Home Political science Evaluating Democratic Innovations: Curing the Democratic Malaise?
Random selection - with or without stratification of the sample - generates the diversity amongst participants that is a precondition for realizing the goods of inclusiveness and considered judgement. However, even a basic knowledge of group dynamics suggests that most participants will feel uncomfortable speaking in front of strangers and it is likely to be the more skilled and charismatic who will dominate proceedings. This is a long way removed from the respectful and reflective deliberation envisioned by theorists. Arguably, the most critical factor that enables the realization of equality of voice and considered judgement amongst participants is active facilitation. Given the significance of the facilitator, it is surprising that there has been little theorizing of this intermediary role.8 For some, the reliance on such an intermediary has anti-democratic overtones - there is a danger that they will unduly influence or even manipulate the deliberations of participants. But it is difficult to conceive of free and fair deliberation within a diverse group of strangers without a degree of intervention from a third party. Sensitive facilitation is one way in which significant virtues, such as reciprocity, can be grounded and realized in practice (Thompson and Hoggett 2001: 359). The pertinent question would seem to be: what is and is not legitimate facilitation? An initial, but partial, response is that facilitators should be independent from the sponsoring organization: a degree of separation and freedom of operation for the facilitator is necessary as an initial step in avoiding the charge of elite manipulation.
Mini-publics are an unusual environment for citizens to find themselves in and many will feel incapable or unwilling to speak. Facilitators use a number of techniques to encourage and enable voice and considered judgement and ensure a degree of fairness. Typically, ground rules are established early in the proceedings, which remind citizens of the need to respect the views of others and to encourage participation by all those present (Smith and Wales 1999: 303; Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform 2004: 68). Such procedural values and rules set important parameters for acceptable behaviour amongst participants and provide an important reference point for facilitation. Where participants are involved in their drafting, they help citizens to develop a sense of ownership and control over the process (Davies and Sang 1998: 48; Thompson and Hoggett 2001: 359).
The larger mini-publics - Citizens’ Assemblies and deliberative polls - hold plenary sessions where witnesses make presentations and are questioned. These can be particularly intimidating environments for the less confident, so the role of the facilitator in encouraging contributions is significant. In reviewing the plenary sessions of the BCCA, Dennis Thompson observes:
equal respect does require that some positive steps be taken to ensure that the opportunities to speak are as equal as possible, and that the occasions for speech are as supportive as possible. The chair of the Assembly made creditable efforts to create an environment that encouraged extensive participation. He informally solicited members’ views and encouraged them to speak in the public forums. In most of the sessions, before recognizing the more active members, he made sure that first-time speakers had the chance to participate.
(Thompson 2008: 45)
Facilitators also break participants into smaller groups as a way of encouraging more reluctant citizens to contribute. The 160-strong BCCA often broke up into twelve facilitated discussion groups of between ten to fifteen citizens. Citizens were assigned randomly to these groups and the membership changed each weekend ‘which helped members to get to know one another better while exposing them to a variety of perspectives’ (Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform 2004: 66). In evaluating the work of the BCCA, participants noted that ‘these small group discussions were crucial opportunities for learning, asking questions of clarification, sharing ideas, testing theories, building consensus, generating solutions, and so on’ (Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform 2004: 240).
Deliberative polls also use small discussion groups, but the time in groups is limited and membership appears not to be rotated. Participants are therefore less likely to confront as many of the relevant differences in their group discussions and the limited time they spend together may not be enough ‘to go through all the stages of breaking down barriers, expressing emotions freely, and searching for mutual understanding’ (Parkinson 2006: 78). Here, the longer Citizens’ Assembly model and smaller citizens’ juries, consensus conferences and planning cells have a distinct advantage: in these smaller mini-publics facilitators also have the luxury of being able to break up participants even further into smaller groups of three or four, to provide more opportunities for individuals to speak and to understand the views of others.
Simon Thompson and Paul Hoggett are alert to the way in which different facilitation styles can affect the emotional dynamics of mini-publics: a noninterventionist ‘hands-off’ style can lead to domination by more vocal and confident citizens; a more interventionist, ‘hands-on’ approach that equalizes opportunities for voice may be too domineering. Both extremes undermine deliberation. As they note: ‘There is an inherent tension in the role of the moderator that cannot easily be resolved’ (Thompson and Hoggett 2001: 361; for an example, see Davies et al. 2006: 92). Similarly, facilitators make judgements about the extent to which different forms of discourse are valued: some facilitators may well value anecdotes and stories from participants; others may promote more reasoned and principled forms of debate. As difference theorists have been quick to point out, emphasis on more dispassionate forms of reasoning can itself silence the already marginalized, reinforcing illegitimate relations of power (Young 1990; Sanders 1996).
The operation of mini-publics suggests that the achievement of inclusiveness in the interactions between citizens requires a fairly structured environment, with clear rules and processes that orientate citizens towards mutual respect and reciprocity. Such virtues will not necessarily emerge naturally. The facilitator becomes a critical figure in the promotion of free and fair exchanges between citizens and orientating citizens towards public-spirited judgements. As such, the legitimacy of facilitation per se and the different facilitation techniques and styles of these democratic intermediaries are clearly worthy of further theoretical elaboration and reflection.
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