Deliberative Engagement Builds Trust within Community

Deliberative community engagement occurs when a group of people who represent a community agrees to come together to help guide a decision about a project or issue that affects them.

It’s a structured process, where evidence and diverse perspectives are provided to participants, who then ‘deliberate’ options and come to a consensus about a way forward.

As Sally Hussey writes, “At its core, deliberation requires weighing up competing arguments around policies and public decisions in a context of mutually civil – and diverse – discussion.

Often (but not always), participants in deliberative engagement are selected through a two-step process to enable a random selection of participants to fulfill a representative demographic quota. They form a deliberative panel, also known as citizen juries, community panels, local partnerships, and consensus conferences, and so on. Deliberative panels may come together for a one-off session, a series of sessions (pre-determined, with dates set in advance), or be ongoing.

Deliberative community engagement can be used to guide policy and strategic direction, and help make decisions about complex challenges.

A digital deliberative process is one that takes place online, using digital tools and methods.

How does deliberative community engagement differ from other engagement methods?

With other engagement methods, you tend to hear from people who are interested in a topic and want to share an opinion through available channels. While this is valuable in gathering general sentiment, there is no guarantee the responses will truly represent the diverse opinions across your community, or that you will hear from those who often don’t have a voice. There is also no way of knowing how well respondents understand the issue/topic at hand, particularly if it is complex.

Why undertake a deliberative process? 

Generally, you should consider using deliberative engagement when:

  •   an issue or project is likely to impact a wide range of people
  •   an issue or project is complex or multi-dimensional
  •   there is a need and opportunity to rebuild trust with your community
  •   there is a need to find common ground between polarised views on an issue
  •   there is a genuine opportunity to empower your community.

What are the benefits of online deliberative community engagement?

Fundamental to deliberative community engagement is the ability of participants to think broadly and deeply about information and views being presented to them in a respectful environment. With digital deliberative community engagement, that environment is online.

Some of the key benefits of digital deliberation include: 

  • a safe and moderated environment for dialogue and deliberation
  • greater inclusiveness (through digital accessibility features)
  • greater flexibility in how participants engage 
  • transparency throughout the process
  • easy access to relevant data, research and other information
  • meaningful connections between participants, and between participants and facilitators.
  • ability to engage at a time that is convenient for participants
  • reduced barriers to geographic location
  • reduced costs of participant travel, accommodation and hire costs, and catering.

These benefits can help build trust in the process and between participants and the decision-making organization.

Why is deliberative community engagement important?

Deliberative community engagement allows people who truly represent a community to make informed recommendations about a complex topic or issue that affects them.

It provides an opportunity for the community to have a voice at the table in a way that reduces barriers, creates connections, and engages in meaningful and supportive ways. It’s an inclusive process, offering opportunities for participation regardless of age, gender, ability, geographic location, cultural background personal resources, values, or beliefs. The method provides a structured environment in which perspectives can be shared and understanding of an issue increased through evidence and expert presenters.

Deliberative community engagement also empowers the citizens who participate. It demonstrates to the community your commitment to open and transparent decision-making, in turn, building trust between community and government.

By bringing diverse voices to the table, deliberative engagement enables contrary views and potential tensions to emerge and be managed in a structured, respectful manner. This in turn adds to the depth and richness of reaching consensus. It can often mean engaging with rather than avoiding difficult conversations.

Deliberative panels, once no longer active, can also continue to be advocates for the resultant outcomes in the community.

What are the outcomes of a deliberative community engagement process?

The aim of a deliberative community engagement process is for your representative panel to reach consensus on the advice it wants to provide to decision-makers on the topic or issue under deliberation.

This advice (often a statement or series of recommendations) is then presented to the relevant decision-maker. How much influence this advice will have on any final decision, policy or direction MUST be understood from the start.

Note: When using deliberative community engagement, you need to be prepared to relinquish control and accept unpredictable outcomes.

How does it work?

There are eight key components to a deliberative engagement process or methodology.

Design and build a digital platform Your first step is to create the online environment in which your digital deliberative engagement will take place. It will be an accessible, one-stop shop where participants can access everything (and everyone) they will need throughout the process. 
Defining the remit This involves clearly defining the challenge/remit for deliberation and what is negotiable. Often this can be posed as a question with clear parameters.
Recruiting participants This is where you look at the ‘shape’ of your community, as defined by criteria including gender, age, ability, and cultural background, and you recruit a sample of people to match that profile as closely as possible.

Once your deliberative panel is in place:

Setting the scene You now convene and run one or more structured sessions with participants (including – or exclusively – online), providing evidence and expert speakers to support discussion.
You will:
  • define the challenge and explore the human context
  • define why it’s important
  • set expectations on what can be influenced.

Participants must be able to trust each other, which means that confidentiality is respected and dialogue is respectful. They must also suspend assumptions and preconceptions in the interest of the common good. Expression of difference is encouraged.

Exploring and investigating In this step, the panel is guided to ideate on how to solve problems/challenges using design thinking. Participation takes various forms as appropriate at different stages throughout the discovery and decision-making process.
Dialogue and deliberation Participants are empowered to influence the process and are given ample time to question and reflect on the material, presentations, and discussions.
Consensus After informed discussion and deliberation, participants are facilitated/guided to reach a consensus on a recommended way forward. 
Evaluation This way forward can then be tested with the wider community.

How many people should be involved?

Research tends to indicate that groups between 40 and 100 are most effective for deliberative engagement depending on the population. Smaller groups may not be truly representative, and larger groups can reduce genuine interaction between participants from different backgrounds. Larger groups can also lead to factions.

Digital Deliberative Community Engagement

Online deliberative processes mirror the face-to-face processes, but with additional key principles. 

Equitable technology access Participants must have equitable access to online technologies and resources
Equitable abilities access The digital technologies and formats provided must enable people with different abilities and capacities to participate
Commitment to goodwill Online dialogue is about reading, listing, watching, and learning. As with other forms of deliberative engagement, participants are required to enter the dialogue with goodwill towards other participants.
Commitment to openness and fairness Online dialogue is about writing, speaking, expressing, and being heard. Participation must be open, fair, and equitable through both the recruitment and facilitation processes. Status is suspended in favor of open discussion. Some form of within-group anonymity may be designed into the process.

Things to think about:

The Challenge



  • Why is this challenge/opportunity important?
  • To what degree can deliberative engagement influence decision-making?
  • What is negotiable?
General Understanding of the Challenge
  • How well understood is this issue in the community?
  • What can you do to educate your community (‘preparing the ground’ for those who may be invited to join the deliberative process)?
Tools, Activities, and Information Needed
  • How will deliberation occur?
  • Will participants meet in person or online (or a combination of both)?
  • What digital tools will you use?
  • What information do participants need to understand the context of their deliberations?
  • Who will they need to hear from?
Participant Recruitment
  • How will you do this?
  • Will you use an independent third party?
  • What does ‘representative’ look like in your community?
  • What does it look like for this particular topic/issue?
  • How do you increase inclusiveness where needed?
  • Will you pay participants for their time?
Coordinating and running sessions
  • Will you manage the deliberative engagement in-house, or will you engage an independent third party?
  • Have you established a charter or terms of reference?
  • Is everyone clear on the outset of their role, responsibilities, and scope of influence?
  • How will you manage strong personalities?
  • How will you manage conflicts and disagreements among members?
  • Is consensus the end goal?
  • What happens if your panel can’t reach a consensus?
Managing other stakeholders
  • Is it appropriate to invite elected members and senior staff to present or speak to the panel?

 Learn more about what to look for when seeking online deliberation software.

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