When the public deliberates on policy design

Image of people in a crowded hall
  • Published Date: 10 August 2021

What role can deliberative democracy play in policy design? An article in Policy Design and Practice explores this question in an experiment where a random sample of citizens discussed four policy proposals. The findings show citizens can produce unique forms of policy knowledge when deliberating on policy.


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About deliberative democracy

Deliberative democracy is a way of including citizens in policy debates. Methods include citizen juries, deliberative polling and consensus conferences. These are often termed “mini-publics”.

Research shows deliberation can change participants’ opinions when it comes to public policy. Citizens who participate in mini-publics often listen to the arguments of others and form different views. However, the research also shows policymakers are reluctant to share their authority with citizens. This means deliberative mechanisms often produce robust decisions which are ignored by the people who implement them.

Policy design and deliberation

This contradiction led to the study’s research question:

Is there policy design value in simply observing how everyday citizens debate policy?

Policy design can be defined as a deliberate and conscious attempt to define policy goals and connect them to tools expected to realise these goals. Deliberation offers a means of producing citizen knowledge about policy means through a discursive process that encourages reasoning about the adoption of a course of policy action. It is the dynamic process of reasoning that makes deliberation unique in terms of process and outcome.

About the research study

The researchers created an experiment in which a random sample of citizens were invited to discuss four policy proposals. The experiment was conducted online and via face-to-face deliberations in Brisbane, Australia. The sample matched the basic demographics of the Greater Brisbane area for age, gender, housing tenure, disability, and cultural and linguistic diversity.

The policy proposals had two key features:

  • they could be easily discussed as they were about issues that affected everyday lives and required little technical knowledge.
  • they were contestable in terms of trade-offs that needed to be made between competing policy objectives.

The proposals were:

  1. Should an emissions trading scheme be introduced? 
  2. Should the full-time working week be reduced to 30 hours or less? 
  3. Should the cost of vehicle registration be based on how many kilometres the vehicle travels? 
  4. Should companies be taxed if they replace people with robots? 

The deliberative process

Participants were involved in a two-step process. Step one had the whole sample participating in webinars where experts discussed the advantages and disadvantages of the policy proposals. The objective was to give time-poor citizens easy access to research and arguments.

The second step was the deliberative process. The sample was split between those who would discuss online and those who would discuss face-to-face. The face-to-face deliberations were based on a citizens-jury model. Participants worked through each proposal, first in small groups and then as a plenary. They were supported by facilitators who were experienced in working directly with the public in mini-public settings.

At the end of each session, the outcomes from the plenary were recorded in terms of:

  • supporting or rejecting a proposal; and/or
  • mediating proposals which presented alternatives to the proposed policy.

What the research study found

There were two key findings.

1. Preference transformation and policy design

In each of the debates, citizens changed their opinion about policies after being exposed to expertise and different perspectives from other citizens. In some discussions, the degree of preference transformation was significant enough to shift opinion completely. In other deliberations, changes in preference were strong enough to deliver a clear message about aspects of the policy proposal.

2. Citizen justifications and policy design

Justifications that change opinion in a deliberation offer significant insights for the policy designer. There is value in examining the arguments that change opinions in a citizen-led deliberation as they provide a unique data source.

Many of the justifications that were influential in the deliberations spoke about the challenges of bundling multiple policy instruments into single policy programs. Analysis of the deliberations showed how the target users of policy perceive the pre-existing policy mixes that affect them and the potential effectiveness of any new instrument or program in relation to that mix.

What this means for public managers

The experiment offers the following insights in the policy analysis–deliberation relationship.

  1. The existence of preference transformation casts doubt on the evidence from snapshot consultation tools such as surveys. Exposure to expert information from different perspectives and a process of listening to others talk policy led to people who supported a proposal rejecting it completely and it also encouraged changes in opinion about specific aspects of policy.
  2. Large-scale policy consultation should include a citizen-deliberation component even if decision makers do not wish to share decision making power with citizens. Data from a deliberative component can be triangulated with “snapshot” forms of consultation to give policy makers a fuller understanding of public opinion.
  3. Deliberative mechanisms should be employed in policy design processes when designers need data about policy mixes, prospective political problems and the potential ways in which public opinion might undermine the legitimacy of a policy instrument.

Want to read more?

Public deliberation and policy design - Alastair Stark, N. K. Thompson & Greg Marston, Policy Design and Practice, April 2021

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