Catching the deliberative wave

10. June 2020

Citizen participation in political decision-making processes leads to better policies, strengthens democracy and can build trust. This is the conclusion of the report "Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions" by the International Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), published on 10 June 2020.

The report focuses in particular on deliberative processes in citizens' assemblies, which represent a reflection of the population according to criteria such as age, gender, education, place of residence and migration background. These assemblies are part of a broader effort by parliaments and governments to increase citizen participation and become more open to the ideas of informed citizens and "swarm intelligence". It is the first empirical comparative study to analyse how deliberative processes are used for policy-making around the world.

Around 300 processes worldwide

Using data from 289 case studies (282 of which were from OECD countries) collected from 1986 to October 2019, and working with an international advisory group, the OECD identified 12 different models of deliberative processes, examined what a "successful" process entails, developed principles of good practice, and examined three ways to institutionalise deliberative processes.

Institutions around the world and at all levels of government have used some 300 citizens' assemblies, planning cells and other bodies to involve citizens in solving complex policy problems.

Development since the 1980s

The "deliberative wave" has been building since the 1980s and has gained momentum since 2010. Estimates from the OECD suggest that another 30-40 processes are underway or announced after October 2019. Recently, there has been an increasing shift from individual projects to permanent institutions.

This is happening through the creation of new deliberative bodies such as the Citizens' Assembly in East Belgium - 24 randomly selected citizens to influence the political agenda. There are 14 examples - from Austria, Belgium, Canada, Japan, Poland, Spain and the USA - where deliberative processes have been embedded into the processes of policy-making and governance to make them a core part of the way policy decisions are made.

The most common topics

Urban planning (43 examples), health (32), environment (29), strategic planning (26) and infrastructure (26) are the main policy areas for which governments have commissioned deliberative processes.

These issues are particularly important in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, as governments seek to reconcile their greening ambitions with the needs to revitalise their economies and make structural changes. Although these are technical issues, they are driven by values and involve many trade-offs.

Greater legitimacy through deliberation

As governments face increasing pressures around exit strategies, transition measures and long-term questions about our future societies and economies, deliberation processes such as citizens' assemblies could help them make these difficult decisions with greater legitimacy.

The wealth of evidence gathered by experts in the report shows that convening a reflection of society over several days for the purpose of learning, deliberating and developing joint competent recommendations is an effective means of overcoming polarisation and reaching consensus on the thorniest policy issues. This is especially true for issues involving values that require compromise and involve long-term concerns that go beyond short-term thinking in electoral terms.

Example Ireland

For example, the Irish citizens' assembly that addressed issues of same-sex marriage and abortion were important precursors to referendums. They initiated a historic shift on issues that had polarised for decades.

At the time of publication, the COVID-19 Crisis and the Black Lives Matter protests are the standout events of 2020 so far. Their complexity cannot be summarised here, but in many ways they are catalysts for accelerating a rethinking of our democratic institutions to make them more inclusive, effective, collaborative and deliberative.

Inspiring long-term change

The examples explored by experts in the OECD report are intended to offer some suggestions for long-term changes in governance that would enable a wide variety of citizens to play a meaningful role in setting the political agenda and shaping policy over time.

More information: OECD report "Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions"