Testing the Benefits of Public Deliberation

The forthcoming article “Testing the Benefits of Public Deliberation” by William Minozzi, Ryan Kennedy, Kevin M. Esterling, Michael A. Neblo, and Ryan Jewell is summarized by the authors below.

As trust in government and democratic institutions continues to hit new record lows, the push to scale up the most effective forms of civic engagement are intensifying, and governments are becoming more invested partners in such efforts. But robust civic engagement, such as public deliberation, is a heavy and expensive lift not only for planners but also for participants. To reach beyond the affluent and already-engaged, planners have to offer not only all the necessities for a high-quality deliberation, but multiple timeslots, childcare, perhaps incentives if participants have to miss work. 

These requirements make efforts to scale up to the point necessary to impact our democracy quite daunting, leading some democratic theorists and funders to propose individual deliberation as a better vehicle. After all, individual deliberation could be made asynchronous, available on-demand whenever a citizen wants to engage, and perhaps even be less subject to some of the vagaries of group dynamics. It’s easier to sweep a thousand pebbles than move one huge boulder. Maybe this is what it would take to involve enough people to change our institutions—a Candy Crush for deliberation? 

It’s an open question: there has been little empirical evidence so far on the specific value of public deliberation over individual deliberation. We therefore decided to try to test exactly that, to see if individual deliberation could achieve similar results to public deliberation, presumably at much lower cost when taken to scale. 

Our team designed an experiment to test the effects of three different levels of engagement: public deliberation, individual deliberation and an information-only control. Our experiment’s participants were constituents of two participating U.S. Senators. We randomly assigned the constituents to one of the three conditions. In the public deliberation condition constituents participated in online group deliberation using the Common Ground for Action platform with other residents of their state, structured around an issue guide and short videos that discuss policy options and elucidate tradeoffs. The individual deliberation condition walked participants through a questionnaire that simulated the online discussion, encouraging individual deliberation by requiring subjects to watch the same videos from the discussions and confront the same tradeoffs. To independently measure the value of both public and individual deliberation, some participants were assigned to a control group. Members of the control group were provided access to the same information and the same videos but could skip this part of the experiment if they wished. We informed participants in all three groups that the results of the study would be shared with their respective Senators via a report that we submitted to each office. We conducted pre- and post-event surveys with all participants, so that we could compare the results for those who did the individual vs the public deliberation on the following measures: 

  • satisfaction with the experience  
  • change in opinion  
  • gains in knowledge  
  • gains in enthusiasm 
  • increased trust in government and their own sense of civic efficacy

When we compared the pre- and post-data from all three types of engagement, we found that individual deliberation did offer clear benefits over merely providing access to information, but it fell well short of the gains produced by public deliberation. Public deliberation produced an overall effect almost double that of individual deliberation, even though our sessions were online rather than face-to-face. Further, we found no evidence that important limits sometimes observed in face-to-face public deliberation—such as disparities in the experience that arise from conflict avoidance or less education, or social dynamics that can arise based on race and gender—reduced these benefits. Specifically, we found that: 

  • Public deliberation did produce higher levels of satisfaction than individual deliberation: an 11 percentage point rise in participants’ attitudes toward the session vs 4% for those who did the individual deliberation.  
  • Deliberating with others also produced more opinion change than individual deliberation: while the number of participants who reported changing their minds was fairly small, 9%, it was more than double that (4%) of those who changed their minds after individual deliberation. Both forms of deliberation also caused small knowledge gains.  
  • Public deliberation increased enthusiasm on the immigration issue, causing a 9% increase, three times the increase caused by individual deliberation.  
  • Public deliberation also slightly increased participants’ sense of efficacy and trust, although not significantly more than individual deliberation. This may have been due to the horizontal nature of the deliberation, in that there was no direct interaction between the Member of Congress and constituents— our previous research showed notable increases in both when there was such direct interaction.  
  • These increases were made equally across demographic groups, showing that public deliberation does not, as sometimes feared, provide its gains only to the more privileged of its participants.  

If we had found little evidence of differences in the effects of public and individual deliberation, that would have called into question the large investments that institutions and governments have made in the practice. But instead, our findings suggest that public deliberation may well be worth that cost. Actors in this space who wish to scale up this form of civic engagement should absolutely rigorously examine ways to bring down the costs of public deliberation— by moving online, by finding more cost-effective methods of constituent recruitment, etc.— but it appears to be significantly more effective than individual deliberation on many of the measures crucial to helping repair our democracy. 

About the AuthorsWilliam Minozzi is a Professor of Political Science at The Ohio State University, Ryan Kennedy is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Houston, Kevin M. Esterling is a Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of California, Riverside, Michael A. Neblo is a Professor of Political Science at The Ohio State University, and Ryan Jewell is a Senior Applied Data Scientist at Civis Analytics. Their research “Testing the Benefits of Public Deliberation” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.