Deliberative Engagement: Reflections on Complex Policy Issues and Framing

The Centre for Deliberation recently concluded a project, which sought to explore citizens’ views on the UK’s tax system.
Online discussion
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  • Publishing date:
    29 January 2024

NatCen’s Centre for Deliberation (CfD) recently concluded a project, ‘Funding the UK’s Future Investments’, for the Centre for Progressive Policy (CPP), which sought to explore citizens’ views on the UK’s tax system while asking them to consider changes that might improve its overall fairness.

To do this, the CfD brought together 45 members of the public and provided them with the time, information and conditions to discuss the fairness of existing tax policies and whether particular fiscal innovations – such as introducing an excess profits tax on large corporations – would improve the system’s fairness. Broadly, the research followed a ‘citizens’ jury’ model. Much like a real jury, participants were briefed by experts and asked to reach a set of recommendations after considering evidence and a variety of perspectives. The entire process – including two sets of two-and-a-half-hour learning sessions and a four-hour jury event – took place online over ten hours. 

This blog will focus on two elements of deliberation which were particularly pertinent in this project: public engagement with complex policy issues and their framing therein. Democratic engagement is the hallmark of deliberative practice and the framing of discussion topics can, to a greater or lesser extent, aid or hamper this engagement. This project provides an opportunity to reflect on how these elements played out across the jury. 

Deliberation and engagement 

The project encountered very low attrition rates, and in our post-jury feedback forms, many participants remarked on how interesting and fulfilling they found the jury experience. Critics of deliberative practices sometimes argue that certain policy areas are too technical or complex for public deliberation (see Sanders, 1997, for a discussion on this). However, this project indicates that participants are able to engage with issues – the tax code and fiscal policy – which are both technical and conceptually demanding. To some extent, this might be because everyone encounters taxation in one way or another during their lifetime, rendering the subject accessible and engaging. However, participants also had plenty to say about forms of taxation they had no direct experience with (such as a putative millionaires’ windfall tax), assessing these less familiar proposals in principle. In this respect, the deliberative format of a citizens’ jury proved to be an effective way to introduce participants to complex information and inspire continued engagement. 

Nevertheless, at times, participants struggled to reconcile some of the more complex trade-offs presented in the jury. Deliberative processes are used not only to inform a public about a topic and facilitate discussions, but also to expose participants to conflicting perspectives (different experiences and policy priorities). Often, it is hoped that discussions will result in consensus building and a set of recommendations. In discussions about the balance between adhering to fiscal rules and increasing government spending, some participants – acknowledging the benefits of both options – struggled to decide on their principal priority. Thus, although many participants were able to engage fully with, and make judgements about, the jury’s most intricate and delicate trade-offs, some were not. (For an example of fruitful deliberations on equally as testing and intricate subjects, see the CfD’s seminal Future of Britain project).

The Fairness Frame 

During the jury, participants were asked to assess fiscal measures in terms of their fairness. This concept established a familiar frame to assess and discuss complex topics. At a rudimentary level, the idea of fairness gave rise to two widely shared apprehensions. First, many people saw it as right to contribute a fair share of their earnings and/or wealth to public services that they or others could use or benefit from. Second, it was frequently argued that increasing taxes to the point that they start causing people significant detriment would be unfair; so long as people could absorb existing or additional fiscal costs without harm, tax and tax increases were widely seen as legitimate. This intuitive sense of fairness – of reasonable contributions and collective gains – served as a familiar notion to anchor many of the discussions. 

However, while fairness provided a helpful framing device, it proved to be too loose a concept to apply consistently to the topics discussed throughout the jury. Participants were not all working from the same definition. On the contrary, they understood fairness in various ways, with several participants struggling to distinguish, or conceptualise the relationship between, judgements of fairness and judgements of self-interest. Consequently, the concept was applied to fiscal measures differently across the jury. While this produced interestingly diverse assessments, it may have been advantageous to establish a single and clear definition against which all participants could measure the fiscal options on the table. There was some recognition that the various perspectives of fairness were valid in their own ways, and it is possible that this contributed to participants being unable to prioritise one fiscal measure over another. 

In summary, the jury effectively engaged participants in a topic that was technical and information rich; generated valuable policy insights for CPP; and reinforced several practical deliberative lessons about framing and content design. As a researcher on this project, it was invigorating to see participants show consistent engagement with the session materials and exercises and to see how their discussions unfolded.