Democs (Deliberative Meetings Organised by Citizens) is a deliberation technique that takes the form of a card game that enables small groups of citizens to learn about and discuss complex scientific, political and ethical issues.
Problems and Purpose
Democs (Deliberative Meetings Organised by Citizens) is a deliberation technique that takes the form of a card game that enables small groups of citizens to learn about and discuss complex scientific, political and ethical issues. Democs is an interactive and engaging process to support deliberation, learning, and possible conclusion with decision making. As a deliberation method Democs is not only about innovations that produce policy recommendations but also to aim to bring citizens together to deliberate on public issues. Democs allows individuals to learn or extend their knowledge on complex issues, to share their experiences and values and to understand the experiences and values of others.
Democs relies on increased citizen capacity and engagement. Elitist democratic theorists argue that average citizens lack the political and intellectual capacity to engage and make decisions concerning national and foreign issues. For Schumpeter (1943) citizens can rationally judge in their professional and private spheres, however concerning political issues citizens lack 'effective individual volition and command of facts' (261). Citizens lack responsibility, knowledge and are easy to manipulate by outside forces, because political affairs are so removed from the majority of people's lives. As Fishkin and Laslett (2006) note, the public's most basic political knowledge is appalling by any standards (11). One explanation is that what Downs et al (2006)) call 'rational ignorance' (11). For the average citizen it is too costly and time consuming to become well-informed for most complex policy questions. Yet citizens are confident that their opinion is unlikely to make any difference, hence they rationally choose to be ignorant.
Democs focuses not only on sharing views but also on the providing of access to accurate, balanced and clear actual information. Fishkin (1995) argues that a 'measure of reasonable democratic decision is what would people decide if they were informed'. The design of Democs is based on deliberation without experts hence its avoids 'audience democracy' -passivity and one way-interactions ( Fishkin, 2006:6). Game materials are created in advance by experts with the aim to 'manage cognitive load' (nef, 2011). Introducing information on a new and complex subject can create difficulties, as a result information is presented in ‘bite size’ chunks on various sets of cards that present a collection of view points. Participants do not require preparation which makes participation more open and accessible.
Origins and Development
Democs was created by the New Economic Foundation (nef) in the early 2000s due to growing interest in engagement with public through deliberative practices.
Democs was to be used as part of mass national campaigns on ICT and the NHS such as Who Sees What? and was a part of a self-initiative for schools, grass-roots organisations or individuals for educational purposes.
Currently Democs is adapted for use across Europe through PlayDecide- a web-based project where Democs on science topics are available for download.
How it Works
Democs is innovative as a method of engagement with the wider public as it is more open to participation compared to traditional methods such as citizens juries which require invitation. Designed for small groups, this ensures that a would-be inaccessible location is not an obstacle as it can be played everywhere, from the community centre, classroom, to a cafe or somebody's living room. Democs is flexible as it can be adapted to any age and for a variety of complex issues - from discussion on stem cell research for schoolchildren to synthetic biology discussions for adults. Besides, in contrast to most public engagement activities such as citizens’ juries and deliberative polling, where participation is by invitation-only and not by interest, Democs gives an opportunity to lower formal barriers of entry and to open new spaces for anyone who would like to take part. Democs can be used under an umbrella of one project or organisation or even an interested individual, hence discussions can be held within their existing social networks.
The design of the game, complete with simple instructions is made with the intention to give people confidence to organise their own events (Whitehead, 2010). This can be especially attractive for engaging a hard-to-reach group. Game design avoids passivity and promotes collaboration through engagement in social issues through themes, narratives, roles, settings, and character. Due to its design, deliberation takes place without experts or facilitators which creates an informal and relaxed atmosphere. Democs provides a familiar structure and a safe space that will appeal to inexperienced participants. For example, 93% of participants of the Democs programme by the Welcome Trust, agreed that, ‘I felt safe to say what I felt and thought’ (Walker, 2010). By embracing openness through design, Democs makes it possible to engage with a significantly larger numbers of participants.
Democs kits are freely downloadable and can be found at : www.neweconomics.org/projects/democs.
In the Decide format in a range of European languages on various topics : www.playdecide.eu.
On Isotope ( Informing Science Outreach and Public Engagement ) on science topics : http://www.nationalstemcentre.org.uk/elibrary/collection/533/democs#collection-resources.
The game usually takes 60 to 90 minutes among small groups of people (between 5-9 players). Each Democs kit includes a deck of cards representing key facts, opinions and examples about a particular topic.
The process takes three stages:
The first stage is learning. Citizens discover a given story card in which citizens explore an imaginary narrative of people who are affected by an issue. Citizens evaluate the importance of each card and key issues which encourage them to critically engage with the meaning of the information. In the end, citizens absorb a full range of information and viewpoints available.
The second stage involves analysing the chosen cards when citizens categorise them in groups and look for linkages among them. Citizens are expected to agree or disagree on the meaning which would lead to a discussion. In this phase citizens should have explored and gathered information, and started to think about the implications.
In the third stage citizens apply their knowledge to make a decision according to the purpose of the event. The most commonly used approach is when in the end of the game citizens vote and rate on a particular policy position. In the end citizens try to formulate a consensus position in that they can find some level of agreement (Whitehead, 2010).
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Democs does not only produce policy recommendations but also has an educational role and potential - 'an opportunity for citizens to develop their political knowledge, skills and virtues' which will improve the character of public opinion (Smith, 2005:40). Citizens can participate in Democs without prior knowledge or preparation. For example, Democs was used in a one year project (April 2005-March 2006) in secondary schools with 1,189 participants. The aim was to enhance the ability of students to understand and discuss complex scientific issues such as neuroscience, GM food and stem cell research. The results showed that by playing Democs 81% of students enhanced their scientific knowledge, 63% of students thought that they understood more about contemporary scientific decision making and ethical issues, and 70% of students had been able to evaluate the impact of scientific developments or processes on people, communities or the environment. This experience helped to involve students who didn’t take a science as a subject and allowed informality in order to encourage to participate (nef, 2006).
In another example, Democs was used by the Welcome Trust under the Medicine in Society programme, with an aim to increase knowledge about particular issues and to incline more citizens to take part in public affairs. 350 people participated from October 2001 to January 2003 during the campaign. Understanding of views different to their own increased for 70% of participants, more sympathy for 25%, and a large majority of participants identified dilemmas in their feeling for others (nef, 2003). For 82 participants of Democs sessions on synthetic biology, for participants who didn't have knowledge of the issue prior to play, Democs opened up questions on the issue, while for those already with some knowledge of the issues Democs aided them in understanding deeper ethical issues involved (Bruce, 2010).
In general, evaluations suggest that Democs 'promotes collective learning', ‘the development of a greater appreciation for the diversity of opinions and the complexity of the issues' (Smith, 2005, 47). Furthermore, Democs produces confidence and an interest to continue investigation in explored subjects and for participants to take further action (nef, 2011).
Democs therefore has the potential for the 'development of political agency and consciousness' and 'self transformation' (Warren, 1992). Citizens who are empowered by such participation in decision making processes are subject to transformative effects on their power of thought, feeling and action. Pateman (1970) describes this as citizens receiving 'social training'- how to be public as well as private citizens. Citizens would become more tolerant to difference, knowledgeable, sensitive to reciprocity, and cooperative as increased democracy transforms individualist and conflicting interests into common interest (Warren, 1992). Participation allows the development of democratic skills as well as having a psychological effect. The role of education is to restore citizen capacity to act (Freire, 1972). Individuals will feel that he/she is making an impact, hence it is 'worthwhile to perform civil duties'. This would lead to an increase the use of consensus as tool for political interaction rather than power. As Warren (1992) states, democracy is necessary to the values of self-development, autonomy, and self-governance (8).
There are some limitations in outcomes that are representative of ‘public’ opinion for policy making. Democs main emphasis on grass-roots organisation might have drawbacks. The most successful events were run by members of the community or voluntary sector which offers new ways of public engagement through civil society rather than traditional ways through formal political processes. However, unless Democs is played under a national program when a large enough number of games have been played, it does not allow sample the population in order to achieve representation of result.
Furthermore, voluntary participation might not always produce full data to include into the the overall data under national program (Bruce,2010).There was some difficulty with attracting citizens for playing Democs on more complex subjects such as synthetic biology as more groups of scientists took part, hence there is possible need of leadership through community centres or other organisations to reach citizens. Democs is better suited for grass roots organisations to create their own consensus which can be an incentive for action or to create an opportunity for development of shared co-ordination with other organisations. Democs would benefit from providing more information on follow-up action, debriefings, or be used by activist organisations in order to create support for possible action.
Despite being less resource consuming, Democs is time consuming to develop despite this, hence it would not be suitable for deliberation of urgent issues for community groups or policy makers.
Democs has the possibility to have a significant impact on policy making under a large national programme, as it would be more representative. As for grass-roots organisations Democs has an educational value as the response of participants shows, that deliberation through Democs has the potential to help groups to develop a shared understanding of issues that can offer a platform for communal action.
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This report was produced for Innovations in Democratic Practices module, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Westminster, United Kingdom. Module leader Ricardo Blaug.