Deliberative democracy and systems change: reflections from a Montreal workshop

In the months leading up to our big ABCD workshop in Edmonton (covered by a number of recent blog posts) we held two ‘Satellite Workshops’: one in London with Involve and the other in Montreal. Here are some reflections on the Montreal workshop (with apologies for the delay — we’ve been busy here!)

The Montreal workshop, held on July 20 2014, piggybacked on participants’ travel to an excellent two-day IPSA workshop. Our own half-day workshop was hosted by David Kahane and attended by Simon Burall, Jason Chilvers, Jacquie Dale, Genevieve Fuji Johnson, Carolyn LukensmeyerMary Pat MacKinnon, and Daniel Weinstock. Our engagement with questions of deliberative democracy and systems change was based on two more specific questions. Jacquie and Mary Pat helped to harvest the following notes:

What are we learning about deliberative processes on climate change?

  • Framing around climate change is environmental, but the impact is economic. As Simon noted, citizens have a hard time connecting with environmental framings; energy or transportation seems more accessible; moreover, climate change can be the wrong frame for policy holders. Jason pointed to the unusual dominance, in the climate domain, of scientific framing; he pointed to Mike Hulme’s work on the need to reframe to include human dimensions, but also to challenges of the multi-scalar quality of the issue.
  • Carolyn added that in the experience of AmericaSpeaks, climate advocacy groups did not see citizen deliberation as valuable to their work, which made it difficult to secure funding for climate deliberation projects.
  • Jason noted that we need to look at the “ecology for deliberation” – what’s going on in the full system, not just in the invited processes led by governments. These ecologies can be mapped, showing how different groups, including citizens, see the issue and ways forward; overlaying maps shows areas of congruence/divergence. This process was used in Europe to look at geo-engineering responses to climate change.
  • Carolyn suggested that we need both thick and thin deliberation: usually that means start with thick and use it to inspire the thin. She cited the ‘Creating Community Solutions‘ mental health dialogue as an example of this trajectory.

What are our observations on the determinants of political influence?

  • Jason suggested that we need to look at influence within a systems perspective that includes both inside and outside processes, e.g. invited processes that feed directly into policy process and ‘uninvited’ or DIY processes that contribute to community building, awareness and mobilization.
  • Daniel spoke to the need to get beyond citizen-only processes, connecting citizen dialogue strategically to other forces in the community and other processes. In Jason’s terms, we need to strategically join up plurality. David pointed in particular to the need to connect ‘stakeholder’ and ‘citizen’ processes, as discussed in a recent article.
  • As Jason remarked, a critical factor is how well institutions listen, which, as Genevieve noted, is often politically motivated. Simon talked about work Involve is doing to identify institutional readiness to engage with deliberation processes and outcomes — a kind of ‘Myers-Briggs’ for institutions.
  • There was a lively debate about what dialogue and deliberation results matter most to policy-makers and most influence them — their interest can be in understanding citizen values and how citizens apply them; understanding citizen perspectives on key trade offs; seeing whether citizens are willing to bear greater costs associated with the policies they favour; and so on.

A number of points about deliberative democracy and systems change emerged, including the following:

  1. Carolyn affirmed that we need an accurate analysis of the real political (systemic) forces on an issue, and the existing organization infrastructure that can be brought into play. (She mentioned the last chapter of her recent book as laying out seven key preconditions for deliberative democratic work.)
  2. Genevieve remarked on the turn from comprehensive accounts like Habermas’ to a decreased focus on the normative and a preoccupation with one-off events. We need to turn back to systems thinking.
  3. Simon noted that we live with real world funding realities and other constraints. We need to be practical and look for the available levers that can have most impact.
  4. Finally, Carolyn and others reminded us that deliberative democracy as a field of theory and practice is only 30 years old. We need to value the practice and learning that has been built — engaging critically, but being reasonable in expectations of systemic impact that we load onto ourselves.

Here are two short YouTube videos with further reflection on the workshop from Carolyn Lukensmeyer and Simon Burall.

The Montreal satellite workshop set up themes that became key at October’s Edmonton workshop. These are being carried forward in ABCD, including in a project being planned by David Kahane and Matt Leighninger. Moreover, these themes are strikingly present in the work of the Energy Futures Lab, an emerging project represented at the Edmonton workshop by Pong Leung and Delyse Sylvester of The Natural Step, who are connecting their work with ABCD’s learning.

David Kahane is Project Director of Alberta Climate Dialogue and a Professor of Political Science at the University of Alberta.

Reflection from Gwen Blue on National Conference on Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD)



Gwendolyn Blue is an Assistant Professor of Geography at University of Calgary. She was the ABCD lead in convening the “Water in a Changing Climate” deliberation.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in the National Coalition on Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) conference, held in Reston, Virginia from Oct. 17 – 19, 2014. This is a remarkable and energizing conference, for many reasons. I highly recommend that those who are interested in dialogue and deliberation attend at least one NCDD conference.

One of the take home messages I have received from NCDD, as well as from my experiences with ABCD overall, is the need to build capacity in dialogue and deliberation. One viable and vital contribution of public deliberation is that it can lead to substantive outcomes for policy. By bringing in a diverse range of people and perspectives, problems can be addressed in a potentially new light, leading to innovative outcomes that otherwise may not have taken shape. In order for this to happen, the people involved – including organizers, facilitators, note takers, and citizen participants – need to have requisite skills. These include, but are not limited to, the ability to learn from alternative perspectives, to examine factual evidence in light of existing values and normative commitments, and to wrestle with conflicting values and trade – offs. These skills do not just appear on demand; rather, they require ongoing training and practice.

In his working paper ‘Beginning with the end in mind’[1], Martín Carcasson distinguishes first, second and third order goals of deliberation. First order goals refer to issue learning and skill development; second order refer to improved community action and institutional decision making; and third order refer to improved community problem solving. As Carcasson cautions, “first-order goals should not be considered mere side effects on the way to action, but are critical in their own right.”[2]

At NCDD, I attended two sessions that illustrated how such capacity building can be developed and sustained: “The Deliberative Facilitator: Developing Theory and Practice” run by Martín Carcasson and “Training small group facilitators and notetakers: Building and Sharing Capacity” run by ABCD practitioners Jacquie Dale, Susanno Haas Lyon and Mary Pat MacKinnon. Both sessions raised awareness of the inevitable tensions and difficulties that arise in deliberative fora, and the need for sustained discussion about and practice with how to manage these tensions in practical situations. These were just a few of the numerous sessions that explored how to build capacity in dialogue and deliberation.

A particularly vibrant group at the conference revolved around building capacity for deliberative democracy at university and college levels. I hope to learn more from these groups in the future, particularly as universities have an important role to play in fostering skills in dialogue and deliberation for the next generation of democratic citizens.

[1] Carcasson, M. 2009. Beginning with the end in mind: A call for goal driven deliberative practice (pdf). Center for Advances in Public Engagement. Occasional Paper.

[2] Ibid, p. 3

Final Report: Water in a Changing Climate

Attached is the summary & synthesis of our third deliberation, “Water in a Changing Climate,” conducted in partnership with the University of Calgary and the Oldman Watershed Council on February 22, 2014.

The Deliberation highlighted five key areas of concern around water and climate change: land use pressures, environmental & public health, extreme weather events, governance, and social justice & responsibility. The panel also highlighted the importance of eduction, information and communication, and the significance and challenge of fostering collective responsibility for environmental protection. Finally, five central values were articulated: a healthy environment, education, public safety, stewardship, and collective responsibility.

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ABCD Roundtable at Under Western Skies

This recap was written by ABCD Research Assistant Geoff Salomons, a 3rd year PhD student from the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta.

If you are want maximum turnout for a conference panel, don’t schedule it during an unprecedented beginning of September snowfall. Four ABCD researchers presented at the Under the Western Skies Conference in Calgary on September 10, 2014, under just these conditions. Nevertheless, those who managed to get through the snow and traffic had a thoughtful and engaging discussion about deliberation on climate change in Alberta.

Several themes stood out.

First, the relationship between facts and values in deliberative settings. On the one hand, deliberative democracy argues that talk-based collective decision making allows participants to be more informed about complex issues than aggregative models. However, the complexity of an issue like climate change and the short duration of the deliberative mini-publics conducted by ABCD meant that we had to rely quite strongly on expert presentations. This may have compromised our inclusion of alternative perspectives (this alongside the fact that the Edmonton Citizens’ Panel deliberately recruited participants for attitudinal diversity). The framing of some information presented to participants as “fact” depoliticized the value systems that give those facts meaning and authority.

A second major theme concerned realistic expectations of deliberative mini-publics. Kristjana’s presentation highlighted the fact that many participants didn’t alter their own positions, especially those convinced that more advocacy and protest was needed to address the climate challenge. Lorelei admitted she was skeptical of these processes. Geoff then said he remains a “deliberative optimist” but that the expectations of deliberative processes, especially mini-publics with a short duration, should be evaluated with realistic expectations. In particular, deliberative processes should be evaluated against a specific alternative – typically aggregative electoral democracy marked by the strong influence from special interests. Deliberative mini-publics might help us move a step closer to solving the climate challenge compared with the status quo, but it is unlikely to overcome all of the various complex and systemic political dynamics that go into such a “wicked problem”.

UWS Panel 2
The ABCD panelists remained to listen to that morning’s keynote address by Patty Limerick, Faculty Director of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado. She began her talk by presenting a thesis: that we get further with collaboration than we do with advocacy. Her talk then traced her work in the state of Colorado dealing with public engagement processes around the contentious issue of fracking. After concluding our own panel on a somewhat skeptical note, Patty Limerick’s talk reignited our own interest and optimism for the work that ABCD is doing. Our hope is to now turn that experience into a book chapter for an Under the Western Skies conference volume.

ABCD Roundtable at Under Western Skies conference

Four ABCD members will present research in progress at Under Western Skies in Calgary on September 10, 2014 from 9:00-10:30. The Roundtable on “Citizen Involvement and Climate Politics: Alberta Experiments” will feature:

  • Geoff Salomons (Political Science, University of Alberta), “‘Gaming the system’? Public Participation Processes in Canada” Geoff chaired the panel and introduced both ABCD and the three major deliberative events that ABCD put on in the past couple years: the Edmonton Citizens’ Panel on Climate and Energy Challenges, the online Energy Efficiency Discussions, and the Oldman Watershed Deliberation on Climate Adaptation. He also provided a brief context about the hostility towards environmental concerns within Canada and Alberta in particular.
  • Gwendolyn Blue (Geography, University of Calgary), “Democratization or De-politicization? Reflections on Convening Deliberative Forums on Climate Change in a Neoliberal State” As questions began, panelist Gwendolyn Blue finally arrived and gave a brief summary of a paper she has written and is currently under review. Her presentation raised questions about the way in which climate change is often unquestioningly framed as a scientific issue primarily concerned with greenhouse gas reduction.
  • Lorelei Hanson (Environmental Studies, Athabasca University), “Perceptions on Constructing an Effective Citizen Deliberation on Energy Reduction and Climate Change.” Lorelei presented some preliminary results from research she conducted on the Edmonton deliberation with 10 individuals who played a role in the design and delivery of the citizen deliberation. She examined some key parameters of the deliberation: the subject under discussion; information provided; connection to authoritative decision makers; substantive outcome; and real world conditions.
  • Kristjana Loptson (Political Science, University of Alberta), “Survey-based Learning about How Participants were Changed by the Deliberative Experience” Kristjana presented some preliminary findings of a research paper on deliberation, political engagement and citizenship norms among participants of the three ABCD deliberations. The presentation compared participants’ perceptions of “good citizenship” before and after deliberation. It also compared citizenship norms between the three groups of participants and found some interesting differences, which will be explored further in a full paper.

If you’re at Under Western Skies, please come along!