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Improving Democracy Through Deliberation – Interview with Lyn Carson

Source: flickr

Lyn Carson is a professor with the Business Programs Unit at the University of Sydney, Australia. Her research areas are community engagement and deliberative democracy. She is also a director of NewDemocracy Foundation.

Marcin Gerwin: There are many people who are disappointed in the way the democratic system works. They see politicians arguing and making decision in the interest of their political parties rather than the common good. What is wrong with modern democracy?

Lyn Carson: The difficulties that relate to modern democracy probably start with the use of that term. We have begun to believe that the system of representative government that is pervasive in both the West and increasingly in other locations is actually a democracy. I think we do well to reflect on the origins of democracy, and how democracy was first conceived. We know it was a very different system. We also know that representative government was designed during periods of the French, the American and the English revolutions to perpetuate elites. It was certainly designed to ensure that those who had money, who had property — usually men in the early days — would have their power maintained. I think what we have are the remnants of that.

Democracy is a beautiful ideal in its true sense of people power or the ability for people to make decisions about their own destinies, about things that affect them. In locations where we’ve been able to replicate at least of some of the qualities of ancient Athens, which was the cradle of democracy, then I think we can say that democracy can take root and can actually deliver its promise. It may serve us better not to use the word, I would suggest, to describe what it is that we have, which is far from the notion of genuine democracy. If we call it representative government or even an oligarchy we might start to realise what it is that we have.

MG: I think politicians will not be happy to hear that. They like to present themselves as democrats and some of them don’t acknowledge that there is a problem with a political system.

LC: Scholars are increasingly using the term “democratic deficit” to describe what is happening in the world. There is a widening gap between the governed and those who are doing the governing. There is a crisis of trust, and a growing mistrust because of what is called short-termism — political parties, because of the system, have an eye on the next election and not on the long-term needs of either humans or the even bigger picture, the environment and planetary survival. What we try to create in deliberative democracy are circumstances where all of the voices are in the room, where we can create what we call a “miniature population” or “mini-public” that resembles the entire population so it can achieve what we call a descriptive representation.

At the moment we have representation in parliaments, but it’s not descriptive of the wider population. In Australian parliament there is an inordinate number of lawyers, policy advisers, unionists — usually male — and they don’t resemble the entire population. As deliberative democrats what we are trying to do is to tune into the wider population. We can’t ask the entire population constantly. We can certainly ask what their opinions are but we actually want their judgment, which can only be arrived through a process of very deep deliberation, through a lot of education, through a lot of sharing of information, experience and stories. We want to achieve a very different democratic space than anything that we see in parliaments.

MG: Do you think that mini-publics could be used for actual decision-making instead of public consultations only?

LC: In deliberative democracy we talk about three ideals. That’s the notion of inclusion, or representativeness — that’s the principle of the miniature population. The second ideal is deliberation — you need people to be able to really wrestle with the complexity of an issue, to be fully informed, to argue it out, to use reason, to use storytelling, including emotion. The third ideal is the notion of influence. It is incredibly important that it is attached to decision-making. The NewDemocracy Foundation, that I’m a director of, deals only with projects that have influence. We have continually proved that we can achieve representativeness and deliberation, but the most difficult to achieve is influence. And that’s because elected representatives don’t want to give up power. They believe that they have a mandate to govern and they are disinclined to do so.

But there have been some fantastic examples where elected representatives have done just that. We’ve had a premier of a state in Western Australia who promised to act on the decisions of mini-publics. As Minister for Planning and Infrastructure she stood by citizens’ recommendations. We’ve had a participatory budget in New South Wales with Canada Bay Council. The local government agreed to abide by its decisions. It was the only reason we agreed to be involved. So it is happening. It’s not happening enough, but it’s certainly possible. I would suggest that none of us should proceed with mini-publics anymore unless it has the imprimatur of the decision-maker. It’s a little wearisome to keep proving that we can do these robust processes and then have the decision-makers ignoring the recommendations.

MG: What does the participatory budgeting work like in Australia?

LC: In the case of Canada Bay people were randomly selected, we had a group of 40 who came together face to face over five weekends. They deliberated on the entire budget of the council, they listened to expert speakers, they spent many hours having discussions. They split into small working parties to consider different aspects of the budget and they worked hard to deliver their recommendations to council and it was considered in a council meeting.

MG: Five weekends is a lot of time. Did the citizens receive a compensation for being involved in participatory budgeting?

LC: They received compensation, but it was a very small amount, something like 50 dollars a day or a weekend. It’s not huge and people don’t actually need a lot of money. They don’t want the equivalent of their salary. It’s an honorarium, a way to say “we value your participation”.

MG: If it was possible to change the law, would you like to have the decisions made by mini-public binding just like those made in referendums?

LC: That’s certainly my dream and there’s no reason why it can’t be so. A couple of examples exist. In Denmark there was a Danish Board of Technology which routinely convened mini-publics and fed those recommendations into the parliament. The parliament had to say why it wasn’t going to abide by those recommendations. That’s in a way the closest we’ve come to it. There’s a law in Tuscany in Italy, it’s called the Tuscan Law 69 which had a trigger mechanism which said that if there was a controversial issue it had to go to a deliberative process and again the regional government had to say why it would not act on those recommendations.

If I had a dream it would be to say that we would routinely convene policy juries to consider issues like education, health, transport and so on. You wouldn’t want to do it for everything. The whole point is to use these processes when and where appropriate, otherwise you would be bogging down the decision-making process which is often working quite well just through the current mechanisms that we have. It’s only when controversy emerges or long-term decisions have to be made, or when politicians are reluctant to act.

MG: What about the referenda? Are they a good way of making decisions?

LC: I’m not a fan of referenda. The reason is that they lack the deliberative element. We’ve had many referenda in Australia. I think we’ve had 44 and 36 of them was unsuccessful. That’s because the issue tends to become very polarized unless it has bi-partisan support, from the two major parties. They are inevitably rejected by the population because it’s so easy to run a negative campaign. Australian governments provide a lot of information when there is a referendum. But this can be quite confusing and citizens need an opportunity to deliberate on them, as they do in Oregon with the Citizens Initiative Review, or to have serious discussions with other people. A referendum for me without that deliberative component is nothing more than an opinion poll. It’s absolutely destined to failure unless you have all the major parties supporting it.

The citizen-initiated referendum sounds good on the surface because there is a groundswell of support, but what I would like to see is the groundswell of support demanding a deliberative process and then letting that deliberative process make a decision instead of putting it to a referendum.

MG: For some people it may be hard to accept that only those who are chosen by lot are going to make a decision instead of everybody as in referenda.

LC: That’s going to vary from country to country. In Australia we have a great deal of faith in random selection because it’s fair. Everyone has an equal opportunity to be selected. We also have an independent Australian Electoral Commission that has earned public confidence and it could have oversight of such lotteries. As long as you have faith in the process there shouldn’t be a problem. The difficulty is that it is not a routine to do that, although in Australia it is quite a routine to do that through criminal juries — people are randomly selected to sit on those juries. So actually we understand that process and we have faith in it to make very binding decisions about whether or not someone is guilty or not guilty, whether they should go to jail for life. We actually give that power to citizens at the moment. If that process doesn’t exist in a country, then yes, it needs to become a routine in order for trust to develop.


  1. Fascinating ideas and trials. Remember that democracy in Athens involved just male citizens of leisure. The economy was underpinned by slaves, who had no voice.

  2. Perhaps we should have no politicians but scientists, technicians and economists to find solutions to the incredibly complex problems of our societies, and a network of local, small, almost neighbourhood/sized groups to meet, discuss and approve their findings.

  3. Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education. — Franklin D. Roosevelt

    In a world where people are ‘educated’ through corporate-controlled mass media, we have to wonder how successful democracy can be.

    A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always vote for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship. –- Alexander Tytler

    See more here.

  4. In a democracy, a proper one like the Swiss model not the fake versions operating in the western world, there will always be a percentage of people who do not agree with the majority view which naturally sets up a division in the population that lives where the democracy system claims jurisdiction.

    To my mind an individual once born creates their own unique version of a life they either want to live or feel they must live because others claim authority over them.
    It is argued that without some form of ‘governance by government’ there would simply be chaos but the most recent evidence suggests that view is simply made up by those who gain from governance of others by government.

    Belgium functioned perfectly well as a population of people without a government for fourteen months (if memory serves).
    People presume ‘we are not ready’ or ‘we are not sufficiently evolved’ to do away with governance by government. I would suggest these presumptions are false but to put it to the test means closing down governments, scrapping them to be more accurate and implementing a different way of living one based on personal responsibility and a collective responsibility to every other human we as individuals encounter and it goes without saying the planet and it’s systems of life.

    Not saying this would work or is necessarily the only solution to the currency based religion of governance that is collapsing at different rates around the planet just offering something different to the idea of democracy being somehow better because more people take part.

    Cannot recall who said it but someone said “Democracy is tyranny by mob”.

  5. Intriguing idea. Want to find out more about the native american systems before whites arrived. It was supposedly quite sophisticated, and did not exclude women, as the first iteration of this system did.

    1. Some would say, with apologies to Bernard Shaw, that Democracy, like Christianity has never been tried.
      Lyn Carson (is she related to Rachel Carson, who wrote “Silent Spring”?) is trying to introduce ways of making decisions which are truly responsive to the situation any governing body finds itself in.
      Choosing people at random, if honestly done is a good method of getting ordinary people involved.
      It is true that a randomly chosen group, given a proper process will usually deliver a useful outcome. Given the benefit of different experts’ advice, and other advice like advice from people who will have to implement decisions, considering feelings and allowing discussion and even argument are all productive.
      Issues are never as simple as they first appear, so time and information as well as consideration of differing opinions are useful. I hope that Ms Carson’s
      efforts are accepted in more places in Australia,
      her methods would certainly be welcome at our Regional Shire Council.

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