Experiments in Empowered Deliberative Democracy: Introduction

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IV. An Agenda for Exploring Deliberative Democracy

Thus far, we have sketched the outlines of a model of radical democracy that aims to solve practical public problems through deliberative action, laid out the practical and ethical advantages of institutions built along that model, and offered brief sketches of real-world examples that embody to as greater or lesser extent these principles. The rest of this volume will explore these actually-existing examples in some detail, inquiring whether these abstract principles accurately characterize these experiments, whether the experiments in fact yield the benefits that we have attributed to deliberative democracy, and whether these advantages must be purchased at some as yet unspecified price. Before we move to that very concrete discussion, however, we conclude this introduction by laying out two sets of critical questions that guide these investigations. First, to what extent do these experiments conform to the modeled institutions and effects of deliberative democracy? Second, what are the most damning flaws in the model of empowered deliberative democracy?

1. The relationship of the cases to the model

Even if the normative principles of our proposed model of empowered deliberative democracy offer an attractive guide for feasible institutional innovation, the specific experiments we have described may not conform to the model. It is therefore important to critically interrogate the cases in terms of model's ideal criteria. Six questions are particularly relevant: (i) How genuinely deliberative are the actual decision-making processes? (ii) How effectively are the decisions made through this process translated into real action? (iii) To what extent are the deliberative bodies able to effectively monitor the implementation of their decisions? (iv) To what extent do these reforms incorporate recombinant measures that coordinate the actions of local units and diffuse innovations among them? (v) To what extent do the deliberative processes constitute real "schools for democracy"? And, (vi) are the actual outcomes of the entire process more desirable than those of prior institutional arrangements?

(i) Deliberation

Because many of the supposed benefits of our model rest on the notion of deliberation, it is critical to assess the degree to which decision making processes within these experiments are genuinely deliberative. Equitable decisions depend upon parties agreeing to that which is fair rather than pushing for as much as they can get. Effectiveness relies upon individuals remaining open to new information and proposals rather than doggedly advancing pre-formulated ones. And learning at individual and group levels depends on people being able to alter their opinions and even their preferences. Though deliberation is seldom deployed as a descriptive characteristic of organizations in social science, its practice is completely familiar to most of us in our public and private lives -- discussing issues and resolving conflict not by pushing for as much as we can get, but rather by doing what seems reasonable and fair. Does this generous characterization of individual and group behavior accurately describe how the participants of our experiments make decisions, or is their interaction better characterized by the more familiar mechanisms of rational interest aggregation -- command, bargaining, log-rolling, and threatening? In situations characterized by substantial differences of interest or opinion, particularly from ideological sources, deliberation may break down into either gridlock or power-based conflict resolution. Are these experiments therefore limited to environments of low conflict or minimal inequality?

(ii) Action

The fact that collective decisions are made in a deliberative, egalitarian and democratic manner is no guarantee that those decisions will be effectively translated into action. In some cases, the implementation of decisions by the deliberative body relies upon the capacities and will of the members themselves -- for example, Chicago community policing groups direct patrol officers to perform various tasks. In such cases, the weak accountability mechanisms of publicity and deliberation may be insufficient for the group to compel the action of its own members. In other cases, enacting decisions may depend upon the obedience of others over whom the group has formal authority -- such as the staff under a Local School Council. Such situations face an array of familiar principal-agent dilemmas. In still other instances, implementation may rely upon bodies whose relations with primary deliberative groups are even less structured. In Porto Alegre's participatory budgeting system, for example, the deliberations of regional assemblies are passed onto a city-wide body whose budget must then be approved by the mayor. These budgetary decisions must then filter back down the municipal apparatus before, say, a sewer main gets built or a street paved. In all of these cases, therefore, it is important to know the extent to which the decisions arrived at within the deliberative processes are effectively translated into real social action.

(iii) Monitoring

Implementation is more than simply having an initial decision turned into action; it also requires mechanisms of ongoing monitoring and accountability. To what extent are these deliberative groups capable of monitoring the implementation of their decisions and holding responsible parties accountable? Most democratic processes are front-loaded in the sense that popular participation focuses on deciding a policy question (as in a referendum) or selecting a candidate (as in an election) rather than on monitoring implementation of the decision or the platform. Our democratic experiments, by contrast, aim for more sustained levels of participation over time. Democracy here means participation beyond the point of decision, to popular implementation, monitoring of that implementation, and disciplined review of its effects. Popular participation throughout the entire cycle of public action, it is hoped, will increase the accountability of public power and the public's capacity to learn from past successes and failures. It remains to be seen, however, whether the public actively involved in these experiments can sustain participation over time with sufficient intensity to become effective monitors of the decisions they make; as in conventional democratic processes, moments leading up to decision are no doubt more exciting and visible than the long periods of execution that follow.

(iv) Recombination

While it is fairly clear that all of the experimental reforms decentralize power, the mechanisms of recombination theorized in section 1 are less obvious. Under the pragmatic devolution of empowered deliberative democracy, local units are by themselves unable to solve coordination and cross-border problems and would thus benefit from information-sharing connections to other units in the system. The fashion and degree to which the experiments reviewed above construct institutions to execute these functions varies widely, in no small part because recombination is the most foreign design element of empowered deliberative democracy to both social theorists and institutional designers. The empirical studies will, in more exploratory fashion, examine the extent to which these reforms construct recombinant linkages and establish how well those mechanisms work in practice.

(v) Schools of Democracy

For deliberative democracy to work in real-world settings with ordinary people, it must be able to involve individuals with relatively little experience or skills in the practices of democratic deliberation. The fourth question asks whether these experiments actually function as schools of democracy by increasing the deliberative capacities and dispositions of those who participate in them. While many standard treatments of political institutions take the preferences and capacities of individuals who act with them as fixed, these democratic experiments treat both of these dimensions of their participation as objects of transformation. By exercising capacities of argument, planning, and evaluation, through practice individuals might become better deliberators. By seeing that cooperation mediated through reasonable deliberation yields benefits not accessible through adversarial methods, participants might increase their disposition to be reasonable, and to transform narrowly self-interested preferences accordingly. Both of these hypotheses about the development of individuals as citizens in these democratic experiments are, of course, highly speculative pending much closer examination of actors' actual behavior.

(vi) Outcomes

For many potential critics and supporters, the most important question will be one of outcomes. Do these deliberative institutions produce strategies or effects more desirable than those of the institutions they supplant? One prime justification for re-allocating public power to these decentralized and deliberative groups is that they devise public action strategies and solutions that are superior to those of, say, command-and-control bureaucracies, by virtue of superior knowledge of local conditions, greater learning capacities, and improved accountability. A central topic of empirical investigation, then, is whether these experiments have in practice managed to generate better, more innovative solutions.


2. Criticisms of the Model

Beyond these questions that address whether the principles of our model of deliberative democracy accurately describe the experiments we examine, a second set of questions focuses pointedly upon criticisms that have been raised against ostensibly similar proposals for associative, deliberative governance. The empirical materials can address six critical concerns about empowered deliberative democracy:

(i) The democratic character of processes and outcomes may be vulnerable to serious problems of power and domination inside deliberative arenas.

(ii) External actors and institutional contexts may impose severe limitations on the scope of deliberative decision and action. In particular, powerful participants may engage in "forum shopping" strategies in which they use deliberative institutions only when it suits them.

(iii) These special purpose political institutions may fall prey to rent-seeking and capture by especially-well informed or interested parties.

(iv) The devolutionary elements of empowered deliberative democracy may balkanize the polity and political decision-making.

(v) Empowered deliberation may demand unrealistically high levels of popular participation, especially in contemporary climates of civic and political disengagement.

(vi) Finally, these experiments may enjoy initial successes but may be difficult to sustain over the long term.

(i) Deliberation into Domination

Perhaps the most serious potential criticism of these experiments is that they pay insufficient attention to the fact that participants in these processes usually face each other from unequal positions of power. These inequalities can stem from material differences and the class backgrounds of participants, from the knowledge and information gulfs that separate experts from laypersons, or from personal capacities for deliberation and persuasion associated with educational and occupational advantages.

When deliberation aims to generate positive sum solutions in which nearly all participants reap benefits from cooperation (outcome points that lie closer to pareto frontiers), such power differentials may not result in unfair decisions. However, serious projects that seek to enhance social justice and equity cannot limit themselves to just these "win-win" situations. Therefore, our model would not be a very interesting one if it could not be applied to areas of public action which have winners and losers and it would not be very attractive if weaker participants turned out to systematically loose to those more powerful. Perhaps too optimistically, deliberation requires the strong as well as the weak to submit to the norms of reasonable deliberation; the powerful ought to refrain from opportunistically pressing their interests even when power allows them to do so. One set of questions that must be answered, then, concerns whether deliberative arenas enable the powerful dominate the weak. Consider four mechanisms that might transform fair deliberation into domination.

First, one lamentable fact of all contemporary democracies is that citizens who are advantaged in terms of their wealth, education, income, or membership in dominant racial and ethnic groups participate more frequently and more effectively, than those who are less well off. Our democratic experiments demand intensive forms of political engagement that may further aggravate these status and wealth participation biases. If those who participate in these experiments generally represent better-off citizens and those less well off exercise no voice, then resulting public action is unlikely to be fair and effective in the ways described above. As in other channels of popular voice, the question of "who participates" remains a vital one in deliberative democracy.

Second, even if both strong and weak are well represented, the strong may nevertheless use tools at their disposal--material resources, information asymmetries, rhetorical capacities--to advance collective decisions that unreasonably favor their interests. While many other models of public decision such as electoral and interest group politics expect such behavior, empowered deliberation is more normatively demanding, and thereby perhaps more empirically suspect.

Third, beyond unfair representation and direct force, powerful participants may seek to improperly and unreasonably exclude issues that threaten their interests from the scope of deliberative action. By limiting discussion to narrow areas of either mutual gain or inconsequence, the powerful may protect their status quo advantages without resorting to blatantly non-deliberative maneuvers. Nevertheless, thus constraining the agenda obviously violates the norms of open deliberation and, if found to be a common phenomena in the cases, would indicate a failure of the model.

Finally, and perhaps most troubling, deliberative democracy may disarm secondary associations by obliging them to "behave responsibly" and discouraging radicalism and militancy. After all, deliberation requires reasonableness, and so commitment to deliberative processes might be thought to require abstinence from vigorous methods of challenging power. That is, not only will the practices internal to the association bracket challenges to privilege, but in order to maintain their credibility to "the powers that be" the associations will strive to marginalize such challenges from the political arena altogether. If the popular associations engaged in these experiments fail to enforce these political parameters -- if the deliberative apparatuses become sites of genuine challenge to the power and privileges of dominant classes and elites -- then this criticism predicts that the deliberative bodies would be dismantled.

Much of the empirical examination that follows will therefore examine whether more powerful parties successfully deploy their advantages to secure their favored outcomes in these and other ways.


ii. Forum Shopping and External Power

Even if the deliberative norms prevail over these criticisms and diverse participants cooperate to develop and implement fair collective actions, the powerful (and the weak) may turn to measures outside of these new democratic institutions to defend and advance their interests. The institutions of empowered deliberative democracy operate in a complex web of more conventional arrangements that includes interest groups and politicians contesting one another in agencies, legislatures, and courts. When participants cannot get what they want in deliberative settings -- perhaps because what they want is unreasonable -- they may press their interests in more hospitable venues. In the context of public education, for example, a parent who cannot secure special privileges for his child in the local school council may try to use the central school system office to over-rule local deliberations. As we shall see, real estate development interests in the city of Porto Alegre have bypassed the participatory budgeting system in favor of more friendly planning agencies when they anticipated neighborhood opposition. Engaging in such forum shopping to overturn or avoid unfavorable deliberative decisions clearly violates deliberative norms that ground the experiments discussed above and, if widespread, will certainly poison the mutual confidence necessary for open discussion and cooperative collective action among diverse parties.

Aside from the possibility of the defection of participants, parties constituted outside of these deliberative bodies may not recognize their authority and resist their decisions. Driven by understandable jealousy, we might expect officials firmly ensconced in pre-existing power structures -- elected politicians, senior bureaucrats, those controlling traditional interest groups -- to use their substantial authority and resources to over-rule unfavorable deliberative decisions. At the extreme, they might try to cut the lives of these experiments short or at least contain them to some seedling form. So, for example, environmental groups have sometimes viewed cooperative ecosystem management efforts as ceding too much ground to development or agricultural interests and thus fought locally deliberative decisions through litigious and legislative methods. The Chicago school reforms empowered local governance councils by authorizing them to hire and fire their principals, and thereby removed the job tenure privileges that had been enjoyed by these school leaders. The association of principals fought back litigiously by arguing that the school reform's functional electoral structure violated the Constitutional mandate of one vote per adult citizen. Locally dominant left-wing political parties sustain both the village governance reforms of West Bengal, India and Porto Alegre's participatory budget. Officials there have claimed credit for the success of these experiments and subsequently based their political fortunes upon the continuation of these experiments. Conventional politicians and bureaucrats thus became the handmaiden of deliberative-democratic transformation by mobilizing elite and popular support for the expansion and reproduction of these experiments. Without such political foundations, it is easy to imagine that these systems of popular deliberative action would be quickly overturned by castes and political elites that they often act against. The case studies below will therefore pay special attention to the extent to which non-deliberative external actors and institutions either enable or thwart empowered deliberation.

iii. Rent-seeking vs public goods

We have hypothesized above that these experiments produce public goods that benefit even those who choose not to participate directly. Sound urban budgeting would benefit all of Porto Alegre's residents, not just those who take part in the formal institutions of participatory budgeting. Similarly, most neighborhood residents enjoy the good of public safety, all students and their parents benefit from effective schools, and many workers at a firm gain from the establishment of a skill-upgrading center. Potentially, however, rent-seeking participants might reverse this flow of benefits by transforming these deliberative apparatuses from ones that use public power to generate even wider public benefits into institutions that advance private or factional agendas. Members of the training consortium, for example, might attempt to make it exclusive and use public training monies as a weapon against local competitors. Similarly, the system of participatory budgeting could be re-absorbed into old-school clientelist politics in which party bosses control discussion and the resulting budget recommendations. Small factions of neighborhood residents or parents might use public powers created by the community policing and school governance reforms to benefit themselves by, for example, protecting just a few blocks or establishing special school programs for the sake of just their own children.

Some of these new institutions attempt to stem rent seeking through transparency and accountability measures. In II.5 above, we described some of these mechanisms under the heading of "recombinancy": they link decentralized local bodies to one another and to centralized authorities in order to make the varied performance of deliberative action widely known and therefore more accountable. All Habitat Conservation Plans, for example, must be reviewed by U.S. Department of Interior authorities in Washington, D.C. and the actual performance of those plans will soon be made publicly available in a centralized data warehouse. Similarly, the decentralized plans use to govern police beats and individual schools are both reviewed and aggregated by higher bodies, as are the neighborhood budget priorities of Porto Alegre and Panchayat decisions in India. In most of these cases, the extent to which these devices of accountability and transparency are able to check self-interested behavior is simply not known. Accordingly, these studies will explore the extent to which these experiments have been perverted into rent-seeking vehicles and examine the efficacy of mechanisms that attempt to check this tendency.

iv. Balkanization of Politics

In addition to these pitfalls, these experiments may exacerbate the balkanization of a polity that should be unified. Prominent democratic theorists such as Rousseau and Madison worried that the division of the body politic into contending groups would weaken the body as a whole because individuals would advance their factional interests rather than common good. In the extreme, such factionalism might create conditions in which one faction dominates the rest. Or, fragmented political institutions and social factions might each be quite capable of solving its own particular problems, yet the system as a whole would be incapable of addressing large scale concerns or formulating greater agendas. From this critical perspective, these democratic experiments might aggravate the problem of faction by constituting and empowering hundreds of groups, each focused on a narrow issue in a narrow geographic space. A proponent of the experiments might respond that these channels of participation add some public component to lives that would otherwise be fully dominated by private, or even more particular concerns, and that therefore the net effect of these institutions is to broaden the horizons of citizens, not to narrow them. Both of these contending perspectives remain hypothetical, however, absent accounts of particular individuals and the relationship of these experiments to the political institutions that supposedly foster greater political commonality.

v. Apathy

While these first four concerns presume energetic actors who behave in inappropriately political fashion, a fourth criticism begins with the commonly-made observation that the mass of citizens are politically disengaged and ignorant, not fervid. From this perspective, these democratic experiments demand far too much in terms to the depth and level of participation from ordinary citizens, and the knowledge, patience, and wisdom that they are expected to possess or in short order acquire. It may be that the citizens in late capitalist societies are generally too consumed with private life to put forth the time, energy, and commitment that these deliberative experiments require. Or, symptoms of apathy may result from institutional design rather than individual preference. These deliberative channels ask citizens to generate public goods which are broadly shared, and so many will be tempted to free-ride on the efforts of others to build effective workplace training programs, make their neighborhoods safe, or generate a wise set of municipal budget priorities. These reforms' defenders might respond that the institutional design attempts to overcome these obstacles by linking the quality of participation to the quality of public outcomes. The investigators below will adjudicate these competing claims about the degree to which citizen apathy renders these deliberative institutions inoperable by examining the quantity and character of participation in each of them.

vi. Stability and sustainability

The final criticism that we address here concerns the stability of these experiments through time. They may start with a burst of popular enthusiasm and good will but then succumb to forces that prevent these auspicious beginnings from taking root and growing into stable forms of sustained participation. For example, one might expect that practical demands on these institutions might press participants eventually to abandon time-consuming discursive decision making in favor of oligarchic or technocratic forms. Even if one concedes that that empowered deliberation generates innovations not available to hierarchical organizations, the returns from these gains may diminish over time. After participants have plucked the "low-hanging fruit," these forms might again ossify into the very bureaucracies that they sought to replace. Or, ordinary citizens may find the reality of participation to be increasingly burdensome and less rewarding than they had imagined, and popular engagement may consequently fade from exhaustion and disillusionment. Though most of the reforms considered here are young institutions, some of them have a history sufficient to begin to ask whether their initial successes have given way to anti-deliberative tendencies. The investigations below will therefore also explore whether the whether these experiments are merely moments in a pendulum swing between more and less popular voice, or whether they mark a more sustained transformation in the organization of public action.


"Democracy" is one of the most potent political symbols in the world today. The United States justifies much of its foreign policy and military interventions under the banner of restoring or protecting democracy in various parts of the world. Masses in the streets in South Africa and Poland precipitated historic transformations of regimes in the name of democracy. And yet, just at the historical moment when an unprecedented proportion of the world's governments are becoming at least nominally democratic, public confidence in the capacity of democratic institutions to solve problems and represent the aspirations of ordinary citizens has declined in those countries with the longest democratic experience.

We believe that this decline in confidence in the democratic affirmative state does not reflect an actual exhaustion democratic potential but rather the political triumph of antistatist neoliberalism. While ultimately a revitalization of democratic institutions on a wide scale requires political mobilization, for such challenges to be effective new visions are required for how democratic institutions can make positive social contributions. Our hope is that a careful investigation of five experiments in deliberative democracy will contribute to the elaboration of this vision.

In the next five parts of this book we will examine in considerable detail the empirical record of the three experiments. Each section will begin with an extended essay written by a scholar closely associated with the experiment, laying out the experiment's institutional details and addressing the questions we have raised. This will be followed by a series of commentaries on this essay, some by people intimately familiar with the case in question, others by people engaged in discussions of democratic theory but less familiar with the specific case.

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