Dean, Boswell and Smith: Deliberative systems design

A post on the LSE website by Rikki Dean, John Boswell, and Graham Smith introducing a recent paper of theirs is a very useful and provocative piece.

One example of the post’s value is its ability to describe the systemic and inherent problems that are involved in the creation of a democratic process, seemingly without either using those problems manipulatively as a way to justify the oligarchical character of the existing system or falling back on the cliched feel-good formulas of leadership, participation, empowerment, etc.:

In our recent paper in Political Studies, we take a pioneering case of such a systems-oriented approach to democratic innovation – the NHS Citizen initiative – and explore how it played out in practice. Did this approach mitigate the aforementioned perennial problems of institutionalisation? And did it create new problems?

NHS Citizen was a participatory initiative launched by the appointed Executive Board of NHS England. Echoing the systemic emphasis on the distribution of functions across settings, the eventual design consisted of several interacting parts categorised into three broad stages – called Discover, Gather and Assembly – each of which had its own function.

There was initial enthusiasm both from participants and from the Board for this exciting new form of innovation. However, over time, a series of obstacles emerged, and the initiative for all intents and purposes shut down less than three years into its run. The way the process developed over the period demonstrated the ever-present difficulty for participatory organisation to connect both with public space and empowered space.

For the first Assembly, the agenda-setting process was not fully operational, meaning the Assembly dealt with issues that largely reflected the Board’s concerns. The Board were very positive about this first Assembly. Once Gather was better established, it genuinely did shift the agenda so that is was more reflective of civil society concerns. However, this culminated in the Board losing faith in NHS Citizen and choking off funding for the process. In addition, an unanticipated effect of the separation into different parts was that some of the participants in the earlier stages were unhappy about being prevented from taking part in the Assembly, which planned to use random selection. Their rebellion in the end forced a change to the selection mechanism for the Assembly. NHS Citizen thus pioneered some promising practices for better connecting deliberative assemblies to civil society, but this was at the cost of institutionalising some irresolvable tensions.

3 Responses

  1. The paper they reference is:

    Designing Democratic Innovations as Deliberative Systems: The Ambitious Case of NHS Citizen

    Rikki Dean, John Boswell, Graham Smith

    What does it mean to design democratic innovation from a deliberative systems perspective? The demand of the deliberative systems approach that we turn from the single forum towards the broader system has largely been embraced by those interested in designing institutions for citizen participation. Nevertheless, there has been no analysis of the practical implications for democratic innovation. Is it possible to design differentiated but interconnected participatory and deliberative settings? Does this better connect democratic innovations to mass politics? Does it promote greater legitimacy? This article analyses one such attempt to design a systems-oriented democratic innovation: the ambitious NHS Citizen initiative. Our analysis demonstrates, while NHS Citizen pioneered some cutting-edge participatory design, it ultimately failed to resolve (and in some cases exacerbated) well-known obstacles to institutionalisation as well as generating new challenges. To effectively realise democratic renewal and reform, systems-oriented democratic innovation must evolve strategies to meet these challenges.


  2. some of the participants in the earlier stages were unhappy about being prevented from taking part in the Assembly, which planned to use random selection.

    It would be interesting to know if these participants (Board and civil society delegates) would still have been unhappy if they were able to act as advocates for their case before the randomly-selected assembly . One would imagine that Board and (relevant) civil society delegates would have been better informed regarding the specific issues than randomly-selected persons, so their concerns are understandable. It would be a bit like calling an election or referendum and then being prohibited from campaigning. It would seem that the original Athenian distinction between advocates and judges is a perennial requirement for a successful decision-making process and that those who have to to work within budgetary constraints should have some direct input into the assembly decision process.


  3. […] increasing use of allotted citizen bodies resulted in increasing scrutiny of the ways in which they are constituted and run, as well as their institutional […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: