Deliberation: a way of doing society?

The seminar series looking at a range of aspects to do with both the theory and practice of public deliberation.
  • Authors:
    Ceri Davies
    Suzanne Hall
  • Publishing date:
    13 June 2022

On 25 May 2022, NatCen’s Centre for Deliberative Research and the Policy Institute at King’s College London launched the first in an ongoing seminar series looking at a range of aspects exploring both the theory and practice of deliberation.

These seminars are designed to provide an informal, non-judgemental and conversational space for practitioners, theorists, policymakers and other interested parties, to come together to listen to experts in their field talk about their perspectives on and experiences of deliberation as well as their reflections on what works. Think 18th century salon, a hub for ideas, conversation, exchange and enlightenment, just with less taffeta!

The conversations are intended to be inclusive, and are planning to discuss deliberation in its broadest sense (so not just citizen’s assemblies but the full range of approaches). Building on this, we will also consider deliberation in the context of democracy, concepts and approaches tied to institutions and intended to influence or create change to policy and governments, as well as deliberation as a research method – used to explore questions and challenges that are not always derived from or embedded in actual policy questions.

For the first of these seminars we welcomed two inspirational women, Sarah Castell, CEO of Involve, the UK’s leading public participation charity, and Miriam Levin, Programme Director at Engage Britain, a new organisation which brings people together to tackle some of our biggest challenges, including social care and inequality. We were joined by over 70 people from a wide range of organisations who asked a number of interesting questions that furthered our speaker’s reflections; both of which are included in this summary. You can also watch this seminar again online.

Sarah and Miriam outlined how they conceptualise deliberation – that, for them, it is less of a method or approach but, as Sarah explained, more about a way of “doing society”. Miriam complemented this, asking attendees to think about whether they trusted those in power to make the right kind of decisions on their behalf. Reinforcing this point, this seminar coincided with the release of a Policy Institute survey which found that six in 10 people (62%) in the UK think that their government ignores rules and procedures – the highest score across six countries included in the study. The research also found that a similar proportion (61%) say that the government usually ignores people like them and that half (52%) think the government is not honest and truthful. Within this climate of distrust, a different way of doing politics – and society more broadly – is surely needed.

The gentle radicalism of deliberation was also explored. How, in any deliberative process, there is a requirement for those in positions of authority to cede power to participants and to trust them to digest complex information, make hard trade-offs and choices in order to come to policy decisions and recommendations. The uncertainty and “messiness” of these approaches was also raised; how participants will always surface ideas, concepts and issues that you were not expecting and which can take the discussion down new avenues. And how this, in part, comes from the complexity of the questions we ask of our participants in the first place.

In this, much inspiration was taken from Iain Walker, the Executive Director of the new Democracy Foundation in Australia, whose opening gambit to those in power is “give us your hardest problem”. This led us to thinking about the spaces in which deliberation could be used here in the UK. Immigration policy was suggested by both Sarah and Miriam as one of those intractable and long-standing social policy problems, where measured debate has been rendered almost impossible due to entrenched positions on both sides, and a lack of trust in the evidence and information available.

Indeed, work already undertaken by NatCen has demonstrated the potential in this space. Their ESRC-funded “Future of Britain” project has brought together a random sample of the public in a deliberative poll to consider among other issues, Britain’s immigration policy after Brexit. It demonstrated how a meeting of minds is possible: among Leavers, support for the view that immigration is good for the economy increased from 43% to 58%, while the proportion who said it was culturally enriching rose from 42% to 50%. And of the Remainers, after deliberating, 63% said EU migrants should have to apply to come to Britain, up from 38% beforehand. While the “stickiness” of these attitude shifts needs to be tested further, this work certainly highlights how deliberative approaches can bring polarised groups to work towards consensus.

The challenges of working in this field were also acknowledged. Common issues, including how best to evaluate success and what this looks like, how to scale up without compromising on quality, how to deliver these approaches in a cost-effective way, how to achieve real impact and how to deliberate online in a way that isn’t exclusionary, were all aired. But chiefly, we explored at length how we as a community of practice can develop a common language, which appeals to shared values, to help make our case for why these approaches should be used. And, at a time when there seems to be less appetite from those at the centre of government to work in this way, it is more necessary than ever that we can argue the case for change. All these issues are going to be explored in future seminars – with the next focusing on the policy impact that deliberation can bring.

It’s important to stress too that these challenges didn’t detract from the optimism in the room about the potential and possibility deliberative approaches can bring. When asked about their hopes for the future in this space both Miriam and Sarah shared a wish for the “normalisation” of these ways of working – not quite institutionalisation (as in, for instance, the Ostbelgien Model) but, rather, that participating in decision-making could become an expected and regular part of civic life and duty in the same way that jury service is.

As we grapple with complex policy decisions, in a time of uncertainty – encompassing everything from the rising cost of living through to global conflict – and mistrust, we need to weave these ways of working into the fabric of our daily lives more than ever. By working together, and sharing what we know and reflecting on what we have learnt, we will surely be able to make progress. So please continue to join us on this journey of exploration and join in the conversation – we’d love to hear from you.