Good practice principles for deliberative & participative democracy — shared principles with flexible application not prescriptive methods please!

Paul Vittles
26 min readMar 6, 2020


Summary graphic for the OECD Draft Principles — note that Empowerment is not there!

The OECD (and others) have suggested we promote and support innovation in democracy by agreeing good practice principles “for Deliberative Processes for Public Decision-Making”.

This makes sense — in principle! — and I support anything which advances the cause of a healthy democracy, which has been a personal & professional mission for me for 35 years. However, there are some fundamental flaws with what is being suggested and it might have the (unintended) consequence of harming not helping democracy.

Firstly, there is a common problem with what is emerging from what has become known as “The Deliberative Wave” (or #DelibWave if you’ve been folllowing developments on online social & business media, along with #DelibDem #DemoPart & #democracy), which is its focus on deliberation not participation, to the point that deeper deliberation is often advocated and practiced at the expense of wider participation (eg ClimateAssemblyUK).

A healthy democracy has both wide participation in agenda-shaping and decision-making and deep deliberation (as well as appropriate and effective systems of representation, transparency and accountability, and empowerment — all these pillars need to be strong, along with a strong, independent judiciary).

With such a narrow focus on deliberation and the absence of an equally strong focus on participation, our gradual evolution over the past 30–40 years towards a healthy deliberative & participative democracy has actually experienced setbacks among the recent advances. Some of those claiming they are trying to advance our democracies have contributed to these setbacks — usually without realising they are doing it I believe.

Secondly, whilst it is absolutely good practice to agree on some common principles we can all share and use to guide our designs and implementation, the OECD and many others have strayed beyond the principle of good practice principles and are trying to specify the ‘how’ not just the ‘what’ and ‘why’.

In particular, the obsession with ‘random selection’ or ‘sortition’ is going beyond establishing a principle for public involvement; it is prescribing a method — often without highlighting the drawbacks of random selection; overclaiming its benefits; creating and sustaining a narrative which misunderstands or misrepresents what random sampling is (technically and in other senses); potentially introducing restrictive practices (legally as well as philosophically); being anti-innovation; and being anti-democratic.

Again, I believe this is largely if not wholly unconscious bias and unintended consequences, although there is some potentially malicious activity too from those who now have business interests in the ‘Deliberative Democracy Sector’ and are building business models around particular methods and brands in what is now a large and growing market (some projects worth £500K+) which will inevitably breed protection of market share and defensiveness (consciously or sub-consciously) whenever these issues are properly debated.

Thirdly, innovation in democracy needs flexibility, especially at local government level. It needs cost-effective ‘fit for purpose’ methods around some core principles and a few basic minimum standards. The primary focus must be on the topics, issues, impacts and outcomes required with methods always being secondary — serving the process not driving the process.

Some have not only very tightly prescribed the ‘Citizens Assembly’ method but said “governments should legislate for 4 Citizens Assemblies a year”. This is how far down the road some have gone in being methodology-led, losing sight of where we started in our common quest to promote and develop all methods (innovation in terms of developing a range of approaches and innovation within each of these approaches) with the aim of enhancing deliberative & participative democracy, not just championing one method (whilst often criticising other methods in the process of being competitive or even trying to monopolise the approach) and also shifting that one method from a flexible tool to a prescribed brand (to compete away or exclude other approaches even when they might actually be better ‘fit for purpose’ solutions).

On a positive note, the OECD has put some Draft Principles out for public consultation (yes, a little ironic that it’s a traditional public call for comment on a document rather than a deliberative or discursive process, but at least it’s an interactive GoogleDoc) and invited comments and suggestions.

My comments — including some major concerns (which is pertinent, given that one leading voice in the ‘deliberative democracy sector’ recently said there were only minor differences of opinion in ‘the sector’ now, nothing fundamental!) — and suggestions are documented below.

These include a core principle being missed completely — Empowerment. Without Empowerment shaping the design and delivery of deliberative & participative democracy, there is the danger of what I have recently described as #DeliberativeTechnocracy which we have seen in some of the more ‘controlled’, top-down, ‘expert-led’ Citizens Assemblies, in contrast to those that embrace bottom-up democracy philosophy, eg with participants shaping the agenda and question(s) in the early sessions.

I would encourage you to input your comments and suggestions into the OECD consultation process (closing date 20 March 2020) and also to keep openly debating and challenging developments in this evolving field.

We should all be part of the process of shaping a healthy deliberative & participative democracy. We all have (equal) human rights to speak, to be listened to, to be heard, to participate in our democracies and to be involved in decisions that affect our lives.

Any person or organisation assisting that process should be praised, supported, and promoted. Anyone who tries to close down that process — going beyond principles into the territory of control and prescription —should be rightly and strongly challenged…in the interests of democracy!

Here are the OECD Draft Principles — in the form of the document I accessed for the formal public consultation — [with my comments and suggestions in brackets and bold type]:

Public Consultation:

Draft Principles of Good Practice for Deliberative Processes for Public Decision-making


The OECD’s Recommendation on Open Government [OECD/LEGAL/0438] provides, with respect to citizen participation in government, that Adherents should:

“8. grant all stakeholders equal and fair opportunities to be informed and consulted and actively engage them in all phases of the policy-cycle […]”; and

“9. promote innovative ways to effectively engage with stakeholders to source ideas and co-create solutions[…]”.

[The best way to promote innovation in government, especially local government, and the not-for-profit sector, is to set out good practice principles and a few minimum standards with everyone clearly understanding the philosophy behind deliberative & participative democracy but leave flexibility to adapt methods and approaches, don’t narrowly define models like citizens assemblies. There is a harmful tendency, especially within the academic community and leading providers of citizens assemblies in what is now ‘a booming market’, to narrowly define what a ‘Citizens Assembly’ is, with an unnecessarily tightly-defined specification (eg ‘has to be random selection of participants and face-to-face meetings’) which takes an inclusive, flexible democracy tool and turns it into an exclusive, expensive (prohibitively expensive for many) branded product, which can make it anti-innovation and anti-democratic!]

Deliberative processes are one of the most innovative methods of fostering citizen participation in government. The OECD has collected a wealth of evidence as to how deliberative processes work across different countries. While there are a wide variety of models, analysis of the evidence collected reveals a number of common principles and good practices that may be of useful guidance to policy-makers seeking to develop and implement such processes.

The OECD has drawn these common principles and good practices together into a draft set of Principles of Good Practice for Deliberative Processes for Public Decision-making (hereafter, draft “Good Practice Principles”). These draft Good Practice Principles could provide policy-makers with useful guidance as to the establishment of deliberative processes and the implementation of provisions 8 and 9 of the Recommendation on Open Government.

[Good practice principles are helpful, prescriptive methodologies are unhelpful and even harmful for democracy]

The present document presents the draft Good Practice Principles for comment and discussion. The deadline for submissions is 20 March 2020. Following this, the draft Good Practice Principles, amended where relevant, will be presented to the OECD’s Public Governance Committee (PGC) and Working Party on Open Government (WPOG), as part of the forthcoming report ‘Catching the Deliberative Wave: Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions’for consideration and discussion.


Deliberative processes, such as citizens’ assemblies, juries, panels, councils, etc., are often called deliberative mini-publicsin the academic literature. Simply summarised, a deliberative mini-public refers to “a group of randomly selected members of a community who acquire knowledge and work together through facilitated deliberation to find common ground and democratic decision” (UN Democracy Fund and newDemocracy Foundation, 2019).

[Citizens Assemblies that have been carried out over-the-years, including recently such as in France and Scotland, have been recruited using a range of methods, all primarily quota sampling with some element of random invite or random selection and some element of self-selection, ie willing participants registering their interest. It is unnecessarily restrictive to define ‘a deliberative mini-public’ as having to be “a group of randomly selected members of a population”.

Technically, there are issues with use of the term ‘random’. There might be random selection for invites (although several recent high profile assemblies have used ‘booster samples’ for under-represented groups, so not random!) and there might be random selection from the pool of invitees who register interest (although quotas are being met so again, technically, not random!), but the fact that response rates to the initial ‘random invites’ are typically 3–6% (the highest seems to be 10% in Norway) means it’s over-claiming and misleading to use the term ‘random’.

It’s also unnecessarily restrictive and adds to cost when there are alternative, more cost-effective approaches that are just as likely to generate a ‘representative sample of the population’ or a ‘cross-sectional sample’. The obsession with ‘randomness’, ‘random sample’ and ‘randomly selected’ in the academic literature and public discourse is unhelpful for advancing the cause of democratic involvement and, frankly, rather disturbing!]

In the forthcoming report and in these Principles, the terms deliberative process and deliberative mini-public will be used interchangeably.

In analysing the evidence collected on deliberative processes across countries, three core defining features were revealed as being of key importance, a fact also reflected in the work of a number of scholars in the field:

  1. Deliberation (this involves: weighing carefully different options, which requires accurate and relevant information and a diversity of perspectives; a shared evaluative framework for reaching decisions, and a requirement for participants to apply these shared criteria to weigh trade-offs and find common ground to reach a group decision (see, for example, Matthew, 1999; Carson, 2017; Bone et al, 2006)); [ok with that, and 3, but not 2!]
  2. Representativeness, achieved through sortition (random selection) and demographic stratification (a process that ensures that the group broadly matches the demographic profile of the community against census or other similar data), and

[This document is supposed to be establishing principles not being prescriptive about methods. Indeed, as highlighted earlier, it’s helpful for advancing deliberative & participative democracy to have some common principles but it can be unhelpful, even harmful, to specify methods. It restricts innovation, and can be anti-democratic (#DeliberativeTechnocracy!).

The key principles underpinning deliberative & participative democracy are to assemble groups of non-active citizens, to provide equal opportunities to participate, to hear all voices, to empower or boost under-represented groups, to devise approaches where appropriate to deliberate with cross-sectional samples of the population as a whole or an in-scope sub-set of that population.

As soon as you stray from principles into methods, such as “random selection” or “ensures that the group broadly matches the demographic profile of the community”, you are limiting the application of the principles, discouraging innovation, and potentially harming the long-term health of deliberative & participative democracy.

‘Deliberative democracy’ in general, and approaches like citizens assemblies in particular, are in danger of being commoditised. And with an emerging ‘market’ for the provision of ‘deliberative democracy products, services and projects’, we now have organisations building business models around particular methods like ‘sortition’ and the Citizens Assembly (with a capital C and capital A) as a brand they can own and protect market share.

The interests of deliberative and participative democracy are best served by optimal flexibility of method around the key principles, not restricting innovative implementation and adaptation, especially if that is being driven by providers of particular deliberative democracy ‘brands’ in the emerging market]

3. Impact, meaning decision-makers agree to respond to and act on recommendations (see, for example, Farrell et al, 2019; Carson and Elstub, 2019). [ok with that, and 1, but not 2!]

The draft Good Practice Principles aim to reflect and elaborate upon these key features and in so doing provide guidance to governments in the establishment of deliberative processes.

It is important to note that deliberative processes as addressed in the draft Good Practice Principles, and as will be described and analysed in detail in the forthcoming report, are not the only way to implement provisions 8 and 9 of the Recommendation. However, the report and draft Good Practice Principles focus on such processes for four key reasons. These will be explained in detail in the report, but can be summarised as follows:

  1. Deliberative processes are one of the most innovative methods of citizen participation, reintroducing the Ancient Athenian practice of sortition (random selection), updated with modern statistical methods that allow for stratification, to achieve the aim of representativeness.

[We have had an evolving deliberative & participative democracy for the past 30 years+ with much innovation in approaches, especially in places like the UK 1992–97, post-Thatcher & pre-Blair, when there was a weak Major-led central government and a peak of development of methods at local level.

Modern research methods were blended with emerging-to-established methods of community & stakeholder engagement and public consultation, with representative cross-sections of communities where helpful and also working with active citizens, users groups, and deliberately-unrepresentative-challenge groups where appropriate, eg disability rights groups and non-activist cross-sectional groups of people with disabilities.

The current focus of many deliberative democracy advocates on “sortition (random selection)” is limiting the latest phase of evolution and, in some respects, is a setback. We really should not be imposing a ‘sortition straitjacket’ if we want to truly encourage innovation]

2. While they are not ‘new’ in the sense that the first contemporary wave started in the late 1960s, there is a new wave underway towards greater experimentation in their purpose, design, combination with other forms of democracy, and institutionalisation, which makes them an interesting and salient point of focus now. [yes, good — not new, just further evolution]

3. Deliberative processes are increasingly being used by governments internationally, with a significant upsurge of interest since 2010, and in particular since 2019, to involve citizens more directly in solving some of the most pressing policy challenges.There is thus a need to better understand their workings and impact through comparative analysis, as well as to determine the principles that underpin a good design.

[yes, and especially since the misuse of the deliberative & participative democracy tools we have such as referenda, discredited by its abuse in the Brexit Referendum]

4. Finally, existing literature and studies of deliberative processes indicate that, if institutionalised, they have the potential to help address some of the key drivers of democratic malaise: giving voice and agency to a much wider range of citizens; rebuilding trust in government, and leading to more legitimate and effective public decision-making. As the number of cases of institutionalisation is growing, it is becomes even more important that the design of these new institutions is under-pinned by principles.

[I understand why advocates are saying “institutionalise” and what they mean by that but the term has many negative connotations, eg for mental health service users and active citizens battling with institutions and institutionalised processes of all kinds!

To some extent, this is an issue of language, eg we probably agree on trying to make deliberative & participative democracy more of a long-term, continuous process of deeper deliberation and wider participation, so it’s the term ‘institutionalise’ that causes the very negative reaction.

However, it’s also more than just language. Some have suggested (eg an example often quoted from Belgium) having ‘Standing Citizens Assemblies’ which would exist for a fixed period and deal with a range of issues or determine what issues freshly-recruited citizens assemblies would cover. This starts to get into the territory of ‘representation democracy’ and brings forth accusations of ‘an unelected chamber’ so deep thinking is required. It may be helpful for democracy but it has downsides.

Another common suggestion is legislating ‘for 4 Citizens Assemblies a year’ which sounds appealing to those who are big supporters of, and have had good experiences with, the ‘Citizens Assembly brand’ they’ve witnessed, but — standing back and seeing the bigger picture — that would effectively mean legislating for a particular method (a bit like legislating for 50 focus groups and 6 surveys per annum!).

And if the definition of the method becomes restrictive and prescriptive, as is happening now, including being fuelled by providers of a particular ‘brand’ of Citizens Assembly ‘product’ who are benefitting from business in a boom market, legislating for a method becomes a ‘restrictive practice’ in a legal sense, disadvantaging other approaches and providers, discouraging innovation, and damaging democracy]

In addition to the comparative empirical evidence gathered by the OECD and from which they were drawn, the draft Good Practice Principles have also benefited from collaboration with an international group of leading practitioners from government, civil society, and academics who are members of the OECD’s Innovative Citizen Participation Network[1]and of the Democracy R&D Network[2]. The group included:

  • Yago Bermejo Abati, Deliberativa, Spain
  • Damian Carmichael, Department of Industry, Science, Energy, and Resources, Australia
  • Nicole Curato, Centre for Deliberative Democracy & Global Governance, Australia
  • Linn Davis, Healthy Democracy, United States
  • Yves Dejaeghere, G1000 Organisation, Belgium
  • Marcin Gerwin, Center for Climate Assemblies, Poland
  • Angela Jain, Nexus Institute, Germany
  • Dimitri Lemaire, Particitiz, Belgium
  • Miriam Levin, Department of Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport, United Kingdom
  • Peter MacLeod, MASS LBP, Canada
  • Malcolm Oswald, Citizens’ Juries CIC, United Kingdom
  • Anna Renkamp, Bertelsmann Stiftung, Germany
  • Min Reuchamps, UC Louvain, Belgium
  • Iain Walker, newDemocracy Foundation, Australia


The development of the draft Good Practice Principles was informed by analysis of the evidence gathered by the OECD in its work on deliberative processes and to support the implementation of provisions 8 and 9 of the Recommendation on Open Government. In addition, the OECD conducted an evaluation of existing literature where a number of organisations and academics have already defined some principles for deliberative processes.

As a first step, a mapping exercise was conducted to identify the commonalities and differences across countries’ practices and between existing sets of principles, standards, and guidelines. For reference, the annex in this document includes an overview of existing principles, a table highlighting their commonalities and differences, and a summary of their common threads.

Following this, core principles and good practices required to achieve good deliberative processes that result in useful recommendations for the commissioning public authorities and a meaningful opportunity for citizens to participate in shaping public decisions were identified.

The draft Good Practice Principles are intentionally concise. They are intended to be the starting point for public decision-makers wishing to commission deliberative processes and for practitioners wishing to design and organise them. The twelve Good Practice Principles are grouped under the three defining characteristics of deliberative processes identified through the OECD’s analysis: influence, representativeness, and deliberation (which is operationalised as one full day of face-to-face meetings since deliberation requires time).

[There is a clear and unhelpful bias against ‘digital democracy’ or online approaches to deliberative democracy which seems to be partly sub-conscious due to lack of exposure to, and experience with, online methods.

This is a problem and is most acute when Citizens Assembly approaches, like Climate Assembly UK, are entirely face-to-face with no supporting online involvement — it becomes deep deliberation at the expense of wide participation (a wider participation that could so easily be facilitated via online research and engagement) so not necessarily an advance for our deliberative & participative democracy goal.

In the past 10 years, there has been considerable development in online research and engagement platforms, like Insites, Communispace, Vision Critical, Group Quality, Engagement HQ, Zoom, with community engagement now routinely including ongoing online deliberative forums with sophisticated tools for recruiting cross-sectional samples, linking to evidence, having videos and live talks, co-creating and co-producing visions, strategies and plans.

Online deliberative forums typically last 4–6 weeks but can be extended to several months (it just costs more in facilitation and human resource engagement time).

I wouldn’t actually argue for only online (best to blend and integrate offline and online methods, including having online discussions before, during and after f2f meetings) but I don’t think we should insist on a f2f component when it is perfectly feasible to run ‘a deliberative mini-public’ online.

Documents emerging from deliberative democracy advocates insisting on qualifying criteria such as “minimum one full day of face-to-face meetings” are unnecessarily and unhealthily restrictive. Some would say anti-innovation and anti-democratic!]

The twelve draft Good Practice Principles are clustered under these three defining characteristics. A more detailed set of guidelines for implementing the Good Practice Principles will be published as a follow-up to this report, with details about how to operationalise each of them.

Draft Principles of Good Practice for Deliberative Processes for Public Decision-making

I. Influence

  1. Purpose: The objective is outlined in a clear remit and is linked to a defined public issue. It is phrased neutrally as a question in plain language.
  2. Impact: There is influence on public decisions with a published commitment from public decision makers before the process beginsto respond to or act on participants’ recommendations in a timely manner in order to ensure that participation is worth participants’ time.
  3. Transparency: The process design and all materials — including agendas, briefing documents, evidence submissions, audio and video recordings of those presenting evidence, the participants’ report with their recommendations, and the random selection methodology — should be available to the public in a timely manner.

[My experience is that transparency has been improving for deliberative democracy initiatives but it’s often still hard to get answers to questions — so a problem with accountability as well as transparency — which is partly cultural, partly structural, and partly embarrassment as questions expose the limitations of the approach.

Citizens Assembly commissioners and providers can be totally open about what they have done but very reluctant to talk about what they haven’t done!

To try and aid good practice, challenge unconscious bias, and tackle some of the common blind spots, I drafted a checklist in response to requests from those considering citizens assemblies or citizens juries — see below…]

4. Accountability: The deliberative process should be announced publicly before it begins. The participants’ recommendations, the final report (which should be written by participants themselves), and the public authority’s response to the recommendations should be publicised and have a public communication strategy to ensure accountability.

II. Representativeness

5. Representativeness: The participants should be a microcosm of the general public. This is achieved through random selection and demographic stratification. Stratification ensures that the group broadly matches the demographic profile of the community against census or other similar data. There is an emphasis on ensuring that there is an equal opportunity for people to be selected as participants.

[This whole area of ‘representativeness’ and especially ‘random selection’ needs to be challenged and thought about much more deeply than it has been.

In contrast to other aspects of deliberative & participative democracy, such as the processes of achieving deep deliberation, there seems to have been a collective uncritical acceptance of ‘random selection’ and ‘demographically representative samples’.

A good practice principle is to have a ‘fit for purpose’ methodology or approach, not to restrict that approach too early. For any particular topic or question, a suitable deliberative & participative process should be designed.

This might mean a ‘representative sample’ of the national population but it might not. For example, a forum, jury or assembly on Aged Care might include all age groups in proportion or choose to focus on older people and carers (including young carers).

Once the target audience is agreed, there are various ways it could be recruited, including random or non-random selection. Why restrict the options open to those commissioning or conducting such forums, juries or assemblies?

Court juries are often not ‘representative’ of anything, just a collection of citizens. They often have 8 women and 4 men but no-one condemns that or insists on them being 6 men and 6 women.

In reality, citizens assemblies and citizens juries are not ‘random’ but a hybrid of random invites, self-selection in expressing interest (with response rates typically 3–6%), quota sampling on demographics, and substitutes for anyone not able to attend.

They are absolutely fine in terms of being ‘a cross section of citizens’ or ‘everyday citizens’ or ‘non-activist citizens’ (if they screen out activists as some do) or ‘a representative sample in terms of the proportion by gender, age, ethnic origin, etc reflecting the population’ but these minimum requirements and principles can be met without needing ‘random selection’.

The fixation with ‘random selection’ is irrational to a large extent but it is so embedded in the narrative now, it is going to be hard to achieve a more balanced perspective.

Although it is usually acknowledged that for each forum, jury or assembly, the quota sampling criteria will be different and ‘fit for purpose’, eg for some, age will be crucially important, or socio-economic status or incidence of disability or ethnic origin, there are major issues here.

One is that there is a bias towards broader demographics, as the deliberative democracy narrative has over-emphasised ‘demographic representativeness’ so the focus is on variables like gender and age when other factors such as behaviour, experience, or views might be far more important as ‘control variables’ (and anything other than pure random selection is a design choice ‘control variable’ of course).

Another is that with small select(ed) samples around broad demographic quotas, many groups and perspectives will necessarily be under-represented — which impacts on the next principle below — inclusiveness]

6. Inclusiveness: Efforts should be made to actively include a wide cross-section of society. Participation should be encouraged and supported through remuneration, expenses, and/or providing or paying for childcare and eldercare. In some instances, it is desirable to try to over-represent some hard-to-reach groups.

[With the narrowly-defined branding of some deliberative processes and models, eg ‘random selection’ and ‘demographically representative’, and then just 100 participants for an assembly, or 25 or 16 in currently live cases of juries, often with only a face-to-face assembly or jury with no wider participation process, it is hard to claim there is ‘inclusiveness’.

Yes, inclusiveness is, rightly, a core principle of deliberative & participative democracy, and ‘fit for purpose’ approaches must have both deep deliberation and wide participation to achieve this.

We need to think not just about designs for small, select(ed) sample forums, juries or assemblies that are as inclusive as possible — though always limited, by definition — but also what other options for participation there are for citizens NOT selected for the deliberative forum, jury or assembly.

In particular, we must think about those invited to take part in a deliberative forum, jury or assembly (whether by random selection or other means) who say they want to take part but are then not selected. What other options are there for them to input?

This is a key issue of democratic rights and also human rights and the mental health of citizens rejected (how would you feel?) plus the reputation of those commissioning and conducting the forum, jury or assembly (who often only think about those selected not those who are rejected, just like an employer who completely ignores those applicants who aren’t shortlisted).

The bias against online methods from those currently leading the current phase of deliberative democracy evolution is not only anti-innovation and anti-democratic but it’s also irrational when you consider that key principles like ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘representativeness’ can be best achieved by blending offline and online methods, including online for those who prefer to use such convenient channels and who would otherwise be excluded, eg busy workers and parents, people who cannot travel to central locations, and people with certain types of disabilities]

III. Deliberation

7. Information: Participants should have access to a wide range of evidence and expertise, and should have the opportunity to hear from and question speakers that present to them, including experts and advocates chosen by the citizens themselves.

[Another absolutely central principle is Empowerment — the other end of the IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum to Information.

To what extent are citizens involved in deliberative & participative democracy processes empowered?

To what extent are citizens selected to take part in deliberative forums, juries or assemblies able to challenge the process, challenge the question that’s been framed (eg Net Zero by 2050), call witnesses, decide for themselves who the ‘experts’ are, seek other evidence?

Or is all of that constrained by the process, determined by the facilitators and ‘experts’ in an ‘expert led’ process?

Is it deliberative democracy or #DeliberativeTechnocracy?

With wider participation added to the deeper deliberation of assemblies and juries, eg ‘crowdsourcing questions’, a greater degree of empowerment can be achieved, rather than a closed, exclusive group.]

8. Deliberation: In this context, it refers to group deliberation, a key element of which is for participants to find common ground. This entails careful and active listening, weighing and considering multiple perspectives, every participant having an opportunity to speak, a mix of formats that alternate between small group and plenary discussions, and activities, and skilled facilitation by professionals.

9. Time: Deliberation requires adequate time for participants to learn, weigh the evidence, and develop informed recommendations, due to the complexity of most policy problems. Participants meet for at least four full days in person unless a shorter time frame can be justified. Often, there is time for further learning and reflection in between meetings.

[Again, further evidence here of the bias against online approaches. Online deliberative forums can be intensive, running typically for 4–6 weeks, with as much deliberation time, if not more, than many face-to-face assemblies or juries.

I would always recommend a blended offline and online approach not only online but it’s not right to specify that there has to be “at least four full days in person” in a good practice guidance document that should be non-prescriptive principles not restrictive, prescriptive methods.]

10. Independence: The process is run by an arms’ length co-ordinating team different from the commissioning public authority. The final call regarding process decisions should be with the arms’ length co-ordinators rather than the commissioning authorities to ensure public confidence. Decisions are often overseen by a politically and demographically representative advisory board in advance of the deliberative process.

[Yes, we need a credible independent overseer, but “a politically and demographically representative advisory board” seems to be unnecessarily bureaucratic, hard to deliver in practice, costly, and open to much debate about who or what ‘representative’ is.]

11. Privacy: There should be respect for participants’ privacy to protect them from undesired media attention and harassment, as well as to preserve participants’ independence, ensuring they are not bribed or lobbied by interest groups or activists. Small group discussions are often private. The identity of participants is sometimes publicised when the process has come to an end, at the participants’ choice. All personal data of participants should be treated in compliance with international good practices such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

[In the Irish Citizens Assembly, participants’ details have been published in Weekend One as it was seen to be an important part of demonstrating the transparency and accountability that a healthy democracy needs.

We should not prescribe too much on this. Again, stick to principles, such as protecting and supporting the participants, and — most crucially — Informed Consent.

All data protection and privacy legislation, as well as human rights legislation, is founded on the core principle of Informed Consent.

There is a moot point about whether participants should be encouraged or discouraged in terms of transparency and disclosure (eg encouraging them to allow live feeds of discussions for greater transparency of process) which is similar to ethical debates about opt out/opt in/nudging, eg for organ donation.]

12. Evaluation: At a minimum, there should be an anonymous evaluation by the participants to assess the project (e.g. on quantity and diversity of information provided, sense of having enough time, independence of facilitation, and perceptions of bias). Preferably, there is also an independent evaluation of the process (e.g. on fairness, the absence of bias, adequate design and time to achieve desired outputs, and the quality of deliberation), as well as the impact on public decision-making in order to assess what has been achieved and determine how to improve future practice.

[Crucially, deliberative & participative democracy processes, especially those that involve large amounts of taxpayers’ money, must be evaluated on final outcomes and impacts achieved not just process.

The process is important but it doesn’t matter if peer review says it was technically perfect and 100% of participants loved it if it doesn’t change something, impact on policy, have its recommendations accepted and implemented.

There should be all forms of scrutiny, from independent evaluation, to parliamentary committee review. It’s also important to avoid technically meaningless questions to participants like ‘as a result of taking part in this forum/jury/assembly, are you…?’.

There should be proper pre-post objective evaluation of change not subjective post-rationalisation or projection!

And proper evaluation should cover what was not done/not included as well as what was. Some past evaluations have only focused on what was done but the approach was very limited, with very narrow deliberation, no wider participation, and no opportunities for those not selected to input.

If the evaluation is also narrow in its scope, we don’t learn, we don’t make progress, we don’t innovate, we commoditise and brand deliberative & participative democracy, and we end up with anti-democratic self-serving brands.

Proper evaluation will fully cover costs and impacts (and therefore ROI) and also the opportunity cost — what other approaches were possible with that same budget?]


Bone, Z., Crockett, J., & Hodge, S. (2006), “Deliberation forums: a pathway for public participation”, in R. J. Petheram, & R. Johnson (Eds.), Practice change for sustainable communities: Exploring footprints, pathways and possibilities (pp. 1–16). Beechworth, Australia: The Regional Institute Ltd.,, accessed on 11 November 2019.

Carson, Lyn and Stephen Elstub (2019), “Comparing, and deliberative democracy”, newDemocracy Research and Development Note, newDemocracy Foundation, accessed 11 November 2019.

Farrell, David, Nicole Curato, John S. Dryzek, Brigitte Geifssel, Kimmo Grönlund, Sofie Marien, Simon Niemeyer, Jean-Benoit Pilet, Alan Renwick, Jonathan Rose, Maija Setälä, and Jan Suiter, “Deliberative Mini-Publics Core Design Features”, Working Paper Series №2019/5, Centre for Deliberative Democracy & Global Governance, University of Canberra,, accessed on 11 November 2019.

Matthews, D. (1999). Politics for People.Urbanna, IL: University of Illinois Press.

OECD (2017), Recommendation of the Council on Open Government,

Paul Vittles FMRS FAMI FRSA is a Research Fellow and community engagement pioneer, who has been an advocate for and practitioner of deliberative & participative democracy over the past 35 years.

Paul has worked with governments at all levels in the UK and Australia, with 80 councils as clients (after being the first Research & Engagement Manager with City of York Council). He has been a consultant to the NHS; many arms-length government agencies and regulators; community foundations, charities and not-for-profit organisations; professional societies & member organisations; regulated energy and utilities businesses; corporates and private developers wanting to engage appropriately and effectively with their communities; and many partnerships and alliances comprising combinations of these.

Paul has designed and facilitated thousands of research, consultation, engagement, and democracy projects and initiatives. In the late 1980s and through the 1990s, Paul led or facilitated many innovative and pioneering face-to-face approaches: including city/community regeneration; new types of school and learning facilities; building health and social care services around service users and carers; involving citizens in traffic and transport planning; and — perhaps most famously — leading the engagement exercise to decide what to do with the site of 25 Cromwell Street in Gloucester, the former home of the serial killers, Fred and Rosemary West (Paul met with all the victims’ families before leading the team undertaking engagement with the local community).

Paul presented ‘The Role of Research in a Democratic Framework’ to the 1991 Market Research Society (MRS) Conference, and has presented many award-winning papers to research, evaluation and engagement conferences, as well as serving on national task forces, developing and evaluating national policy (from The Patients Charter in the UK to the National Disability Insurance Scheme, NDIS, in Australia to national suicide prevention strategies).

Paul was founder and ‘Chief Facilitator’ for ‘ListenHear: The Global Campaign for Effective Listening’ which won the 2011 TEDxSydney competition for “the best idea worth spreading”.

Paul was a TEDxSydney ‘Fast Ideas’ finalist in 2014, speaking to 2,300 people at the Sydney Opera House (and many more live online) about #DigitalLifeSaving — using digital communications technology to save lives. Paul also facilitated the ‘Breakthrough Ideas for Suicide Prevention’ Forum, and helped implement some of those ideas.

In 2013–14, Paul pioneered online research and engagement approaches, challenging 120 clients (from the ABC to the Australian Government to funeral services providers) to identify ‘what can’t be done online’ and then doing it — online!

Paul presented some of these pioneering case studies at the 2014 Australian Market and Social Research Society (AMSRS) Conference (written up by Green Book), and subsequent conferences such as the Information & Innovation Exchange (IIeX).

Since 2013, Paul has designed and facilitated 180 online forums, which is why he baulks at the continuing claims by some democracy advocates, as well as democracy critics, ‘this can’t be done online’.

Paul knows from experience that it CAN all be done online (although flexibility, ‘fit for purpose’, ‘horses for courses’ is always the way it should be) — including the citizens assembly and citizens jury model — and adopts a ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ philosophy for his professional practice as well as his personal life!

These days, Paul’s focus is on transformational change projects — in community development (including a project “to design a new community around the happiness and success of its people”), improving quality of life for older people, optimising mental health and wellbeing for all segments of society, suicide prevention and the Zero Suicide Movement — and facilitating sustainable success as a consultant, coach and counsellor.

Paul’s keynote talks, interactive lectures, and workshop sessions on ‘Facilitating Transformational Change’ are often described as “inspirational as well as educational”, as was the case with the recent guest lecture Paul gave for the full-time MBA students at University of Durham Business School (on Friday 21 February 2020).



Paul Vittles

Researcher (FMRS), marketer (FAMI), consultant, coach & counsellor who helps people and organisations with transformational change and sustainable success.