A Reasoning Community Perspective on Deliberative Democracy

A Reasoning Community Perspective on Deliberative Democracy

John Yearwood (Federation University, Australia) and Andrew Stranieri (University of Ballarat, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-091-4.ch006
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Abstract

This chapter describes some of the current approaches to deliberative democracy and then considers them from the perspective of a reasoning community framework. This approach highlights important tasks, processes and structures that can be used to enhance the processes of groups engaging in deliberative democracy approaches. In particular it focuses attention on the potential for technologies to support groups in achieving broad agreed structured reasoning bases that capture the scope of an issue from multiple perspectives.
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Introduction

Initiatives toward the advancement of electronic democracy do more than provide fora for deliberative democracy. Organizations such as The World Legal Information Institute (WorldLII) is a free, independent and non-profit collaboration of a number of institutes dedicated to the provision of free access to public legal information throughout the world Worldlii (2007). They receive the text of judgments and statutes on a daily basis from thousands of courts and parliaments worldwide. Within a very short time frame, the text is automatically processed and uploaded to the relevant databases making the documents freely available to any Internet user. Combine this with initiatives to ensure that advanced communication technologies are readily accessible to all citizens and there is the capacity for a well-informed citizenry with the capacity to deliberate on issues in a way that has not been historically possible. This chapter looks at some of the structural, organizational and group elements that need to be considered in enabling effective deliberative democracy and the reasoning community framework perspective on these.

Deliberative democracy, first coined by Bessette (1994) combines elements of representative democracy with direct democracy by advocating some form of public deliberation about issues in decision-making debates. An example of this kind of democracy can be seen in the deliberative opinion poll model advanced by Fishkin, (1991). James Fishkin developed the concept of Deliberative Polling, which uses television and public opinion research to help members of a reasoning community in understanding an issue that has direct relevance in their lives. Whilst this method does not involve computing technology at all, it does provide evidence to support the notion that reasoning by a group differs from individual reasoning and that benefits for the public can be accrued by better informing citizens and involving them in the decision-making process.

The first step in the Deliberative Polling process is to form a representative sample of the wider community, usually by random sampling. Members of this group are polled on the targeted issues. Following the initial poll, the members are invited to gather at a single venue for a weekend in order to discuss the issues. A set of briefing materials is sent to the participants and is also made publicly available. The participants form small discussion groups and, with the assistance of a trained moderator, engage in dialogue with competing experts and political leaders. These events are either taped and edited or are broadcast on live television. After the deliberations, the sample revisits the original questions and any changes in opinion are noted.

Deliberative polling experiments have been conducted in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and Denmark, with samples ranging in size from 200 to 466. Such sample sizes have two main benefits. Firstly, they are large enough to include a representative sample of the wider population and hence to return reliable results from statistical analysis. Secondly, they are small enough to enable the process of face-to-face, synchronous discussions. The results from these experiments indicate that the process proved to be especially suitable for issues where the public had little background knowledge of an issue. More importantly, the process had a significant impact on people's understanding of the issues, which resulted in significant proportions of the samples changing their decisions. Thus the process is very useful for the fact-finding phase of reasoning. However, the process requires synchronous and collocated participation, and it is limited in the number of participants that it can accommodate. These drawbacks are overcome by use of web-based technologies.

A key feature of Deliberative Polling is that a representative sample of participants is used for deliberating and ultimately voting on an issue. The deliberations and voting outcomes provide valuable insights, but do not supplant representative decision making. Many initiatives similar to or inspired by deliberative opinion polls have been established in a number of countries. The sites vary according to their support for deliberation. For example, electronic petitions sites are a type of opinion poll where participants can signal their views on a topic though the capacity to access information and engage in deliberation is limited.

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