International Society of Political Psychology

Conference Abstracts

What is the capacity of citizens to deliberate?

Patrick Fournier, Université de Montréal; Henk van der Kolk, University of Twente; André Blais, Université de Montréal; R. Kenneth Carty, University of British Columbia;

Conference: ISPP 2011
Affiliation: Université de Montréal
Research Area: Political decision making

Deliberation theorists believe that when people deliberate they acquire a better comprehension of the subject (i.e. learn), they adopt more nuanced views after debating all aspects of the subject (i.e. change their mind), and they base their preferences on fundamental beliefs and values toward the subject (i.e. structure rather than whim). There is empirical evidence of learning, attitude change and structure building from various deliberative settings: deliberative polls, citizen juries, participatory budgets, town hall meetings, academic experiments, etc. However, previous deliberative exercises involved a group of individuals that was either small, ephemeral, unfocused, or consultative.

We analyze the most extensive real-world applications of deliberation. In three cases, governments allocated decisive policy-making power to the people. In British Columbia, the Netherlands, and Ontario, a group of randomly selected citizens was asked to design the next electoral system. In each citizen assembly, a group of over 100 ordinary citizens spent almost an entire year working on a single specific topic. Furthermore, they had real power: their recommendation would go to a binding public referendum or be delivered to the government. In this unprecedented form of deliberation, what amount of learning, attitude change and structure building took place? Our cases provide a litmus test. If such extended deliberations do not have much impact, then the initial arguments and claims may be problematic. Also, if ordinary people did manage to master this complex topic, how much time did they need: days, weeks, or months? Moreover, which dimension of deliberation is actually responsible for the observed attitude change and structure building: information acquisition or discussion among participants? We answer all these questions.