Deliberative democracy in theory
The foundation of deliberative democracy is participatory. Deliberation in public policymaking is a talk-based process aiming to derive a collective decision about social problems that is mutually acceptable and binding. Deliberation is achieved through an open, equal and reflective exchange of stories, experiences and evidence. The key characteristic of the process demands that participants are "open to the force of the better argument". Deliberative theorists agree that ordinary people in the role of citizens should be given opportunities to participate in these deliberative processes, which entail binding decisions that affect them. Likewise, participation in public decision-making processes that will result in policies that have implications for their lives, development and life chances is recognised as a child's right under Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Deliberative democracy in policy practice
Given the requirements of political deliberation and the biased social status of children, do children have a chance at political deliberation and impacting policies and practices?
Professor Stephen Coleman devised a deliberative method using drama to prompt youth participants to deliberate about their rights in the digital environment and what should be done to realise these rights. Findings from this research including recommendations by young people were presented as evidence in the House of Lords forming an early basis of justification for what has now become the Online Safety Bill.
This deliberative activity elicited powerful messages from children and young people as evidence for policy. We asked our 108 participants aged 12 to 17 years to play the role of jurors putting the internet on trial aiming to convey how seriously their views and decisions ought to be considered. We used drama as a form of storytelling to onboard young people. Our live dramatic performance naturally invited young people to share their own experiences – their version of storytelling – making them feel welcomed and included. We then guided our youth participants through further steps of problem definition based on their experience, solution brainstorming and resolution. This process enables young people to formulate their own opinion and develop a civic language to articulate their collective decisions drawing on their experiential knowledge rather than responding to the problems framed by researchers or policymakers.
The use of these recommendations as evidence in the House of Lords by 5Rights demonstrates what Mansbridge et al. (2012: 2) refer to as "a systemic approach to deliberative democracy". This approach allowed us to connect this deliberative exercise among youth, who are often dismissed as incapable of practical reasoning required in policymaking, with deliberative activities in other venues, such as the presentation of young people's recommendations as policy evidence in the House of Lords and the legislative process of the Online Safety Bill.
So, what works for youth participation in policymaking?
Deliberation is a fluid concept and practice. Ruitenberg (2009) observes that a typical deliberative practice often restricts modes of expression to sedate reasoning which is incompatible with children's communicative practice if not outright intimidating to them. Thus, the democratic principle underpinning deliberation may address the adult-child asymmetric power relations. Still, the typical deliberative model would not address the adults’ bias against children's voices without sacrificing their youthful identities.
The trick that made policy deliberation works for young people was adapting the deliberative process to accommodate young people's playful nature and their preferred approach to argumentation – that is, storytelling, according to Marshall et al. (2015). This adaptation effectively created a safe, inclusive and welcoming space for young people to express their views, initially in their own language through storytelling. Then, through their reflection on their own and shared experience, they articulated what they found problematic about their digital experience and justified their collective solutions accordingly. However, this deliberation was mediated by our team and did not take place directly between youth and policymakers. Direct unmediated deliberation is one of the factors that determine the impact of children's voices on public decisions (Lundy, 2007).
In summary, the recipe for a successful policy deliberation among young people is:
Facilitate a reflective exchange based on young people's experiences to define problems and brainstorm solutions.
Use collective problem-solving.
Such deliberative process can enable young people to convert the stories of their own experiences into evidence used to formulate problems and recommendations for change in ways that overcome adults’ bias against young people’s voices for their lack of maturity.