CommGAP and the World Bank Development Research Group Poverty & Inequality are hosting a conference on "Deliberation for Development: New Directions" on Friday this week. We have a number of high profile speakers and commentators lined up, who have done cutting-edge research on deliberation and how it can increase development effectiveness. The conference will be convened by the Wold Bank's Vijayendra Rao and Patrick Heller from Brown University. Arjun Appadurai (New York University) will talk about "Success and Failure in the Deliberative Democracy," Ann Swidler (Berkeley) and Susan Watkins (University if California) will discuss "Practices of Deliberation in Rural Malawi." JP Singh of Georgetown University will compare the participatory character of the WTO and UNESCO, while the World Bank's Michael Woolcock will examine the link between deliberation and the rule of law. Gianpaolo Baiocchi (Brown University) will talk about "The Global Translations of Participatory Budgeting” and Gerry Mackie (University of California) will address the educational effects of public deliberation.
There are so many things in the world that need fixing, don't you think? More people need health insurance - but not from my money! Refugees need space and facilities in order to live halfway decently - but not in my backyard! Religious groups have the right to open their centers wherever they want - but not in my neighborhood!
It's a common public phenomenon - NIMBY, Not In My Backyard. It's a hurdle for many reforms: people opposing reasonable reforms because they don't want to have to deal with the consequences or pay the price. We don't want to pay higher taxes in order to cover a national reform that benefits a large number of people. We don't want certain groups of people in our neighborhoods (might bring property values down!). We do want to help, but preferably without having to do something about it. It's rather understandable - after all, we have our own interests to look after. If we don't, who will?
We have often moaned about opinion polls and their limited value on this blog. You know, those things where people get asked about their favorite toothpaste and that gets sold as public opinion? The question, of course, is how to do it better. Public opinion is an intricate phenomenon. We don't really know how to define the public to begin with, let alone how to figure out their opinion.
There's been a great model around since the mid 90s: Deliberative Polling. Introduced by James Fishkin, Deliberative Polls are designed to "show what the public would think about the issues, if it thought more earnestly and had more information about them,” to provide a “glimpse of the hypothetical public” (Luskin, Fishkin, and Jowell, 2002). It works like this:
On Saturday, June 26th, nearly 4,000 Americans from all walks of life participated in an all-day country-wide deliberation on the nation's fiscal future. Town hall meetings held in 19 sites occupied the main stage for the day, with smaller scale discussions in more than 40 additional communities across the country and online venues for participatory input as well. The event, organized by AmericaSpeaks had all the markers of political deliberation, American-style: electronic keypads and networked computers that lent a technologically updated verisimilitude to George Gallup's idea of palpating the "pulse of democracy" and, of course, lots of political contestation (more on this below).
During a recent discussion on the issue of diplomacy in the information age, hosted by the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, I got to mulling over the idea of the transnational public sphere. An interesting recent paper out of Europe by Jens Steffek focuses on the emergence of this transnational public sphere and its ability to successfully pressure public institutions for greater accountability and better governance. I believe new communication technologies have amplified this sphere's scope and scale.
But the question that then arises is this: does the very force that enables and empowers the transnational public sphere also degrade the quality of deliberation upon which it depends to function effectively? In a globally networked information environment, public opinion can coalesce in the blink of an eye, fed by multiple information sources both credible and non-credible. Can a transnational public sphere truly be an effective force for better governance if it is not backed by genuinely informed debate and deliberation? What separates a transnational public sphere from a transnational mob?
"Only across the system as a whole can deliberation be expected to operate as a cleansing mechanism that filters out the ‘‘muddy’’ elements from a discursively structured legitimation process. As an essential element of the democratic process, deliberation is expected to fulfill three functions: to mobilize and pool relevant issues and required information, and to specify interpretations; to process such contributions discursively by means of proper arguments for and against; and to generate rationally motivated yes and no attitudes that are expected to determine the outcome of procedurally correct decisions."
My last post on this blog discussed public deliberation as a political ideal and what happens when that ideal is tested in an actual decision-making space. In a paper about municipal health councils in Brazil, Andrea Cornwall gives a blow-by-blow description of what happens when deliberative spaces stop being polite and start getting real.
Health councils were established in Brazil’s 1988 ‘Citizens’ Constitution’ and empowered citizens with the right to review and approve executive-level budgets, accounts and spending plans on health programs. Although overshadowed by the participatory budgeting process, Brazilian health councils can also provide some important lessons on how to deepen citizen engagement and decision-making. Through the example of these health councils, Cornwall argues that three elements in particular are often “under-theorized” by deliberative democratic theorists. First, understanding political culture is important. Second, how do party politics infiltrate and impact these spaces? And last, how is power challenged in these spaces? (She describes discussions in this deliberative space more as confrontational rather than reasonable.)
Public deliberation as a political ideal represents the next frontier in democracy building. Public deliberation calls for dramatic changes in how political decisions are made. Through deliberative processes, citizens and not elected representatives, make decisions on how to manage their own resources. These decisions are reached according to the exchange of reasons and arguments that appeal to shared objectives or values. Decisions resulting from deliberation are more informed and rational. Under deliberative processes, political truths emerge not from competing ideas but through dialogue between citizens. Deliberative processes produce information as a by-product, not a precondition for participation.
Many of us become more convinced in our views on any given topic by bouncing them off of our sounding boards, whose worldview often mirrors our own. Feeling validated through these interactions, we march on with our perspectives unaltered. Troublingly, if we allow ourselves to interact only with our like-minded peers, these interactions can and do lead to viewpoints that are fixed, sometimes to the dismissal of all other alternative perspectives. This is the topic of Cass Sunstein’s article, “To Become An Extremist, Hang Around With People You Agree With.”
Imagine you have walked back home from your local town market on a jasmine-scented Saturday morning with a bagful of the season’s harvest. In Northern California in the summer, that bag will probably contain some heirloom tomatoes, hothouse cucumbers, red bell peppers, Meyer lemons, and mint sprigs. As you sit to rest your feet, your mouth starts to water in anticipation of how these provisions will taste. They are meant to entertain guests over supper later in the evening, but you simply cannot wait and decide to steal a sampling of small pieces of each item.