How can the quality of civic engagement and public deliberation be improved? This article examines ‘minipublics’ (deliberately convened publics). Educative forums and participatory advisory panels, for example, inform officials of citizens’ interests, values and preferences, and problem-solving and participatory governance minipublics provide richer information about what is and is not working in operations, strategies and project design. Institutional design choices have implications for the character of participation, how officials and citizens are informed, the fostering of citizenship skills, connections between public deliberation and state action, and public mobilisation. Citizens are more likely to gain democratic skills and dispositions where deliberations have tangible consequences for them. Iterated interaction increases both incentives and opportunities for cooperation.
The design and operation of minipublics varies in purpose, participant selection, subject, mode of deliberation, frequency, stakes, empowerment and monitoring. The choice of design has implications for the capacity for minipublics to function effectively. The diversity of experiences of minipublics prevents generalisations and may broaden the horizons of political and social theorists. Comparisons and conceptual clarifications may also serve those who practice public deliberation. Thus, understanding these elements of institutional design may contribute to the variety, quality and success of minipublics and of public deliberation generally.
There are eight possible design choices for minipublics:
- Visions and types of minipublics include educative forums, participatory advisory panels, participatory problem-solving collaborations and participatory democratic governance.
- Types of participant selection and recruitment include voluntary self-selection, affirmative action and the creation of structural incentives for low-status and low-income citizens to participate.
- The subject and scope of deliberation shape the operation and impact of a minipublic. An important consideration is whether citizens possess a comparative advantage over other actors.
- The deliberative mode can be constructed to foster the formation of individual will and preference, to generate consensus or to solve concrete problems.
- The frequency of minipublic meetings should follow from their purpose.
- The stakes of participants may vary from low to high, determining whether deliberation should be ‘cold’ or ‘hot’.
- The level of empowerment of participants should depend on whether or not they hold a legitimate claim to exercise voice in a decision.
- Monitoring can bring important benefits such as public learning, accountability, transparency and legitimacy.
These design choices have implications for the character of participation, how officials and citizens are informed, the fostering of the skills of citizenship, connections between public deliberation and state action, and public mobilisation:
- The quantity and bias of participation depend on the level of public apathy, the ability to mobilise, structural incentives, the subject of deliberation, the stakes of participants and the level of empowerment. The quality, rationality and reasonableness of deliberation depend on the extent of epistemic advantages, recurrence, monitoring and the stakes involved.
- Educative forums and participatory advisory panels inform officials of citizen’s interests, values and preferences, whilst problem-solving and participatory governance minipublics inform about operations, strategies and project design. Those factors contributing to the quality of deliberation also produce information for citizens.
- Citizens are more likely to gain democratic skills and dispositions where deliberations have tangible consequences for them. Iterated interaction increases both incentives and opportunities for cooperation.
- Increasing the accountability of officials and organisations is more likely where the gap between public interest and state action is large. Minipublics can advance social justice and create opportunities for consideration, criticism and even modification of public policy.
- Minipublics can mobilise the wider public if deliberations are related to the agendas of secondary associations or political actors. Citizens’ support for a minipublic may increase if it addresses a salient problem or need.