Bridging the Gap: why deliberative democracy needs theorists and practitioners to work together

Lucy J Parry

Lucy J Parry is a research assistant at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra

Wendy Russell

Wendy Russell is an associate or the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at IGPA, UC

Deliberative Democracy is emerging as a key approach to democratic reform. For the past 25 years it has played a key role in democratic theory and increasingly is a key democratic innovation. There are now a myriad of deliberative democratic processes implemented across the world; there is even a global online project - Participedia - to document, share and study the growing number of democratic innovations around the world. Small-scale deliberative processes aim to bring a sample of citizens together and give them the time, space and information they need to make collective decisions on a variety of issues; from participatory budgeting in Brazil to electoral reform in Canada. Deliberative forums like this – termed ‘mini-publics’ - come in all shapes and sizes, from large scale Citizens’ Assemblies with 150+ participants, to small, narrow-focused processes like Citizens’ Juries. Australia has a number of stand-out examples itself, including the 2009 Citizens’ Parliament, a suite of participatory measures that have been rolled out by the South Australian government in the last few years, and the City of Melbourne People’s Panel in 2014. Whether through state-sponsored citizens’ juries or grass-roots democratisation movements, public deliberation is being explored as a way to bring legitimacy and scope for action to government and to build the capacity and democratic influence of citizens. Deliberative processes are applied particularly to intractable policy reform and wicked problems.

In recent years increased uptake of deliberative democracy in practice has seen the emergence of a range of deliberative democracy practitioners. These include staff working in community engagement units of State and local governments, engagement staff in civil society organisations and companies, and private consultants and freelancers. Deliberative processes are time and labour intensive. High-quality deliberation requires skilled designers and astute facilitators to help structure conversations and to elicit and distil ideas and views. These professional practitioners now play a central role in the design and delivery of deliberative democracy in Australia. However, one of the obstacles for successful use of deliberative approaches is the challenge of bringing the normative ideals of deliberative democratic theory – what it should look like and what functions it should serve – to the reality of political decision-making contexts. This raises a potential ‘gap’ between deliberative academics and practitioners, given the constraints of translating normative theory into workable political reality.

A workshop run in March 2015 at the University of Canberra, Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis aimed to bridge this gap, bringing researchers and practitioners of deliberative democracy together to explore the state of the field and ways forward. The final report from the workshop can be found here.

In general, practitioners work at the coalface, adapting to political constraints and timeframes, and doing what works in these contexts. Researchers tend to stand back, describe how best practice should look, and critique attempts to achieve it. In bringing a critical eye they play an important function, but collaboration between theory and practice is clearly important. Deliberative democracy has a better record in this than some other fields, having taken an empirical turn in the 90s in its embrace of the ‘mini-public’ as a practical model of public deliberation. Many deliberative theorists themselves have got their hands dirty planning and organising mini-publics, and some scholars work at the interface between practice and theory. Similarly, much deliberative democracy practice has been strongly informed by theory and by interchange between practice and research. The ‘divide’ is not as wide as it might be. But ongoing disparities in incentives, culture and timeframes point to the importance of continuing work to build bridges.

One key recommendation emerging from the workshop was the need to engage about the value of deliberative democracy approaches with decision makers, including politicians and bureaucrats, and other opinion leaders. It was considered important to win over sceptics by drawing attention to both normative and practical benefits of deliberative democracy. There is a tension at play here: the normative, ideal goals of theorists versus the pragmatic imperatives that come with working alongside policymakers, as practitioners often do. This is not to say that the ideal and pragmatic are mutually exclusive; quite the reverse. Models of deliberative democracy that have such stringent requirements that they are infeasible in real world situations never achieve their normative goals. Conversely, models that respond to political constraints to the extent that they become purely instrumental also fail to contribute to the normative project that underpins deliberative democracy.

In some ways, practitioners of deliberative democracy are uniquely placed at the interface between theory and policy worlds and can act as mediators between the two. On the one hand, they work within the constraints of policymaking, familiar with the day-to-day rigmarole. On the other, they have the most experience of real-life deliberative democracy: they see it, they do it. Practitioners know what deliberative processes can achieve, in empowering citizens and improving the quality and legitimacy of political decisions. They also know how deliberative approaches can fail. It is arguably the case that despite the different work that theorists and practitioners do, they park their cars in the same garage; sharing a commitment to enhancing inclusiveness and public reasoning in political decision-making. What’s more, practitioners are uniquely placed to bridge a much wider gulf: between theorists and policymakers.

Increased engagement between practitioners and researchers may herald a pragmatic, ‘serviceable’ approach to deliberative democracy (following trends in political science, science and technology studies and sociology), informed by theory and empirical analysis and responding to and evolving with political realities. After meeting at the workshop, two participants did just this – as Lucy explains:

“A few months after meeting at the workshop, one of the practitioners emailed me regarding a Citizens’ Jury they were planning which related to animals. My PhD research is about deliberative democracy and animal rights, and the practitioners wanted to ensure that animals’ interests were represented in the process. I was able to offer some theoretical insights and as a result was invited to observe a meeting of the Jury. It was really valuable to learn about deliberation ‘behind the scenes’ and has been useful since when I have worked on other deliberative projects”

A follow-up workshop is planned during the upcoming Open State festival in Adelaide in October. This will have a broader focus on democratic innovations that take us ‘beyond the vote’. It will consider deliberative democracy as one in a range of innovations, together with collaborative governance, co-design and other participatory decision-making approaches. For more information, contact Wendy Russell (

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