Rebuilding the Public Sphere

For decades there has been concern in social and political theory about ‘the decline of the public sphere’. According to many prominent writers on the issue, an effective role for the public sphere in the exercise of political power is something that we have lost. For Hannah Arendt in her work The human condition (1958), societies in the modern age have lost the experience of politics. Arendt describes this ‘politics’ as the founding and preserving of political bodies that constitute a realm, the public realm, where people can be ‘seen and heard’ trying to find the right words at the right moment, trying to persuade others to agree on a particular course of action, trying to engage in deeds worthy of remembrance. ((In the terminology used in The human condition, Arendt argues that both capitalism and communism glorify ‘labour’, which embodies the ideals of the ‘animal laborans’ at the expense of the other two activities that constitute the ‘vita activa’, namely, ‘work’, which embodies the ideals of ‘homo faber’ and ‘action’, which is the ‘political activity par excellence’.)) Other books explore similar themes such as The fall of public man (Sennett 1977), The last intellectuals (Jacoby 1989), In search of politics (Bauman 1999) and The revolt of the elites and the betrayal of democracy (Lasch 1996). Dan Hind’s The return of the public (2010) is a hoped-for return of a ‘public in eclipse’.

In The structural transformation of the public sphere (1962), Jürgen Habermas traces the emergence in France, Germany and Britain (the latter in particular) in the eighteenth century of what he terms a ‘bourgeois public sphere’, that is, a politically effective sphere that in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was subsequently transformed to the point where it could be said to have disintegrated and to be no longer politically relevant. Today in these countries, he argues,

‘The process of the politically relevant exercise and equilibration of power now takes place directly between the private bureaucracies, special-interest associations, parties, and public administration. The public as such is included only sporadically in this circuit of power, and even then it is brought in only to contribute its acclamation’. ((Jürgen Habermas (1992) (1962), The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society, trans. T Burger & F Lawrence, Polity Press, UK, p. 176. ‘Acclamation’ meaning a ‘mood of conformity’, ‘good will’ or an ‘uncommitted friendly disposition’ (p. 195) of the public towards policies or personalities presented in the publicity generated by those in the ‘circuit of power’, without the public being given the opportunity to critically discuss the issues involved with persons in the circuit of power.)) 

Such a conclusion can be extrapolated to countries like Australia which have adopted similar political systems. Clive Hamilton’s Scorcher: the dirty politics of climate change (2007) provides a case study of the influence of this ‘circuit of power’ in the development of Australian government policy on energy and climate change.

For anyone looking for a ‘voice in politics’—scientists trying to tell the world about climate change, citizens trying to express their frustrations—this is a critical issue. Public opinion can be mobilised in ways that are manipulative (public relations campaigns, advertising) and, whether manipulative or not, that generally require the public to do little more than sit, watch (television, movies, internet) or hear (radio) or read a message in private. This is the preferred method of political parties in election campaigns, of wealthy vested interests seeking to turn ‘community sentiment’ one way or another, and of the purveyors of consumer culture. These methods do not seek to empower people or to create a politically active public in any sense other than that of passive, individualised recipients of a message or mood—in the same way that simply asking people to answer a poll or sign a petition does little to bring them together in any meaningful form of political activity.

Graphic by Mark Smiciklas, CC
Graphic by Mark Smiciklas, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

From this come the phenomena of ‘information overload’, short attention spans and public opinions that sway this way and that depending on the information or communication to which they have most recently been exposed. For anyone seeking to focus and maintain people’s attention on a political agenda that is unfamiliar, difficult to explain and confronting—a green agenda for instance—such ways of mobilising public opinion are likely to be ineffective because they are short-lived in their effect. More than that, if we suspect that the state and the ‘experts’ are not up to meeting the challenges of our time and that increased citizen participation in politics is needed to give them a helping hand or push them along, such methods are also likely to be counterproductive insofar as they encourage passivity rather than political engagement.

The public sphere

In a thriving political public sphere, things happen differently. People commit to an ongoing discussion, dialogue, conversation or debate with one another until the issues they are concerned with are resolved, by a vote if necessary. They ask and together seek answers to four key questions: What is there to be done? What do we wish to be able to do? What should we each do individually? What should we do collectively? ((‘These questions, together, indicate the possibilities, responsibilities, and limitations of a political life’ says Jill Frank (2006), ‘The political theory of classical Greece’ in The Oxford handbook of political theory, eds. John S. Dryzek, Bonnie Honig & Anne Phillips, Oxford University Press, p. 187)) Private worries are translated into public issues and, conversely, public issues are discerned and pinpointed in private troubles. ((As Zygmunt Bauman puts it in his In search of politics (1999), Polity Press, UK)) Participants in the public sphere seek to be informed and educated, rather than relying uncritically on ‘common sense’, with a view to subjecting their understanding of what they have read or seen or heard to the pro and con of a public conversation, to using such conversation as a sounding board for their ideas. ((As Habermas (1962) puts it, pp. 165-6, 221))  They listen to others and in turn expect to be listened to. They deliberate on issues not behind closed doors, not secretly, but in full view of one another and of anyone else who cares to see and hear. They encounter alternative perspectives, not just those of like-minded persons within their familiar circle. They learn to articulate their goals and priorities in ways that appeal to others, to sharpen their sense of the realistic options and necessary trade-offs, to abandon support for indefensible positions, and to develop with those with whom they are in dialogue a mutual respect that allows them to coexist and cooperate when they disagree. ((This sentence is a paraphrase of Matthew Flinders (2012), Defending politics: why democracy matters in the twenty-first century, Oxford University Press, p. 162)) They ask other people, especially their opponents, exactly what they mean, asking them to spell out, elaborate on, articulate their view. In a good conversation, which is what should happen in the political public sphere, nothing is left to ‘common sense’, left in that shadowy world of the unsaid where things ‘go without saying’. Ideas are teased out, dispersed across numerous attempts at articulation, each person expressing to the other what they think the other is saying as much as expressing their own point of view.

In a thriving political public sphere, things happen differently.

Which people? Historians often talk of the ‘drivers’ or ‘prime movers’ of historical change as a way of explaining why things happened. Whether movements of peasants or the working class, or the influence of such groups as nobles, landowners, religious orders, intellectuals, government bureaucrats or the ‘men of capital’, these drivers of history are depicted as groups whose actions come to define an age, a period or a significant event or series of events. Prime movers in the history of a society have been seen as processes as much as specific groups of people, the Marxist concept of dialectical materialism being a good example, Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ another. There are writers who have argued that one or other of groups or forces such as the working class, the masses, the multitude, the students, the colonised, the poor, the vanguard party, neighbourhood organisations, the intellectuals, the technocratic elites, the free market, the contradictions of capitalism, or some other identifiable group or force will be the bearers of historical salvation or progress. For a significant body of contemporary democratic theory it is the citizen and how states can experiment in increasing citizen participation in policy-making that is the focus. ‘Citizens’, persons from all walks of life, are the focus of attention, fostering their involvement in public policy processes being seen as a way of legitimising state decisions.

It is not easy to find or create a dynamic political public sphere. In fact, its characteristics are ‘normative ideals’ more than widely observed facts. Much of what goes by the name of political debate or conversation in the mass media or on the internet does not live up to these ideals. Take the website called The Conversation for instance. Contributors to this website manage to talk past one another, airing opinions as if nobody else was in the room. There is no dialogue, no debate, no collective decision-making. Division and fragmentation of interests and priorities are the order of the day in the internet as a whole, and this state of affairs, the very antithesis of what happens when a public comes together to discuss the affairs of the day, is reproduced here among people—Australian academics—who could be showing us the way. Like the daily news bulletins from mainstream media sources which, for their part, give equal prominence to political issues, the latest murders, sporting events, the weather and intermittent commercial advertisements, The Conversation lulls us into a state of complacency and passivity. There is nothing for us to do except choose the next item from the smorgasbord of items on offer. ((For a more extended analysis of this website and other issues raised in this essay, see Shapcott, G (2016), ‘Politics and survival’, unpublished paper)) I have yet to see a website that embodies a thoroughgoing, ongoing conversation, though the technology—especially the use of hyperlinks—seems eminently suitable for the task.

A conversation about politics, in a democratic society, Christopher Lasch tells us, provides the opportunity for people to ‘go beyond their circle’, ‘… to mingle on an equal footing with persons from all realms of life, to gain access to larger currents of opinion, and to exercise the rights and duties of citizenship’. ((Christopher Lasch (1996), The revolt of the elites and the betrayal of democracy, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, p. 58)) How much does the internet facilitate this, or bring together opponents on any particular political issue into a conversation over an extended period of time to make clear to one another, and the wider public, their differences? The ‘information society’ and the ‘communications revolution’ might allow us to publish an article, send out a tweet or a blog, or get a soundbite in the mass media but can we organise the way we communicate with one another so that it more closely resembles what a genuine public sphere should look like?

A citizen-led process

There are many experiments in democratic renewal—with a concomitant renewal of a public sphere—being attempted nowadays under various names such as citizens’ juries, consensus conferences, planning cells, deliberative polls, study circles, participatory budgeting and national issues forums. Many if not most of these experiments are state-led. I have been wondering whether some of these experiments could be adapted and attempted on a citizen-led basis. What would a democratic, citizen-led public policy process look like or, in other words, in what ways could groups of citizens produce policies outside of frameworks initiated and funded by the state, who should be involved, how should they relate to one another, what steps should they follow, and how should they relate to the state or their representatives in the state? How might citizens coalesce in a voluntary manner within civil society to develop policies with terms of reference that they themselves formulate and how might they engage in a dialogue with the state on their own terms, that is, through forums of their choosing and making, not the state’s; how in short might they create a public sphere that provides them with a voice, a politically effective voice, in public affairs? ((The kind of public sphere posited as a normative ideal by Habermas (1962). My essay here is about institutional forms rather than the historical conditions that might favour or inhibit such forms, which need to be analysed as well but that is beyond the scope of this short essay.)) By “politically effective” I mean a voice that counts, is one to be reckoned with, one able to put an issue on the political agenda, in the public spotlight, and keep it there, for years if necessary. If the policies promoted by politically effective voices do not find their way into government policy quickly, there is nonetheless a loud and clear alternative, widely known with solid democratic credentials and ready to be implemented. This is not about supplanting the policy-making functions of the state in all areas of public policy; no organisation in civil society is going to be able to muster the resources to do that. Specific, critical issues that are felt to be poorly handled by the state will be the focus of citizen-led public policy.

Example Housing White Paper. Graphic supplied by author
Example Housing White Paper. Graphic supplied by author

Suppose we were to adopt a planning cell approach in an attempt to develop a citizen-led national housing policy combined with a website design that complements this approach, and other adaptations. A group of no more than twenty-five citizens would meet face-to-face on a regular basis for a period of time, at the end of which they would be expected to come up with policy recommendations. They would hear the views of various experts, read written submissions from the wider public, listen to one another’s views and present their own views on what they have read and heard. The aim is to offer not ‘expert advice’ but the collective view of citizens who, having considered the views of both experts and others affected by the issues and having conferred with one another, are of the opinion that it would be in the public interest to have such and such a housing policy.

Once the first group has completed its deliberations, a second group can be assembled, then a third and so on; the process creating a series of ‘mini-publics’. Overall, across the whole series, the citizens participating should represent a diversity of social perspectives. To this end, the attendees have to be selected, by appointment, invitation or some kind of rough sampling technique, to ensure that they represent a broad cross-section of citizens with a diversity of social, cultural and economic backgrounds and experiences. The place and times of meetings will need to accommodate different participants.

Facilitators are needed at meetings to ensure everyone has a say. The facilitators have the role of collating the recommendations from each group into a final report. They have to put together at the outset of the process an initial list of questions to be answered, ((The steps in the public policy process, which will inform the nature of these questions, can usefully be taken as the following: defining the problem, setting the objectives that will solve the problem, identifying alternative strategies to achieve the objectives, choosing which strategies to adopt, defining the financial and other resources required to implement the favoured strategies in a timely manner, and defining measures that enable evaluation of the degree to which the objectives have been achieved and the problem reduced or eliminated. There are many feedback loops in this process; it is not neatly sequential. See Michael Hill (2009), The public policy process, 5th edn, Pearson Education Ltd, UK, pp. 141-9 for a useful discussion of some of the issues involved in seeing the policy process as a series of discrete stages.)) a list of knowledgeable persons to be invited to give presentations or provide answers to the questions, a definition of what ‘the public affected by housing policy’ might mean, a list of groups who reflect relevant socio-demographic variations within that public and ought to be involved in the policy process, and an outline of the rules of engagement in the process (how participants are expected to behave, etc). Citizens participating in the process should be allowed to question and alter this preliminary framework as they become more familiar with the issues involved.

The process could be conducted under the auspices of a political party or a think-tank, centre, institute, community group or other organisation that is not a political party.

The website would show the process and the outputs to date. It should not be used as a discussion forum open to anonymous comments from the wider public. Rather, it should embody some kind of conversation among participants in the process, running parallel to that in the face-to-face meetings. Too much on the internet is transient, ephemeral. Here we want to see participants update their contributions as their conversation with others proceeds, with all contributions kept in view simultaneously. The results of the voting can be recorded on the website along with the main reasons given by participants at the meetings for their decisions. Facilitators will place their final report on the website and perhaps provide a running commentary or editorial opinions as the process proceeds.

Note one feature of this proposal in particular that differs from many state-led processes: the planning cells and the website conversation can be ongoing. This is because citizen-led public policy development has to be part of—not the be all and end all of—a campaign to attract or force the state into a dialogue. The aim is not to first develop a policy and then take it to the wider public to see how they respond but rather to develop a policy with wide public engagement from the start. Putting this another way, the policy is not produced then publicised but rather the producing and publicising are one and the same process. The aim, ultimately, is to be the preferred discussion partner of delegates to government bodies on this policy issue, in the way that business lobby groups, senior bureaucrats and others in the ‘political class’ that surrounds politicians in the Oort cloud ((By which I mean the deliberations within this closed circle are not visible or accessible to the critical commentary of the wider public.)) they all inhabit currently are, but with maximum transparency.

Some readers might question the need for face-to-face meetings and ask why the process cannot be undertaken entirely on the internet. There are more communication tools available to us today than ever before in human history. We still have all the older forms of communication such as books, pamphlets, documents, letters in the post, newspapers, journals, magazines, face-to-face meetings, the telephone, radio, cinema, concerts, theatre, the arts in general and television. Then the internet became available for general use in the 1990s, opening up a vast new range of possibilities. Alongside its uses for commerce, for private corporations and the state (including surveillance of citizens), and for cyber-criminals, the internet has been heralded as a great leap forward in the ‘democratisation’ of public communication. Never before have so many people been provided with the opportunity to have a ‘public voice’, not just a vote in elections once in a while, and that from the comfort of their own home, as the need for physical assembly (face-to-face meetings) is now superseded by the electronic assembly of local, national and even global publics—or that is or was the hope, at least.

Yet I argue a voice is only a voice if it is heard, responded to, agreed or disagreed with, supported or argued against, then in turn given the opportunity to rephrase, reformulate or to make alternative propositions to those it originally expressed. A voice is only a voice, in other words, in dialogue with another voice or voices. After more than twenty years of experience with email, for instance, we now know that the dialogue it enables is not always an effective substitute for dialogue in face-to-face meetings. In business and in government offices, the preferred venue for discussion of important and complex issues remains a meeting around a table, not cyberspace.

A voice is only a voice, in other words, in dialogue with another voice or voices.

The late Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, a company that has done so much to popularise the use of electronic communication tools, believed that anyone who thought that ideas could be developed by email was crazy: ‘Creativity comes from spontaneous [face-to-face] meetings, from random discussions’. Jobs designed the Apple building ‘… to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see’. ((Steve Jobs, quoted in both instances by Walter Isaacson in The Australian Financial Review, 8 June 2012, Review section, p. 11)) Members of all kinds of organisations still see a need to hold face-to-face meetings. Even the members of ‘global movements’ are drawn together periodically for a summit meeting in some definite geographic location, not in cyberspace. There is no substitute for face-to-face talk when we want to work out what sort of information matters most when discussing an issue, a point made often by theorists of deliberative democracy. ((See, for instance, Robert E. Goodin (2008), Innovating democracy: democratic theory and practice after the deliberative turn, Oxford University Press, pp. 93-107))

Criteria for democratic public policy processes

Crucially, a process like this would have some standing in terms of contemporary democratic theory. ‘While there are differences in emphasis’, Graham Smith tells us, ‘arguably the dominant current within contemporary democratic theory is one that places a premium on increasing and deepening citizen participation’. Further, he argues, be it theories of participatory democracy, deliberative democracy, direct democracy, difference democracy or cosmopolitan democracy, all see four criteria as important in evaluating the democratic qualities of public policy processes: inclusiveness, popular control, considered judgement and transparency. ((Graham Smith (2009), Democratic innovations: designing institutions for citizen participation, Cambridge University Press, UK, pp. 5-6, 12-13; though they may well interpret and weight these criteria in different ways, he adds.)) He adds two more criteria: ‘efficiency’ and ‘transferability’, institutional rather than democratic criteria. Efficiency is about costs (time, money) and transferability is about how portable our steps turn out to be when going from, for instance, housing policy to some other policy.

Achieving inclusiveness is about providing effective incentives for people from all walks of life to participate and when they do participate, ensuring they have an equal chance to be heard and to influence the final shape of the policy. Achieving popular control is about giving all participants the opportunity to influence different aspects of the policy-making process, ensuring participants have ownership of the process rather than being pawns in someone else’s game. Achieving considered judgement is about ensuring that participants understand both the technical details of the policy issue under consideration and the perspectives of other participants. Achieving transparency is about ensuring that participants have a clear understanding about the conditions under which they are participating (e.g. their role vis-à-vis others involved in the process) and keeping the process open to scrutiny by the wider public.

Report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, British Columbia

The approach proposed here can be appraised in terms of these six criteria, with reference in particular to the literature on ‘mini-publics’. ((See Smith (2009) and also Goodin (2008) )) Let’s start with efficiency. Citizen-led public policy-making is unlikely to be well funded. The British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, a widely praised model of citizen participation in a mini-public, had a budget of $5.5 million (Canadian), making it possible to employ administrative staff, pay participants and do a lot within a specified timeframe. A low budget process, heavily dependent on volunteers and donations, needs to take its time, doing things as resources become available. This is not necessarily a disadvantage when it comes to political effectiveness; many cut and dried state-led processes involving citizen participation have not actually led to uptake of the recommendations made. Transferability? I can’t think of any policy issues that this process couldn’t deal with.

Inclusiveness? Meetings advertised as open to all but which make no attempt to attract participants from diverse backgrounds tend to be the stomping ground of wealthier, more educated groups in society. Identifying the socio-demographic diversity within the public likely to be affected by the housing policy and actively seeking to have that diversity represented in meetings, sometimes proportionately, sometimes disproportionately, might be a way of achieving inclusiveness. Additionally a process that enables groups to determine their engagement and the most appropriate people to be involved would enhance the inclusivity of the process as a whole. Facilitators can be trained to encourage the more hesitant participants and to accept different kinds of input, for example, life stories rather than more abstract reasoning. Again, however, we have a lot to learn here and there is no magic formula. Perhaps one-to-one interviews would be required in some instances to elicit the views of particular groups of people. Inclusiveness is a thorny issue and a combination of theory and trial and error will be needed before claims to having achieved it can be made.

Popular control? A steering group—I called them the facilitators—has to start things off, otherwise the proceedings will have nowhere to begin, but after that, once participants have been involved for a time, they can be given the opportunity to question and change the initial work of the steering group, provided they give reasons that appear convincing to the majority of other participants in the process, which can be established by a vote. The criterion of considered judgement would require that this vote (and others) not be a secret ballot; voting needs to be public not private so participants are forced to defend their judgements in public view. Considered judgement ought to be achieved also by requiring consideration by participants of all the questions proposed by the steering group, the views of experts and others, and those of other participants. Transparency? The role of the steering group in outlining the nature and rules of the process should facilitate this as should the role of the website in making available to participants and the wider public both the inputs to and outputs of the process.


Too much of what passes for ‘communication’ or ‘free speech’ in our society, whether in the mass media, on the internet or at face-to-face public meetings, is really people talking at other people. The ‘econobabble’ that Richard Denniss has recently decried lives and thrives in this kind of (non) communication. As do climate science denial, consumerism and as do a lot of other hegemonic cultural and political discourses. People talking with one another is rare; talking together about things that matter in public affairs and what to do about them particularly so. Were we to gather together in the one room some climate scientists, some climate science deniers and a dozen or so citizens from various walks of life and engage them all in a discussion or debate for a day or a week, I suspect that the climate science deniers would emerge with very little credibility in the eyes of the majority of participants. Repeat this with another group, then another, on this or other topics (with different experts as appropriate) and I suspect that we would start white-anting the hegemony of various discourses in our society. Or would it only last until the memory of the meetings faded or was washed away by daily exposure to the dominant forms of mass communication? It is hard to know until we try.

Communication in our everyday experience is a long way from the ‘ideally conducted discussion’ as John Rawls sees it, or Habermas’s ‘ideal speech situation’ or the ‘standards of good discursive practice’ on which there appear to be broad agreement in some fields of academic endeavour at least. ((See John Rawls (1971) A theory of justice; Habermas in his The theory of communicative action and Between facts and norms; and Goodin (2008), pp. 187-8)) It is an area we need to be attentive to, for both the content and the forms taken by communication are ingredients in political power. Habermas once described Hannah Arendt’s idea of power, for instance, not as the ability to impose one’s own will on the behaviour of others, but as ‘… the ability to agree upon a common course of action in unconstrained communication’. ((Jürgen Habermas (1977), ‘Hannah Arendt’s communications concept of power’, Social Research, vol. 44, no. 1, pp. 3-24, quote from p. 3))

both the content and the forms taken by communication are ingredients in political power

Politics can take up a lot of evenings—a quote along these lines is often attributed to Oscar Wilde—but they could be evenings well spent. Especially when a life spent avoiding politics can be a life swept along like a leaf in the wind—as Wilde himself experienced later in his life. We can get quite dark about this—read Arendt—but the picture is brighter if we ignore the twentieth century and retreat to the early nineteenth. Tocqueville tells us—in the chauvinistic manner of his time—that in the lives of people in the U.S.A. in the early 1830s

‘to take an interest in and talk about the government of society is life’s most important activity and, in a way, its only pleasure. … If … an American were reduced to minding only his own business, half of his life would be stolen from him. He would feel as though an immense void had hollowed out his days, and he would become incredibly unhappy’. ((Alexis de Tocqueville (2004) (c. 1850), Democracy in America, trans. A Goldhammer, The Library of America, New York, Vol 1, Part 2, Chap 6, p. 279. Written in the middle of the nineteenth century, hence his focus on men and the exclusion of women.))

How we can retrieve this kind of public spirit in men and women, and reinvent politically effective ways it can be put into practice, is one of the key challenges of our time. I make no claim to having answered that challenge here, having merely pointed out a few examples of practices that appear to be working in some contexts, some of the rationale behind them, and how we might adapt them to our own ends, to see whether they actually work or not.


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