Policy and Politics: Coping with communicative plenty

Policy and Politics: Coping with communicative plenty

Selen A. Ercan, Carolyn M. Hendriks, John S. Dryzek

This section of Discover Society is provided in collaboration with the journal, Policy and Politics. It is curated by Sarah Brown.

Imagine a crowded restaurant that is starting to get noisy. The noise at each table begins to rise as people try to make themselves heard. Eventually the noise becomes so loud that nobody can hear anything. Here’s a familiar context where there is plenty of expression, but precious little listening, and not much good conversation.

The noisy restaurant is a metaphor, we believe, for what we see in contemporary democracy where citizens have plenty of opportunities to express their views and opinions about anything that concerns them, but there is no guarantee and little likelihood that these views will be listened to, reflected upon, or taken up by decision-making bodies.

Overload of expression, not enough listening
In our recent article published in Policy and Politics we label this expressive overload ‘communicative plenty.’ Commentators of communicative plenty, or ‘communicative abundance’ emphasize rightly the role of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in expanding the communicative landscape by creating additional sites for political expression (such as blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other online platforms). While we agree with this observation, we argue that communicative plenty is also about the growing number of face-to-face communication sites, created by government, community and private organizations seeking to connect with relevant constituents. It is reported repeatedly that organisations including government department and agencies, corporations and major institutions spend millions and even hundreds of millions of dollars, pounds, and euros a year on creating spaces for communication both internally and externally. Not all these spaces are new; but what is new is their increasing density.

For citizens, communicative plenty means there is much to access, understand, digest, listen to, reflect upon and discuss in multiple platforms (both online and offline) that are not necessarily linked with each other. For decision makers, communicative plenty means much more noise but also more discursive opportunities. What then are the democratic opportunities and challenges posed by this era of communicative plenty?

Taking a deliberative perspective
We respond to this question from the perspective of deliberative democracy — a theory of democratic decision making that emphasizes the quality of political communication and not just the volume of it.  The process of public deliberation, as we view it, is something much more diverse than simply a structured deliberative forum, such as a public meeting or legislature. Instead we understand public deliberation as a broad communication process occurring within and across multiple, diverse spaces. A functioning deliberative democracy requires not just deliberative forums, but also a larger process of broad-scale public deliberation.

This broad understanding of public deliberation, which is conceptualised as a deliberative system, offers a particularly helpful route into thinking practically about how the extraordinary potential of the digital age can be harnessed for more, not less democracy. When public deliberation is viewed in this broad systemic way, the contemporary proliferation of spaces for political communication is potentially good news. However, communicative plenty is problematic for public deliberation if it only fosters communicative spaces for political expression and voice. In fact, having more sites with the same function (in this case, the expressive function) is against the nature of any systems thinking. A healthy deliberative system requires the presence of sites with different functions, and it requires their interconnectedness. You might be asking: what does this view imply for the era of communicative plenty, especially for harnessing the democratic potential of this era? It implies a lot. Most importantly, it implies shifting our attention from voice-centric sites to the reflection and listening-centric ones. When seen from this view, the problem with communicative plenty is not the lack of opportunities to speak up and out, but the lack of reflection and listening. Voice alone is not sufficient to realise the aspirations of deliberative democracy.

Designing listening and reflection in democracy
What then are some ways we might we enhance the reflective aspects of communicative plenty? We argue that communicative plenty can strengthen public deliberation provided that: i) the spaces for voice and expression are accompanied by sufficient spaces for reflection and listening; and that ii) collective decisions involve sequencing of first expression, then listening, and then reflection.

To show how this might work in practice we consider two different examples where spaces for listening and reflection have been built into conventional democratic practices which are at risk of being drowned out by the noise of communicative plenty.

Case 1: Reflection and listening in citizen-initiated referendums
Our first example is the Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR) which demonstrates how reflection and listening can be designed around ballot initiatives and referenda. Oregon is one of a number of states that host citizen-initiated referendums, under which a measure can get on the state-wide ballot provided it has enough signatures from citizens in support. Every two years voters are then confronted with on average about 12 measures to vote upon. If a measure is passed, it becomes state law.

There is usually information overload as well as substantial campaign and social media activity around ballot initiatives – so, for example, the Fairness Project coordinates social media activity in a number of states to try to give voters an opportunity to express their opinions.

The CIR process offers one promising way of dealing with these expanded sites of expression around ballot initiatives. It counterbalances the spaces with expressive function with the spaces designed particularly for reflective function. It does so by establishing a citizens’ panel of around 18–24 people to review a particular referendum question. Panel members are ordinary citizens selected by stratified random sampling. The core communicative activity in the initial phase of the panel meeting is listening and reflection. The panel members meet over 4 to 5 days to listen to the existing positions on a proposed measure and to hear directly from proponents and opponents of the measure, as well as relevant experts, before deliberating among themselves. At the end of the process they produce a one-page Citizens’ Statement that is published in the voters’ pamphlet sent to all voters in the state. The pamphlet also contains advocacy by proponents and opponents, as well as an explanatory statement and a short report on the social implications of a measure.

In deliberative system terms, the CIR establishes a space of reflection that is located after advocacy (expression) and prior to decision. Ideally that reflection would involve not just the panellists, but also voters who read and think about the Citizens’ Statement.

Case 2: Building reflection and listening into electoral politics
Our second example shows how informal spaces of reflection and listening can emerge and strengthen constituency-representative relations amid all the expressive elements of electoral politics. An example of how reflection and listening can be incorporated into the everyday practices of constituency-representative relations was observed in Australia between 2013 and 2017 in the Australian Federal rural electorate of Indi, where informal spaces of reflection and listening were used to strengthen constituency-representative relations amid all the expressive elements of electoral politics. Here a newly elected independent member, Independent MP Cathy McGowan AO, used a variety of informal participatory processes including Kitchen Table Conversations  (KTC) to listen to her constituents to guide her legislative work.

KTCs are small-scale and informal participatory practices run by people in local communities. Procedurally KTCs are guided by a number of key values that promote reflection including: welcoming diversity of opinion, openness, listening, respect and recording everyone’s views. They typically involve a group of around ten people meeting at a host’s house to participate in a facilitated discussion guided by a set of questions. In the electorate of Indi, KTCs were used by McGowan (and the social movement, Voices4Indi, that brought her to power) to engage over 440 citizens in discussions about political issues that mattered to them.

From a deliberative systems perspective, communicative plenty can distort the transmission of opinions from citizens in the public sphere to decision makers in empowered spaces, such as parliament. What the Indi case demonstrates is that spaces of reflection can be used to strengthen the capacity of elected representatives to hear from and communicate with their constituencies. What we also learn from Indi is that citizens will elect and reward political representatives who take time to stop, reflect and actively listen to their needs, and who then focus on representing those in the legislative process.

Both examples, the citizens’ initiative review and the Kitchen Table Conversations demonstrate how different spaces in contemporary democracies can counteract the negatives of communicative plenty, while retaining its positives.

To realize the democratic possibilities of communicative plenty, greater consideration should be given to how the growing abundance of opportunities for political expression can be accompanied by greater opportunities for listening and reflection. Inviting citizens to have their say on issues that affect them does not, by itself, make organizations, work places or governments more democratic, especially not in the era of communicative plenty. What matters is what happens after citizens express their views. Our research shows that designing spaces of reflection and listening offers a practical and promising means to enhance public deliberation and so democracy in the era of communicative plenty.


Selen A. Ercan is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra. Carolyn M. Hendriks is an Associate Professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. John S. Dryzek is a Centenary Professor and Director of the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra.

Image: Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review: How it works. Indivisible.