According to Pew Research, public trust in government is among the lowest it has been in 70 years of polling. Today, 25% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say they trust the federal government just about always or most of the time, compared with 8% of Republicans and Republican leaners.
The dismal statistics we continue to see year in and year out are compounded by the fact that democracy is under threat around the world. In response, many are turning to democratic innovations. According to Oliver Escobar and Stephen Elstub, democratic innovations are “processes or institutions that are new to a policy issue, policy role, or level of governance, and developed to reimagine and deepen the role of citizens in governance processes by increasing opportunities for participation, deliberation and influence.”
Many of these innovations intend to redefine the role of citizens and carve out unique opportunities for them to engage with their peers, collectively problem-solving, and making decisions on important issues. However, there are increasing calls for re-envisioning the relationship between elected officials and citizens using deliberative and participatory processes.
One such approach is the deliberative town hall, implemented by the Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability at Ohio State University. The model utilizes democratic innovation in the form of a deliberative mini-public within a single constituency, in relation to an elected official. Deliberative town halls bring together a cross-section of the community using stratified sampling, or civic lottery. The process further involves informed discussion on a topic with an elected official.
This approach has been commonly used with Members of Congress, but has recently been used in other Commonwealth countries, notably in Australia. What we know from this experience is that deliberative town halls can rebuild democratic relations by making interactions between elected officials and citizens more authentic, using reciprocal reason giving and sharing, and through active listening. In addition, ensuring that people with lived experience and scientific or topical expertise are present in conversations creates conditions for members of the public to better understand the nuances of an issue. Lastly, the Australian example highlights how having some type of impact over an outcome is highly prized by the public – they want to have their input factored into a decision, if not determining a decision altogether.
What makes the Australian application of the deliberative town hall model relevant is that Members of Congress have significant leeway to operate beyond strict party discipline and whipping. In Australia, a Member of Parliament used a free vote on a reproductive technology as an opportunity to host a democratic innovation, and have his constituents determine how he’d vote on the issue in Parliament. This rewiring of decision-making and relationship building with his constituents is exactly the type of experience that we’d hope to scale more broadly to address record low levels of trust in government.