A bridge beyond the democracy-expertise divide


The gap is widening between experts and citizens. Distrust of science is on the rise, as are conspiracy theories that challenge evidence-based decision making. Populist attacks on institutions that provide expertise for societies and democratic processes – administrative agencies, universities and research organizations – are on the increase, facilitated by social media. Can we strengthen democracy while ensuring that governance benefits from expertise? Write in Nature, Flanigan et al.1 present a way to fairly and democratically select representative groups of citizens to advise on issues that often combine politics and expertise. In addition to the conventional institutions of electoral democracy, these bodies hold promise for bridging the democracy-expertise gap.

Citizens’ assemblies, the term used by Flanigan and his co-authors, are a form of deliberative minipublic, the term I’m using here: bodies of 20 to 500 ordinary citizens selected almost randomly, through a process often referred to as sorting, and brought together to learn, deliberate, and make recommendations to decision-makers and sometimes to the greater public (Fig. 1). They realize three things that more familiar institutions of democratic government do not do2.

Chart 1 | Members of Climate Assembly UK, a citizens’ assembly on climate change. Citizens’ assemblies are a form of deliberative mini-public, in which 20 to 500 people representative of the demographics of a larger public are chosen almost randomly to inform themselves, deliberate and make recommendations on certain subjects. Flanigan et al.1 designed an algorithm to select people for citizens’ assemblies fairly and in a way that ensures assemblies are demographically representative.Credit: Fabio De Paola / Alamy

First, because members of deliberative minipublics are selected to reflect a relevant audience (they are descriptively representative of the audience), they better represent groups that tend to be under-represented in elected bodies (such as legislatures) or in processes that participants choose themselves (such as public hearings, petitions and lobbying). Second, because a few ordinary citizens act as representatives of other citizens, the public tends to like and trust these organizations, possibly because they are not elitist and do not engage in professional politics. . Third, deliberative minipublics incorporate expertise, as members are responsible for learning about an issue, hearing from experts and advocates, and then deliberating on recommendations.

There is abundant evidence3,4 that, when supported by well-designed processes, ordinary citizens can integrate expertise with moral, value-based and political considerations. On ‘hot’ issues (like abortion, climate change and Brexit), demographically representative samples of deliberative minipublics tend to be less polarized than advocates and elected officials. Part of the reason is that the selection process does not over-represent what are known as motivated reasoners, that is, people who select information to support a preconceived position.

Flanigan and his colleagues focus on the composition of deliberative minipublics. They propose and test an algorithm that maximizes fairness in the selection of members by equalizing the probability of selection. Why is this important? As political entities, deliberative minipublics must be seen as legitimate representative bodies by the general public if they are to bridge the gap between democracy and expertise. Although the research remains patchy, the evidence5 suggests that their legitimacy, as perceived by the general public, is motivated by the fact that they are representative of people who are “like us”, which underscores the political value of such descriptive representation.

Our current understanding is that people like deliberative minipublics in part because they represent ordinary citizens, not elites with political agendas. Thus, people are more likely to trust the results obtained5. In addition, the recommendations issued by these citizens’ assemblies often have a greater impact on the public than the same information delivered by experts.4. To achieve this kind of legitimacy, those who organize deliberative minipublics must ensure the credibility of the selection processes.

But it’s easier said than done. Deliberative minipublics are often formed in a two-step process: invitations are sent to a number of people – usually more or less randomly chosen from, for example, the voters’ lists. As Flanigan and colleagues note, those who respond positively are not, however, representative of the general population: they are generally older, more educated, more likely speak the dominant language or belong to a dominant ethnicity, and are more likely to ” have a stable residence. A random selection from this group would therefore not produce a descriptively representative organ.

For this reason, organizers usually impose demographic quotas for certain categories when selecting a mini-audience from a pool of volunteers, so that they can produce a body that looks like the mainstream. This is where the algorithm devised by Flanigan and his colleagues does its job: using ideas from the field of “fair division”, an aspect of game theory, the algorithm equalizes the chances that someone is. selected to serve, even given the quota constraints needed to correct bias in the volunteer pool. Doing this maximizes the chances that the organization will resemble the general public, without unfairness in the selection process.

Challenges remain. Wider audiences, especially those with a high proportion of suspicious citizens, have yet to be persuaded that the selection processes used are fair, and few are likely to understand the selection algorithm itself. Therefore, a lot depends on the credibility of the organizers and their ability to translate the selection algorithm into a visible and transparent process that intuitively makes sense – showing, for example, that the algorithm works like a lottery. Organizers should avoid giving the impression that quotas for removing bias are “rigging” the process. And it is not only citizens who need to have confidence in deliberative minipublics, but also political elites, whose views on the ability of citizens to understand a subject can be affected by the successes of populist politicians who mobilize ignorance.

Despite these challenges, deliberative minipublics are one of the most promising avenues for bridging the growing gap between democracy and expertise. And they gain in use and efficiency6. Although there is no authoritative census of these initiatives, a search of the crowdsourcing website Participedia.net (https://participedia.net) combining the search terms ‘random sampling’ or ‘stratified random sampling’ with a method involving a ‘deliberative and dialogical process’ returns over 520 events from around the world in which randomly selected groups learn and deliberate. A report6 published last year by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) lists 290 “representative deliberative” processes in OECD countries, some of which began in the 1990s, although most were organized in over the past decade.

As deliberative minipublics are increasingly used, it is crucial that citizens and political elites see them as credible and legitimate. Flanigan and colleagues’ screening algorithm is a key step forward and should provide a global benchmark to spur this promising democratic innovation.

Competing interests

The author declares no competing interests.

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