Comparing citizen and policymaker perceptions of deliberative democratic innovations

koskimaa and rapeliVesa Koskimaa and Lauri Rapeli

It seems that people are growing increasingly disappointed with how representative democracy functions. A big part of the problem is arguably a de-attachment of policymakers from citizens’ everyday problems, which prompts citizens to react by turning their backs on conventional politics. Many scholars and other observers have turned to democratic innovations for solutions on how the link between democratic publics and their democratic leaders could be improved. Innovations based on the theory of deliberative democracy have probably received most attention by scholars and practitioners. Deliberative democracy refers to a decision-making process, which emphasizes informed, reflexive and egalitarian interpersonal communication.

To put theory into practice, mini-publics, like citizen initiative reviews, juries and assemblies have been widely used in democracies across the world. In these deliberative groups, randomly selected individuals discuss and decide upon a specific political issue on the basis of best expert knowledge and argumentation. A considerable number of studies have discussed theoretically whether deliberative bodies could fix the problems of contemporary representative democracy. Other studies have used experimental methods to examine the internal proceedings and effects of these deliberations. What has, however, almost totally been ignored by scholars are the views of policy-making elites, whose opinions on democracy eventually determine the shape of new democratic institutions.

In our recent research article, published in Policy & Politics, we argue that, if deliberative mechanisms are expected to bridge the gap between citizens and policymakers, scholars need to assess the attitudes and behaviours of both groups. A crucial question, which still lacks a proper answer, is how much demand there is for more direct involvement  among citizens and, arguably even more importantly: are policymakers prepared to share some of their political power to provide opportunities to meet this demand? In our article, we examine this question using identical sets of questions to compare Finnish policymakers’ and voters’ perceptions of citizens’ capacity to directly engage in democratic governance through a deliberative mini-public. Combining two unique datasets, we analyse representative samples of Finnish voting-age citizens and national-level policy-makers, comparing their answers to survey results which asked respondents to assess how much they would trust the decisions of a deliberative citizen jury or assembly. The survey questions varied in terms of how much power citizen deliberation should be given, and how much the powers of the decision-makers should, in turn, be restricted. The most lenient option allowed citizen deliberation only to produce a public statement, while the extreme option was a decision reached through citizen deliberation that would be binding for decision-makers. Finland is a suitable context for a case study on this issue since Finland is recognized for having a population with “high civic literacy”, so consequently, it should have more deliberative capacity than most other countries. Finland has also suffered from a relatively deep democratic malaise, which might incentivise policymakers to include ordinary citizens more in the democratic process.

What we found, however, was that although citizens showed high levels of trust in their own capacity to make decisions within such deliberative groups, policymakers remained very sceptical of their value. The elite only trusts the citizenry to contribute with very general and unbinding policy advice, whereas many citizens would like to exert direct control over policies. So from the perspective of the policymakers, widespread use of deliberative mini-publics is not seen as a particularly attractive way to encourage a greater degree of representative democracy. We identify something of a “trust gap”, which is a significant distance between policy-making elites who try to manage increasing political complexity, and the influence-seeking masses that feel estranged from institutionalised, democratic politics. Our study is intended as a reminder for the growing number of scholars working with deliberative mini-publics and other similar instruments that elite attitudes, which are primarily negative, should be given greater consideration.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Koskimaa, Vesa and Rapeli, Lauri (2020) ‘Fit to govern? Comparing citizen and policymaker perceptions of deliberative democratic innovations’, Policy & Politics, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/030557320X15870515357288

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

Making policy information relevant to citizens: a model of deliberative mini-publics, applied to the Citizens’ Initiative Review

Identifying attitudes to welfare through deliberative forums: the emergence of reluctant individualism [Open Access] 

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