Evidence vs Democracy

Our friends at The Alliance for Useful Evidence have just published another thought-provoking paper promoting improved public engagement in policy debate and policy-making – using forms of ‘participatory democracy’ to counter the resistance of populist movements to evidence which should inform decision making.

The paper, Evidence vs Democracy: How ‘mini-publics’ can traverse the gap between citizens, experts, and evidence (Breckon, Hopkins and Rickey, 2019 – 39 pages) starts by noting:

evidvsdemocDemocracy and evidence are not happy bedfellows. Evidence is slow, uncertain, and jargon-heavy. It deals in shades of grey. Politicians deal in black and white. They need to be decisive, get off the fence, and sell their ideas to the public and interest groups.

(An) “... elitist and technocratic approach will not wash. The people want more. … The rise in reactionary populism reflects a dissatisfaction with elites running things on the public’s behalf.

The paper recognises that the use of mini-publics is not new, and that various forms of this citizen participation in policy have occurred since Ancient Greek times.  More recently though, mini-publics have been used to:

• clarify public perspectives on complex policy issues
• decide on policy priorities
• break political deadlocks or arbitrate between policy options
• increase public participation and understanding
• generate new policy ideas

The four major types of mini-public identified in the cases cited by Breckon et al are:

• citizen juries
• consensus conferences
• deliberative polling, and
• citizen assemblies

We all face the problem of simplistic views clouding policy work, and so must welcome this paper stimulating our thinking about better engagement of the public in consideration of decisions affecting their welfare.  We need to work with those we hope will benefit from proposed policy changes so they are able to share ‘ownership’ of the decision, and commit to ensuring its effective implementation.  As the paper observes, this is not yet the case with some major debates currently occupying our attention:

“Social scientists have spent decades pioneering more participatory and equitable approaches, but very little has entered into the evidence-informed policy arena. Research is still too often something done on people, rather than with them.
This point was made by an angry heckler at a debate in the run up to the Brexit. When the academic Professor Anand Menon asked the audience to contemplate a post-Brexit plunge in the UK’s economy, the response yelled by one individual was: “That’s your bloody GDP. Not ours!” (p.11)

Those seeking our votes at the forthcoming federal election might also spare a minute to consider their use of participatory democracy measures.

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