BMCSpeaks 2017 Research Design

How to Explore the Impact Democratic Deliberation has on Decision-Making.

Current literature on deliberative democracy suggests that while deliberation does have educative effects, it is not influential of policy or decision-making. Can deliberative democracy work? To what extent do deliberative practices of democracy positively influence policy and decision-making?

To answer these questions, I will explore a variety of different deliberative forums: 21st Town Hall Meetings, Citizens’ Initiative Reviews, Citizens’ Assemblies, Planning Cells, and Consensus Conferences.

Deliberative democracy is fluid by design. These forums all share a common purpose, but vary in success. I think it is important, then, to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each design. This will be helpful in understanding which elements of deliberative democracy make certain types of forum more successful than another. Once I isolate which elements I think improve the influence deliberation has on decision-making, I can apply these elements to my own forum that I will convene on Bryn Mawr College’s campus during the spring semester.

I believe that deliberation can have a positive and empowering influence on decision-making, given that the appropriate conditions are in place: an engaged participant pool, decision-makers are present at the time of the deliberation, significant media attention on the event, and a macro-political uptake of the results. Although it is certainly not always possible to assure that these conditions are present, I believe that these are the elements that will make or break the impact of deliberative democracy.

Operationalization of Terms.

By engaged participant pool, I mean that participants chosen for the forum express at least somewhat of a concern for the topic of the forum during debates. Engaged participants also express an interest in continuing to discuss the topic, or see what becomes of the results, after the forum has concluded.

By decision-makers, I mean any person of authority or leadership who has the power to change policy, rules, and/or codes. Examples of decision-makers are elected officials, heads of departments, the President of a college or organization, etc. By “presence,” I mean that decision-makers must witness the deliberation of participants for a substantial amount of time. To add, decision-makers must be mentally present and open to questions by the participants.

By significant media attention, I mean that the forum must receive enough media attention that a community knows of its existence. I would say that significant media attention includes, at minimum, 50 newspaper articles or posts to social media or videos posted online, etc. In essence, the internet or local newspapers recognize the importance of the event and publish extensively about the event.

By macro-political uptake, I mean that the results of the forum are then handed to a larger body of the population for response and consideration. This could include the publication of a pamphlet of the forum results which is made accessible to all citizens before election day, such as a Citizens’ Initiative Review. This could also mean that the results/proposed solutions of the forum are then brought to a vote among the entire community, such as in a plenary.

Data Sources.

The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) is a major primary source I will use in my research. The NCDD is a web-base that collects resources for deliberative democrats. It includes issue guides, how-to guides, case studies, forum reports, a listserv of all listed deliberative moderators and facilitators across the country, and news about upcoming deliberative events. This is a good source of data for my case studies as well as for assistance in conducting my own forum.

Another major primary resource I plan to use is the archives at the Kettering Foundation, a research foundation dedicated to supporting deliberative efforts around the country. The Kettering Foundation is a well-known organization in which many of the prominent deliberative democratic thinkers have spent time and worked within. Kettering’s website has an abundance of research and issue guides from past forums. I am also in contact with members of the foundation, and they have expressed interests in supporting my pursuit to conduct a forum on my college’s campus.

A secondary resource that I use often is The Deliberative Democracy Handbook by John Gastil and Peter Levine. This handbook includes the work of many important scholars, as well as outlines all the different forms deliberative democracy can take. This book is a great starting point for learning about Citizen Juries, Consensus Conferences, Planning Cells, Town Hall Meetings, and other forms of deliberation. I can use the notes in this handbook to find more information on specific case studies and their impact on governance.

I also plan to James Fishkin’s book, When the People Speak, which details specific methods of design such as random sampling. I find Fishkin’s suggestions to be useful in the practice of deliberation.

Outside of online databases and texts about case studies, I plan to gather data of my own. I will be using the Bryn Mawr College student and faculty population to conduct a forum on the topic of improving mental health services at the college. I will handout surveys and questionnaires to various groups of participants, students, and faculty to evaluate the attitudes and perspectives surrounding the forum. This data will be most helpful in understanding if I successful applied the conditions I stated earlier in the paper.


The Broad Idea.

Given that the internal review board accepts my proposal, I plan to conduct a deliberative mini-public forum on campus during the Spring 2017 semester. I plan to hold the forum exactly one week before the school’s semester plenary. 20 participants will be chosen at random to attend a two and a half hour forum. The first hour of the forum will include expert panels, personal testimony, and questions to a representative of the health center and the President about the mental health program at the college. In the second hour of the forum, participants will sit at tables of five students each and deliberate over solutions to propose to the President and student health center. In third hour of the forum, the top three solutions will be voted on by a secret ballot. The winning solutions will be made into resolutions to be voted on by the whole student population in plenary the next week. All findings of the forum will be publicized online and printed into pamphlets, so that the information is accessible to everyone.

Expert Panels, Personal Testimony, and Questions to Decision-Makers

Experts will include those who are have a substantial understanding of the finances of the college, the student healthcare program, counseling services, or an administrative role. The point of including experts in the forum is to inform the participants of facts that they might not have previously known. It has been shown that deliberative forums, if nothing else, educates citizens. New information challenges participants to reflect on new points of view, or new pathways to a solution. Many participants of past forums report that they changed their mind on at least one issue after learning new information.

Personal testimony is another segment of the first hour. Any student and/or faculty may submit a personal testimony concerning the topic of mental health on Bryn Mawr’s campus. It is understandable that it would be intimidating for many to stand in front of 20 peers and give testimony about a sensitive topic as such as mental health. I will, therefore, create an online survey where Bryn Mawr Community members can anonymously submit their own testimony. The survey will leave an open-ended question such as “What is your personal experience with mental health at Bryn Mawr College?” Respondents will have to indicate whether they are a student or staff, but no other identifier. These responses will be read out loud and projected onto a screen for participants to read.

Finally, there will be a portion in which participants can ask questions to roles of authority in the community, such as the head of the student health center and the President of the college (given that they agree to attend). The questions and answers will be recorded and published with the findings of the forum.


The structure of the deliberation is on a small and intimate scale. Students will sit at tables of five students each, in addition to a trained facilitator designated to the table. The facilitator will likely be from the school of Social Work, an impartial student who has volunteered to facilitate, or a facilitator from the NCDD resource database, depending on who can agree to attend.

The facilitators will probe students to discuss their impressions of the first hour and add to the conversation with their own perspective. Every student is allowed to speak for two minutes at a time, to assure equal speaking time. Facilitators will make sure that all voices and opinions are heard rather than stifled by a more dominant member of the group or popular opinion.

After a half hour of discussion, the facilitator will ask the participants to propose changes to the current mental healthcare system at the college. Every proposal is asked to be justified by reason; as well as asked to reflect on what might be the strengths, limitations, and tradeoffs of a certain solution.

At the end of the hour, the solutions from each table are compiled into one list that will be projected so that the whole room will be able to see. A moderator will read through the list and then ask the participants to reconvene with their group to discuss the solutions further, and perhaps narrow their list. This discussion should last for thirty minutes. Facilitators will ask participants to open their computers (a library computer can be provided to those who do not own one) and anonymously vote on the top three solutions. These solutions will be published online and printed for handout, as well as drafted into a plenary resolution to be voted on by the entire student population.

After the forum

Engaged participants.

An online database will provide a questionnaire before and after the forum that asks participants to measure their feelings about how the college handles mental health care on campus, as well as what they think about the college listening to student concerns. The participants will also be asked to fill out the same questionnaire a month after the forum.

Presence of decision-makers.

I will also ask faculty and administrators to fill out a series of questionnaires before the forum, after the forum, and a week after the plenary. The questionnaire will ask open-ended questions to measure the administration’s awareness of the forums, the student concerns, and the forum/plenary results; as well as ask for their experience of witnessing the forum. The questionnaire will also ask the administration if they are currently taking any measures to act on these concerns, or if they plan to in the near future.

Significant Media Attention.

This is a more difficult condition to apply, as I cannot see everything that is posted on social media. I will record the amount of times the forum is referenced in the campus newspapers for the next two months, as well as attempt to record the number of shares on the forum posted on social media. As I said earlier, I would consider at least 50 instances of a post on social media, or a mention in a news source to be a significant measure of media attention for a small liberal arts college.

Macro-political uptake.

Two weeks after the plenary, I will pass around questionnaires to students around campus. The questionnaires will be anonymous. They will ask for students’ thoughts on the plenary resolution (did they vote yes/no and why), whether they had heard about the forum, and whether they were interested in participating in deliberative forums in the future for other issues.




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