The Deliberative Democracy Consortium

Mar 23rd
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size
Home Resources Member Posts Deliberative Citizens' Forums and Interest Groups: Roles, Tensions and Incentives

Deliberative Citizens' Forums and Interest Groups: Roles, Tensions and Incentives

E-mail Print PDF
by Carolyn Hendriks, Social and Political Theory Program, Research School of Social Sciences, The Australian National University

Citizens are being called to play a greater role in policy making and tensions are arising between pluralist and deliberative democratic models of public participation. On the one hand, pluralists and neo-corporatists maintain that interest groups provide a focal point for defining public interest and that the role of the state is to co-ordinate between competing groups. On the other hand, those advocating for innovative deliberative democratic processes such as citizens juries and consensus conferences seek to include a broad cross section of lay citizens.

Advocates of these processes, referred to collectively in this paper as citizens forums, argue that these politically unorganised citizens bring important perspectives to the debate and help reframe policy problems.

The application of citizens forums in policy development is still a relatively novel endeavour. To date these deliberative institutions have been applied in Europe and North America and more recently in Australia. These participatory processes are advocated in terms of their advisory capacity to policy development, rather than as a means to replace existing decision-making processes or representative forms of government.

The tensions between institutions of deliberative democracy such as citizens forums and interest group pluralism have been given little attention in both theory and practice. This paper contributes to this relatively neglected area of deliberative democracy by exploring a few reasons why citizens forums might challenge certain interest groups. The This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it draws on an Australian Citizen Jury in which some interest groups chose to strategically circumvent the process. 

Citizens forums: An institution of deliberative democracy
The first citizens forums emerged in the mid-1970s from the area of planning and technology assessment in the form of Planungszelle (Planning Cells). Since then a range of innovative processes have been developed, including consensus conferences, citizens juries, and a number of hybrid methods. Whilst there are some differences between these processes, they seek to bring a small panel of randomly selected lay citizens together to deliberate on a policy issue. After hearing from, and questioning a number of experts such as academics and interest groups, the citizen panel develops a set of written recommendations. This document then feeds into the policy process either directly (eg. tabled in parliament) or indirectly through wide public dissemination.

Whilst elected representatives and bureaucrats often view citizens forums with some degree of scepticism, resistance appears to be rising from another set of political players: interest groups. This poses a potential problem to the future of citizens forums because interest groups play two key roles in ensuring the success and legitimacy of these processes. Firstly, interest groups provide information and perspectives to lay citizens, and secondly their involvement serves to legitimise the process and its outcomes. In most cases, interest groups see value in participating, because it ensures that their perspectives form part of the deliberations. However, as the next section of paper reveals, in certain policy settings some interest groups remain threatened by invitations to participate in a citizens forum and choose to respond by undermining the process itself.

On one level the hostility displayed by some interest group towards deliberative processes is likely to be influenced by the nature of the policy issue and its political landscape. Yet beyond case specific interpretations, there are inherent tensions between pluralist and deliberative forms of public participation. Why do deliberative processes such as citizen forums appear to challenge interest groups? How can these challenges be overcome?

New Players
The most obvious explanation for why citizens forums might challenge interest groups relates to the introduction of new players to the policy table. Apart from the fact that these new players (lay citizens) alter existing power structures, they also challenge what it means to be a legitimate participant. Unlike interest group models of participation, the Ôlegitimacy of participants in citizens forums is not associated with whether they Ôrepresent a sector of the community or whether they have specialised expertise on the issue.

The introduction of new players to the policy debate, particularly in terms of their representativeness and legitimacy, was one of the key concerns raised by the interest groups in a recent Australian citizens jury held on Container Deposit Legislation (CDL). There were two key issues here. Firstly, interest groups questioned the capacity of ordinary citizens to comprehend their arguments. Secondly, most of the CDL interest groups saw themselves as the only legitimate stakeholders. According to this viewpoint, citizens with an opinion or interest in the issue can only enter the policy debate via a valid group. Extending public participation to Ôvirtual stakeholders such as lay citizens appeared to insult interest groups because it down-played their expertise and their long-term investment in the issue.

Not only do these processes bring new players to the policy table but they also change the seating arrangements. Citizens forums assign a role to interest groups (eg. the Ôexpert) which may differ from the role they play in more traditional participation processes (eg. the Ôdeliberator), or the role they wish to play in civil society (eg. the Ôactivist or the Ôlobbyist). Instead of having key access to the policy discussions, in a citizens forum interest groups are assigned the role of the Ôexpert and the Ôcross examined. Though they are engaged in the process through the presentations and question sessions they remain at the edge of the deliberations.

New Deliberative Conditions
Citizens forums promote different conditions for deliberation, with an emphasis on exposing the debate to a public domain. In this way, these processes challenge interest groups because they promote an alternative means of communication. I would argue that interest group conventionally view deliberation in more competitive, or at best collaborative, terms. But citizens forums extend this pluralist interpretation of Ôdeliberation in three dimensions. Firstly, citizens forums provide an opportunity for the subjectivity and value-judgements underlying claims to be exposed and challenged. Secondly, deliberation in a citizens forum is reflective. Participants are encouraged to be open and consider shifting their preferences on the strength of the arguments put forward by the presenters and other participants. Thirdly, citizens forums provide a deliberative space in which arguments can be publicly tested and challenged. This publicity dimension of deliberation encourages presenters and participants to argue their claims in socially rational terms. For some interest groups, particularly those orientated around commercial interests might sceptically view these deliberative conditions as nothing more than a potential public relations disaster.

From the discussion above, though not exhaustible, some key themes emerge. Citizens forums appear to threaten certain interest groups because the processes introduce new players, assign new roles and provide new conditions for deliberation. In short, they challenge interest groups (and others) understanding of democracy, and what deliberation involves, and can produce. Having identified possible explanations for the animosity some interest groups display towards citizens forums, I now turn to exploring the second question: how might these challenges be overcome?

Incentives for interest groups involvement in citizens forums
Given the significant role that interest groups play in citizens forums, appropriate incentives are necessary to address many of their misconceptions and concerns. Several incentives have been put forward by Dienel & Renn (1995:128). They suggest, for example, promoting the fact that lay citizens can help to overcome stalemated policy situations. Furthermore, these processes offer an alternative approach to mediation and arbitration where various people consider the case rather than just one potentially biased mediator or decision maker.

Interest groups may be more motivated to participate in citizens forums if greater emphasis was placed on the organisational learning benefits of public deliberation. When groups choose not to participate in deliberative processes, the way in which they view their organisation and its relationship to the public is likely to remain static and misconstrued. Alternatively, by engaging in public deliberation, groups have the opportunity to listen to a public that they perhaps do not represent, or seldom hear from.

A few modifications to the forum designs themselves might also encourage interest groups to engage in a public dialogue with lay citizens. One suggestion could involve interests groups providing feedback to the citizens after their recommendations have been presented. This would give interest groups the opportunity to highlight what they have learnt and what, if anything, for them has changed.

Further consideration should also be given to the deliberations between the various interest groups and the process organisers. One positive step in this direction could be to facilitate greater interest group participation in process design.

Encouraging interest groups to participate in citizens forum is no easy undertaking. There will always be a tension between keeping the process insulated from the strategic action of interest groups, whilst at the same time allowing them access to the deliberations. Ortwin Renns (1999) three-staged Cooperative Discourse model may offer some solutions here. Under this model, public participation in policy development involves a sequential involvement of stakeholders, experts and the lay public. This phased approach ensures that interest groups and experts remain publicly accountable by sandwiching their discussions between those of randomly selected lay citizens.

There has been increased recognition in deliberative democratic theory on how its institutional designs may threaten representative forms of democracy. This paper has sought to discuss how deliberative institutions such as citizens forums also pose a threat to other actors in politics: namely interest groups, and has provided some possible explanations as to why interest groups may not be willing to participate in citizens forums. These processes challenge pluralist notions of public participation because they introduce new players, assign new roles and promote new conditions for deliberation.

However, the fact that powerful interest groups are opposed to the notion of extending democratic decision making to lay citizens highlights that these innovative processes could play an important role in policy areas dominated by interest group pluralism. Under pluralist conditions, the views of all citizens are increasingly being equated with clients or consumers of Ôrepresentative bodies. Citizens forums provide a deliberative space in which interest groups are held socially accountable for their perspectives on a given policy.



JPD logoThe Journal of Public Deliberation is a collaboration between the DDC, the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2), and the Center for Civic Discourse and Democracy at Kansas State University. An online, refereed journal, JPD is the flagship publication in its field, and an important catalyst for the rapid growth of interest in democracy, citizenship, and participation. Find it at


DDC eBulletin

  • Want training in public participation? Choose the courses you want to see at the IAP2 Skills Symposium in late May – Trainers include Matt Leighninger, Tina Nabatchi, Steve Clift, Anne Carroll, Kyle Bozentko, and Marty Rozelle.
  • If we gave citizens more ways to measure democracy, they would have more ways to improve it – @TechPresident
  • Nonprofits that take advantage of new thick and thin forms of engagement can thrive – @GatesSunlight
  • “If forms of government can be likened to operating systems, current variants of democracy are like early, primitive versions of Windows.” “They are neither optimally functional nor user-friendly – they are buggy, susceptible to malware, and lack desired features.”
  • The “People’s Lobby,” which allows people to generate legislation for City Council consideration, and includes a deliberative phase, starts up in Provo, Utah –
  • “Morris Engaged,” which combines education, deliberation, and citizen-led action on climate change in rural Minnesota, has been named a finalist in the Environmental Initiative awards – @JeffersonCtr
  • The National Civic League has announced the finalists for the 2015 All-America City Award – @allamericacity
  • Can we fix voting, a part of democracy, without strengthening the other aspects of democracy? Probably not. And why would we, when the more participatory aspects of democracy offer so many other benefits? Unfortunately, none of those are mentioned in this piece, which is another example of why conflating “democracy” with voting doesn’t help.
  • “Rather than blame our leaders for the dysfunction, we need to change the game.” This article includes some examples of how engaging citizens in participatory ways – and treating democracy as more than just voting – can tackle problems like climate change that seem politically impossible to address.

DDC on social media

For news, resources, and updates on deliberation, participation, and democratic governance around the world, like DDC on Facebook, follow @mattleighninger on Twitter, or connect with mattleighninger on LinkedIn.

The Next Form of Democracy

Beneath the national radar, the relationship between citizens and government is undergoing a dramatic shift. The stories of civic experiments in "The Next Form of Democracy: How Expert Rule Is Giving Way to Shared Governance -- and Why Politics Will Never Be the Same" by DDC Executive Director Matt Leighninger show us the realpolitik of deliberative democracy, and illustrate how the evolution of democracy is already reshaping politics. Learn more...

Deliberative Democracy Handbook

The Deliberative Democracy Handbook is the first book to bring together the best practices and thinkin on deliberative citizen participation processes. Deliberative democracy is the nationwide movement to make citizen participation meaningful and effective. Learn more...

Deliberative Democracy Handbook Cover

Journal of Public Deliberation
Visit the JPD >>