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Popular control

Arguably, popular control is a neglected democratic good within theories of deliberative democracy. Although the familiar definitions of Bohman and Gutmann that we offered earlier in this chapter explicitly link deliberation among free and equal citizens with the legitimacy of decision making, much of the theoretical work on deliberative democracy separates these two considerations. For example, Jurgen Habermas locates will-formation in the informal public sphere, while decision making takes place elsewhere in the institutions of government (Habermas 1996; Squires 2002). John Dryzek’s reinterpretation of deliberative democracy explicitly warns against the co-option and absorption of authentic deliberation by the state. As such, his theory of discursive democracy completely avoids questions of institutional decision making by locating deliberation within networks of civil society, in particular within new social movements (Dryzek 2000). In both accounts, deliberation is considered an ongoing process of mutual understanding and a direct relationship with formal decision making is liable to undermine the dynamics of deliberation: rather than focus on achieving mutual understanding, instrumental calculations will come to the fore and public authorities and other actors are likely to engage in agenda-setting strategies. There is a tension between the goods of mutual understanding and efficiency (Chambers, 1995: 241; Mansbridge 1996: 47).

This tension between deliberation and decision in theoretical debates is to a certain degree mirrored in the practice of mini-publics, where the record of impact on political decision making is patchy at best. As Robert Goodin and John Dryzek admit, cases of mini-publics ‘actually making policy ... when a forum is formally empowered as part of a decision-making process’ are rare (Goodin and Dryzek 2006: 7). In this sense, mini-publics appear to be nothing more than a fairly sophisticated method of public consultation. Even writers such as Fishkin - amongst the most vociferous promoters of mini-publics - recognize that the lack of formal accountability mechanisms would likely lead to a legitimacy problem and, therefore, argue that mini-publics (in his case deliberative polls) can have at best only recommendatory force:

A deliberative poll is not meant to describe or predict public opinion. Rather it prescribes. It has recommendatory force: these are the conclusions people would come to, were they better informed on the issues and had the opportunity and motivation to examine those issues seriously.

(Fishkin 1997: 162)

But this generates problems. How much effect do mini-publics actually have on the political process (see also Geissel in this volume)? Is there any meaningful relationship between the outputs of mini-publics and political decision making? Even in Denmark, where consensus conferences are organized by the Board of Technology, evidence is mixed (Joss 1998). While there is evidence that the recommendations of specific conferences have had some impact - for example, the exclusion of transgenic animals from the first governmental biotechnology research and development program following a consensus conference on genetic engineering in industry and agriculture (Kluver 1995: 44) - others had no recognizable material effect. Planning cells appear to have had fairly significant effects at the local and regional level in Germany, although ‘independent evaluations are scarce’ (Hendriks 2005: 92). Fishkin makes strong claims that the results of deliberative polls run for Texas utilities ‘led to further investments in natural gas (which was regarded as relatively clean) and in renewable energy. In fact, the decisions resulting from the Deliberative Polls made Texas a national leader in renewable energy’ (Ackerman and Fishkin 2004: 46). However, a more cautious assessment states that ‘it would be disingenuous to suggest that the results of the deliberative polling process alone were responsible for the regulatory and legislative changes that followed’ (Lehr et al. 2003 quoted in Goodin and Dryzek 2006: 9). We need to recognize that it is generally difficult to ascertain the impacts of mini-publics on substantive policy outcomes. As Carolyn Hendriks argues:

Citizens’ reports are conceived as advisory, and their recommendations invariably compete with other forms of advice from political parties, expert committees, and interest groups, for example. Moreover, when some of these other sources of policy advice happen to recommend the same policies and celebrate the same values articulated in the citizens’ reports, it can be difficult to determine which recommendation held more sway.

(Hendriks 2005: 91)

There is reasonable concern that commissioning bodies will simply ‘cherry- pick’ those recommendations or trends in opinions that support their perspective, while ignoring those that are uncomfortable. In recognition of this potential problem, Dienel developed the practice of drawing up a contract between the commissioning body, the organizers and the participants of planning cells, requiring the former to explain within a certain time frame how it has responded to the recommendations of the citizens’ report. This practice has been picked up by other mini-publics, in particular citizens’ juries, although in reality it still leaves a great deal of room for manoeuvre on the part of sponsors.

The BCCA (and its Ontario cousin) can be seen as the exception to the rule in that its recommendation on electoral reform formed the basis of a provincewide referendum that the government had committed itself to implement if the proposition passed. The mini-public’s deliberations and decision were explicitly tied to a public ratification process. This is a significant development in the practice of mini-publics and responds directly to those theorists who are troubled by the way that mini-publics lack traditional mechanisms of accountability. It also points to the potential for creative integration of different democratic innovations, such that more compelling combinations of democratic goods are realized. Mini-publics are celebrated for the manner in which they realize inclusiveness and considered judgement, but there is normally a failure to realize popular control in any strong sense. Direct legislation on the other hand receives a hostile reception amongst theorists of deliberative democracy because it embeds a form of majoritarianism that hinders the cultivation of mutuality and reciprocity (Chambers 2001; Dalton et al. 2001; Parkinson 2001; Uhr 2002). However, it is a rare institutional form that realizes popular control. By integrating mini-publics and direct legislation, we can begin to construct creative combinations of innovations that realize more compelling combinations of democratic goods. Using the language of democratic principles, rather than goods, Michael Saward suggests: ‘the single most important question when thinking through the new possibilities for democracy is this: which devices, singly and in combination, enact desired interpretations of democratic principles within and across the different stages of the decision-making process?’ (Saward 2003: 168).

Such combinations of innovations may also open up new ways of thinking about democratic theory - for example, a reappraisal of the potential connections between deliberative and direct theories of democracy. These two theories are often seen as highly antagonistic: the BCCA sequence (and other possible combinations) may indicate areas of productive mutual engagement (Saward 2001). As Saward has argued, ‘devices favoured by advocates of particular

“models” of democracy may be combined in new ways to enact new styles of democracy’ (Saward 2003: 169).

 
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