Summer 2017

Applying Deliberative Democracy in Africa: Uganda’s First Deliberative Polls

James Fishkin, Roy William Mayega, Lynn Atuyambe, Nathan Tumuhamye, Julius Ssentongo, Alice Siu, and William Bazeyo

Practical experiments with deliberative democracy, instituted with random samples of the public, have had success in many countries. But this approach has never before been tried in Sub-Saharan Africa. Reflecting on the first two applications in Uganda, we apply the same criteria for success commonly used for such projects in the most advanced countries. Can this approach work successfully with samples of a public low in literacy and education? Can it work on some of the critical policy choices faced by the public in rural Uganda? This essay reflects on quantitative and qualitative results from Uganda’s first Deliberative Polls. We find that the projects were representative in both attitudes and demographics. They produced substantial opinion change supported by identifiable reasons. They avoided distortions from inequality and polarization. They produced actionable results that can be expected to influence policy on difficult choices.

JAMES S. FISHKIN, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2014, is Director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy, the Janet M. Peck Chair in International Communication, Professor of Communication, and Professor of Political Science (by courtesy) at Stanford University. He is the author of When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation(2009), Deliberation Day (with Bruce Ackerman, 2004), and The Voice of the People: Public Opinion and Democracy (1995).

ROY WILLIAM MAYEGA is a Lecturer in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the Makerere University School of Public Health, Uganda. He is a Ph.D. student in Medical Science on a joint program between Karolinska Institutet, Sweden, and Makerere University. He has published articles in PLOS ONE and Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice.

LYNN ATUYAMBE is Associate Professor in the Department of Community Health and Behavioral Sciences at the Makerere University School of Public Health, Uganda. He has written for such journals as PLOS ONE, BMC Medical Education, and Pan African Medical Journal.

NATHAN TUMUHAMYE is a Research Fellow and Director of the Eastern Africa Resilience Innovation Lab at the Makerere University School of Public Health, Uganda. He has written for such journals as BMC Public Health, PLOS Currents, and Health.

JULIUS SSENTONGO is a Research Fellow at the Makerere University School of Public Health, Uganda, and a practicing physician. His research has been published in PLOS Currents: Disasters and by the Eastern Africa Resilience Innovation Lab.

ALICE SIU is Deputy Director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University. Her work on Deliberative Polling has been published in The Search for Deliberative Democracy in China (2006), Governance Reform under Real-World Conditions: Citizens, Stakeholders, and Voice (2008), and prominent journals including British Journal of Political Science.

WILLIAM BAZEYO is Dean of the Makerere University School of Public Health, Uganda, where he is also Associate Professor of Occupational Medicine. He is Director of the Centre for Tobacco Control in Africa. He has published articles in such journals as BMC Psychiatry, PLOS Currents, and Annals of Global Health.

The last two decades have seen a great rise in interest in deliberative democracy, in both theory and practice.1 In political theory, this “deliberative turn” has largely supplanted the previous enthusiasm for “participatory democracy,” a change sometimes decried by advocates of the latter. Participatory democracy generally relies on self-selected mass participation. In development contexts, an iconic form is the “participatory budgeting” practiced in Porto Alegre, Brazil.2 By contrast, the form of deliberative democracy that we will discuss here emphasizes designs that promote both the representativeness and the thoughtfulness of public participation. Instead of mobilizing as many people as possible, the idea is to foster thoughtful weighing of the arguments for and against policy alternatives by representative microcosms of the public.3 The numbers who participate may be smaller than in mass participatory institutions, but the conclusions offered can represent the public’s considered judgments.

In practice, this kind of deliberative democracy has found applications in various parts of the world with designs that foster public input for actual policy-making. The designs vary, but they generally attempt to facilitate the discussion of competing reasons for policy alternatives in a context in which members of the public can become more informed about the issues in question. The more rigorous versions carefully select the participants by recruiting a microcosm or “mini-public” of the relevant population through random sampling.4 The basic idea is that if the sample is representative and the participants deliberate under good conditions for considering the issues, then the results should represent what the public would think were it to engage with the issues under similarly good conditions. This strategy makes deliberative democracy a practical and implementable theory, at least for the policy issues selected.

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  • 1For some collections that gather the most influential of these discussions, from various perspectives, regarding deliberative democracy, see James Bohman and William Rehg, eds., Deliberative Democracy: Essays on Reason and Politics (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2007); Jon Elster, ed., Deliberative Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); and James S. Fishkin and Peter Laslett, eds., Debating Deliberative Democracy (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003). The phrase “deliberative turn” was coined by John Dryzek in his Deliberative Democracy and Beyond: Liberals, Critics, Contestations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
  • 2Carole Pateman, “Participatory Democracy Revisited” Perspectives on Politics 10 (1) (March 2012): 7–19.
  • 3If and when it is possible to engage the entire public on an issue, that also exemplifies deliberative democracy by the people. For a proposed method of doing so, see Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin, Deliberation Day (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004). Most of the focus of recent empirical work on public deliberation has, however, been on the microcosmic or mini-public strategy. Other work has addressed the quality of deliberation in democratic legislatures; see Jürg Steiner, André Bächtiger, Markus Spörndli, and Marco R. Steenbergen, Deliberative Politics in Action: Analyzing Parliamentary Discourse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
  • 4For an overview, see Kimmo Grönlund, André Bächtiger, and Maija Setälä, eds., Deliberative Mini-Publics: Involving Citizens in the Democratic Process (Wivenhoe Park, United Kingdom: ECPR Press, 2014).
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