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Can Citizen Deliberative Councils
Legitimately Claim to Generate a "People's Voice"
on Important Public Concerns?


A reflection by
Tom Atlee
July 2, 2002


Q: How can a dozen or even a thousand people actually represent the diversity of a whole population? How can you talk about The People unless you are involving all the variety there is in the population concerned, or giving everyone a chance to be involved in the deliberation?

A: With citizen deliberative councils, we are dealing with neither statistical representation nor political representation, but with two factors we might call "symbolic embodiment" and "dialogic generativity." In this essay, I will explore all of these and their relevance to the legitimacy of claims to represent The People.


In the kind of statistical representation used in opinion polls, a certain number of people are chosen (randomly, scientifically) to include among them a demographic or opinion profile similar to that of the whole population. When you ask these people a question, they will collectively answer it in much the same way that the whole population would have, had they all been asked that question. The select group's "representation" function is to provide (or manifest) a manageable "snapshot" of thousands of other people as they think their thoughts in their individual lives. This is a very linear, predictable phenomenon that has been subject to much scientific verification, from which it derives its legitimacy.

Political representation is totally different from this. Nobody expects an elected legislature, for example, to actually BE like the ordinary people they represent. In political representation each person in the representative body is answerable (more or less) to the people they represent. They are mandated by the political process to stay in touch with their constituents' interests, desires and concerns and to speak up for those things in official deliberations. Theoretically, this is a straightforward, linear relationship: if they don't perform their representative role well, they can be removed from office by the people they claim to represent. They are supposed to be agents of their constituents. (Interestingly, the same rules of political representation apply whether politicians are representing the electorate or special interests. Either way, they are answerable and can be removed!)

"Symbolic embodiment" is an entirely different phenomenon from either of the other two. When the President or Secretary of State "represents the United States" in another country -- or when a disabled movie star speaks for disabled people -- or when Martin Luther King spoke for Black people and advocates of nonviolence -- or when the Queen of England shows up at a national ceremony -- their roles are neither demographically nor politically representative. These people are functioning as SYMBOLS of a larger population, grounded in psychosocial dyanamics of identity and resonance. Both the people they represent and the rest of the world somehow see in them the embodiment of their country or their type of people. This is a very non-linear, non-logical, somewhat mythic (in the Jungian or Joseph Campbellian sense) psychosocial phenomenon, but it is very real and very powerful. Significantly, this symbolic role exists and has legitimacy only because it is co-created or consented to (usually unconsciously) by the observers. In most cases there is no scientific rationale nor formal election involved. The power of a symbolic person or group is a product of honored institutions and traditions, of presumptions by both the symbolic entity and those who see or hear them, and/or of psychosocial resonance (either natural or manipulated with PR) between them and their audience.

Note: In the example above, the elected President is also serving as a political representative, but the symbolic role of the President becomes clear when we see citizens "standing behind" a president they disagree with simply because he is representing the United States -- as a symbolic embodiment of the country -- and they don't want to disrespect their own country. This patriotic dynamic is often used by national leaders to escape the answerability of political representation, especially by involving their country in wars in which symbolic embodiment becomes vital to the mobilization of forces and the macho posturings of opposing sides.

"Dialogic generativity" is another phenomenon altogether. It refers to the tendency for new perspectives and possibilities to arise from real dialogue among diverse viewpoints. It is not a form of representation, per se, but it impacts the issue of legitimate representation in the case of citizen deliberative councils (CDCs). Dialogic generativity is the factor that causes CDCs to function by a very different logic than public opinion polls. A seldom emphasized aspect of public opinion polls is that the people involved are interviewed in their own lives, as isolated individuals. Their opinions are usually "off the top of their heads," seldom the result of serious engagement with very different perspectives. It is precisely the absence of interactivity-with-diversity, generativity and novelty that makes opinion polls so quantifiable and their sampling methods so scientifically verifiable.

But when people with different views get into dialogues (especially facilitated) where they have to come to terms with each other's existence, each other's humanity and each other's piece of the truth, their opinions and responses start to change. Beyond that, if the group process they're involved in seeks common ground, deeper understanding or better solutions to problems, it evokes a co-creative spirit among the participants that produces results beyond what any one of them could have produced alone -- results whose parenting they share. In this case, we find that it is the diversity of viewpoints (notably under the influence of good facilitation) that generates the remarkable results.


The Legitimacy Claims of Citizen Deliberative Councils

A CDC has neither a politically representative function, nor the scientific legitimacy of an opinion poll sample. And yet it can be said to produce a "Voice of the People" for the domain it was convened to address. This is because its democratic legitimacy is established through a certain status and resonance that it and its statements have with the larger population it represents, given certain conditions. This status and resonance can come from a number of sources, among them:

a) any mandate given to the CDC by the people or their representatives, through being established by plebiscite, law, charter, constitution or tradition;

b) the "microcosm of the community" factor: the presence in the CDC of people "like" the people in the broader population -- the more similarities the better, but here (as in judicial juries) a level of diversity can be "good enough" if the selection process is clearly "fair" (e.g., random) and no significant type of person is notably or consistently absent;

c) the extent to which its findings and recommendations are widely recognized as having a "common sense wisdom" about them that appeals to a wide range of partisans, thanks to having been forged in intensely creative dialogue among diverse partisans and non-partisans who were led to bridge their differences and reach down into deeply held common interests to find that wisdom;

d) a certain amount of fanfare and public relations that drum up expectation, community spirit and community identification with the CDC before, during and after the CDC's sessions; and

e) spontaneous or organized public conversations and reflections on the issues involved, done by the population in diverse groupings before, during and/or after the CDC's sessions, so that the whole population shares a sense of the complexity and trade-offs involved (which reduces the amount of shallow ideological rejection of the council's findings by average citizens, if not always by committed partisans).

So we return to the question of numbers: How many CDC participants does it take to produce such legitimacy-establishing status and resonance with the population at large?

The answer challenges our usual ways of thinking about such things: The status and resonance that makes a CDC's voice a legitimate Voice of The People isn't primarily a numerical or quantitative issue. We've all seen a single demagogue or rock star produce resonance with millions of people. It isn't a matter of numbers. A CDC needs just enough citizen panelists to provide enough diversity to constitute a "fair cross section of the community" and to generate the "common sense wisdom" described in (c), above.

For those steeped in quantity-oriented legitimacy, this may seem counter-intuitive. The key to understanding it is to explore the role of high-quality dialogue in the process. Both the "fair microcosm" factor and the "wise results" factor are intimately related to the quality of the CDC's dialogue: The higher the quality of the dialogue, the fewer people are needed to represent the community and produce recognizably sensible results. I'll explore below some of the reasons why this is so.


Consensus-based CDCs

For our purposes here, it makes sense to start with the highest forms of dialogue available to us, specifically, creative consensus processes like dynamic facilitation. These processes help a group use its conflict and diversity as grist for deepening understanding, creativity and relationship.

In such creative forms of deliberative dialogue, the number of people occupying each relevant perspective -- and the comprehensiveness of their collective diversity -- are less important than the presence of significant diversity and the extent to which diverse voices are heard and taken into account. These, in turn, are primarily dependent on the process(es) used and the quality of the facilitation. Extensive evidence from dialogue and consensus process activities shows that one articulate minority voice, well heard, can turn around the views of an entire group (even in a matter of minutes, under the right circumstances). This is critical.

This widely seen phenomenon is totally outside the paradigm of polling. In polling real minority perspectives are lost, regardless of their merits. In creative consensus-style dialogue, minority perspectives are taken into account and valued, and frequently shape the subsequent conversation. Even in the lowest forms of consensus process where all sorts of group pressures are brought to bear on minorities, they still hold the veto card. They MUST be taken into account to achieve unanimity. In higher forms of consensus process, such pressure is actively discouraged and minority views are actively sought out and explored. Either way, the requirements of consensus tend toward a deeper deliberation than majoritarian processes.

That understanding -- along with the dynamics of mandate and microcosm (a and b, above) -- is the source of the legitimacy of the familiar JUDICIAL jury system in the eyes of the American public. Even as sloppy as jury deliberations often are, the citizens of America trust their lives and fortunes to these groups of randomly selected ordinary people, largely because they know those groups must come to a consensus in order to make any decision at all. In one survey 79% of the respondents nationwide said the right to trial by jury was "extremely important. In another survey, 90% rated the jury system as "very fair" or "somewhat fair." These are remarkably high figures, especially considering that Americans are far less confident about the legal system as a whole. (John Gastil, By Popular Demand, p. 174).

So how many people does it take to represent "The People" through symbolic embodiment? Based on the tradition of juries in the British and American judicial systems, twelve citizens who represent "a fair cross-section of the community" are sufficient -- given their informed, deliberative, consensus process -- to decide on the innocence or guilt of another citizen on behalf of the larger community -- or the justice of competing claims among their fellow citizens -- even if it involves matters of life and death or millions of dollars. This is remarkable, and very relevant to CDCs.

Consensus plays a decisive role in the public's assumption that such a tiny sampling of the community represents it's collective voice in judicial matters. If all that were required for a jury decision were a majority vote, these twelve citizens would surely not be enough. On the other hand, if we were to use hundreds or thousands of citizens in every trial (in order to have a representative sample), the system would be immediately overwhelmed and bitterly resisted and break down. In this case, the People have indicated that they want their fate decided by their peers, but they don't want to spend their whole lives on juries. Twelve seems to be the amount of people they trust, given their relatively random selection and use of consensus. (Some say this particular number is grounded in Jesus' twelve disciples.)

So when we're talking about CONSENSUS-based processes, it seems that diversity of participants is more important than quantity of participants. We might then wonder what level of diversity is enough to give consensus-oriented CDCs legitimacy? The answer is probably the level of diversity that will (a) generate energetic dialogue, (b) exclude no clearly relevant viewpoints at the start, and (c) give the observing public a chance to identify with the people in the CDC, and to accept them as a microcosm of their community. If a CDC's membership is not horribly lopsided as to age, gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, political affiliation and (if it is dealing with a specific issue) opinion on that issue, then the chances are high that the larger population will accept it as a microcosm, opening the way for resonance with (or at least serious consideration of) the council's findings. At the very least, the CDC will be more "representative" of the WHOLE community -- in this nonlinear felt-in-the-gut microcosmic sense -- than either their elected officials or various partisan leaders and advocacy groups.

So Wisdom Councils and Danish consensus conferences -- being grounded in consensus and thus tied to the mystical tradition of the jury -- can get away with a small membership (12-24) and just enough diversity to evoke resonance (as described in the preceding paragraph). However, to the extent CDCs do NOT use creative consensus processes and depend instead on CDC members voting -- thus moving towards the logic of public opinion polls and elections -- the number of participants and the comprehensive profile of their diversity MAY become more important for establishing their legitimacy.

So, in deciding on the form and legitimacy of a CDC, there seem to be real trade-offs between consensus on the one hand, and the quantity and explicit diversity of participants on the other. As a guide for further research, here's a working hypothesis: The more consensus-oriented the process, the fewer people one needs to include in a CDC, and the less explicit attention one has to give to their diversity. This is because consensus not only protects and honors minority views, but demands a deeper level of deliberation to reach its conclusions -- and the public knows this, at least intuitively.


Non-Consensus-based CDCs

So how do size and explicit diversity play out in CDCs that don't use consensus process? Interestingly enough, there seems to be lots of creative wiggle-room in dealing with these factors.

First of all, diversity, bias, fairness and representation are issues that pertain not only to the membership of CDCs, but to the information they are exposed to. In issue-oriented CDCs like citizens juries, in which participants study briefing materials and consult with experts, the explicit, identifiable diversity of the presented information is at least as critical -- if not more important than --  the identifiable diversity of the participants. If the selection of CDC participants is demonstrably unbiased (e.g., random), many concerns about fairness and legitimacy can be dealt with by being scrupulously inclusive in the information presented to the council, with oversight by a committee including a full-spectrum of partisans who can require that their information be presented to the council, but not veto anyone else's information. This is the approach pioneered in the Citizens Juries® run by Ned Crosby's Jefferson Center.

The factor of size -- the quantity of citizen panelists in a CDC -- plays out somewhat differently. In issue-oriented, vote-based, non-consensus CDCs -- such as citizens juries and John Gastil's citizen panels -- the number of panelists may become a legitimate concern for observers and the public. If 54% of the panelists in a CDC vote for a particular solution, candidate, or other option, there is a real question about whether that represents anything like "The People's Voice" on that issue.

There are many ways of dealing with this. Here are a few that are already under serious use or consideration, and some thoughts on research to increase our ability to deal with it well.

· In Germany several simultaneous 25-person "planning cells" are convened around any given issue. They operate as independent citizens juries whose output is subsequently compared and integrated into a collective statement that's later approved by all participants. Any similarity of results among the disparate groups would seem to validate their findings. Further research might identify particular processes (or other factors) that tend to lead to similar results in separate CDCs dealing with the same issue, which would mean that one CDC would be as dependable as many if it used those processes. (This would useful, of course, only insofar as this effort at consistency did not degrade the quality of the results.)

· John Gastil's book "By Popular Demand" recommends citizen panels of 50 panelists, with two-thirds majority required before their findings are considered decisive. Research could be done to better understand the relationship between the size of a panel and the percentage of agreement needed to dependably reflect what would happen in a full-size panel of 1000-2000 (pollsters' standard for a "People's Voice"). We can imagine a spectrum ranging from 51% approval among 1000 people to 100% approval (consensus) among 10 people, but we don't actually know at what sizes of group we'd need 67% or 75% or 90% of their votes to actually represent the deliberative decisions of the population as a whole.

· Citizen Jury founder Ned Crosby has created a hybrid form in which a citizens jury of 12-18 people consults first with experts and then with a "televote audience" of 600 (or more) who have been briefed on the issue before them and have participated in some community-based dialogues on the subject. After its teleconference consultation with the citizen jury, this televote audience votes on options presented to it by the citizens jury, which the jury then takes under advisement in its final deliberations.

In all these we find ourselves wrestling with two factors that pull us in opposite directions:


Integral Approaches

I think an ultimate solution to this problem may require integrated or hybrid systems that involve some kind of well-designed synergy between small and large groups. Here is one ambitous hypothetical design, just for illustration. It would be applicable to any important public concern:

STEP 1) Use small consensus-oriented groups to work through the most difficult issues involved with the topic, and to create innovative and wise options for dealing with it. Give these groups extremely high-quality access to information, expertise and process facilitation. (They might look like consensus conferences or consensus-based planning cells.)

STEP 2) Have those options -- and their pros and cons -- discussed in larger and/or more widespread public dialogues. These might integrate numerous approaches like AmericaSpeaks, Study Circles, National Issues Forums, Deliberative Polling, World Cafe and various forms of online dialogue, and could involve up to hundreds of thousands of people. All this could be reported in the press ("civic journalism"). The purpose of all this activity would be to generate widespread, informed public judgment.

STEP 3) Involve the experts, the legislatures and the nonprofit community in responding to all this. One would expect this to produce a higher level of proposals and critiques than existed in the dialogue prior to Step 1. (Steps 2 and 3 might be woven together in various productive ways.)

STEP 4) Produce final recommendations by putting the results of 1-3 through a citizens jury, in which leaders from (3) testify to citizen panelists, and citizens from (2) may participate in a televote audience. The final results would be submitted for legislative action or ballot initiative, as well as being circulated for further action like Steps 2 and 3.

Since few issues are solved for all time, even by the best deliberative process, something like this could be done iteratively as the issue evolved and as policies and proposals succeeded or failed. This process would constitute a sort of collective intelligence for the city, state or country using it. And I suspect it would work best with the overall visionary guidance of periodic randomly selected citizen Wisdom Councils (which have no assigned issue focus) and the continual review of periodic citizens juries examining the system's entire operations and promoting the answerability of its leaders. This last factor -- the capacity of the whole system to reflect on its operation, visualize new directions and correct itself -- is the final factor in the legitimacy of this approach in generating a People's Voice. But it may take a while for that level of legitimacy to mature. In the meantime, we have the other factors noted in this article, which we can attend to on behalf of The People, to give them a voice at last.