Skip to main content

What is Public Deliberation?

Public Deliberation, simply defined, is the discussion and choice-making that is necessary before we can solve problems that affect our communities together. In other words, before we can choose where we want to build the road, we need to consider the various values and interests we have as people. We need to also consider the costs and the trade-offs we are willing to accept for our values.

Public Deliberation Meeting More broadly, public deliberation is the name we use to discuss the various models of communication which are designed to help citizens form their own political voice. In fact, many public deliberation "approaches" have been developed and researched. The model studied since 1981, is the National Issues Forum, but other approaches to deliberation include Everyday Democracy, AmericaSpeaks, Deliberative Polling, Citizen Juries, and many more. Regardless of the specific approach taken, public deliberation holds certain distinguishing characteristics.

Characteristics of Public Deliberation:

1. Public deliberation is not just about experts. Public deliberation forums are structured so that titles, status, or position are not as highlighted or as important as in other arenas. Deliberative forums are designed to be spaces where the public's input is most important. Experts serve an important role in society, but in these groups, we are less interested in experts informing on issues, and more interested in working through tough choices as a community of equals. We recognize that there will always be differences in power and knowledge levels within these groups, so we encourage people with power or expertise to listen more in these contexts than they might be asked to do in other arenas. We believe that one of the important skills for experts to develop, often not encouraged, is the ability to listen and to be free from the expectation of others that they must know everything. Experts can only learn the values of the public, after all, if they listen to the values of the public. In order for us to have the best solutions for our community, we must all have our voices and values heard.

2. Public deliberation requires equality of opportunity. In deliberative forums, usually conducted in groups no larger than 25 people, all participants are equally encouraged to speak. In addition, all ideas given by participants are recorded and compiled into a report at the close of a forum. By listening to and recording each participant's input, regardless of status or title, all participants have an opportunity to directly affect the outcome.

3. Public deliberation is about choice work, which is different from a dialogue or a debate. In dialogue, people often look to relate to each other, to understand each other, and to talk about more informal issues. In debate, there are generally two positions and people are generally looking to "win" their side. Deliberation requires both dialogue and good argument, but it also requires something more. In deliberation, people are challenged together to weigh carefully various approaches and the views of others, to make tough choices, and to consider the unpleasant and often emotional consequences and trade-offs of these choices.

4. Public deliberation requires diversity. Public deliberation requires that the individuals who come to the table to deliberate be representative of the diversity in the community. By convening and holding diverse forums, people are able to make the best decisions because they are grappling together with people both similar and different from them.

5. Public deliberation seeks common ground, not consensus or compromise. Consensus generally refers to a type of decision where everyone needs to come to agreement within a group. While compromise refers to a decision where each person or "side" gives something up. In public deliberation, however, people may and usually don't all agree. Rather, the goal of public deliberation is to find common ground, which means the "actions or policies that are acceptable to a group whose individual members may still cherish different values and hold different opinions but have a shared frame of reference or sense of direction. As a practical matter, it is necessary to identify enough common ground to move ahead." (Melville, Willingham, & Dedrick, The Deliberative Democracy Handbook, p. 47).

How does public deliberation differ from focus groups or town hall meetings?

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.

Those who practice public deliberation design, facilitate processes to have citizens talking to each other, working through difficult issues and making tough choices. They are trying to move people from having an individual opinion to having more of a public judgment (see Daniel Yankelovich's Coming to Public Judgment). Or, another way to say this is, they are trying to expand our sense of self-interest by asking us to deliberate with others to see how issues affect not just ourselves but our community. When citizens do this, we become problem solvers, rather than mere consumers or political spectators. And, part of the work of deliberative democracy is moving away from these images of citizens as mere "consumers" or "spectators" as these models on their own offer less productivity to our community.

Decision-makers who participate in deliberative processes begin to respect the decisions made in these forums because usually they hear mostly from individuals with strong opposing positions. Legislators get calls and emails all day long from citizens complaining about this and that, many of whom, contradict each other (We need better roads! We need lower taxes! We need better health care! We need more regulation! We need less regulation!). So for them, more public participation means more complaining and more people talking past each other. The practice of public deliberation offers something different - it offers a way for people to talk to each other and confront the inherent tough choices that the legislators have to face.

What do individuals and the community gain from participation?

  • People begin to experience themselves differently, feel that they have power over the decisions made in their community and that they make a difference.
  • Deliberation lessens our tendency to "demonize" the other "side" and tries to change a polarized battle over positions. Disagreement often becomes a starting point rather than an ending point. If we never decide first as community what is important when we make decisions, we are not ever going to get out of the polarized and positional fighting when we do make decisions. With deliberation, we dig deeper by putting the solutions to a problem within the context of what people value.
  • People become more engaged in important issues in their community. People begin to define citizenship as having to be more that just voting, just volunteering, just giving money, or just reading the paper and being a "spectator" of politics.
  • When people's input in considered, they go out and vote.
  • When people's input is considered, they want to volunteer more.
  • When people know that their voices matter, they tend to educate themselves on the issues so they are prepared to speak. Knowing that your voice will matter increases everyone's willingness to be better informed
  • When people's input matters, they want productive relationships with their government and with various members in their community. People also come to appreciate new - more productive -- ways of working in groups.
  • While people do no tend to change their values or opinions in one session or forum, they do broaden their experiences and more favorably change their attitude toward the position they oppose and the people who hold that position.
  • People tend to move from understanding how issues affect only themselves, to how they affect their community. People's views don't often change, but rather, they expand.
  • Participation in forums generally increases our connection with our community, broadens our social relationships, and gives us an appreciation for the diverse members in our community.

What do community leaders, decision makers and government gain from working with the reports generated from deliberative forums as well as listening, participating, sponsoring and encouraging public deliberation?

  • Leaders and elected officials who consult with moderators about reports of forums or who participate in public deliberation tend to get better outcomes than decisions that are made in a more top-down fashion (See Fung, A., and Wright, E.O. (2001, March). "Deepening Democracy: Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance." Politics and Society, 29(1), 18.)
  • Public participation in forums 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.
  • Those involved in public deliberation are trying to create a new relationship between the public and government. We've learned that public opinion polls often tell us what the public is thinking when they are not thinking. The value of deliberative forums is that they result in reports that give us a truly meaningful understanding of how the public thinks and values together. We've learned in our research that when you compare what policy experts or those in the media are saying to what the public is saying, these reports often look very different. Public deliberation is another way to create that needed connection between the public, media, and the government.
  • Public deliberation is not a cure-all, but when people have to work through issues in ways the leaders do, leaders also find the input of the public more valuable and less frustrating as leaders are held accountable for satisfying a wide - often contradicting - array of demands.

What does the National Issues Forums (NIF) model of deliberation look like in action in Houston? 

  • Organizers select a national issue that has been framed by the National Issues Forums (NIF), like health care, energy, or the education gap. All members of a community or communities are invited to deliberate in a forum. Those who convene the forum also work to actively recruit diverse participation - political affiliation, race, gender, age, class, etc.
  • Each participant has advanced access to a booklet that holds three approaches to an important national issue. This NIF booklet uses the language of the public, not the language of experts, to frame and discuss the various approaches a community can take to begin solving a national issue. A video that summarizes the three approaches is also shown before people deliberate.
  • Forums are structured so that citizens can come together to discuss the three framed options in resolving the problem on the table. The goal of the discussion is not to choose an option from among the three, but to use the wide range of the three options -- all with their own set of values and insights about the problem -- to better reveal the thoughts, feelings, concerns, and desires of the public.
  • Every person is encouraged to speak. People are also encouraged to watch themselves from "dominating" the conversation.
  • Each person's input is recorded by a recorder on a flip chart paper and then put into a final report which also captures the public's judgment or movement toward common ground on the issue.
  • Key leaders are identified on the issue and reports are sent to local and national leaders. On the national level, the reports are sent to the Kettering foundation and compiled into a national report which results in Washington D.C. dissemination activities. On a local level, the more our Houston leaders take interest in this type of participation by the community, the more these reports can have impact in Houston. However, often these deliberative meetings result in a renewed awareness of avenues that citizens can also take on their own to make positive changes in our community.

Listen to UHD Communication Studies graduates discuss their participation in public deliberation.