Citizens and governments: Stroppy adversaries or partners in deliberation?

Lyn Carson, University of Sydney

Archon Fung & Erik Olin Wright (eds) Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance, London & New York, Verso, 2004 (224 pp). ISBN 1-85984-466-9 (paperback) RRP $39.99.

Greg Patmore (ed.) The Vocal Citizen, Fitzroy, Victoria, Arena & Australian Fabian Society, 2004 (216 pp). ISBN 0-95981-817-0 (paperback) RRP $27.50.

In 1991, when I was a local government councillor, I proposed that the Lismore City Council convene a citizens’ jury to deliberate on the vexing issue of flood management. My fellow councillors claimed a mandate for decision making. But because the community was polarised, councillors were unexpectedly willing to consider bringing together a cross-section of the community to wrestle with this apparently intractable problem. The deliberative innovation I proposed would involve randomly selected citizens who would discuss flood management options, assisted by a skilled, neutral facilitator. Recommendations from this diverse, informed group of citizens could then inform councillors’ decision making.

However, the following day, my proposal for a citizens’ jury was dismissed by a prominent, local Australian Labor Party identity as foolish in a media release to the local newspaper (‘Jury idea “the height of stupidity”’ 1991, p. 1). He had never heard such a silly idea: councillors were elected to make the hard decisions and citizens’ input stopped at the ballot box or with a phone call to their elected representative. He had no time for this ‘public participation’ nonsense and was obviously unaware of the type of deliberative innovation that was, by then, happening throughout the world. Citizens’ juries had been convened in the United States since the late 1970s, planning cells were introduced in Germany around the same time, and consensus conferences have been part of government decision-making in Denmark from the late 1980s.


It was with some interest, then, that I approached The Vocal Citizen, edited by Glenn Patmore, because the collection is published by Arena in association with the Australian Fabian Society, under the banner Labor Essays 2004. The back cover promises ‘influential and exciting researchers, thinkers and actors who are well placed to write about citizen engagement and public decision making’. Perhaps things have moved along since 1991 and, heck, the Left has been turned upside down ‘by Labor’s “love affair” with neo-liberalism’ (Burgmann citing Conley in The Vocal Citizen, p. 128) so maybe the party is now more predisposed to public participation.

Nothing is quite as satisfying as an edited book that defines a set of principles and adheres to them throughout.

I read The Vocal Citizen having just devoured Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance edited by a young American political scientist, Archon Fung, and sociologist Erik Olin Wright (who has been writing about injustice for as long as many of the contributors to The Vocal Citizen). These two books span generations, continents, and ideologies and, combined, are like a rich stew and a light salad.

The Vocal Citizen has gathered writings and speeches from fifteen contributors, the majority of them from Victoria, with a healthy mix of researchers and practitioners who each explore how citizens can, as the back cover says, ‘reinvigorate our democracy’. The contributors to Deepening Democracy would approve of The Vocal Citizen, I suspect, because it attends to democratic practice. Though Deepening Democracy is a weightier volume (by kilogram and conceptual matter), its twelve contributors are all academics and so it lacks the direct experience of some contributors to The Vocal Citizen. Nevertheless, Deepening Democracy is the rich stew, making a thick sauce for four case studies (from Brazil, India, and the United States), which are stirred slowly through internal references, reflection, and commentary.

One book’s strength is the other’s weakness. There is nothing quite as satisfying as an edited book that defines a set of principles and adheres to them throughout, with all contributors in heartfelt collaboration. Deepening Democracy arose from a conference at which participants sound like they were practising what they were preaching; each was asked to comment on the same ‘empirical cases of innovative forms of participatory democracy in different parts of the world’ (p. viii). This book reflects the richness of their dialogue and refinement of earlier writing. Fung and Wright crystallise it all into principles, characteristics, and enabling conditions for democracy (p. 24).

The Vocal Citizen also reflects its title: its contributors are boisterous and often interesting but there is little reference to each other’s words. This book draws on some disparate ingredients: a couple of recycled speeches (by Matthew Taylor and Greg Combet), some citizenship survey results (by Clive Bean), a piece on the citizen as public artist (by Linda Williams), a sketch of e-democracy (by Karin Geiselhart), citizenship education (by Tristan Ewins), community development as activism and entrepreneurship (by Sue Kenny) and a brief overview of Australia’s deepening democracy (yes, John Wiseman uses the term in his chapter’s title and several contributors to The Vocal Citizen also draw on the Fung and Wright book). One strength of The Vocal Citizen for Australian readers is its Australian content. Too little is written about citizen participation in political decision making in Australia and this book helps to remedy the deficit.

Promoting inclusive, deliberative methods might well be the key to reinvigorating our democracy.

Both books tackle the problem of declining public trust in politics, and I realised that my private trust was declining while reading The Vocal Citizen. The chapter by British policy maker Matthew Taylor reports on a ‘Gallup survey undertaken at the end of 2002 [in which] 47,000 citizens in 36 countries rated 20 institutions in those countries in terms of trust’ (p. 24). Yet in their introduction to the book, Joyce Chia and Glenn Patmore refer to ‘a late 2002 Gallup survey of 34,000 citizens in 46 countries [that] rated 17 institutions’ (p. 8). Hmmm, I wondered, has anyone actually edited this book?


However, what really is missing from The Vocal Citizen (except for Wiseman’s chapter and then too briefly) is attention to the voiceless citizen. Why engage in public participation if only the usual suspects, the already-vocal citizens, are involved? Contributors pay scant attention to the disengaged, to those citizens who have engaged with formal political institutions and been wounded by the experience. The book focuses on engaged citizens as activists and advocates, and on increasing the number of these engaged citizens through the usual methods. I hungered for some attention to the currently unengaged, those who can be captured through random selection and invited to participate in one-off events early in the life of a policy or decision.

Deliberative, inclusionary processes can be influential and we have ample evidence of their power in other countries: for example, Brazil’s participatory budgets or Denmark’s consensus conferences on technological issues. These processes depend on capturing missing voices and bringing them into a deliberative space. However, they don’t require a long-term commitment to a movement or organisation. Promoting these methods might well be the key to reinvigorating ‘our democracy’ (the promise of The Vocal Citizen), through corporations, workplaces, schools, policy making, urban planning and more. Thank goodness for Wiseman’s chapter, which does canvass innovations that allow democracy to break out and enable active citizenship for busy or marginalised citizens.

Deliberative, inclusive processes are not panaceas for our democratic deficit.

In her contribution to The Vocal Citizen Mary Gardiner notes that ‘the theory and practice of citizenship have evolved from within a model of society constructed by males’ (p. 148). (This led me to look at the proportion of female contributors in both books: 40 per cent in The Vocal Citizen, 25 per cent in Deepening Democracy.) Deliberative innovations should be the method of choice to address the gender inequities that Gardiner raises—again, creating appropriate forums for those missing voices. In my experience, these methods are inclusive in two important ways. First, they often rely on random selection, which ensures that women and males are equally represented. Second, independent, skilled moderation enables unequal power relations to be interrupted.

In her contribution, Verity Burgmann argues that the market is anti-democratic, as is privatisation; in hers, Sue Kenny acknowledges the vulnerability of NGOs to undemocratic practices. In my experience, also undemocratic are most schools, workplaces, and unions. We inherited and have maintained and redesigned these undemocratic practices but they have always been with us. NGOs replicate the systems found across the political landscape even though these systems are flawed, unrepresentative, and non-deliberative.

However, it is also true that times have changed and, as Alistair Davidson remarks in his contribution, ‘Individuals are living in a new space’ (p. 191). Taylor attends to the core principle of influence—that is, that citizens’ recommendations should be influential—but few of the contributors to The Vocal Citizen seem to grasp the key principles of representativeness and deliberativeness. It is business as usual—via lobbying of elected representatives, membership of non-government organisations, campaigning and so on. In this ‘new space’ perhaps we don’t need to tug our forelocks and cling to the coat-tails of elites. But perhaps this new space needs to be expanded to bring in many more missing voices.


Fung and Wright, by contrast, wade through the depths of democratic possibilities, trying to make sense of deliberative processes and their capacity to be truly inclusive. They consider that the ‘state is the problem, not the solution’ (p. 4) and that institutional design is essential. They suggest common features of their case studies that are encapsulated by a form they label ‘empowered deliberative governance’ (p. 5). They introduce their framework, offer the case studies, and allow the other contributors to comment on the strengths and weakness of their theoretical model. The Vocal Citizen would have benefited from a similar adherence to defined principles or practices or enabling conditions.

Deepening Democracy focuses on reforms that redress administrative and regulatory failures or reforms that restructure democratic decision making. Its case studies are: school councils and community policing in Chicago; stakeholder committees for habitat management in the United States; participatory budgeting in Port Alegre, Brazil; and village-level participatory planning in West Bengal and Kerala, India. The case studies from Brazil and India are the most satisfying and the most salient for the Left. They offer examples of disadvantaged classes wielding public power that was formerly held by powerful elites. Porto Alegre’s budgets have attracted attention from other South American cities that have admired the shift from political pork-barrelling (patronage-based budgeting) to a ‘bottom-up, deliberative system driven by expressed needs of city residents’ (p. 11). What has been impressive about Porto Alegre is the involvement of very poor, previously marginalised people in decisions that affect them: roads, sewage, health care and so on. Even though their success is qualified because ‘progress thus far has been promising but incomplete’ (p. 14) contributors to Labor Essays might take note.

Deepening Democracy is immensely rewarding because it moves beyond interest groups and protest.

Deliberative, inclusive processes are not panaceas for our democratic deficit even if they offer hope for a more engaged citizenry. Two chapters in Deepening Democracy by Jane Mansbridge and Rebecca Neaera Abers exemplify clear, insightful writing that wrestles with the challenges and paradoxes of participatory democracy—for example, self-interest, incompetence, inexperience, apathy, elitism, conflict-avoidance, and biased moderation. The Epilogue by Fung and Wright neatly draws together the contributors’ concerns in a thoughtful reflection on the ‘best prospects for participatory collaboration’ (p. 286). Deepening Democracy is immensely rewarding because it moves beyond interest groups and protest—the stroppy citizens that The Vocal Citizens focuses on and which so much writing in political science is about. Participatory collaboration has ‘escaped the analytic gaze of social scientists’ and ‘there are few conclusive findings’ (p. 285). However, as Cohen and Rogers remind us in their chapter, these emerging practices allow citizens to engage in collective problem solving that is ‘informed by local knowledge’ and improves ‘on the performance of a distant command-and-control central state’ (p. 239). They are timely stories of active citizenship that we need to hear.

At a time when dissatisfaction with politicians is glaringly evident, the solution is not less democracy, of course; it is deeper democracy. As Thomas Isaac and Patrick Heller point out in their contribution, deeper democracy interrupts corruption and ‘routinized plunder’ (p. 104) and raises levels of accountability through heightened participation. The municipal legislature in Porto Alegre might not like the participatory budgets that it has approved each year since participatory budgets took root but it is mighty difficult to oppose something which has withstood so much public scrutiny and justification (Baiocchi, p. 65).

The combination of these two volumes is a complete meal. The Vocal Citizen offers a tasty entrée that will have the reader picking through the interesting local ingredients. Deepening Democracy offers a hearty meal that leaves little room for dessert because it takes a long time to fully digest and appreciate. The latter volume reminds us of the purpose and power of participation, especially when it captures missing voices and draws them into a deliberative space.


‘Jury idea “the height of stupidity”’, The Northern Star, 9 November 1991, p. 1.

Dr Lyn Carson is a senior lecturer in applied politics with Government and International Relations, University of Sydney, and author (with Brian Martin) of Random Selection in Politics (1999). Also see

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