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Detoxing democracy 3: bringing citizen deliberation into government administration

By Nicholas Gruen - posted Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Citizen deliberation is a powerful tool for legitimisation, but can it become institutionalised? Just as Yarra Valley Water consulted its community in a way that encouraged their close deliberation on the issues, agencies could cultivate councils of people reflective of community makeup for ongoing capacity to reflect community deliberation.

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old order of things, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. - Niccolò Machiavelli

Two forms of representation

One can distinguish between two ways of representing the people. The first, with which we are very familiar, are mechanisms where we select representatives with some specific quality to recommend them. They might be selected by election (this is the foundation of our politics), by the judgement of those senior to them — as is common within organisations, or by self-selection as might occur in a local social club or amongst some grassroots activist organisation. In each case we could tell a story that legitimised the choice as meritocratic. But as we are discovering, there’s many a slip between cup and lip. The formal structures of meritocracy can often provide a fertile environment for dysfunction to brew. This is coming increasingly to mind as we bemoan the worlds of inauthenticity and careerist self-interest we’ve built together — in politics, in bureaucracy, in business indeed even in philanthropy and the non-profit world — and we tune into spoofs and exposes from Yes Minister and the Hollow Men to Utopia, Silicon Valley and The Big Short.


The principal alternative means of representation which is often called ‘deliberative democracy’ is the process that peppered the polity of ancient Athens. It involves communities and/or their constituent parts being represented by groups of people who are broadly reflective of the makeup of those communities. In the modern world this approach is only starting to gain some traction in the political sphere 1 The most common method for constituting such groups is random selection, but, providing the method is transparent and seen as fit for purpose, it can be legitimate for selection to be made by some statistical process of selection. We will see some examples of this below.

Deliberative democracy mechanisms in administration

In the previous two articles, I’ve tried to show how we could heal our stricken democracy by making much more robust use of deliberative democracy mechanisms. I sketched out what kind of political institutions I’d like to see us aim for both in the long and short term. In this article I suggest that these mechanisms can also help agencies in numerous ways as they themselves are increasingly realising. They provide a repertoire of options by which some of the worst features of bureaucracy can be ameliorated. And the way ‘the people’ are directly represented in successful deliberative democracy institutions provides a powerful source of legitimation. This is particularly the case where bureaucracies or statutory officers must decide, or provide advice to politicians who must ultimately decide policy matters in which ethics and community values are prominent and pose difficult dilemmas. I conclude the piece with some longer term aspirations.

Yarra Valley Water and deliberative democracy

When the Reserve Bank sets interest rates, though they have distributional consequences, the decision is generally understood as a technocratic one. That’s less so when it comes to the detail of how Yarra Valley Water (YVW) sets its tariffs. Should it continue to fund water conservation even long after the drought? To what extent should YVW — that is YVW’s paying customers — subsidise householders who are having trouble paying their bills? We’ll see how the community answered those questions shortly but the exercise of encouraging careful deliberation from a group selected to reflect community makeup seems to have had additional benefits in terms of the legitimacy of deliberative democracy mechanisms this made its own contribution to the community’s acceptance of YVW’s policy decisions and also burnished Yarra Valley Water’s reputation.

In the first of these three articles I likened electoral democracy via the mass media to ‘road rage’ pointing out how dramatically face-to-face contact promotes agreement within groups dealing with social dilemmas. 2 Sure enough, taking the trouble to constitute a ‘mini-public’ to consult and fully engage in decision making had important implications for the way the community saw the issues and the players. As often happens the community’s opinion of those wrestling with the issues went up (just as their opinion of the media often falls further when they see how simplistically the issues have been covered by the media). Those participating in the process concluded it with a far higher opinion of the way Yarra Valley Water was going about its business in all manner of areas.

Yarra Valley Water Plan, Oct 2012, p. 16

Yarra Valley Water Plan, Oct 2012, p. 16


Not surprisingly Yarra Valley Water’s Water Plan concluded ‘The services received from water utilities are generally not top of mind for most customers. When customers are able to explore the extent of services provided, perceptions of value increased markedly’. Further, it turned out that, using deliberative methods such as this uncovered attitudes that seemed to empower the better angels of our nature. When asked whether they’d pay a little more ($2.30 per quarter) for improved aesthetic water quality and reduced service interruptions citizens’ opinions went from 67% against before a presentation on what was proposed to 79% in favour a dramatic result and one that calls into question how persuasive we should find opinion polls taken on matters about which people are poorly informed.

Yarra Valley Water Plan, Oct 2012, p. 17

Reflecting what we know from elsewhere, citizens were even less prepared to pay for improvements — 72% were against — when polled quantitatively than citizens at the deliberative forum before they’d had a chance to learn. Yarra Valley Water concluded that ‘the difference in perspectives between the qualitative result and the quantitative result is due to the different level of interaction that occurs with these research methods’. The process also uncovered strong support for the authority’s support for low income and vulnerable people uncovering a preparedness to pay very slightly more on water bills ($0.05 per quarter) to fund additional support including free water audit and retro-fitting.

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This article was first published in The Mandarin.

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About the Author

Dr Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chairman of Peach Refund Mortgage Broker. He is working on a book entitled Reimagining Economic Reform.

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