Democracy needs more than just voice: coping with communicative plenty

Ercan_Hendricks_DryzekSelen A. Ercan, Carolyn M. Hendriks and John S. Dryzek

Imagine a crowded restaurant that is starting to get noisy. The noise at each table begins to rise as people try to make themselves heard. Eventually the noise becomes so loud that nobody can hear anything. Here’s a familiar context where there is plenty of expression, but precious little listening, and not much good conversation.

The noisy restaurant is a metaphor, we believe, for what we see in contemporary democracy where citizens have plenty of opportunities to express their views and opinions about anything that concerns them, but there is no guarantee and little likelihood that these views will be listened to, reflected upon, and/or taken up by decision-making bodies.

Overload of expression, not enough listening

In our recent article published in Policy and Politics we label this expressive overload ‘communicative plenty.’ Commentators rightly emphasize how information technologies have expanded the communicative landscape by creating additional sites for political expression (such as blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other online platforms). While we agree with this observation, we argue that communicative plenty is also about the growing number of face-to-face communication sites, created by government, community and private organizations seeking to connect with relevant constituents. It is reported repeatedly that organisations including government department and agencies, corporations and major institutions spend millions and even hundreds of millions of dollars, pounds, and euros a year on creating opportunities for communication both internally and externally.

For citizens, communicative plenty means there is much to access, understand, digest, listen to, reflect upon and discuss. For decision makers, communicative plenty means much more noise but also more discursive opportunities. What then are the democratic opportunities and challenges posed by this era of communicative plenty?

Taking a deliberative perspective

We respond to this question from the perspective of deliberative democracy — a theory of democratic decision making that emphasizes the quality of political communication and not just the volume of it.  The process of public deliberation, as we view it, is something much more diverse than simply a structured deliberative forum, such as a public meeting or legislature. Instead we understand public deliberation as a broad communication process occurring within and across multiple, diverse spaces. When public deliberation is viewed in this broad systemic way, the contemporary proliferation of spaces for political communication is potentially good news. However, communicative plenty is problematic for public deliberation if it only fosters communicative spaces for political expression and voice.

Designing listening and reflection in democracy 

What then are some ways we might we enhance the reflective aspects of communicative plenty? We argue that communicative plenty can strengthen public deliberation provided that: i) the spaces for voice and expression are accompanied by sufficient spaces for reflection and listening; and that ii) collective decisions involve sequencing of first expression, then listening, and then reflection.

To show how this might work in practice consider two different examples where spaces for listening and reflection have been built into conventional democratic practices which are at risk of being drowned out by the noise of communicative plenty.

  1. Our first example is the Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR) which demonstrates how reflection and listening can be designed around ballot initiatives and referenda. It does so by establishing a citizens’ panel of around 18-24 people to review a specific referendum question.
  2. Our second example is the Australian Federal rural electorate of Indi, where informal spaces of reflection and listening in the form of Kitchen Table Conversations were used to strengthen constituency-representative relations amid all the expressive elements of electoral politics.

Both examples demonstrate how different spaces in contemporary democracies can counteract the negatives of communicative plenty, while retaining its positives.

To realize the democratic possibilities of communicative plenty, greater consideration should be given to how the growing abundance of opportunities for political expression can be accompanied by greater opportunities for listening and reflection. Inviting citizens to have their say on issues that affect them alone does not make organizations or governments more democratic, especially not in the era of communicative plenty. What matters is what happens after citizens express their views. The context of communicative plenty requires democracies to pay more explicit attention to the processes and practices of listening and reflection.

You may read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Ercan, Selen A.; Hendriks, Carolyn M.; Dryzek, John S. (2018) ‘Public deliberation in an era of communicative plenty’, Policy & Politics, DOI: 10.1332/030557318X15200933925405

Selen A. Ercan is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra.

Carolyn M. Hendriks is an Associate Professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.

John S. Dryzek is a Centenary Professor and Director of the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

When the People Speak and Decide – Deliberation and Direct Democracy in the Citizen Assembly of Glarus, Switzerland

Citizens’ Initiative Review process: mediating emotions, promoting productive deliberation

One thought on “Democracy needs more than just voice: coping with communicative plenty

  1. Great article! Democracy is something that every American respects in a way, its the people who run it, and attempt at defining its meaning that endanger our country as a whole. Today, people are afraid to speak out and start meaningful protests to convey what they think is wrong with choices and decisions made by those in charge. Todays teens need to be educated and informed about public laws and policies and how it will effect their future.

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