Trust in trouble: how deliberative approaches can help us do democracy differently

Reflections on the latest event in the Deliberate seminar series organised by NatCen and the Policy Institute at King's College London.
UK Parliament
  • Authors:
    Ceri Davies
    Suzanne Hall
  • Publishing date:
    14 July 2023

This article was first published on the King's College London website, click here to read the article on their website.

Politics is broken. Or, at least, that’s what the evidence from the latest wave of the ESRC-funded World Values Survey would suggest. It’s not that we have a problem with democracy in principle – far from it. Around nine in 10 (90%) people in Britain think that democracy is a good way of governing the country. The problem comes with democracy in practice – how we experience politics and governance on a day-to-day basis – and this is where things fall apart.

Only one in six are highly satisfied with how the country’s political system is functioning right now – half the proportion who are dissatisfied (17% versus 32%). Or, if you look at it another way, we’re on a par with the people of Russia for this measure. Spare a thought too for the citizens of Northern Ireland. With Stormont in abeyance, their satisfaction with the country’s political system has, understandably, collapsed and only 8% say they are highly satisfied.

Public perceptions of democratic institutions are also suffering. Only a quarter have confidence in both the UK government and parliament (24% and 23% respectively). The independent civil service fares better, with half (49%) of the British public saying that they have confidence in them. And all these institutions are more highly rated than the press (14%).

It’s important to note that we’re not facing a new crisis of trust – these figures have been poor for some time. However, while we may be used to these low scores it’s worth bearing in mind that they’re not the norm. To illustrate, nearly half of the adult population in Canada has confidence in the government – twice the proportion of the UK public (46% versus 24%) – and only Egypt scores lower than us when it comes to having confidence in the press.

Given this context, it is perhaps time to start thinking about how we might do democracy differently.

With its roots in ancient Athens, deliberative democracy is the theory that political decisions should be a result of fair and reasonable discussion among citizens. This was noted by Pericles who, in 436BC, noted the importance of involving citizens in decision-making, stating that “[discussion] is an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all”.

However, while there have been many pockets of good practice over the years, it is only recently that a range of deliberative methods have taken root, and captured the wider public imagination. And it was this that formed the focus of the latest “Deliberate” seminars run jointly by the Policy Institute at King’s College London and the Centre for Deliberation at NatCen. With a panel featuring Douglas Alexander, former Minister of State and Visiting Professor at the Policy Institute at King’s; Jane Suiter, Professor in the School of Communications and architect of “We The Citizens”, Ireland’s deliberative experiment which paved the way for constitutional reform; and Miriam Levin, Chief Executive of Engage Britain, a charity which seeks to open up policymaking to those most affected by it.

Alexander reflected on his experience since leaving politics – and his potential imminent return – and spoke about the importance of shared facts. Even if people disagree with the importance of these facts, or what they mean for policy and practice, he argued that having a common foundation from which to work is crucial and is something, in our age of misinformation and increasing polarisation, that is currently lacking. He also spoke about the art of disagreeing well. Consensus isn’t always possible – or even desirable – but we should be able to rise above points of difference to disagree with grace and civility.

This is where deliberation can play a key role, providing people with the right conditions and skills to debate agreed facts in a reasoned way and provide the structure and experience to address profound differences. He also reminded us that “politics is not a spectator sport” and deliberation is just one means of involving people in decision-making. Building on this, he mentioned how all great social movements start with the people, not politicians. By making use of deliberative approaches, we can centre citizens in the policy process.

Suiter went into detail on her role in and experience of “We The Citizens”. In particular, she spoke about how the design features of the citizens’ assembly on constitutional reform were integral to its success, and to the findings being trusted. For instance, using random selection as the means of recruitment ensured that the assembly was representative of the overall population, and that there was diversity among participants. She also explained that having a link to power was key. This meant that the recommendations made by assembly members were acted on, thus building trust in the process.

Finally Levin spoke passionately about the capacity of people to grapple with complex issues, and to give up their time in order to work towards the common good. Involving the public can lead to surprising findings that help break through assumed truths and conventional wisdom. Drawing on the findings from Engage Britain’s national conversation on health and social care, she reflected how the public prioritised good NHS communications over and above more commonly discussed concerns like waiting lists and outcomes.

When discussing the role deliberative processes can play in rebuilding trust in politics, she acknowledged that methods like deliberative mini publics can be helpful in building a bridge between the citizen and the state. However, she also cautioned that the real issue, perhaps, is less that the public don’t trust politicians and more that politicians don’t trust the public to make decisions on what matters.

What was clear, from the lively discussion and packed auditorium, is that people are looking for answers and ideas about how we can reshape politics – and deliberation gives us quite the toolkit of options to better weave new ideals into public life and the wider democratic project. Our current political system has remained largely unchanged for centuries while the world we live in is unrecognisable. As we edge towards the next election, the main political parties would do well to think through how they can meaningfully engage with the public away from just the ballot box.