Oliver Escobar. Mini-publics for citizen participation

Notes from the seminar on mini-publics by Oliver Escobar, organized by the Government of Catalonia and held in Barcelona, Spain, on 26 March 2019.

Oliver Escobar, University of Edinburgh and What Works Scotland

Paradigmatic shifts in the analysis and practice of governance and public policies:

  • Interpretative shift: try and understand things differently.
  • Pragmatist shift: do practical and applied things.
  • Collaborative shift: do things together.
  • Participatory shift: participation as a starting point.
  • Deliberative shift: not any participation, but deliberation.

Two alternative explanations about global citizenry:

  • Decadence: people participate less, lack of trust and legitimacy of institutions, low social capital.
  • Progress: more educated and informed citizenry, less reluctant to challenge authority, new ways of engagement.

Participation can have different results depending on the stating point. There is a paradox that, while participation processes increase in number, so does inequality. Unless corrective measure are taken participation of all varieties will be skewed in favour of those with higher socioeconomic status and formal education (Ryfe & Stalsburg, 2012).

Challenges of participatory governance:

  • Inclusion and diversity.
  • Quality of dialogue and deliberation.
  • Impact: participation has to be connected with decision-making.

3 components of ‘What works Scotland’:

  • Inclusive and multi-channel.
  • Deliberative.
  • Empowered and consequential.

People in Scotland usually trust their institutions, but would rather be more involved in decision-making processes. Notwithstanding, they still find it too costly/difficult to participate. In addition to this, Scotland has a municipalities structure that implies one of the highest people/city council ratios in Europe (i.e. more than triple than that of Spain). This gap, and the perceived cost to participate, means that people usually participate very little… unless it does matter: the Scottish referendum was participated by more than 80% of the total population.

New strategy to foster participation:

  • Democratic transformation and social justice.
  • Focus on improving outcomes.
  • From consultation to co-production.
  • Based on deliberation.
  • New statutory basis for community planning partnerships.
  • New obligations for public authorities and community planning partners.
  • Participation requests: any citizen can request taking part on any decision-making process.

Mini-publics

People are compensated for participation, so that participating comes at no-cost for them.

Composition of mini-publics aims at reflecting the reality of society: age, gender, education, etc.

And not only composition: facilitation is accurately designed, so that there are no biases or inequalities during deliberation. The design of such processes usually takes months. Facilitation or participation does not always mean talking: there are other non-verbal ways of participation. Plurality of means to participate make it easier for anyone to believe, at the end of the process, that they could have their say in the process.

Some deliberation processes have incentives to drive proposals to some given goals. E.g. if your proposal reduces inequality, it is valued more positively than if it “just solves an issue”.

Mini-publics are especially suited for complex issues. This implies a quite long period of information and learning about the issue. It takes lot of time and people end up becoming “citizen representatives” even if they were never chosen by anyone or are actually representing anyone.

An interesting idea is a two-chamber parliament where one chamber is chosen by elections, and another one by lottery. Both models have pros and cons: combined, we could maybe have a very strong model of parliament.

Civic organizations have a new role in mini-publics: they do not bargain with the Administration, or with the mini-publics, but their role is providing information, evidence and arguments in favor of their positions. This changes the rules of the game, favouring arguments in detriment of negotiation strength.

The scholar-academic mix is achieved with a thorough incentives design. Scholars are assessed by their social impact, and taking part in such projects as What Works Scotland is good for their social impact score. On the other hand, capacity building within the Administration is very important: training public servants so that they become experts and can also perform analysis and research on their own processes is key.

Main types of mini-publics (see below Escobar-Rodríguez & Elstub, 2017):

  • Citizens’ juries
  • Planning Cells
  • Consensus conferences
  • Deliberative polls
  • Citizens’ assemblies

People usually are satisfied of having taken part on a mini-public, although they find it tiring. For many people it may be the first time they take part in something related to citizen participation. They usually change or reshape their own opinion. The next level —quite a challenge, nevertheless— would be that they lasted long, or that they became structural.

It is better to think about ecosystems of participation rather than on participation processes.

How do we foster participation in an environment that does not welcome participation? In these cases, before going straight to citizen engagement, you have to create the appropriate conditions. This means thinking in the long term, identifying all the relevant actors, envisioning and sharing the goals, etc.

It is crucial to create the institutional spaces to back participatory processes. We have to be very aware that we need to work for a good fit of representative and deliberative democracies. Deliberative or participatory democracy can not be an isolated bubble disconnected from the rest of democratic institutions.

One have to separate dialogue from deliberation. One is for diagnosis, the other one to make one decision. They can be two phases of the same process, but they definitely need different approaches. In dialogue processes, one tries and leave out the decision phase so that people can suspend judgement and, above all, do not work to kill the alternative —because you already made your own decision.

How do we ensure that people understand the issue and the proposals made? One has to assess, first of all, the information available. Are they facts or just suppositions or opinions? After this, one has to design a good learning process so that people can learn. Evidence says that people usually are able to learn and make informed and thorough decisions. Evidence also shows that diversity usually works better than expertise. There is a limit in how much do we need to know about the technicalities on a specific issue to be able to make a decision: we are not substituting experts, but complementing the most technical decisions with the ones that have a social impact or nature. We need pilots to fly the plane, but people to decide where to.

The public does not exist: publics do. Publics are a construction. And a variable and flexible one. What public are you going to listen? An aggregative public built after a poll? Or a deliberative public that was build after questioning the issue and reflecting about it?

More information

Escobar-Rodríguez, O. & Elstub, S. (2017). Forms of Mini-publics: An introduction to deliberative innovations in democratic practice. Research and Development Note, 8 May 2917. Sydney: newDemocracy.
Smith, G. (2009) Democratic innovations: Designing institutions for citizen participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2019) “Oliver Escobar. Mini-publics for citizen participation” In ICTlogy, #186, March 2019. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
Retrieved month dd, yyyy from https://ictlogy.net/review/?p=4669

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