“The people are creative but capturing their creativity is the challenge”, Dr. James Fishkin

James Fishkin est professeur à l’université de Stanford et directeur du Center for Deliberative Democracy. Auteur de nombreux ouvrages sur les conditions et mécanismes d’une démocratie délibérative qui mette en capacité les citoyens, il a développé la méthode du Sondage délibératif. Il insiste notamment sur l’importance de l’échantillon de citoyens associé à ce type d’exercice, qui doit, selon lui, s’appuyer sur les techniques de recrutement éprouvées des instituts de sondage pour s’assurer de sa représentativité de la population consultée. Il insiste aussi sur la qualité des moyens mis en œuvre pour apporter l’information nécessaire pour que les citoyens s’approprient les enjeux. Interview conduite le 3 Décembre 2016 par telephone.

Stephen Boucher – What is the relationship between creativity in politics and deliberative democracy, and why is creativity so important?

James Fishkin – These days I’m working more in developing countries, and there, I can see how it helps get the people get the buy-in to policies. Even with very low levels of literacy, they do wonderfully well, covering issues of sanitation, health… Deliberative polling provides something between populism and elite technocratic rule, it brings the voice of the people. You can’t just rely on the technocrats, because you need the people’s values, otherwise you end up with the technocrats, that’s the merit of random sampling. What we’re doing is a middle ground between opening up to the people without methodology and relying on the elites. The people are fully capable of it and it usually makes a lot of sense. This election [US, 2016] shows the dangers of non-deliberative democracy, with the spread of misinformation, and even fake dialogue with millions of Twitter robots.

Stephen Boucher – I propose in my book that quality deliberation fosters more creativity and that most “deliberative” endeavours still pay insufficient attention to quality in the methods used.

James Fishkin – The people are creative but capturing their creativity is the challenge, which is why we always tape the small groups and analyse them. I’m planning a new format where the second round of proposals would come back. People are open to solutions that everybody would think is outside the political reality. If you look at our recent California project, on our website, there was a movement to change the terms of the legislators, not term limits, but people complain that legislators were spending too much time raising money, so in our project, 30% in favour of lengthening the term before, and 80% after: nobody would’ve thought of that! We followed up with some common sense changes in terms of transparency in the initiative system.

Yes, deliberative democracy provides ways to tap into the collective wisdom, which requires to listen to the perspectives of others, there are different designs to do. But the general idea of looking at what people would think if they could deliberate with reason, is key.

In his book Wisdom of the crowds – Why the many are smarter than the few and how collective wisdom shapes business, my friend James Surowiekci didn’t really distinguish between deliberation and crowdsourcing. Thoughtful crowdsourcing has to have the aim of creativity. That ought to be the guide star of democracy. The problem is that, normally, the public don’t get a chance to think what they would want, they are just subject to misleading, fake news… And the social media have made it worse. They spread whatever bit of invalid made-up stuff that can go viral. There are a lot of alternative reality websites… The fake news stuff is amazing. Even fake newspapers that have no editorial, just made up to influence the election, to discredit a candidate and mislead the inattentive. The days of digital utopianism that the WWW would solve our problems are over.

Stephen Boucher – Coming back to a more positive note, do you see a trend towards more interest in deliberative democracy techniques, in research into it, more frequent institutionalisation of useful formats?

James Fishkin – There are places that have done it frequently. I’m corresponding with the government in Mongolia for instance about institutionalising and they just asked me about where it had been institutionalised, but it hasn’t been. It’s still at the experimental stage. But we now have done it in 26 countries plus the two EU-project, with in total up to 80 projects.

Stephen Boucher – That’s a lot, but therefore Deliberative polling hasn’t been built into any political system on a regular basis. Isn’t the problem that doing quality deliberation, properly, in the end means giving up power to some extent to the people?

James Fishkin – Yes, people who have power would rather do it themselves. But sometimes elected officials see they can get more legitimacy if they involve people in a more thoughtful and informed way. After the first Chinese Deliberative poll, the local leader said to me: “I gave up power and realised I gained more”, because he gained credit for it. But it’s still early days, if you consider the matter in the long sweep of History. I took up a political life form that was long dead, the DNA of which had been crafted in ancient Athens and modernised it with good social science, and now we’re piloting it in countries around the world. But the basic idea and variations on it will provide a useful solution. And it provides a tool, if you’re concerned about tapping into the creativity and wisdom of the people. But you only get wisdom if you’re thinking.

Stephen Boucher – Do you see a danger of « deliberation washing », with participatory gimmicks spreading around. How do you guard yourself against this risk? Is there a trend in this respect?

James Fishkin – You have to think beyond a few seconds how daring it is what you and I did in Europe, because very often the policy will just ant to open up the process in some limited way, they don’t understand the difference between a representative sample and non-representative for instance. I started in Mongolia because the Mayor of the capital city did a text-message referendum on environmental matters, and it turned out very superficial. So he turned to me with a genuine desire to consult.

Whether there’s a trend is unclear. It goes both ways: there’s a city in Germany that wanted to have a big lecture, when the populism struck they were afraid of invoking the people. I won’t mention the city, but it’s an example of the fact that it goes both ways. I told them if you have a deliberation with a representative sample, it’ll be fine, but they thought they would end up with an angry group talking about immigration.

Stephen Boucher – Stanford hosts the famous d-school [d for design]. Do you and they interact and what is the nature of your interactions?

James Fishkin – A little bit. They are interested in facilitating innovation. There’s a professor at the Design school involved in the Africa project. He’s part of facilitating start-up proposals to help solve the problems. We’re working in parallel but not really together. He has his own lab, called the Change Lab. So there’s some interaction. They come out of engineering, where the idea is no so much to do a rigorous experiment, but to prototype and do variations, to keep developing. All of that is useful, but they’re not interested in representative and informed opinion. There’s more work to be done at the interaction of the two.

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