Forms of mini-publics: an introduction to deliberative innovations in democratic practice

This paper introduces a range of democratic innovations known as ‘mini-publics’ and outlines key features, how they work, and how they may improve opportunities for citizens to contribute to public deliberation and participatory governance.


Paper, by Dr Oliver Escobar and Dr Stephen Elstub for newDemocracy

Dr Oliver Escobar – Lecturer in Public Policy, The University of Edinburgh
Co-director of What Works Scotland

Dr Stephen Elstub – Lecturer in British Politics, Newcastle University

The idea of mini-publics was first proposed four decades ago by political scientist Robert Dahl (1989). Inspired by democratic ideals and social science principles, Dahl envisioned an innovative mechanism for involving citizens in dealing with public issues. He called it ‘minipopulus’: an assembly of citizens, demographically representative of the larger population, brought together to learn and deliberate on a topic in order to inform public opinion and decision-making.

A growing number of democratic innovations have flourished around the world based on this idea (see Elstub 2014; Grönlund et al 2014; Chwalisz 2017; Elstub and Escobar forthcoming), from Citizens’ Juries, to Planning Cells, Consensus Conferences, Deliberative Polls and Citizens’ Assemblies (see Table 1). Mini-publics have been used to deal with topics ranging from constitutional and electoral reform, to controversial science and technology, and myriad social issues (e.g. health, justice, planning, sectarianism).