced, the conclusions acquired a recommending force. The results were well received throughout the policy community and were even treated favourably in press releases by the utility companies and the Environmental Defense Fund on the same day.

One difference between the Italian and Texas projects was that the Rome project was sponsored by the state government in conjunction with civil society. In the case of the Texas projects, the deliberations were sponsored by the utilities themselves, with supervision by stakeholder committees and the participation of the Public Utility Commission. But the basic dynamic was the same - perceived legitimacy and transparency for deliberations by a representative microcosm.

Before the Texas Deliberative Polls, the state of Texas had the lowest usage of wind power on a percentage basis of any state in the US (Sloan 2007).15 Based on the successive Deliberative Polls, the Integrated Resource Plans, which took account of their results, and then the Renewable Energy Standard (RES) that was supported by the Deliberative Poll results, Texas surpassed California as the leading state in wind power in the US in 2007. The eight projects took place across Texas (as well as across the border in Louisiana).16

The Texas energy projects set an example for public consultation that led to policy impacts in other jurisdictions that did not have Integrated Resource Planning or any actual requirement that utilities consult the public. For example, in August 2003, the Nebraska Public Power District held a Deliberative Poll with local public television broadcast, to decide on its energy priorities, comparing wind power, methane generation (from animal manure), natural gas and coal. By the end of the deliberations, 96 per cent supported a large increase in wind power (200 MW) and 81 per cent an investment in methane (Guild et al. 2003). Following the Deliberative Poll, the utility’s board approved the state’s largest wind farm with plans for additional renewable energy investments (Nebraska Public Power District 2003).

Nova Scotia Power, the province’s electric utility company, held a Deliberative Poll in November 2004 to get informed public input from the entire province about its energy choices. As with all the other Deliberative Polls about energy choices, a media partner produced a broadcast about it so that those who did not participate could be informed about the process and its results. In this case, the media partner was the CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Corp). As in other Deliberative Polls, a highly representative sample of the province was gathered to a single place (Halifax, Nova Scotia) and the participants became far more informed as demonstrated by their answers to information questions (Guild et al. 2004). Participants were asked about factors to consider in the generation and delivery of electric power, such as providing enough electricity, contributing to the global effort to control greenhouse gases, controlling emissions locally, and economic factors such as stable cost and securing the lowest price. The importance of the economic factors was strong pre-deliberation but, after the event, dropped by half. The environmental considerations such as contributing to the control of emissions and contributing to the global effort to deal with climate change went to the top. After the Deliberative Poll the company proceeded with major new investments in renewable energy17 and also decided not to retrofit a major coal plant.

In November 2007, the State of Vermont sponsored a Deliberative Poll to help its Department of Public Service chart the state’s energy future on issues such as reliance on energy efficiency (reducing the need), investment in wind, nuclear and hydro, as well as natural gas, oil or coal.

There was strong support at the end of the day for hydro, wind, solar, wood and nuclear in that order. There was much less support for oil or coal. Respondents expressed overwhelming support (86 per cent) for the state continuing to buy electricity from Hydro Quebec and from Vermont based independent Power Producers (97 per cent) but only a slender plurality at the end of the day for continuing to buy from the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant (Luskin et al. 2008). Much of the initial opposition to wind on aesthetic grounds clearly abated in the face of broader environmental concerns.

The support for Hydro Quebec increased by twenty points after deliberation, and support for the independent Power Producers in Vermont by eight points. There were other significant increases in support for energy efficiency measures and for hydro and wood as fuel sources. Support for coal and oil decreased after deliberation. Within a few months after the project concluded, these results were explicitly incorporated into the Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan. As of this writing, the plan is out for public comment, but it offers a good reflection of the public’s views expressed in the Deliberative Poll (Vermont Department of Public Service 2009).

In the various projects on energy choices in eight different utility districts in Texas (and nearby Louisiana), in Nebraska, in Nova Scotia and in Vermont, the same basic dynamic unfolded as in Rome. A scientific sample was convened, its deliberations were transparently balanced in a dialogue involving public officials, its conclusions showed dramatic changes in comparison to the initial top of the head opinions, the participants became demonstrably more informed about the issues and media coverage amplified the public voice. Relevant officials found the results compelling and reasonable. In Texas, as in Rome, policy makers independently offered the same comment - it gave them ‘cover to do the right thing’.

The dynamic of consulting representative and informed opinion and having it implemented was not much different even in China. While the local projects were not widely covered in the broadcast or print media, they were widely discussed on the internet. Most importantly, they were big events locally - public and transparent forms of consultation building on the local tradition of Kentan (‘heart to heart’ discussion meetings). In the Chinese case, local innovation provided a novel answer to the question of how citizen deliberations can be connected with elite deliberations. By the time the fourth Deliberative Poll in Zeguo occurred in February 2008, the Local People’s Congress (LPC) had become less a rubber stamp and more an effective decision-making body. In this project, the entire budget of the town was opened up to scrutiny by the deliberating sample of 175 recruited again through random sampling. But this time, sixty deputies from the Local People’s Congress observed the entire process. The LPC met a week later and considered both the quantitative results of the Deliberative Poll and their own observations of the process and then adjusted the budget in light of both.

The most recent Chinese case highlights the issue of how deliberations by the people might be connected, institutionally, to deliberations by actual decision makers. In the case of the Texas utility projects, the actual decisions were made by regulated utilities, but in light of plans that had to be approved by the Texas Public Utility Commission (an appointed government body). In the case of the Nebraska and Nova Scotia cases, the decisions were made by the companies themselves. In the case of the Rome Deliberative Poll, the decision was made by the elected government of the Regione Lazio, while in the case of Vermont, the Deliberative Poll played a role in the state’s comprehensive energy planning process by the Department of Public Service. In China, however, we see the first glimmerings of another model, one that fuses elite deliberation with deliberative democracy by the people themselves.

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