What is Deliberation?
Deliberation is a communication process that helps people come together across differences to tackle challenging social problems. When policy decisions have far-reaching effects that are experienced differently across a population, it is vital to enable participation in decisions by learning, practicing and supporting the skills of deliberation. In a time of global pandemic, this is even more critical.
Public deliberation involves becoming informed about a topic, encouraging people from various backgrounds and differing viewpoints to share their views, and coming together to develop advice that is sensitive to a range of perspectives. The desired outcomes include recommendations and identification of areas of disagreement among participants.
Public deliberation can take place in small or large groups, as well as in person or in technologically-mediated settings. The deliberative process enables people to share their personal experience and perspectives about difficult or contentious issues, such as immigration, gun control, the climate crisis, trans rights—or in this case, COVID-19 planning and response. The deliberative process emphasizes the importance of involving all who are affected by the issues and examining options as well as trade-offs to make better decisions.
Deliberation can help deepen civic engagement and support the democratic process. It can be used to resolve conflicts by bridging divides and building common ground; to develop knowledge about complex issues; to generate innovative solutions to problems; and to reach agreement or recommendations on public policy.
Public deliberations are discussions about important societal issues that involve values or trade-offs. Instead of telling the public how such issues will be resolved, deliberations invite the public into active participation about the issue. Diverse participants have an opportunity to identify what is important to them about a pressing current issue and provide advice in the form of recommendations to decision-makers. In this deliberation series, the trade-offs involve balancing the potential benefits and risks of using technology to help relax some of British Columbia’s current rules around staying at home and business closures due to COVID-19. A public deliberation is about respecting the diversity of perspectives and finding ways to live together, so the information you read and hear may inform your opinions, and your opinion might (or might not) change! The intent is to engage citizens as they discuss important issues and make well-informed recommendations that consider diverse interests.”
Techniques range from small in-person group dialogues to large televised or radio broadcast forums involving hundreds or even thousands of participants. Evolving communication technologies can help overcome barriers of scale, geography and time, and in this era of COVID-19 the Internet has become more relevant than ever. There are different ways to organize public deliberations and these vary depending on the purpose, the process used and the resources available, including time. One approach that has been used frequently by our deliberation team to address a wide range of topics assembles 25-30 people over two different weekends—or a total of four days. Participants listen to speakers who are experts on different aspects of the deliberation topic. Then they work with trained facilitators in small groups to discuss a series of questions and consider different perspectives, along with the reasoning behind each perspective. Back together as a full group, participants examine the different viewpoints raised in the small groups and work together to imagine how that diversity can be accommodated in public policy in BC.
In a global pandemic, it is not possible to hold a public deliberation in the usual face-to-face format. Due to guidance and orders from public health officials, we cannot meet in person in a large group. But decision-makers need input from the public very quickly! They need to move both quickly and safely to make decisions to protect people who live in BC—our families and communities, our businesses and economy, and our health-care system. There are no easy decisions and there are many trade-offs involved. For these reasons, our deliberation team has changed its approach. We have tried to create a process that incorporates key elements of our usual public deliberations, like:
- Understanding the issues and different perspectives
- Emphasizing diversity
- Including a range of perspectives
- Finding ways to live together; and
- Providing reasons for positions.
At the same time, we have embraced internet technology to enable face-to-face conversations virtually among people across the province. We have also expanded our mission to support anyone who wants to engage in our deliberation.
Read the background materials! This will help you understand the deliberation topic in order to participate in a thoughtful and meaningful way.
Understand the ground rules. These are an important part of most deliberative processes, which are based on civility, honesty and respect. Ground rules can include:
- Listen carefully and with respect
- One person speaks at a time; and
- Seek to understand rather than persuade.
Keep an open mind and explore a range of views, even those outside your comfort zone. Prioritize analysis and reasoned argument. Deliberation is characterized by critical listening, reasoned argumentation and thoughtful decision making.