Experiments in Empowered Deliberative Democracy: Introduction

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Experiments in Empowered Deliberative Democracy:

Archon Fung        and        Erik Olin Wright

                                                                JFK School                  Sociology Department
                                                           Harvard University            University of Wisconsin

(June 1999)

As the tasks of the state have become more complex and the size of polities larger and more heterogeneous, the institutional forms of liberal democracy developed in the nineteenth century -- representative democracy plus techno-bureaucratic administration -- seem increasingly ill-suited to the novel problems we face in the twenty-first century. "Democracy" as a way of organizing the state has come to be narrowly identified with territorially-based competitive elections of political leadership for legislative and executive offices. Yet, increasingly, this mechanism of political representation seems ineffective in accomplishing the central ideals of democratic politics: facilitating active political involvement of the citizenry, forging political consensus through dialogue, devising and implementing public policies that ground a productive economy and healthy society, and, in more radical egalitarian versions of the democratic ideal, assuring that all citizens benefit from the nation's wealth.

The Right of the political spectrum has taken advantage of this apparent decline in the effectiveness of democratic institutions to escalate its attack on the very idea of the affirmative state. The only way the state can play a competent and constructive role, the Right typically argues, is to dramatically reduce the scope and depth of its activities. In addition to the traditional moral opposition of libertarians to the activist state on the grounds that it infringes on property rights and individual autonomy, it is now widely argued that the affirmative state has simply become too costly and inefficient. The benefits supposedly provided by the state are myths; the costs--both in terms of the resources directly absorbed by the state and of indirect negative effects on economic growth and efficiency--are real and increasing. Rather than seeking to deepen the democratic character of politics in response to these concerns, the thrust of much political energy in the developed industrial democracies in recent years has been to reduce the role of politics altogether. Deregulation, privatization, reduction of social services, and curtailments of state spending have been the watchwords, rather that participation, greater responsiveness, more creative and effective forms of democratic state intervention. As the slogan goes: "The state is the problem, not the solution."

In the past, the political Left in capitalist democracies vigorously defended the affirmative state against these kinds of arguments. In its most radical form, revolutionary socialists argued that public ownership of the principle means of production combined with centralized state planning offered the best hope for a just, humane and egalitarian society. But even those on the Left who rejected revolutionary visions of ruptures with capitalism insisted that an activist state was essential to counteract a host of negative effects generated by the dynamics of capitalist economies -- poverty, unemployment, increasing inequality, under-provision of public goods like training and public health. In the absence of such state interventions, the capitalist market becomes a "Satanic Mill," in Karl Polanyi's metaphor, that erodes the social foundations of its own existence. (1) These defenses of the affirmative state have become noticeably weaker in recent years, both in their rhetorical force and in their practical political capacity to mobilize people. Although the Left has not come to accept unregulated markets and a minimal state as morally desirable or economically efficient, it is much less certain that the institutions it defended in the past can achieve social justice and economic well being in the present.

Perhaps this erosion of democratic vitality is an inevitable result of complexity and size. Perhaps the most we can hope for is to have some kind of limited popular constraint on the activities of government through regular, weakly competitive elections. Perhaps the era of the "affirmative democratic state" -- the state which plays a creative and active role in solving problems in response to popular demands -- is over, and a retreat to privatism and political passivity is the unavoidable price of "progress". But perhaps the problem has more to do with the specific design of our institutions than with the tasks they face as such. If so, then a fundamental challenge for the Left is to develop transformative democratic strategies that can advance our traditional values--egalitarian social justice, individual liberty combined with popular control over collective decisions, community and solidarity, and the flourishing of individuals in ways which enable them to realize their potentials.

This volume of the Real Utopias Project explores five innovative real-world experiments in such institutional redesign, experiments that in different ways enlist the energy and intelligence of ordinary people--often drawn from the lowest strata of society--in the solution of problems that plague them:

1. The participatory budget of Porto Alegre, Brazil enables residents of that city to participate directly in forging the city budget and thus use public monies previously diverted to patronage payoffs to pave their roads and electrify their neighborhoods.

2. Neighborhood governance councils in Chicago address the fears and hopes of inner city Chicago residents by turning an urban bureaucracy on its head and devolving substantial power over policing and public schools.

3. The Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership (WRTP) brings together organized labor, large firm management, and government to provide training and increase the transparency in employment transitions in order to help workers assemble jobs into meaningful careers in volatile economic times,

4. The Panchayat reforms in West Bengal, India, has created both direct and representative democratic channels that devolve substantial administrative and fiscal development power to individual villages.

5. Habitat Conservation Planning under the Endangered Species Act convenes stakeholders and empowers them to develop ecosystem governance arrangements that will satisfy the double imperatives of human development and the protection of jeopardized species.

Though these five reforms differ quite dramatically in the details of their design, issue areas, scope, and participatory particulars, they all aspire to deepen the ways in which ordinary people can effectively participate in and influence policies which directly impact on their lives. From their common features, we call this reform family empowered deliberative democracy. The experiments are democratic in the radical sense that they rely upon the participation and capacities of ordinary people. They are deliberative since they institute reason-based decision-making. And they are empowered because they tie action to deliberation; the varieties of deliberation explored below directly deploy state and private power, and so are not just exercises in criticism or justification.

We hope that injecting empirically centered examination into current debates on deliberative democracy will paradoxically expand the imaginative horizons of that research at the same time that it injects a bit of realism. Much of the existing thinking on these issues drives deliberative democracy in institutionally conservative directions, by leaving most of the deliberation to authorized elites, (2) imagining deliberation as a primarily a critical (3) or justificatory (4) activity divorced from the exercise of real power, and by using the concepts of deliberation to re-interpret the commonplace institutions of courts and parties rather than using those ideas as a touchstone to generate more fair and effective arrangements in the real world. The experiments which we explore in this volume, and the more abstract model which we believe these experiments embody, challenge the restrictive parameters of much of this recent debate.

In what follows, we will begin by elaborating the central principles underlying the idea of empowered deliberative democracy and then explain why we think, in principle, these arrangements will generate a range of desirable social effects. A brief sketch of the experiments follows this, and we conclude this introduction with an agenda of questions to interrogate these cases of actually-existing empowered deliberative democracy.


I. The general principles underlying empowered deliberative democracy

Though each of these experiments differs from the others in its ambition, scope, and concrete aims, they all share surprising similarities in certain pivotal institutional design principles. These design principles, we believe, constitute the basis for a novel, but generalizable model of deliberative democratic practice that potentially can be expanded both horizontally--into other policy areas and other regions--and vertically--into higher and lower levels of institutional and social life. We begin, tentatively and abstractly, to construct that model here by laying out the distinctive general principles that seem fundamental to all these experiments. Six design elements stand out in these experiments: (1) they all focus on specific, tangible problems; (2) they develop solutions to these problems through deliberation; (3) the deliberations involve both the ordinary people affected by problems and officials close to them; (4) public decision authority is significantly devolved to empowered local units; (5) the empowered local units are in turn linked together to coordinate the distribution of resources between them and generate inter-unit learning; and (6) this empowered deliberation is accomplished primarily through the transformation of state institutions rather than in voluntaristic fashion in civil society, secondary associations, or the market.

1. Pragmatic Orientation

The first distinctive characteristic of our experiments is that they all develop governance structures geared to solving quite concrete problems. These experiments, though often linked to social movements and political parties, differ from both in that they focus on practical problems such as providing public safety, training workers, caring for ecosystems, or constructing sensible municipal budgets. If these experiments make headway on these issues, then they would offer a potential retort to the widespread doubt that state action can be effective. More importantly, they would deliver goods to sectors of society that are often most grievously denied them. Another feature of this practical focus is that actors accustomed competing with one another for power or resources may be able to cooperate with one another and begin to build more congenial relations by solving a limited set of common problems. This pragmatic problem-solving focus, however, may distract agents from more important, broader conflicts (e.g. redistributive taxation) by concentrating their attention on a constrained set of issues.

2. Deliberative Solution Generation

These experiments pursue agenda-setting and problem-solving through deliberative decision mechanisms rather than through more common methods of aggregating interests through voting or hierarchical command based upon political or technical authority. The distinctive characteristic of deliberation is that participants listen to each other's positions and generate group decisions after due consideration. Ideally, this process yields fair outcomes because reasons and proposals that everyone can accept will win the day. Individuals come together not primarily to press pre-formed agendas or visions, but rather they expect that strategies and solutions will be forged through deliberation and planning with the other participants.

The second characteristic of these experiments, then, is that the individuals who participate in them transform and forge their understandings of what measures will further their goals through its continuously deliberative processes. Deliberation as reasoned argument or discussion might proceed first with the construction of an agenda; parties offer proposals about what the group's priorities should be. They justify these proposals in terms of the interests that are common to everyone in the group, and the groups' agenda--its priorities--are simply those which all can accept as advancing their common interest. Ideally, according to the norms of deliberation, the best proposal is the one that most accords with the groups' common interest, not the one that garners the greatest numerical support or political influence. Similarly, participants then reason about the strategies that will best advance that group agenda and adopt that set which seems prospectively most promising. Since great uncertainty characterizes each step of this process, they also know they must later revisit both agendas and strategies in further rounds of deliberation, in light of the outcomes of past decisions.

Unlike a political party that states its solutions in a platform, an interest group that presses for its programs among legislators, a social movement that attempts to elevate a particular set of interests in the popular consciousness, or a negotiation that splits the difference between positions, individuals in our experiments hold much less rigid understandings of their interests and even less confidence in how best to advance them. (5) They thus realize that they must discover appropriate programs and solutions through discussion and tentative implementation. Whereas the agenda-setting moment of deliberative experimentation is somewhat less "political" than these standard approaches, its problem-solving stages are more so. Whereas command-and-control administrations or corporations attempt to solve their problems apolitically by deploying dispositive expertise in the policy, financial, management, planning, or various disciplinary "sciences," these experiments typically arose in the wake of the failure of such experts. Participants in these experiments, therefore, typically open up the recommendations of experts to deliberative scrutiny and re-formulation. Finally, this problem-focussed deliberation proceeds iteratively; since the experiments operate in functional areas where optimal programs are unclear or change quickly, these experiments seek to institutionalize arrangements that are themselves capable of reflexive self-transformation.

3. Bottom-Up Participation

All of the reforms discussed in this volume establish new channels for those most directly affected by targeted problems--typically ordinary citizens and officials in the field--to apply their knowledge, intelligence, and interest to the formulation of solutions. We offer two speculative justifications for this turn away from the commitment that complex technical problems are most effectively and cheaply solved by experts trained to the task. First, effective solutions to certain kinds of novel and fluid public problems may require the variety of experience and knowledge offered more by diverse, relatively more open-minded, citizens and field operatives, than distant and narrowly trained experts. In the Chicago neighborhood governance of policing, for example, we will see that bottom-up neighborhood councils invented effective solutions that police officials acting autonomously would never have developed. Second, direct participation of grassroots operators increases accountability and reduces the length of the chain of agency that accompanies political parties and their bureaucratic apparatus. In developing areas like Porto Alegre, Brazil and West Bengal, India, one of the main accomplishments of enlarged participation has been to plug the leakages from patronage payoffs and loosen the grip of traditional political elites.

Whether these gains from popular participation outweigh the potential costs of reduced expert power is an empirical matter that the specific case studies explore.

4. Devolution

Since empowered deliberative democracy targets problems and solicits participation localized in both issue and geographic space, its institutional reality requires the commensurate reorganization of the state apparatus. It entails the administrative and political devolution of power to local action units--such as neighborhood councils, personnel in individual workplaces, and delineated eco-system habitats--charged with devising and implementing solutions and held accountable to performance criteria. The bodies in the reforms below are not merely advisory bodies, but rather creatures of a transformed state endowed with substantial public authority to act on the results of their deliberation.

This devolution departs profoundly from centralizing progressive strategies, and for that reason many on the Left may find it disturbing. Just as the participatory dimensions of these reforms constitute a turn away from authorized expertise, delegating to local units the power of task-conception as well as execution stems from skepticism about the possibility that democratic centralism can generate effective solutions in targeted issue areas. So, for example, the Chicago cases offer neighborhood governance of policing and public education as supple alternatives to conventional centralized solutions such as more stringent penalties and more police on the street for public safety issues, and national testing, school finance reform, implementing the one best curriculum, racial desegregation, vouchers, and privatization for educational problems. Habitat Conservation Planning gives up the centralized and uniform standard of no development under the Endangered Species Act in favor of a regime in which local stakeholders produce highly tailored eco-system management plans that advance both development and species protection. Rather than allocating funds and staff to pave, electrify, and build sewers according to uniform standards or centralized judgement, Porto Alegre's participatory budgeting system invites neighborhood residents and associations into the direct, repeated process of establishing, implementing, and monitoring these priorities.

5. Recombinant

Though they enjoy substantial power and discretion, local units do not operate autonomously in empowered deliberative democracy. In each case offers, linkages between the local units and larger state structure coordinate the distribution of resources, solve problems which local units cannot address by themselves, and diffuse innovations and learning across boundaries. For example, both the Panchayat system in West Bengal and participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre feed relevant village and neighborhood decisions to higher levels of government. Both of the Chicago neighborhood governance reforms establish capacities for benchmarking the performance of comparable units (schools, police beats) against one another to base standards on best achievable outcomes. Finally, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service coordinates the activities of some 250 Habitat Conservation Plans though centralized monitoring, information pooling, and permit and performance tracking.

Unlike New Left political models in which concerns for liberation lead to autonomous decentralization, empowered deliberative democracy suggests new forms of coordinated decentralization. Driven by the pragmatic imperative to find solutions that work, these new models reject both democratic centralism and strict decentralization as unworkable. The rigidity of the former leads it too often to disrespect local circumstance and intelligence and it has a hard time learning from experience. The latter would isolate citizens into small units, surely a foolhardy measure for those who don't know how to solve a problem but suspect that others, somewhere else, do. Thus these reforms attempt to construct connections that spread information between local units and hold them accountable.

6. State Centered, Not Voluntaristic

A sixth design characteristic of these experiments is that they colonize state power and attempt to permanently transform central governance procedures according to the first five characteristics of problem-orientation, deliberation, participation, devolution, and recombination. Whereas many spontaneous activist efforts in areas like neighborhood revitalization, (6) environmental activism and remediation, local economic development, and worker health and safety seek to influence state outcomes through outside pressure or by seizing the commanding political heights, these experiments seek to transform the mechanisms of state power into permanently mobilized deliberative-democratic, grassroots forms. Such transformations happen as often as not in close cooperation with state agents. These experiments are thus less "radical" than most varieties of activist self-help in that their central activity is not "fighting the power." But they are more radical in that they have larger reform scopes, are authorized by state or corporate bodies to make substantial decisions, and, most crucially, try to change the central procedures of power rather than merely attempting to shift the vector of its exercise in particular instances. Whereas parties, social movement organizations, and interest groups often set their goals though internal deliberative processes and then fight for corporate or political power to implement those goals, these experiments re-constitute decision processes within the state and firm. When this reorganization is successful, participants have the luxury of taking some exercise of power for granted, they need not spend the bulk of their energy fighting for power (or against it), and they deliberate about how to use the power that they have rather than what they would use it for if only they had it.

By implication, these transformations of the state attempt to institutionalize the on-going participation of ordinary citizens, most often in their role as consumers of public goods, in the direct determination of what those goods are and how they should be best provided. This perpetual participation stands in contrast to the relatively brief democratic moments in both outcome-oriented, campaign-based social movements and electoral competitions in ordinary politics in which leaders/elites mobilize popular participation for a specific outcome or series of outcomes. If popular pressure becomes sufficient to implement some favored policy or elected candidate, the moment of popular participation ends and the implementation of a policy or legislative activity of an official takes place in the largely isolated state sphere. Rousseau, a harsh critic of democracy as only periodic participation, wrote that "The English people believes itself to be free. It is greatly mistaken; it is free only during the election of the members of parliament. Once they are elected, the populace is enslaved; it is nothing." (7) Empowered deliberative democracy creates arenas within which more sustained popular participation becomes possible.

To recap, our experiments seem to share six institutional design principles:

First, each experiment addresses a specific area of public problems.

Second, each experiment attempts to solve those problems through processes of reasoned deliberation.

Third, this deliberation relies upon the bottom-up involvement of ordinary citizens and officials in the field.

Fourth, these experiments devolve decision and implementation power to local action units.

Fifth, these local action units are not autonomous, but rather recombinant and linked to each other and to supervening levels of the state in order to allocate resources, solve common and cross-border problems, and diffuses innovations and learning.

Finally, the experiments colonize and transform existing state and corporate institutions in such a way that the administrative bureaucracies charged with solving these problems are restructured into these deliberative bodies. The power of these bodies to implement the outcomes of their deliberations, therefore, comes from their authorization by the state and corporate institutions.

Shortly, we shall deepen and clarify these common principles by illustrating how each of the five experiments puts them into practice. Before moving to that concrete level, however, we need to clarify some of the potential benefits that institutions designed with these principles in mind are supposed to deliver.

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