Public deliberation on important policy issues is essential for a healthy democracy, especially when we are facing the complex and multi-jurisdictional issues of today. What does it mean though, when we talk about public deliberation? Here’s a quick definition, remixing concepts presented by the University of Houston-Downtown’s Center for Public Deliberation.

From Individual Opinion to Informed Public Judgement
Public deliberation brings diverse members of the public together to talk and confront the inherent tough choices that the legislators have to face.

Public opinion is often a ‘knee-jerk’ response. Deliberation supports participants to share their values with one another and work through difficult issues. Participating in a public deliberation tends to expand participants’ sense of self-interest by providing opportunities to see how these issues affect not just themselves but the others in the community.

Impact on Policy Making
Research shows that leaders and elected officials who consult with conveners about reports of public deliberations or who participate in these initiatives tend to get better outcomes than decisions that are made in a more top-down fashion.

Public participation in deliberative events also tends to increase the public’s trust of politicians because they come to understand through the process of choice making just how difficult it is to make political decisions for a community.

Different than Most Public Meetings and Focus Groups
Public deliberation is different from most town hall meetings or public hearings because these meetings are normally either one-way communication (citizens to decision makers or vice versa), or a conversation between citizens and decision makers, but likely not a conversation among citizens.

Public deliberation is also different from most focus groups because generally people who run focus groups are attempting to “capture” what people think. Opinion polls and focus groups, in fact, can be used to capture what people think, but they are not designed to really change the way people think — and the way people think politically is normally one-sided.

Features of Public Deliberation
Five key features of deliberation include:

  1. Emphasis on public values and knowledge, not just expert opinion.
  2. Equal opportunity to speak via small group discussions, and equal opportunity to directly affect the outcome of the deliberation through a report of participant ideas.
  3. Choice work, which is different from a dialogue or a debate. In deliberation, people are challenged together to weigh carefully various approaches and the views of others, to make tough choices, and to consider consequences and trade-offs of these choices.>
  4. Diverse participants who are representative of the people impacted by the decision.
  5. Seek common ground, not consensus or compromise. Public deliberation aims to find the actions or policies that are acceptable to the participants, even while they may hold different values and opinions.
  6. Outcomes are linked to decision making by advance planning that keeps in mind the needs of decision makers and participants.