Exploring civic dialogue

Civic dialogue is a broad term embracing forms of engagement on and exploration of issues of civic concern. In the context of new civic bureaucracy, civic dialogue has two purposes: it brings people with different views together to build common understandings about issues of public concern or interest, and it enables citizens, working together, both to shape and to take forward local and national futures.

Writing on deliberative or discursive democracy draws on a civic republican emphasis on shared dialogue as a means to strengthen and sustain common civic values. This is not the competitive democracy of winner takes all but one in which debate breeds greater understanding.

In modern democracies with universal adult suffrage, ideas of participative democracy run into conflict with representative democracy, a conflict in which representative democracy generally wins out. Public involvement is a limited to specific consultations on ready-formed ideas or simple voting through referenda or plebiscites. These are not forms of civic dialogue as new civic bureaucracy would understand it.

There has been much focus on specific examples of dialogue processes such as the use of citizens’ juries or civic roundtables. These can be part of the technical armory of building civic dialogue, but its roots need to lie in the everyday processes of governing – dialogue needs to be the standard approach to developing ideas and identifying issues. This is not the world of social media, rational choice surveys and focus groups (or even standard consultations) where the effect is to capture and reinforce existing views. This is a process which seeks to share and explores difference and confront people with the human and natural consequences of their views. This demands ‘the presence of different others’ (as Hannah Arendt argued) to prompt people to think critically and self-question.

By careful design of events and processes, issues of different status and power can be lessened (for example through use of arts practice to communicate and capture ideas or by gathering initial views of groups separately before a wider process of sharing). Place-based working is an important part of civic dialogue as it is a shared physical space in which differing views can be found and explored and can form the basis for local empowerment and collaborative self-management.

Civic dialogue in new civic bureaucracy makes the institutions of bureaucracy a source of wider civic understanding. Unlike the pressures from populism for public administration to do ‘the will of the people’, this approach to public voice would not be undertaken in an ethical vacuum. It would have the civic aim of prompting people to face (legislative or constitutional) core democratic concerns, including social equity and ecological health.