We ignore the people at our peril

After the Covid-19 crisis all voices must be heard

We don’t know yet whether we are at the beginning of the pandemic or just at the end of its first phase. When it ends, we may not know whether we have truly conquered COVID-19 or if it will recur seasonally. If the future is always uncertain, now even the present seems ambiguous. But even as we anticipate a rising death toll, many are looking over the horizon to predict the future. 

We all know that there will be a bill to pay, so already institutions around the world have started lobbying to ensure they don’t pick up the tab. Large corporations find it easier to squeeze suppliers, freelancers, the gig economy. Some demand bail outs – but why should government pay when investors have been rewarded? But shareholders are also pension funds that citizens rely on for their retirement. The exhausted workforce of the NHS deserves more than rhetorical praise, while a young generation demands a future better that debt, joblessness and impoverished universities. Everyone clamors to come first in the long queue of need—but which will win the day?

It’s the wrong question. The more urgent question is how we decide. What we lack are mechanisms with which to start contemplating a future whose design can be broadly accepted by all. In competitive democracies, political parties typically outline platforms they hope will win the day. But for decades now, that process has increasingly been seen as inadequate to complex conflict. It is subject to over-simplification, corporate capture and lies, leaving too many feeling alienated, lacking trust and left behind.

What we lack are mechanisms with which to start contemplating a future whose design can be broadly accepted by all.

In the 1980s, one of the first to investigate this trend was the American political scientist, James Fishkin. He noticed that in democracies, people mostly didn’t inform themselves about politics because they know that one vote out of millions doesn’t really count. He called this phenomenon rational ignorance; and, well before populism raised its ugly head, he saw how this mindset gave rise to fake news, false promises and a backlash against democracy itself. Even more dangerous, he understood that rational ignorance was a kind of abdication, because it stripped individuals of their capacity for influence and action.

But what if people had a chance to consider reliable information in small groups where they could have an impact? He began to design a process he called deliberative democracy, in which representative groups of people came together to share balanced, transparent briefing materials and make recommendations for future progress. And what he discovered was remarkable. Contrary to cynical expectations, ordinary people—drivers, electricians, nurses, executives, bartenders – paid serious attention, were thoughtful, listened and reflected. In the light of solid information they could understand and trust each other. In a safe environment where there was time to think, they came to empathize with those whose life experiences were often radically different and, as a result, they frequently changed their views. Why? Because they appreciated that, in this setting, their conclusions mattered. Their recommendations had consequences for people they now knew.

This is exactly what happened in the Irish Citizens’ Assembly that recommended a referendum on abortion. Despite loud misgivings – people were too stupid, it was just kicking the can down the road – the process resolved a problem that no political party had been able to handle. This Assembly was not (as it’s often portrayed) a series of talking shops, with a bunch of random people spouting off. It was a meticulously managed, carefully disseminated, jargon-free process that engaged and informed public participation, learning and debate. Over eighteen months, it changed what the Irish people knew, understood and believed. More important than the result, however, was its reception. Even those who did not agree with it were prepared to live with it, because of the way it had been achieved. This form of deliberative democracy had bestowed what leaders in every context most crave: legitimacy.

Even those who did not agree with the result were prepared to live with it, because of the way it had been achieved.

Those who had been following the evolution of deliberative democratic experiments weren’t entirely surprised. Fishkin has now run 109 such deliberative events, in 28 countries and from them notable patterns have emerged. In Mongolia in 2017, priorities for government spending were put to a deliberative group that turned the list upside down. Where politicians had fixated on a metro and airport, citizens cared more about insulating and heating their children’s schools so that education wasn’t interrupted by the cold. So that is what the government did.

What many of these experiments show is that, in small, moderated groups with access to sound information, people make informed, rational decisions. They make informed trade-offs because they know that everyone matters and that their decisions have consequences for people they know. By contrast, traditional processes force leaders have to make generalized assumptions about people and experiences they aren’t familiar with. In party politics, those decisions are designed to win power for supporters, not to benefit the whole.  The contrast with the UK’s Brexit referendum could not be more telling.

In today’s crisis, open democratic approaches have a special salience. For years, the legitimacy of institutions has been the issue bubbling under the surface of public discussions of public trust and reputation. Shell CEO van Beurden acknowledged the heat when, in recent regulatory filings, the company listed its “societal license to operate” among its key concerns. If this was a hot topic before the pandemic, it could boil over in its aftermath. So finding a legitimating process with which to begin to craft a post-pandemic settlement is crucial. If we want a sound and healthy future, we have first to find a way of defining it that builds in the quest for legitimacy and justice.

After a trauma collectively experienced by the world’s population, any outcome that disproportionately rewards or penalizes any one group will lack legitimacy. That, after all, is the century-old legacy of Versailles. It should also be the lesson of the banking crisis, when austerity disproportionately punished those least responsible for the disaster. By contrast, the history of deliberative assemblies shows a broad cross-section of the public – not political parties, not financial technocrats and not global corporations – can lay the groundwork for effective, sound decisions that don’t undermine social cohesion but enhance it. They do not supplant parliaments but provide elected governments with a rich, informed and credible array of possibilities deemed to be just.

If we want a sound and healthy future, we have first to find a way of defining it that builds in the quest for legitimacy and justice.

The whole point of democracy, Fishkin says, is to connect. Instead of fighting over who owns our future, we need to craft a legitimate way to share the work of making it. “If our institutions do not learn to listen to the people in a thoughtful and representative way,” Fishkin told me, “they are at risk.” A starker statement of where we stand came from Peter Patrick, a barman whose thinking was changed after he took part in the Citizens Assembly that met in Dublin. 

“It actually works,” Peter Patrick reflected. “I just came back from Berlin – and I went down to where the former SS headquarters was. Looking at it, I thought how quickly a country can change. So you have to keep working on democracy, because countries can change very quickly. It made me realize how very fragile we are.”

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