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PhD Defence Franziska Eckardt | Let the people speak - Deliberative mini-publics: A pathway towards a participatory democracy?

Let the people speak - Deliberative mini-publics: A pathway towards a participatory democracy?

Due to the COVID-19 crisis the PhD defence of Franziska Eckardt will take place (partly) online.

The PhD defence can be followed by a live stream.

Franziska Eckardt is a PhD student in the research group Public Administration (PA). Her supervisor is prof.dr. M.J.G.J.A. Boogers from the Faculty of Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences (BMS).

Solving complex societal problems demands wide societal support for policies to be legitimate. The societal support can be delivered by political parties, but given the strong divide between parties about many topics, and given the dwindling societal embedding of those parties (declining party memberships), there is a need for additional ways to retain societal support. Moreover, in response to the growing awareness that many of these societal problems (e.g., climate change mitigation; the Dutch nitrogen crisis) cannot be solved by the state on its own, calls for a more inclusive participatory society and more democratic renewal are becoming louder from various groups in society (see e.g., Tweede Kamer, 2020; “Betrokken bij Klimaat,’’ 2021). In doing so, the importance of involving the interests and wishes of citizens in political decision-making is increasingly highlighted. At the same time, the last decade has seen a growing interest worldwide in deliberative mini-publics, such as citizens’ juries, consensus conferences, deliberative polls, and the Belgian and Dutch G1000 initiatives. Some see in these innovative practices a way to increase citizens’ involvement in political decision-making and thereby make contemporary representative democratic institutions more inclusive of citizens’ wishes and interests. But despite the growing interest in these deliberative practices, knowledge about the functioning of different mini-publics, in general, is still in its infancy. Therefore, this dissertation aims to learn more about the functioning of deliberative mini-publics by examining the following central research question:

To what extent can deliberative mini-publics contribute to the greater involvement of citizens in local decision making?

To answer this research question, we focus in this dissertation on a certain ‘new’ type of deliberative mini-public that has become quite popular in the Netherlands in recent years: the Dutch G1000 initiatives. To gain a better understanding of how the G1000 functions, we used a longitudinal case study design and a mixed-methods approach that combines qualitative and quantitative data. By following three G1000 initiatives in the Dutch province of Overijssel over three years (period 2017 - 2020), we systematically analyse and compare the effects of the G1000 initiatives on citizen participation in local government.

This dissertation is structured in ten chapters. After the introductory chapter, in chapters 2 and 3 we give a historical overview of the normative conceptions of democracy that underlie the common design ideals of deliberative mini-public designs. In these chapters, we show that despite their differences in design, there are three common underlying normative design ideals that all these different mini-public designs, including the G1000 initiatives, pursue: (1) inclusiveness, (2) high quality of deliberation and decision-making, and (3) influence on policy-making. In chapter 4 we present a systematic literature review on the functioning of existing mini-publics. Here we formulate some theoretical ideas and expectations about how deliberative mini-publics function. In chapter 5 we give a short overview of the G1000 method and the background of the case studies. Before we start with the actual analysis part of this research, we explain how we studied the functioning of mini-publics and how we collected and operationalised the data we used for this study in chapter 6.

Chapters 7, 8 and 9 contain the analysis of this research. In chapter 7, we focus on the inclusiveness of the three G1000 initiatives by examining the question of whether the G1000 population was a good reflection of the local population. Our results show that unfortunately, this was not the case for all three G1000 initiatives. We found that the main reason for this lack of representativeness was that a large proportion of the invited participants did not want to participate in the G1000 initiatives. Furthermore, the three G1000 initiatives, like other mini-public designs, seem to attract a certain type of citizen: highly educated and politically active older (over 50 years old) men/women. Considering that both the population of randomly selected participants and the population of non-randomly selected participants were not a good reflection of the local populations, we concluded that the use of purely random sampling methods does not guarantee statistical representativeness and thus diversity in deliberative mini-publics. Furthermore, the results in this chapter have shown that the representativeness of the G1000 initiatives was severely undermined by the problem of (last-minute) drop-outs. The main reason for this was a lack of time.

In chapter 8, we focus on the deliberative quality of the G1000 processes by examining the extent to which the organisers of the G1000 initiatives have succeeded in creating a high quality of deliberation and decision-making in the participatory process. Our results show that the G1000 methodology is an appropriate method for achieving consensus-based outcomes and creating common ground and mutual understanding among participants. However, our results also revealed inequalities among participants as they perceived the conversations in different ways. While some participants, the “dialogue seekers”, expected to learn more about the complexity of the problem at hand during the Citizens’ Summits, others, the “problem solvers”, saw it as their task to develop concrete ideas and approaches to solve the problem. In terms of the quality of decision-making, we found that the lack of representative quality found above in result-oriented mini-publics designs should not be underestimated, as participants based their judgement of the legitimacy of the G1000 outcomes solely on the perceived representative quality of the G1000 participants.

Finally, chapter 9 concludes the empirical sections of this dissertation by examining the last normative objective of mini-publics, their impact. To this end, we investigate to what extent the G1000 initiatives had a political and social impact on local governments, participants, and the local community. Our findings show that the embedding of the G1000 in the political system had a positive influence on its actual impact on policy-making. In the G1000 initiatives where the G1000 processes were co-organised by the local municipalities, policymakers felt more responsible for the G1000 process and the implementation of its results because they felt ownership of the process. However, our results also showed that the more embedded the G1000 was, the less social impact it had: the more the G1000 processes were integrated into the political system, the less the participants (or citizens) felt ownership of the G1000 process and its results. From this, we concluded that creating a shared sense of ownership of the process and the implementation of its outcomes between political and social actors is the next challenge facing the G1000. Regarding the impact of the G1000 on the participants, our data show that the G1000 process has not had a measurable positive impact on the long-term civil society and political activism of the participants. However, regarding the impact of the G1000 on the local community, in one case the G1000 triggered a long-term participatory movement.

In sum, the main findings presented in the case studies provided some interesting insights about the study on mini-publics. We found that deliberative mini-publics are a powerful tool for letting the people speak. These instruments can help to bring people together, broaden their horizons about the views of others, and thus learn about a topic from different points of view. Moreover, if embedded enough in the political system, our findings also indicated that mini-publics can be a powerful tool to also let the people co-decide and consequently help to increase citizen involvement in political decision-making processes in local communities. Yet our study also showed that the use of deliberative mini-publics is a complex undertaking that should not be underestimated by the organising parties. After all, the use of mini-publics can also lead to less involvement of citizens in politics (as happened in the example of Enschede). It is also clear that participation in long-term deliberative mini-publics can be very intensive and time-consuming for all participants involved (both organisers and citizens). For the successful functioning of deliberative mini-publics, our study, therefore, suggests five important conditions that need to be met:

/        high representative quality;

/        good practical guidance and content knowledge provision;

/        a high degree of process and outcome transparency,

/        fair and transparent decision-making procedures, and

/        good embeddedness of a mini-public’s process and its outcomes in the political system and the local community.

A mini-public that fulfils these conditions is most likely to achieve its substantive goal of coming up with several proposals to the issue at hand that find fertile ground in local politics and the local community, as well as to achieve its long-term goal of increasing citizen involvement in local political decision-making.