It is easy to get depressed about the state of global democracy these days, isn’t it? The rise of right-wing demagogues, the stifling of the media, the continued dysfunction of state institutions. Our headlines seem to be about nothing else. But the recent Deliberative Democracy Institute (DDI) at the Kettering Foundation filled me with hope about the future of participatory government. By Blair Glencorse

Yes, there are challenges everywhere, but there are also incredible people at the grassroots levels in communities – from Fiji to Brazil, and from Romania to Kenya – doing what is needed to support deliberation and collective decision-making from the bottom-up. The DDI filled me with renewed hope and reinforced 5 key ideas for me that are critical if we are to work together to push for deliberative democracy everywhere.

  1. Division can often stem from shared goals – but emerges in the way people understand the paths to reach those goals. Take the divergent views on gun control in the US, for example. Both sides of the debate ultimately want to ensure safety, but have very different views of how this should happen. Or the economy – one side might support tariffs and the other free trade, but the goal is the same – greater prosperity. The key, therefore, is to find the area of common agreement – such as safety or prosperity – and use this as the basis for a conversation about commonalities and possible ways forward. In Dayton, so many of the participants were putting this into practice in their daily lives- through community groups, religious institutions and schools. These efforts are often under the radar- they don’t always garner the media attention that a racist tweet from a President generates – but they are a critical tool to push back against that kind of behaviour.
  2. People are not apathetic – they are just not always into what it is that you are asking them to do. We bemoan low voter turnout and lack of engagement in communities but I was reminded by our friends at the Kettering Foundation that everyone cares deeply about something- the key is finding a way to engage them using means they appreciate, with language they understand, and with people they trust. And there are so many incredible ways that the DDI participants are doing this- from working with communities to respond to disasters, to developing new civic tech tools, to monitoring budgets and mobilizing political campaigns. In our work at the Accountability Lab, we’ve also found that the arts, music and film are a fantastic way to tap into the creativity of young people in particular, to support positive social change.
  3. Resources always exist to solve problems – it is a question of rethinking what these resources are within communities. We too often leap to conclusions about needs and gaps, without fully appreciating the assets that can be built-upon. We need to flip the narrative from one that tends to begin (certainly in international development) from a “needs assessment” to one that begins with an “asset mapping”. Most of the time these assets are not financial- they are social (ideas or networks); physical (natural resources or infrastructure); institutional (such as religious organizations or NGOs); and intellectual (trust or vision). If these assets can be identified- and brought together in new ways- no challenge is insurmountable. We heard about so many ways that the members of the DDI network are using assets like these- from Kenyan-Somali disability rights leaders to Israeli peace activists. Deliberative democracy requires building on what exists.
  4. Deliberation is not a straight line, it is circular – at every step of the deliberative process, care needs to be taken to ensure real time learning and flexibility as discussions evolve. Naming a problem is critical at the outset, for example, because language and wording are so central to the ways that issues are understood in relation to power- and the “how, who and when” of potential solutions. But naming is not just the 1st step of the deliberative process, it has to be ongoing and constant- both because new problems will emerge continually that also require naming, and because over time the understanding of language changes. The process of framing, gathering and grouping concerns, developing options and prioritizing actions- these can be sequential, but will also need to be adapted as the process itself evolves. In this way deliberation involves double-loop learning- an understanding that the way a problem is defined and solved can be a source of the problem itself.
  5. We need to avoid “check-box” outcomes – where the process becomes a technical way to appease those that deserve a voice without actually engaging them in a meaningful conversation about their issues. At the Accountability Lab, we work in several countries where tools like social audits and citizen scorecards have become legal requirements for development projects- but they remain technical tools which those in power use to check the right boxes, not political tools that can be used to fundamentally change power dynamics or decision-making. Real, deliberative democracy requires the development of feedback loops between communities and power-holders, to generate shared bases of understanding, more informed choices, and decisions that are communicated back to people. At the DDI, I heard about the incredible work my fellow participants are doing to ensure truly meaningful feedback from citizens all over the world. As we were reminded, citizenship is not a legal status, but a practice- it refers to the work each of us does every day to improve our communities.

Blair Glencorse is Executive Director of the Accountability Lab; and was a participant in the Kettering Foundation Deliberative Democracy Institute in July 2019.