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.

Research Brief: Information Sources on Climate Change

In 2012, Alberta Climate Dialogue collaborated with the City of Edmonton and the Centre for Public Involvement to hold a six-day citizen deliberation on energy transition and climate change. Research is continuing to emerge on the process and its influence.

This latest output examines sources of information that those recruited to the deliberation used in forming opinions about climate change. “Information Sources on Climate Change” is co-authored by ABCD member Dr. Shelley Boulianne and Lyndsay Hobbes.

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Research Brief: Citizen Perceptions of the Efficacy of Deliberative Exercises

This new ABCD Research Brief compares survey results from two deliberations:

  • The Citizens’ Panel on Edmonton’s Energy and Climate Challenges (2012), which brought together 56 diverse Edmontonians for six days of face to face deliberation.
  • Energy Efficiency Choices (2013), a larger, virtual deliberation in which Albertans from across the province could participate online or by telephone.

TheResearch Brief compares participants’ views about the validity of the deliberative process, whether the government should and will adopt the policy recommendations, and participant willingness to take part in future deliberative projects. “Citizen Perceptions of the  Efficacy of Deliberative Exercises” is co-authored by ABCD member Dr. Shelley Boulianne and Mikael Hellstrom.

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Research Brief: Deliberative Democracy and the Persistent Hope for Citizen Empowerment

In 2012, Alberta Climate Dialogue collaborated with the City of Edmonton and the Centre for Public Involvement to hold a six-day citizen deliberation on energy transition and climate change. Research is continuing to emerge on the process and its influence.

The latest output connects this deliberation with a wider analysis of deliberative democracy and its impact. It is entitled “Deliberative Democracy and the Persistent Hope for Citizen Empowerment” and is by ABCD member Genevieve Fuji Johnson of Simon Fraser University.

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Research Brief: Degree of Deliberativeness— The Case of the Energy Efficiency Choices Project

In 2013, Alberta Climate Dialogue collaborated with the Alberta Energy Efficiency Alliance to hold Energy Efficiency Choices, an Alberta-wide virtual deliberation on energy efficiency funding and regulation. Research is continuing to emerge on the process and its influence.

The latest output is a Research Brief on “Degree of Deliberativeness–The Case of the Energy Efficiency Choices Project” by Mikael Hellstrom and Shelley Boulianne. These preliminary research results will form the basis for a longer paper. The authors welcome input.

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