Tim Marshall, PRINZ life member
Democracy: it’s the most desirable form of governance. But how do we create better democracies in which everyone has their say? And what is the role of PR practitioners in that process?
Those were the big questions addressed by Professor John Parkinson at PRINZ Conference 2014. John is a Kiwi former PR practitioner and PRINZ vice president even(!), who is now professor of public policy at the University of Warwick specialising in public participation in policy making.
John’s day job is researching, writing and teaching deliberative democracy – that is, the process of getting people together to talk about issues, become informed and be empowered to make decisions.
He says the key to better democracy lies in “the process”. If we get dumb political decisions, it’s not because of dumb people, but dumb processes he argues.
John asks: “What would a deliberative society look like?” Well, on the road to a fully deliberative society we have “deliberative mini-publics” – randomly selected groups of people who discuss, debate and decide.
A mini-mini-public model is the “citizen jury” – in John’s words “a nice, tidy” group of 12-20 people which unfortunately often just “postpone the storm” of public unrest because the group is too small for the public-at-large to accept. Even when mini-publics are expanded to about 300 people – as was the case for the Australian republican debate some years ago – the decisions can be rejected by the public-at-large if they feel the terms of the debate have been unfairly constrained or the decisions reached are out of line with broad public opinion.
More successful have been “electronic town halls” engaging thousands of people given a clear agenda and clear goals. The US state of Ohio successfully used this process to redesign its healthcare system.
In the absence of “invited spaces” for people to deliberate on issues, “invented spaces” will emerge, often from groups with their own agendas. In the UK, for example, influential on-line citizen network 38 Degrees has whipped up public anger in its “invented space” that has stopped state forest sell-offs.
In Brazil politicians and public officials have given the public decision-making rights on up to 25 per cent of the budget for certain policy areas “and the world hasn’t fallen over.” This concept has now spread to other South American and European countries.
John says public relations and communications managers can play a vital role in enriching the information environment – provided that partisan interests take the responsible approach of “clarifying rather than poisoning the information well.”
He called for an “Office of Public Advocate” that would provide quality information on an issue, champion the dispossessed and promote good democratic processes. PR practitioners could support this office.
“We have smart processes for better democracy at our fingertips – including creating invited spaces using social media. It’s not just about airing competing points of view but about generating a more genuine public conversation that can lead to better policies.”
For more on deliberative democracy, here are links to John’s books:
Deliberative Systems: Deliberative Democracy at the Large Scale
Democracy and Public Space: The Physical Sites of Democratic Performance
On the broader issue of democracy see this essay in The Economist