Why facilitators are necessary to ensure high-quality public deliberation in citizens’ assemblies

This post originally appeared Democratic Audit UK, on 10th May, 2018.

Democratic Audit has recently published several articles on the potential for citizens’ assemblies to resolve entrenched political problems, in particular for  power-sharing in Northern Ireland, but what is required to make such initiatives work? Keisha Gani argues that facilitators are vital to encourage deliberation and inclusion, which are both necessary for well-designed participatory democracy.

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Facilitators: a crucial part of the deliberative process?

In citizens’ assemblies – where a group of lay citizens are selected at random to come together to deliberate on questions of public policy – facilitators often play a vital role. They can build bridges between ‘experts’ who are called to give evidence and citizens to create an environment in which compromise can be reached. By keeping everyone on task, being impartial and managing differences to ensure the discussion is constructive, facilitators place the views of the electorate above the elected.

The role of a facilitator is typically taken on by public officials and civil servants, who are seen to possess authority thanks to their existing involvement in the political arena. Although the emerging industry of participation has produced consultants that act as facilitators, they are not necessarily better at assisting deliberative forums. Iris Marion Young argues that encouraging citizens to be facilitators can result in dialogue that promotes greater accountability and equal opportunity to influence deliberative outputs.

Graham Smith underscores that four key democratic goods can be realised through deliberation, namely: inclusion, popular control, considered judgement and transparency. He also outlines two institutional goods of efficiency and transferability, which evaluate the feasibility and operation of democratic innovations at a larger scale. As facilitators are a crucial part of the deliberative process, they are the key to realising many of Smith’s ideals, particularly inclusion and considered judgement.

Inclusion: creating spaces

Facilitators can enable wider participation by giving individual citizens the space to contribute, by ‘holding’ the problem and creating structured engagement. By synthesising the views of others, facilitators can deal with complexity and simplify discussion. Anyone can be a facilitator, but what sets these individuals apart is their ability to mediate between the public and the political, enabling others to conduct high-quality deliberation.

An important aspect of inclusion is ensuring active deliberation by all participants, rather than just passive observation by some. For example, in the case of the mini publics created for the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on electoral reform, the facilitators evaluated all viewpoints, and attempted to ensure that marginalised groups were not further excluded. However, they found that men often spoke more than women, highlighting the need to improve selection criteria to support facilitation. As deliberation can be conflictual in nature, facilitators must motivate citizen participation and foster interdependence, by decreasing tension and disagreement. Facilitators must ensure that the myriad voices involved in any deliberative forum are included.

Considered judgement: encouraging reflexivity

Considered judgement focuses on the process of participants learning from each other as they are involved in the process. Facilitators take the  abstract positions held and create a ‘critical consciousness’  to motivate individuals to consider other perspectives, in a process that develops collective decision-making. Responding to the informational asymmetries helps facilitators guide individuals from their positions, interests and values towards other perspectives. The ability of facilitators to promote collaboration and help participants develop a shared understanding of the issues at stake can be seen in democratic innovations such as Porto Alegre’s Participatory Budgeting project.

Reflexivity is a key component of empowerment, where facilitators can help citizens become more aware of how their thoughts and actions develop. Deliberation treats citizen preferences as fluid, emphasising the ability of individuals to reflect and collaborate if they are well-informed. It is important not just to look at what individuals are thinking about, but also to address how and why they view things a certain way. As such, facilitators play a crucial role in nurturing deliberative dynamics to empower the public.

Archon Fung believes that trust is also an important component of the perceived legitimacy of facilitators. The importance of this was highlighted in the case of the Sacramento Water Forum, where the participants chose a facilitator they felt comfortable with. Facilitators generate trust by encouraging dialogue to reach reflexivity, rather than merely being there to transmit information. This ensures authentic dialogue by allowing multiple voices and perspectives to be explored, as the focus is on building relationships rather than just producing results. It is particularly important for facilitators to be aware of top-down representative dynamics and be careful not to reinforce this.

Deliberation without facilitation – is it possible?

Deliberative processes without facilitators are not unheard of, in particular in the use of E-democracy, such as the electronic participatory budgeting initiative in Iceland that followed the economic crisis. Here there is no face-to-face exchange that requires mediation. However, these processes are not without their issues, as even – or perhaps especially – with online participation, the tendency is to have more disagreement than deliberation. Without facilitators, there may be more monologues and pre-packaged arguments that shut down or restrict inclusion and considered judgement.

As the goal is to reach agreement or a deeper understanding of the issue being discussed, the facilitator’s presence is pivotal in creating an environment that fosters deliberative dynamics. Graham Smith’s democratic goods of popular control and transparency may be realised without facilitators, but their assistance plays a vital role in the realisation of considered judgement and is at the heart of inclusiveness, making deliberation more efficient and transferable to a variety of situations. Even if diversity is ensured, facilitators must be present to foster interdependence and authentic dialogue, by giving all participants equal opportunity to contribute. Giving citizens the space to collaborate and engage in reflexivity is an essential part of facilitation, and should remain a key priority of deliberative democracy.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit. The author would like acknowledge Dr Oliver Escobar and his course “Public Participation in Democracy and Governance” (University of Edinburgh). 

About the author

Keisha Gani

Keisha Gani is currently undertaking an MSc in Health Policy at the University of Edinburgh.


This post originally appeared johnpeterson51 on 27th April, 2018.

Living in the UK, one would think that Brexit must be taking up all the ‘political oxygen’ in this city.  But it isn’t.  Most of the exit negotiations have been delegated to a (small) task force of the EU Commission with Michel Barnier (former French Foreign Minister) as its head.  That way, the UK has been unable to ‘pick off’ sympathetic member states, or those with particularly strong links to the UK, from collective EU positions.  Virtually everyone who I have spoken to here thinks that Barnier and his team – led by the formidable Commission official Sabine Weyand (who studied at Cambridge) – has performed remarkably well in difficult circumstances.

Things have changed a bit since the negotiations moved to a ‘2nd phase’ (start of 2018).  The first phase focused on the UK’s budget contribution, rights of EU citizens, and Irish/UK border – in other words, the terms of ‘divorce’ – on which agreement was reached in December (although Irish border question was fudged).  That was the easy part.

Now we’re into talks on future EU-UK relations, which are much more complicated and contentious.  Theresa May is walking a tightrope leading a very divided cabinet that includes strident pro-Leavers such as Boris Johnson as well as Remain backers like Philip Hammond.  The EU 27 will have far more difficulty staying united in phase 2 and member states are already deviating from the company line in subtle or not so subtle ways on, say, the City of London, air transport – the company that owns British Airways is registered in Spain – or future trade relations (Ireland obviously wants as little change from status quo as possible).

I met with a senior EU official working on Brexit this morning.  The last thing he told me was of Theresa May telling Barnier last year ‘I hope we can count on you to make these negotiations successful’.  Barnier apparently responded:  ‘we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that’.  In other words, the EU can’t offer the UK too good a deal for the simple reason that it wants to do nothing that might tempt other member states to leave.

But the main story here is that Brexit isn’t that big a story.  The EU is just getting on with other things on biz as usual basis.  They include closer defence cooperation, agreeing a budget for 2021-7 (tough as UK was net contributor), new free trade agreements with Japan and Vietnam (and an upgraded, modernised one with Mexico), cyber-security, a ‘war on plastic’, and so on.  Not only do the worker bees just keep working.  Brexit – combined with the renewed confidence that comes with economic growth – seems to have energised the EU.

One myth that I’ve exploded during my time here this year is that most EU types are glad that the UK is leaving since it won’t be around to block things as it did in the past (on, say, EU defence).  But that’s entirely wrong.  Most people here feel sad and even depressed about Brexit.  Most British EU officials are – in my experience – very able.  Whitehall remains much admired across Europe.  And Brexit is a collective EU problem, especially for the more liberal EU states that trade most with the UK.

A lot of people here have asked me:  Maybe the UK could change its mind?  Could there be a 2nd referendum?  Possibly if the current government falls?  I tend to agree with my friend Richard Corbett MEP that there are about 10 different scenarios for the UK that all have about a 10% chance of occurring.

But I also think Brexit is a political fact and that reversing it would take a miracle.  Dommage.