Deliberative Democracy in Action

This section of my research still needs work. I am currently working to read more reports of different deliberative forums across the country and across the world. This is what I have on paper so far.

Deliberative Democracy in Action

This post will discuss past deliberative forums and evaluate their impact on decision-making and governance. As we will see, some forms of deliberative democracy have a meaningful impact on citizens and governance, while others have a minimal effect. We will reflect on the qualities that make certain deliberative practices more successful than others.

Deliberative Mini-Publics in Action.

A mini-public is a small-scale form of deliberative democracy. “The mini-public is an educative forum that aims to create nearly ideal conditions for citizens to form, articulate, and refine opinions about particular public issues through conversations with one another.” (Fung 2011) Mini-publics usually consist of 15 to 25 randomly selected citizens who convene over the course of several days, eventually drafting a report for citizens or a public official, or for voting on a measure.

Most famously in the United States, Oregon established the first official, deliberative mini-public: The Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review (OCIR). It is “an innovative way of publicly evaluating ballot measures so voters have clear, useful, and trustworthy information at election time.” (


Organized by the nonprofit Healthy Democracy, OCIR is a series of citizen panels which deliberate over measures that state citizens will vote over in the near future. The panels are randomly selected and demographically balanced to assure representation of the politically diverse population. The panels call upon experts to inform citizens of relevant information. The citizens deliberate over multiple days.

In conclusion of their deliberation, CIRC drafts a “Citizens’ Statement” which outlines the findings of the measure. The statement is printed onto a voters’ pamphlet, which is made accessible to all Oregon citizens at election time. The Citizens’ Initiative Review is an example of small scale deliberation with macro decision-making. (Gastil & Reitman 2015)

Deliberative democrat John Gastil is the most prominent writer on OCIR. Gastil studied OCIR panels between the years of 2010 and 2014. He drafted a report of his own. Gastil found that panel participants were generally satisfied with their experience and the “key findings” report in the Citizens’ Statement. The Citizens’ Statements across the years were also found to be strong in merit, but could improve in grammar and language. Gastil also reports that there was an increase in voter knowledge about the Oregon ballot measures even though only 36% of Oregonians reported that they read the review. Of the readers, nearly 70% reported that the Citizens’ Statement was at least somewhat informative and influential of their vote. (Gastil & Knobloch 2014) In light of OCIR’s general success, other states have mandated Citizen Initiative Reviews. Healthy Democracy has also organized CIRs in Arizona, Massachusetts, and Colorado.

In 2009, the NewDemocracy Foundation organized a series of deliberative mini-publics and a large scale Online Parliament (OP), known as the Australian Citizens’ Parliament (ACP). Citizens were asked to assess how the Australian government could be strengthened to better serve its people. 150 citizens were randomly selected to participate in the face-to-face deliberations, and the online Parliament was open to all citizens. Even with random selection, there were no aboriginals selected, as the aboriginal community is so small; organizers decided to include a quota for the number of aboriginal citizens so that they may be included.

Six “world cafés” were established across the country where selected citizens would deliberate. Citizens were sorted into ten groups of five people each. These small groups decided that the major issues in Australia related to aboriginal problems, access to policy-makers, quality of education, and electoral reform. Online moderators asked online participants for their reflections on these issues as well. At the closure of the deliberation, a list of 13 proposals was drafted and sent to the Prime Minister.

In the wake of these events, the government response was disappointing. The government allowed for one meeting to look over the proposals. The Prime Minister did not attend. In the end, the government did not respond to the work of the people. This example is disheartening for supporters of deliberative democracy. Citizens can be fully engaged and enthusiastic about policy and politics, and the government can still simply ignore the will of the people. Examples such as ACP show that deliberative democracy is not effective if the government does not respect its citizens as autonomous agents.

Similar to the ACP, the Jefferson Center implemented Citizen Juries (1993-2002).  Citizen Juries also randomly select about twenty-four participants across the country to deliberate over important policy issues. In 1993, the first ever citizen jury, twenty-four people were selected to attend a jury at the Jefferson Center to balance the federal budget. Citizens listened to a series of conservative and liberal witnesses, educated on relevant information, and then deliberated. In the end, a super majority of participants voted on a $70-billion-dollar tax increase. (Crosby & Nethercut 2005) Unfortunately, government legislatures did not really take the results into account, and not much came of the jury. The Jefferson Center hosted several other issue-based forums throughout the decade, but with little success. Deliberation proved to be too expensive and too slow to affect any real change.

Another famous example of a citizen jury is the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform in British Columbia (2004). 160 participants were randomly selected and deliberated over changing the current electoral system. Again, a super majority voted to change the electoral system into a transferable vote. The proposal was drafted into a referendum in 2005, but failed to pass by three percentage points. The referendum was later attempted again in 2009, but was also barely shot down. (Snider 2008)

Large-scale Deliberative Democracy in Action.

Large-scale deliberative forums are often held as “Town Hall Meetings”. (Lukensmeyer et al. 2005) They typically involve hundreds of participants who meet together in one large room. Participants sit at tables of ten people with a trained deliberative facilitator and discuss the issue at hand. In large-scale meetings, there is often deliberative polling and keypad polling to amass data.


AmericaSpeaks, a nonprofit organization dedicated to spreading deliberative democracy across the country. AmericaSpeaks designed an approach known as the “Twenty-First Century Town Meetings”: deliberative forums which take advantage of technology to connect a large scale of citizens to have quality discussions over important issues or pressing topics. (Lukensmeyer et al. 2005) AmericaSpeaks has successfully organized over 40 large and representative samples of communities across the country and given participants the opportunity to have a credible voice through the use of keypad polling, transparency through media collaboration, and strong relationships with decision makers.

These Meetings have proven to mobilize public opinion. (Lukensmeyer et al. 2005) A majority of participants reported that they are now more engaged and politically active with the issue than they were before the forums. The deep involvement with the media also creates a standard for transparency in public decision making and places pressure on public officials to acknowledge the results of the forum, playing as a public government scorecard..

Deliberative City Planning.

In 2003, Philadelphia initiated a series of deliberative forums in order to bring in a public voice on how to develop the waterfront at Penn’s Landing. In collaboration with a number of programs at the University of Pennsylvania, the editorial board of The Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Design Advocacy Group of Philadelphia, a public conversation between a range of experts and citizens was convened to decide the future of the waterfront.  ( The forums included expert panel discussions, a series of publications in The Philadelphia Inquirer, and small-group work discussions with trained facilitators. (Sokoloff et al. 2005)

As a result, participants outlined a list of fundamental principles for developing Penn’s Landing. This list was intended to provide information and advice to policymakers.  This project had a significant impact on future engagement efforts. Discussion continues to present day about the development of other waterfront communities in Philadelphia and the Mayor announced plans to invest millions of dollars in these projects.  Inspired by this project’s success, other expert-citizen deliberative processes have been convened throughout the city. (Sokoloff et al. 2005) This project has also been recognized by professional associations and received numerous civic engagement awards. The results of these forms had a significant and direct impact on policymaking and city planning.


As I have shown in the last few posts, Deliberative democracy has been praised and scrutinized by many scholars of democracy. It’s agreed upon by most that deliberation does, on a small-scale, educate citizens. There is not, however, much else that scholars can agree on. Some say that deliberation promotes inclusiveness and equality (Habermas 1989; Gutmann & Thompson 2004; Fishkin 2009), while others assert that equality does not exist and that deliberation might even hinder equality. (Sanders 1997; Young 2000)

Some say that deliberation reduces polarization and empowers citizens to participate. (Gutmann & Thompson 2004; Carcasson & Sprain 2015) Others claim that deliberation and participation is an oxymoron. (Mutz 2006) Critics, furthermore, complain that deliberation is not feasible because it simply has too many preconditions to work. (Sanders 1997; Schauer 1999; Shapiro 1999; Bell 1999; Mutz 2006) Deliberative democrats acknowledge that it is difficult to apply those conditions on a large scale, but confirm that it is possible to create “good conditions” for deliberation on a small scale. (Fishkin 2009; Gastil 2014)

We have also outlined several different examples of deliberative democracy in action. We discussed the strengths and weaknesses of deliberative mini-publics such as the Oregon Citizen’s Initiative, and Citizen Juries; that mini-publics are effective in moderately mobilizing and informing a citizenry, but have yet to show much impact on policy or governance. We also looked at a larger-scale deliberative forum such as the Citizen Summits in Washington D.C. and AmericaSpeaks projects. These events have had a dramatic impact on citizen awareness, and legislative action. (Lukensmeyer et al. 2005)

In total, deliberative democracy is a young and growing field. It lacks in empirical research and evidence; something scholars such as John Gastil, Tina Nabatchi, Greg Munno, Ned Crosby, and James Fishkin have been fervently working towards improving.




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