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Understanding the systemic approach to deliberative democracy

by SWPS University

A part of Work Package 1 is to ensure a common understanding of the multiple connotations and meanings that connect ideas of liberal democracy and theories of representation, public policy, participation and deliberation. In Helsinki last week, we held a workshop on “How to understand the systemic approach to deliberative democracy”.

The systemic approach to deliberative democracy is by far the most popular one. It is also easy to identify that all dimensions of the EUARENAS project – conceptual, methodological, empirical and practical – are well situated within this approach. By identifying best practices and locating them within well-designed, broader systemic context (be it both for every piloting activity, and in general for the cities as innovative arenas of deliberation and participation), we fit into what was programmed in the systemic turn - understanding the 'division of labour' between its different parts (deliberative and non-deliberative), and also creating mechanisms of assessing its effectiveness.

However, the concept of the systemic turn in deliberative theory – while broadly accepted – is rarely empirically tested and discussed in order to identify its strengths and weaknesses. We find in our project a perfect space for asking such questions, especially since we are in between two crucial moments: we have already prepared a desk research for case studies and we are entering the phase of planning and carrying out the pilots. Therefore, this workshop holds not only a theoretical and conceptual value, but is useful in carrying out our further activities.

Four case studies have been selected and compared in the workshop, bringing together really different cases of deliberation: from long-term projects such as the 'Wigan Deal', complex governance sets of practices from Barcelona and Reggio Emilia, and very goal-oriented case of citizens' assembly in Copenhagen. Discussions on these cases led by questions on mutual impact of deliberative and non-deliberative elements of the process delivered interesting insights on how those elements operate and how sometimes a non-deliberative intervention is crucial for the process to become more inclusive, substantial or impactful. We have also discussed the need of inclusion of another dimension of potential effects of deliberation that has been overlooked by the systemic theorists, namely the political legitimacy for unpopular or difficult decisions.

The workshop provided a 'testing ground' for potential hypotheses and comparative methods that might bring a valuable addition to the most fundamental paradigm of the deliberative theory, but it also points us to several issues, challenges as well as opportunities, that we will be facing in our practice-oriented activities.

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