Progressive Futures

The people’s verdict

20 June 2017

Adding informed citizen voices to public decision-making

Claudia Chwalisz

This book argues that long-form deliberations help public bodies to legitimise difficult decisions and make effective policy. Based on comparative research into 48 case studies from Canada and Australia, it draws lessons for the United Kingdom given the similar culture and Westminster-style of government political institutions shared between the three countries.

The key finding is that by putting the problem to the people and giving them information and time to discuss the options, find common ground and decide what they want, public bodies gain the legitimacy to act on hard choices.

The sheer number of examples from Canada and Australia also disprove many of the common arguments against involving citizens in important public decisions. They demonstrate that people are indeed capable of deliberating on complex issues and of offering realistic and pragmatic solutions. As Peter MacLeod, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, Iain Walker and countless others involved in organising and running long-form deliberative processes will attest, the public is a resource to be tapped, not a risk to be managed.

Canadian and Australian premiers, ministers, mayors and other public authorities have been using this approach to make important decisions for close to a decade. They range from developing Melbourne’ s 10-year, $5bn budget to designing a 30-year infrastructure investment strategy in the State of Victoria and updating Ontario’ s condominium legislation based on the input of owners and dwellers.

In also examining the key forms of public consultation often used in the UK, this book highlights that long-form deliberative processes often cost a modest amount of money and last less time than commissions, inquiries and referendums. In other words, there is a more efficient way of solving problems in a democracy.

Finally, long-form deliberative processes need not be limited to local issues. Once again, the wide array of examples indicates that involving citizens in public decision-making can lead to influential change at the city, regional and national levels too.

Moreover, with regional devolution on the agenda in the UK, this is an opportune moment to consider how long-form deliberations can be an important feature of the new institutions being created. Canadian and Australian policymakers, politicians and civil servants have been leading the way in leveraging the wisdom of ordinary citizens to make well-crafted policies that the public supports. When citizens collaborate, learn, debate with experts and empathise with one another, sound public judgement is more likely to prevail. While efforts to use new forms of citizen engagement do exist in the UK, notably by innovative local councils and devolved parliaments, the benefits of the rigorous long-form deliberative approach are yet to be reaped, let alone institutionalised. The opportunity to do so is immense.

Photo credit: Alex Brylov /