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When is Deliberative Democracy Possible?


It is widely accepted that conventional electoral democracy lacks much of the essence of 'genuine' democratic governance. Citizens hand over decision-making power to a handful of elected representatives, and are rarely engaged in debating and understanding the choices that those representatives make.

There is no shortage of normative models of more engaged, participatory governance. The key question has always been: What alternative models can actually work outside unusual circumstances of very small, local groups?

This Special Number of the journal Politics and Society represents an important advance in our understanding. The editorial introduction ('Deepening Democracy: Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance', by Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright, pp.5-42) provides an excellent summary of the ideas and hypotheses that emerge from a series of case studies and ends with sets of critical comments about (a) whether they have correctly interpreted their own case studies and (b) the empirical limitations to and problems of what they term empowered deliberative democracy (EDD). In other words, the editors and authors are helpfully self-critical.

The case studies are diverse. They are from Brazil, India, South Africa and the United States; and cover participatory municipal budgeting, schools, policing, environmental planning and democratic decentralisation. The editors suggest that these cases ('experiments') share:

Three political principles:

  • Each addresses a specific area of public problems.
  • Deliberation on these problems relies on the empowered involvement of ordinary citizens and officials in the field.
  • Each experiment attempts to solve those problems through reasoned deliberation.

Three design characteristics:

  • Devolution of decision and implementation power to local units.
  • Local actions are not independent of one another, but linked through the state in order to allocate resources, solve common problems and diffuse learning.
  • The experiments 'colonize and transform' the administrative bureaucracies involved.

One primary background condition:

  • A rough equality of power, for the purposes of deliberative decision, among the participants.

The editors also list six critical concerns about the empirical experience of EDD:

  • The problem of inequality and domination within the deliberative arena.
  • The problem of 'forum shopping': groups with power and choice may use deliberative arenas only when it suits them.
  • Deliberative institutions may be captured by powerful groups.
  • The devolution element in EDD may 'balkanize' the polity and decision-making.
  • EDD may demand too much citizen commitment.
  • Long term sustainability may be a problem.


  1. This is not the last word on the question of deliberative democracy. A great deal is unknown. The editorial introduction is however an excellent place to find the key questions set out with clarity, insight, commitment and balance.
  2. The authors are realistic, and sceptical about the prospects for empowered participatory governance without a good supportive framework of national governance. They emphasise in particular the importance of centralized planning and monitoring.
  3. These papers fit into a growing literature arguing that deliberation over public policy choices - as opposed to the antagonistic confrontation often associated with electoral democracy - generates more sensible decisions and more consensus over those decisions.

Source: 'Special Issue: Deliberative Democracy', edited by Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright, Politics and Society, Volume 29, Number 1, March 2001, pp. 1-163.
Politics and Society is published quarterly by Sage (

Keywords: participation; deliberative democracy.

Commentator: Mick Moore, IDS (November 2001).

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