International Observatory on Participatory Democracy

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Inclusion, Equality, and Discourse Quality in Citizen Deliberations on Broadband

Journal of Public Deliberation

Proponents of deliberative democracy have theorized that in order to contribute to improved decision-making, citizens should aim for high levels of inclusion, participation equality, and reciprocal, rational reasoning when they convene to discuss policy issues. To measure the extent to which these goals are achieved in actual practice, the authors analyzed transcripts from 13 public forums on the topic of broadband access in rural communities. Demographic attributes of participants were compared with their utterances during deliberation, coded by five quality variables: justification rationality, common good orientation, constructive politics, interactivity, and consideration of trade-offs. Analysis showed that turnout, quantity and quality of discourse varied significantly across different socioeconomic groups. For example, individuals with college education were more likely to provide higher levels of justification, alternative and mediating proposals, and consideration of the common good compared to those without college education. Non-salaried participants expressed the lowest level of justification for their arguments and showed significantly less interactivity with other participants. Addressing these differences requires greater effort by forum organizers to prepare participants through repeated, sequential forum experiences.