What is deliberative democracy?
The idea is relatively simple, participants in a group make decisions by discussing, negotiating and deliberating on proposals. For example, in Cambridge Area Momentum (CAM) we are currently trying to decide what constitutes membership. What are the requirements for someone to become a member and participate in the group? A popular way of resolving this is for individuals to come up with proposals and then the rest of the group vote on whether the proposal should be accepted. This has the disadvantage that although everyone can have a say in the decision, it does not necessarily represent everyone’s view. This approach is frequently referred to as majority rule. In contrast, to ensure that everyone is reflected in the decision a consensus decision-making approach can be used. The group spends time identifying a proposal that everyone agrees with. This, although more inclusive than majority vote, can be time consuming and difficult to resolve when there are contentious issues. If you imagine at one extreme of a continuum there is majority rule and at the other end is consensus decision making, somewhere in the middle is deliberative decision making. Deliberative decision making involves some aspects of consensus building and some features of majority voting.
CAM has been using Loomio for the last month to try out deliberative democracy. Loomio was developed by the Occupy movement to facilitate joint decision making. It is simple open-source software. On the face of it, it looks like a discussion application, with multiple threads and ‘reply’ facilities. The key difference is that it has a facility to make ‘proposals’. This can be a proposal for action, the development of policy or it might be that a participant is looking for volunteers for a campaign or activity.
In the proposal box, the proposer describes their proposal and sets out what would happen if participants agree with it. You can see this in the above example. Other participants then respond with the following responses:
- Agree – I support the proposal as it stands
- Disagree – I think the proposal could be improved. There is an expectation that in taking this position, a person should indicate what should be done to make the proposal acceptable.
- Abstain – This indicates that a participant has no strong views on the proposal or that they have limited knowledge and that they are happy that others make a decision.
- Block – This is used to indicate the someone would be very unhappy if the proposal were to be accepted. Other groups have suggested this be used sparingly and as with ‘disagree’ it is imcumbent on the person taking this position to explain why and contribute to developing a revised proposals
Proposals can be of varying duration, it is up to the proposer and can be set when the proposal is made. The proposal on membership of CAM requires discussion, so the duration for deliberation might be over one or two months. Or a proposal might need a fast decision, a few days or a few hours.
So far in the first month there are 24 participants on the CAM Loomio site, we have made joint decisions on using Loomio, we have developed a statement on anti-semitism and accepted a statement on anti-racism prompted by comments made by the Cambridgeshire Police and Crime Commissioner. We are currently deliberating on how we define membership of CAM. At the end of deliberations, if the majority agree, then the proposal is accepted.
I have observed that contributors do not immediately distinguish Loomio as a joint decision making tool, but see it as a discussion platform or voting tool. At present we are all learning how it works and I understand from others’ experience that it is fine to use it as a discussion platform as part of the learning process. Once people recognise the basis of Loomio is deliberative democracy it goes beyond being a useful tool to being a powerful platform for joint decision making.
Why is this important?
One of Momentum’s stated aims is movement building, to reach out and encourage more people to get involved in politics. Such a movement will include people with a wide range of views and from different backgrounds. To bring such a disparate group together requires enagagement, discussion and debate. People may have different views but what brings them together is current disatisfaction and intention to change things. In order to make and build a movement it is necessary to focus on solutions: what it is it that the group wants to achieve? What actions can we agree on? The way in which a movement can be built and sustained is through deliberation and making joint decisions on action. The participation in deliberation in this respect is at least as powerful as the action, because it is collaborative deliberation that is central to building a strong movement.
The CAM Loomio site is a closed site and you can ask to join. We are deliberating on membership, but provisionally if you a) agree to the Momentum Code of Ethics, b) live in the Cambridge area and c) are prepared to identify yourself, then you can get involved. There are helpful support materials on the site, I am acting as a facilitator to help discussion along. It is free to register for Loomio access.