Participatory democracy & THE PUBLIC SECTOR: IDEAS AND Q&A

The 'Participatory Democracy - Exploring Experiences' session at the IPAA Public Sector Week 2017 featured active, experiential learning and an interactive discussion with a group of diverse panellists. 

Attendees experienced a mini, deliberative discussion, answering the question: 'what are the biggest challenges facing the public sector when it comes to gaining trust in the community?'.   The group then engaged in an energetic Q&A with the panel which included specialist consultants and public sector representatives with extensive experience in using deliberative engagement to help tackle major public policy challenges .

Facilitated by MosaicLab, the workshop saw great ideas generated and invaluable knowledge shared.  The discussion was relevant to anyone working in the public sector (and beyond), so, today we're sharing a snapshot of the ideas generated and a summary of the Q&A discussion - a fabulous, free resource for anyone interested in quality engagement or participatory processes. 


The infographic below summarises what participants felt are biggest challenges the public sector is facing when it comes to gaining trust in the community, and highlights some ideas for improving community trust into the future.




Representing a range of different perspectives, the panelists provided useful, practical, candid and insightful responses to some excellent questions from the participants - questions we're sure many others across the public sector are seeking answers to. 

Thank you to all of our panelists, who have kindly contributed to the below summary of questions and answers from the event.

Panellists were: 

How expensive is a deliberative process? 

A deliberative process can require a bigger investment than other engagement approaches, as principles of deliberation include selecting participants through a random sampling process, providing them with detailed, in-depth information from multiple sources, and allowing them ample time to consider and weigh up various ideas and options.   

Each deliberative process (or engagement process containing some deliberative aspects), will be different, and could cost anywhere between $25,000 - $280,000.   However, while the investment might be high, the return is also high (high cost-high value result rather than medium/high cost-low value result).

How long does a deliberative process take?

The process itself (i.e. the face to face deliberations) overall don’t take a long time, but there is a lot of background work from the organisation’s end. On average, you would conduct approximately 4-5 meetings, with each meeting spaced 3 weeks apart (this allows participants time to reflect and analyse the information they receive in the workshops). 

Preparations for a deliberative process do take some time.  The organisation needs to complete a background paper/report, there’s information inputs to prepare (information preparation can take several months), and the recruitment process for the panelists/jurors/participants takes a minimum of 45 days. 

When/where should we get experts in?

It’s important to note that experts can offer independent scrutiny on the process and are able to ensure integrity. It is also important to make sure you have the right people doing the right elements and whilst you and your engagement team might be capable of these tasks, it is always important to have independence in highly contentious topics. 

Facilitation and recruitment are two areas that need to be outsourced, as not only are these specialised tasks, they also require independence.  However, your organisation plays a big role in the process, particularly in terms of internal engagement and preparation (which needs to occur before you go out to engage).   You can prepare your team for a deliberative process by familiarising them with deliberation principles, observing other deliberative processes and participating in training opportunities. 

How do you capture and track all the data and outputs?

Facilitators support the group to work through a series of activities that encourage participants to discuss options and ideas, then test and prioritise these ideas in response to the remit before they themselves begin to write the report using a shared online document (i.e. Google Docs). 

This report is then printed for the participants to reflect on and edit themselves before it is handed to the decision makers at the end of the process. 

The ultimate data output is this report, although along the way the facilitators are constantly collecting and tracking data and outputs as these are generally kept and continually refined or sorted prior to report writing commencing.

How do you ensure diversity in your jury/panel – especially when hard to reach/ alienated people may be less likely to participate due to issues such as location and poverty?

It’s important to engage a recruitment specialist. These specialists have processes and research methodologies that allows them to recruit a room full of people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

When we recruit we ask people who register to answer a set of questions, which include  questions like does the person rent, or own their own home?   These kind of questions, although not perfect,  help to indicate (for example) people’s socioeconomic status and feed into the stratification process. 

It is also important to offer people compensation for attending the jury days ($120-140 per day) as this will help to encourage those who wouldn’t otherwise sign up due to financial strain (such as single mothers, those on disability support etc.) to do so. 

What happens if the issue is extremely polarised? Can you still engage?

If people have very polarised views it is still possible to engage, however, it is important to have a diverse range of voices in the room.  You want not only representatives of each side in the room, but also those occupying the middle ground.  These people help to balance and mediate the deliberation, and this is where random selection is useful. 

There are issues that don’t lend themselves to deliberation, and these are issues that most people feel strongly about on an almost purely moral basis.  

It’s difficult to deliberate when there’s no possibility of any movement due to a deep, moral ‘knowing’, and everyone is on one side or the other based on moral judgements and their inner-most, immovable values.  The key test is ‘could you potentially change your mind if you were given more information?’.  If the answer is ‘no’ for nearly anyone when it comes to that issue, then you can see that a moral value or judgement is at play and deliberation and dialogue processes will not change the discussion parameters.


What happens when decision makers ignore community output from the process?

It is critical to get high level support early from your leaders or decision makers. Much of the work you need to undertake is internal – and this needs to happen well before you commence the deliberative process itself. 

It’s also important to be clear – is this is the only input into the decision, or is this part of a larger consultation/ multiple inputs?  Your participants need to know.  Be very transparent about their purpose/task (known as a remit), and about the promise being made to them in terms of their influence over the outcome. 

If the promise has been made public (and it is generally printed on the thousands of random invitations that go out in black and white), it is very difficult for decision makers to renege– at least without looking silly.

Every recommendation made by a jury or panel is not always implemented.  Where this is the case it is the responsibility of the decision maker/s to respond to the group in an open way and explain why recommendations have been implemented and why not. 

How do you address the issue of the community not knowing about the deliberative process and therefore not understanding how the decision was made?

Telling the story of the process is critical to its success.  There is little point in having a representative group of citizens deliberating if the community they are representing doesn’t know they are being represented. 

A strategic communications effort is required.  This gap between the jury process and the community’s understanding can be overcome by activities such as:

  • filming and photographing the process and sharing these visual stories widely,

  • using a range of communication platforms to raise awareness about the process

  • engaging the media and inviting media representatives to attend and observe sessions,

  • opening up deliberations to observers – anyone can register to attend a session,

  • having your jurors or panelists talk to journalists directly or interviewing them and sharing the interviews.

Social media communication avenues are also worth capitalising on.  It is important to help the jury/panel members themselves tell the story of the process as it unfolds, whilst refraining from forecasting any recommendations from their collective until the very end of the process.

What is the difference between an advisory group and a jury?

An advisory group occurs in the background whereas a jury is a very public facing consultation process.  An advisory group does not necessarily work to deliberative principles (although if well set up and facilitated, they can), and often has a diverse, ongoing role. 

Juries or panels have a clear, definitive and time-bound ‘remit’ or task and their deliberations take place in a very transparent, public manner. They comprise randomly selected members (where advisory groups are usually appointed via different processes such as an EOI process and comprise those with an active interest in the subject).

When should we consider a deliberative process?

Deliberation is appropriate when:

  • there are polarised opinions across the broader community you are engaging with (i.e. issues where everyone has a view),

  • it is not a ‘large’ and highly emotional outrage situation (where there is high levels of outrage, this needs to be addressed in a different way before a deliberative process begins),

  • Where the issue is complex, ‘wicked’, or difficult to resolve i.e. there is no ONE right answer,

  • Where the organisation can’t easily identify the best option, or where there will be strong opposition to any options available,

  • A data rich topic where there are budgets, reports and nuance,

  • Where solutions will likely fail the ‘headline test’ if announced in the usual way, and public trust will benefit from everyday people explaining a hard trade-off decision,

  • where government is open to any answer to the given problem.

How do you balance strong, polarised opinions and ensure emotions and bias don't take over?

During the process, facilitators help the participants to develop their critical thinking skills and challenge them to test and interrogate inputs and evidence.    We also help them to become aware of their own biases and the biases of others. 

Participants are encouraged to question what was presented to them and reflect on inputs in between meetings, rather than being asked to give a rapid response, or immediate, final answer or opinion.

This is also assisted by random selection and ensuring diverse perspectives are brought into the room, as mentioned in answers above. Finally, processes work by using small groups of 4-6 people, with the groups mixed every few hours to prevent 'factionalising' and build stronger relationships that help participants appreciate and subsequently hear alternate views.



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