Minipublics - deepening public participation in democratic decision making

We talked with Innovation Fellow Martin King about his work on minipublics - citizen assemblies, citizen juries and online deliberation.

Tell us about what you are working on for the Centre for Digital Citizens.

My research focuses on democratic innovations. These are practical efforts to deepen public participation in decision making. My work looks at two types of approach, deliberative minipublics (e.g citizen juries, citizen assemblies) and online deliberation.

The deliberative minipublic approach involves recruiting a representative microcosm of the population (a minipublic) and providing them with time and expert support to debate complex policy problems and reach recommendations. Citizen assemblies are one of the most celebrated examples of this approach, with an increasing number of applications at both local, national and international levels. My research has included an evaluation of North of Tyne Combined Authority’s Citizen Assembly on Climate Change, research exploring organisational capacity to respond to citizen input, and further work exploring how the practice of citizen assemblies changed during the pandemic as face-to-face processes moved online, and the potential application of technology to enhance the deliberative process.

Online deliberation is the study of the application of ICT to support a deliberative conception of democratic engagement. This includes the development and evaluation of online deliberation platforms that seek to support high-quality, large-scale deliberation. Civic tech has generated a wide range of tools and platforms intended to support participatory and deliberative processes, and it is not always clear how policymakers should make sense of this field and identify how these processes might support public engagement. I am working with policymakers and practitioners in exploring this field and developing a taxonomy of these tools and platforms to support decision-making.

How did you get involved with Citizen Assemblies?

My initial interest was in the work of Habermas and deliberative democratic theory as a way of thinking about collective decision-making and issues of democratic legitimacy and collective intelligence. Deliberative theory is an approach to understanding democratic legitimacy that emphasises the virtues of citizen participation in decision-making through inclusive, rational discourse. In the 1980s there was a “deliberative turn” in democratic theory. This resulted in deliberative conceptualisations of democracy being influential in subsequent developments in this field, including innovations in democratic practice.

A recent OECD report in 2020 described a “deliberative wave”, observing how governments are increasingly turning to deliberative democratic innovations to tackle complex policy problems. While there are many other examples of deliberative democratic innovations, and other examples of deliberative minipublics (e.g deliberative polls and citizen juries), citizen assemblies are arguably the most celebrated and commonly practiced example. The increased interest and applications of Citizen Assemblies creates a really useful opportunity to explore deliberative processes in practice.

What are you hoping to explore through this research?

In general, I am interested in how we support better quality democratic engagement and how policymaking can usefully draw on the knowledge and expertise of a wider and more diverse group of citizens. Through this research I am hoping to explore the potential of democratic innovations and technology to support these efforts. Some of the issues I am particularly interested in addressing through this research are:

  • Rethinking what we mean by participation and developing a better understanding of the conditions under which participation and deliberative engagement generate better outcomes. This includes the different varieties of participation and how these map onto the engagement methods and the approaches of different platforms and tools.
  • Participatory governance and the connection between deliberative democratic processes and decision-making organisations.
  • The connection between deliberative processes and the wider public sphere, especially the implications of technology for more inclusive, scalable and sustainable forms of deliberative engagement.

Why do you think Citizen Assemblies are a useful area to research?

Citizen assemblies engage with fundamental issues concerning collective decision-making and democratic legitimacy. The promise of citizen assemblies is that they offer an innovative approach to addressing complex policy problems in a way that is democratically legitimate and better informed by the expertise and preferences of the public.

In practice, citizen assemblies have encountered many interesting challenges in realizing these ambitions, surfacing issues relating to the design and delivery of assemblies, how they connect to the wider public sphere, and how they connect to decision-making organisations.

How does this work feed into the wider themes of the Centre for Digital Citizens?

The Centre for Digital Citizens presents its broad mission as helping citizens to embrace the digital and taking an inclusive, participatory approach to the design and evaluation of new technologies.

My research into democratic innovations aims to better understand what it means to meaningfully engage citizens in decision-making and consider the complexities of inclusion and participation in practice. It considers developments in technology both as a subject of deliberative democratic decision-making and also as a means to potentially enhance the quality of deliberative democratic processes. My research is perhaps most closely aligned with the Connected Citizen theme but the wider themes cut across the other theme areas.

What are the future plans for the research?

There has been a lot of interest in deliberative engagement methods among governments and public services. These projects present an opportunity to practically explore the potential of developments in civic tech and online deliberation to support deliberative minipublics or alternatively there capacity to independently support public participation in decision-making and collective action.

We are currently working on a project exploring how policymakers might navigate these methods and identify potentially useful approaches. This research could be further developed through practical application and evaluation of these methods, generating more insight around issues of inclusivity, quality of deliberation and contexts of application. This may be useful in broadening out the range of democratic innovations that are considered by policymakers, and supporting better decision-making in this area and higher quality and more impactful engagement.