There’s more to deliberative democracy than deliberative polling

January 12, 2010


John Parkinson is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of York, specialising in democratic theory and comparative democratic institutions. In a previous life he was a facilitator, internal communications and public relations consultant. The opinions expressed are his own.

Last weekend 200 randomly-selected citizens got together in London for a “deliberative poll” to sort through ideas for transforming British democracy. Judging by the organizers’ blog – at – the participants were blown away by the experience, as ordinary people always are when they take part in serious discussion on big political questions. It’s brilliant stuff to be part of, and there should be more like it, I think.

However, there is more – much more – to “deliberative democracy” than deliberative polling.

What is deliberative democracy? There are several versions, but what all the versions share is the idea that democracy should be based not just on votes but public debate as well; not the power of big business, big interest groups and political parties, but the power of the “better argument”. Good arguments come from being inclusive: you need all sorts of people involved otherwise you only take account of a small range of perspectives, interests and experiences. And being inclusive like this makes for better citizens: the more we practice self-government, the better we get at it, and the less persuasive are patronising claims about the ignorance of ordinary people.

As a political theory, deliberative democracy has been around for a while now. It’s 30 years since a young American academic called Joseph Bessette coined the term, but he was talking about the deliberation that went on among elected representatives in the U.S. Congress.

Most democracy theorists latched onto the term 20 years ago, with some, most notably Jürgen Habermas, using it as a theory that better explained how democratic societies work: how large-scale public debate is generated, and how arguments move from the kitchen table to parliament and back again.

Others, like deliberative poll designer James Fishkin, used it to advocate consultative techniques like citizens’ juries, consensus conferences, participatory budgeting and many, many more ideas, some of which have been around since at least the 1970s. Hundreds of relatively small-scale deliberative experiments were run in Britain in the mid-1990s.

That brings me to the deliberative poll idea. To me, it’s biggest strength is that it demonstrates that ordinary people have the capacity to engage seriously with complex issues, and that with a bit of information and deliberation, their knee-jerk reactions to issues change into reflective, informed ones. Fishkin is to be applauded as one of the few political theorists to put their money where their mouth is, and has helped push deliberative ideas up the political agenda in many countries.

However, his method is an odd beast. It starts with a poll to measure existing opinion on a range of topics, creates a range of formal and informal deliberative opportunities in large groups and small, and then runs the poll again to see what’s changed. However, deliberation does not merely change opinion on pre-existing questions: it can change our opinions on what questions are important in the first place; it can throw up entirely new ideas.

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