Participant Experiences Under Constrained Deliberative Conditions

Alberta Climate Dialogue Working Paper by Lindsay Hobbs - October 2013

This paper seeks to understand the ways in which deliberators are affected by the features of deliberative democracy that emerge under the constraints of practice, and that often differentiate practical exercises
from various deliberative democratic theories and ideals. Deliberative democracy is based upon an ideal of reasonable and logical argumentation, in the absence of rhetoric, coercion, and power imbalances. In practice, it is almost impossible and perhaps undesirable to replicate this ideal, as exclusionary design processes (Barnes, Newman, Knops and Sullivan 2003), activism and advocacy biases (Young 2001), “hidden” dialogues and constrained public contexts (Eliasoph 1996), and practices such as voting and consensus arise in response to practical and political constraints and the need for tangible outcomes.

In this study, observations and participant journals assisted in highlighting aspects of the Citizens’ Panel on Edmonton’s Energy and Climate Challenges that diverged from the ideals of deliberative theory, and how designers’ negotiations of the existing practical constraints and tensions affected participants’ experiences.

The development of the Citizens’ Panel was informed by theories of deliberative democracy as well as extensive and diverse practices of citizen participation. Significant efforts were made to establish an
effective environment for meaningful deliberation, and a space that was inclusive, open to new ideas, and connected to political realities and decision-making opportunities. Recruitment efforts endeavored to engage a demographically representative sample of Edmontonians, experienced facilitators provided guidance as well as training to others on how to encourage dialogue and autonomous decision-making, written materials and expert knowledge aimed to minimize bias, and activities and discussions attempted to create space for a diverse array of perspectives. The extensive efforts, research, expertise, and funds that went into the creation of this event led to it being an exemplary setting for an analysis of the constraints of deliberative democracy in practice, and how these limitations impacted deliberators.

The results of this study highlight how aspects of the design, process, and execution hindered or enhanced the potential for meaningful dialogue and deliberative outcomes. This research also reasserts the inevitability of a less than ideal deliberative context in practice, and emphasizes instances of both negative and positive participant experiences under these realistic conditions.