The Case for Mini-publics

Regardless of the independence referendum result, Scotland has the opportunity and potential to put its citizens at the heart of the political system by moving towards a participatory democracy. There are, however, a number of significant problems that must be overcome to achieve this, and the argument here is that minipublics can help overcome these issues.

Participatory democracy involves all citizens affected by a decision participating in the making of these decisions directly. If we take the literal and original Greek meaning of the word ‘democracy’, then it is ‘rule by the people.’ Therefore the more opportunities all citizens in Scotland have to take an equal part in decision-making directly the more democratic Scotland will be. In this sense a participatory democracy offers a more authentic approach to democracy than just having our elected representatives decide all policy on our behalf.

Innovative institutions, to promote participatory democracy, that have been employed all over the world are minipublics, which are made up of randomly selected citizens. The principle here is that everyone affected by the topic in question has an equal chance of being selected, and to ensure that a range of demographic characteristics from the broader population are adequately represented e.g. age, gender, ethnicity, disability, income, geography, education, religion, and so on. Participants are remunerated, the discussions are facilitated, and experts provide evidence and advocacy of relevant information and positions are then cross-examined by the lay citizens. They seek to answer a fundamental question: How would ‘the public’ deal with an issue if they had the time and resources to learn and deliberate about it in order to reach an informed decision? In this sense they are anticipatory publics and trusted information proxies that can guide politicians and the broader public.

In political debate in Scotland, it is common to hear concerns about the ‘uninformed public’, the ‘distorting media context’, and the lack of opportunities to ‘get a fair hearing’ for all perspectives. Furthermore, citizens can also feel uninspired to engage with important issues due to a lack of safe spaces for learning and deliberation, and the absence of new and trusted points of reference to guide their judgements. A robust minipublic can provide that ‘safe space’ and ‘trusted point of reference’.

There are though significant barriers to achieving a more participatory democracy in any political system, including Scotland. I would like to highlight six of the most salient barriers here and further demonstrate how minipublics can alleviate these problems.

Firstly, many citizens lack the inclination to participate. However, because minipublics use random selection and invite specific citizens they are more more likely to participate. If they decline the invite they are replaced by someone with similar demographics.

Secondly, citizens also lack the time to participate. We all have other commitments including work, family and a social life and understandably many people are reluctant to sacrifice their limited and valuable time to participate in politics, especially when their participation may be inconsequential. Paying participants helps them find the time, and minipublics are usually held at weekends to make this easier.

Thirdly, there is a socio-economic bias to political participation with white, middle-aged, middle-class men most likely to participate, although the key determinant for political participation all over the world is education. The more education a person has undertaken the more likely they are to participate in politics. Random sampling removes the socio-economic bias. The whole point is that the participating citizens are representative of the broader public.

Fourthly, when citizens do participate, they are usually uninformed. This is partly due to the fact that if their participation is unlikely to be consequential there is little incentive to make the effort to become informed. However, this enables politicians and the media to unduly influence and manipulate public opinion. Minipublics provide participants with information from a range of perspectives, and gives them the chance to question experts and discuss the information. The incentive and opportunity to become informed is also created as citizens in a minipublic can influence policy.

Fifthly, due to a combination of all these factors, when opportunities to participate beyond the ballot box are extended to citizens, specific interests mobilise their support and capture these processes, meaning they are not representative of the whole public. Random sampling means minipublics tend to be made up of non-partisan participants and the possibility of capture by special interests is eliminated.

Sixthly, there are problems of scale. In any country, including relatively small ones like Scotland, the numbers of citizens, geographically dispersed, present significant logistical challenges to ensure inclusive and meaningful political participation in the public policy process. Through random sampling an economy of scale is achieved as only a relatively small number of citizens are required to participate, but this sample is representative of the broader public.

This is not to suggest that minipublics are the only relevant type of institution that can deepen democracy in Scotland and open up opportunities for citizen influence on public policy. Nevertheless, they do provide distinct and unique advantages and could be used in combination with other new and traditional forms of participation and representation that already exist in Scotland.