Research Notes

NewDemocracy is an independent, non-partisan research and development organisation. We aim to discover, develop, demonstrate, and popularise complementary alternatives which will restore trust in public decision making. These R&D notes are discoveries and reflections that we are documenting in order to share what we learn and stimulate further research and development.

Gil Delannoi  Centre for Political Research at Sciences Po University (Paris)
Lyn Carson - Research Director, the newDemocracy Foundation

Presidential campaign

Something rather unusual happened in France during the campaign for president in 2017. Although the world watched with interest as Emmanuel Macron and Martine Le Pen competed in the second round of presidential elections, some fascinating promises were made by candidates in the first round and were largely missed by observers.

The presidential election in France precedes the general election for members of its parliament. France has two parliamentary chambers: the National Assembly and the Senate. The president appoints the prime minister to oversee the government.

It is extremely unusual for aspiring world leaders, or even potential members of parliament, to advocate random selection. Yet, this happened in France in 2017. Some very unusual discourse occurred during the presidential campaign, prior to the first round. This R&D Note examines those unexpected campaign promises.

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David Schecter  Associate R&D Director, The newDemocracy Foundation

What is the question?

Budgeting is hard. Governments are faced with expanding demands for services and needs for infrastructure, combined with insufficient ability to raise revenue. Elected representatives face intense and conflicting pressures from interest groups. Public opinion, as evidenced through the media, is likely to be unhappy with any decisions that politicians make. There is low public trust in politicians and their decisions (Markus, 2014).

Attempting to engage in dialogue with the public about budgeting can easily become overwhelming, unproductive, and adversarial. How can it be done better? What would enable people to stand alongside politicians and counter uninformed public opinion with considered public judgment?

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Lyn Carson  Research Director, The newDemocracy Foundation

What is the question?

How could a prime minister’s office build trust in order to make the most contentious national decisions, and does the recent experience in Ireland help to answer this?

Why answer this question?

There is increasing world-wide distrust in politicians and elections. Democracy was borne out of distrust in political elites; it was meant to overcome this problem. However, electoral politics is now under a cloud, facing increasingly strong protest votes for parties at the periphery matched with increasing abstention. Democracy is seen as the problem instead of the solution. How are we to redeem democracy and rebuild trust?

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Lyn Carson – Research Director, The newDemocracy Foundation

David Schecter – Associate R&D Director, The newDemocracy Foundation

What is the question?

The note “Hearing from Experts” makes the point that mini-publics need the help of experts in order to become adequately informed. To be successful in their purpose, these experts must not only be knowledgeable, but also representative of different viewpoints, respected by the mini-public members, and able to communicate effectively about their expertise with non-experts (this includes having good listening skills)1.

But who should select the experts, and how should they do it?

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Dr Oliver Escobar  Lecturer in Public Policy, The University of Edinburgh
Co-director of What Works Scotland

Dr Stephen Elstub  Lecturer in British Politics, Newcastle University

Introduction

This paper introduces a range of democratic innovations known as ‘mini-publics’ and outlines key features, how they work, and how they may improve opportunities for citizens to contribute to public deliberation and participatory governance.

The idea of mini-publics was first proposed four decades ago by political scientist Robert Dahl (1989). Inspired by democratic ideals and social science principles, Dahl envisioned an innovative mechanism for involving citizens in dealing with public issues. He called it ‘minipopulus’: an assembly of citizens, demographically representative of the larger population, brought together to learn and deliberate on a topic in order to inform public opinion and decision-making.

A growing number of democratic innovations have flourished around the world based on this idea (see Elstub 2014; Grönlund et al 2014; Chwalisz 2017; Elstub and Escobar forthcoming), from Citizens’ Juries, to Planning Cells, Consensus Conferences, Deliberative Polls and Citizens’ Assemblies (see Table 1). Mini-publics have been used to deal with topics ranging from constitutional and electoral reform, to controversial science and technology, and myriad social issues (e.g. health, justice, planning, sectarianism).

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Lyn Carson  Research Director, The newDemocracy Foundation

What is the question?

How can participants in mini-publics critically and effectively, hear and learn from expert witnesses in a way that ensures they understand the challenges being considered?

NB: This R&D Note is focused on human experts in the decision-making space and not on published or online material which has its own set of challenges.

 

What are the usual answers?

Experts may be self-defined or may have obtained relevant credentials. They claim to know or do know a great deal about their specific area of expertise. These experts could be scientists, academics, government employees, special interest groups, community activists, and more. For many of them, the ‘banking model’ of learning persists: that learners are empty vessels into which knowledge can be deposited and later withdrawn (Freire, 1976). Experts need only provide a persuasive presentation or a fact-based lecture and their job is done.

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Lyn Carson  Research Director, The newDemocracy Foundation

What is deliberation and how does it differ from usual political discussion?

Deliberation foregrounds a very important difference in the way political discussions can occur. This note describes that difference while highlighting its importance. This note describes that difference. Here, we are speaking about public deliberation, not the internal deliberation that we each do during contemplation. In order to explain the difference between public deliberation in, say, a citizens’ jury, and what might occur in a parliamentary assembly, it’s useful to start with what it’s not (see table below).

 

Distinguishing between debate, dialogue and deliberation

Typically, political discussion is debate. The aim is to persuade others, and ultimately the majority, to one’s own position. It’s a win/lose situation where participants are inclined to maintain their original view. It can be angry, adversarial and swift. It can also be rational and drawn out. Dialogue can help to cut through some of the weaknesses of debate through slower civil exchange, sharing understandings by listening well, and building relationships. The emphasis with dialogue is not on decision making so much as on a respectful, clarifying exchange. These distinctions were defined by Hodge et al.

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Lyn Carson  Research Director, The newDemocracy Foundation

What is the question?

How can we enhance the ability of randomly-selected citizens in mini-publics (such as citizens’ juries) to understand and evaluate expert evidence?

 

What are the usual answers?

It is sometimes assumed that we have an innate capacity to think critically. Some people are born with it, some are not. A common assumption by decision makers is that a randomly-selected group will be unable to understand or evaluate expert evidence. A further assumption is that it takes a combination of natural ability and years of experience. Citizens are assumed not to have this skill, whereas experts and politicians do.

It’s true that citizens only rarely encounter the practice of critical thinking or even the term critical thinking, unless they have studied in an institute of higher learning. Even then it is likely designed to enhance the critical thinking capacities of individuals, doing solitary thinking, learning to think for themselves, whereas in a mini-public, participants are part of a collective consideration of expert knowledge.

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