#5Papers: mini-publics – macro consequences?

by Nivek K Thompson


Dryzek JS, with Niemeyer S. Foundations and Frontiers of Deliberative Governance. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2010. Chapter 8 ‘Mini-publics and their Macro Consequences’ pp155-176

What attracted me to this Article / Chapter?

I was surprised I hadn’t come across this chapter before, even though I had borrowed this book from the library before. The macro consequences or macro impact (as I’m calling it) of deliberative mini-publics is what my PhD research is all about, so I wanted to know how John approached this topic and to see how his conceptualization of macro consequences relates to my macro impacts.

What is it about? (Problem / Purpose / Research Questions)

This chapter is part of a larger book about deliberative democracy, as the title of the book suggests, looking at the foundational aspects of deliberative democracy as well as future directions (frontiers). As well as the lessons that these processes can provide for deliberative democrats more broadly – both practically and normatively.
This chapter looks at the role of mini-publics in the broader system of democracy as well as the ‘deliberative system’.

Where does this come from? (Literature / Theoretical Framework)

Dryzek’s analysis is grounded in a review of empirical literature regarding the use of mini-publics. It also outlines his view that ‘the democratic potential of mini-publics is quite different in different sorts of political systems.’ (p155) He outlines three different sorts of political system

What did they do?
(Methodology & Method)
                    Dryzek reviews a number of deliberative mini-publics, set out their main features before comparing three GM consensus conferences held in three different countries to demonstrate how the political situation impacts on how mini-publics are used.

What did they learn?
(Results / Discussion)
      For Dryzek mini-publics are not, as some others have suggested, distracting us from the bigger picture of designing and delivering deliberative democracy or (using the more current terminology) a deliberative system. Rather, he argues that ‘the study of mini-publics can demonstrate exactly what we would like deliberation to accomplish in larger political systems – and, for that matter, what we would like to avoid in those systems.’ (p157).

Dryzek reminds us of some of the key lessons that the empirical study of deliberative mini-publics reveals:

  • ‘ordinary citizens can make good deliberators’ (p158) even when dealing with complex issues and they are generally better at deliberating than partisan actors.
    challenge: how to apply this competence on a broader scale?
  • citizen deliberation can move beyond ‘symbolic politics’ to consider the nuanced reality of the world
    challenge: how to replicate this process in the broader public sphere.

Dryzek discusses the use of mini-publics in risk-related issues and highlights the gap between the precautionary approach of mini-publics and the Promethean (which put their ‘faith in the ability of the economy and society to control social and ecological systems in the interests of human good’ (p163)) approach of most governments. He notes that most governments set up mini-publics to consider risk issues because they recognise widespread community concern and they hope that the mini-public will legitimate the govt’s approach. However this is rarely the outcome and he suggests that ‘At some point goverments may realize that they are unlikely to win, and stop sponsoring citizen forums on risk issues.’ (p166)
Dryzek moves onto consider the part mini-publics play in larger systems and in particular he identifies how this role is different depending on the nature of the larger political system.

Dryzek identifies a range of possible impacts for mini-publics on the larger deliberative system:

  • making policy in empowered space – he notes that this is rare
  • being taken up in the empowered space – he notes that can be hard to identify in some cases
  • informing public debates – again hard to identify this impact
  • guiding public opinion – focus here is on trust by broader community in the work of the mini-public
  • market testing of policy
  • legitimating policy
  • confidence building for participants
  • popular oversight of public officials.

Dryzek suggests that influence on policy making is rare – however since this book was published in 2010 nDF have conducted over a dozen deliberative mini-publics the majority of which have indeed influenced policy making including legislation and expenditure by public authorities, so maybe this isn’t so much as an inherent limitation as a a matter of strategy and tactics from those pushing the use of deliberative mini-publics?

Dryzek has another explanation for the variable impact of mini-publics on policy making and that is the nature of the political system in which they are operating. To demonstrate this he looks at mini-publics focused on GM in three different countries with different ‘kinds of states’ (p170). The dimensions upon which states differ are:

  • a continuum from inclusive to exclusive vis-a-vis social interests and
  • an active or passive orientation to them.

The three countries he considers are Denmark (actively inclusive), the United Stated (passively inclusive) and France (exclusive).

He concludes that ‘the constraints on and opportunities for mini-publics vary dramatically across different kinds of political system’ (pp167 – 168) suggesting that it is not possible to transplant say the integrative use of mini-publics in Denmark to different political systems.

Useful quote: ‘a mini-public in and of itself never can and never should be mistaken for deliberative democracy.’ (p176). He notes that it is not enough to consider how mini-publics affect the larger political system but also how that larger system affects them.

What did I learn?

In talking about moving beyond symbolic politics at the macro level Dryzek makes the point: ‘Observing these processes at the level of mass publics would be much harder: indeed, it would be hard to know what, when, and how to observe, using what instruments.’ (p160) This statement really stood out for me, as it is how I feel about observing change in the institutions of democracy – where would we look and when and how?

I need to give more thought to the different types of impact Dryzek suggests mini-publics might have, although a quick review suggests his focus is on their influence on decision-making [which is kind of my interest too? – same same but different?]. He also highlights their value in demonstrating how particular components of deliberative democracy work in practice, including things that work well and things that don’t work so well. I think I’ve been focusing on whether they can actually generate or contribute to change.

With a focus on mini-publics as possible change ‘agents’ or ‘structures’, as my supervisor Chris Riedy says – I will need to identify the theory of change I’m working with to determine whether mini-publics have any chance of delivering or supporting change and to help me know where to look? I also need to find out if there is a common view on the relevant theory of change amongst deliberative democrats.

I’m going to go back and read a few other chapters from this book which I think will help me in thinking through some of these issues.