5 - Two trust-based uses of minipublics in democratic systems  pp. 95-124

Two trust-based uses of minipublics in democratic systems

By Michael K. MacKenzie and Mark E. Warren

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An important success of deliberative democratic theory and practice over the last two decades has been to show that ordinary citizens are capable of sophisticated and democratically legitimate political judgments, if they represent the constituencies relevant to an issue and participate in focused, deliberative processes. Among the most interesting of these processes are minipublics. A minipublic is a deliberative forum typically consisting of 20–500 participants, focused on a particular issue, selected as a reasonably representative sample of the public affected by the issue, and convened for a period of time sufficient for participants to form considered opinions and judgments. Examples of minipublics include deliberative polling, citizen juries, planning cells, consensus conferences, and citizens’ assemblies. Experience with these processes suggests that, on average, participants develop thoughtful, well-founded judgments that can crystallize latent public opinion, complement expert judgments, and formulate politically viable policy options (e.g. Blais et al. 2008; Crosby 1995; Dienel and Renn 1995; Fishkin 1997).

While the basic structure of these processes is already well developed, the question of what functions minipublics can and should perform within a democratic political system is less well understood. The purpose of one of the best-developed forms of minipublic – James Fishkin’s deliberative poll – is to provide an alternative to conventional public opinion polling techniques. Rather than providing a reflective snapshot of public opinion, Fishkin has claimed that deliberative polling helps us understand what public opinion would be like on a given issue if the public were well informed, and had subjected their beliefs to deliberative scrutiny (Fishkin 1997, 2009; Fishkin and Luskin 2005). Other kinds of minipublic have been justified as ways of providing advice to decision-makers that represent considered public opinion. Minipublics have also been justified in very generic terms, as devices to increase citizen participation in public decision-making. The most complete surveys list the potential functions of minipublics within the political systems that encompass them. These include contributions to the development of citizens’ civic dispositions and capacities, inclusion, representation, popular control of political agendas, informed decision-making, accountability, effectiveness and efficiency, and legitimacy (Bohman 2007; Fung 2003; Gastil 2008; Goodin and Dryzek 2006; Smith 2009; Warren 2008; cf. Chambers 2009).


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