Deliberating with care for a caring democracy

Sometimes, when times seem unlike anything we have known before, we need to reach for ideas that are not new. The current crisis does not necessarily mean that we have to start from scratch when trying to make sense of how we can renew the way we live together when the pandemic has passed.

Here I want to bring together two ways of thinking, both of which have been around for some time, but perhaps not sufficiently widely known about, in order to offer one perspective on ‘what comes after’ the coronavirus crisis. These are ideas and practices of deliberative democracy, and feminist care ethics and its applications. 

Deliberative democracy has been getting something of a profile recently, particularly in the context of ways in which citizens can be engaged in thinking about responses to the climate and environmental crises. Climate Assembly UK launched in January 2020 with over 100 members. The basis on which such initiatives are promoted is that it is not only experts who have good ideas about how we might respond to difficult policy issues, that the two-way learning that takes place within deliberative forums can generate change in attitudes and understanding, and that people are more likely to be committed to action that flows from deliberative processes if they have been part of the process of coming to those decisions. This is not the first time that such processes have been experimented with. In 1998 I evaluated citizens’ juries in Belfast and Swansea that were convened to consider the re-structuring of health and social care services in Northern Ireland, and the urban design implications of an ageing population – part of the millennium debate of the age.[1] These were only two of many such juries convened by local governments, health services and other public agencies to debate what were often known as ‘wicked issues’ – complex and problematic policy issues. These were, in turn, only part of a move towards participative governance that was a feature of public policy in the 1990-2000s.

As is often the case, evaluations of these initiatives revealed many positive features and consequences, but also issues that meant an automatic connection between process and outcome could not be assumed. Not least was the fact that it is not possible to ‘bracket power’ within such fora. The impact of gender relationships; differential valuing of the way different people speak; the capacity to work with emotions, and the degree to which people bring with them prior experiences of operating within similar spaces make a difference to people’s capacities to be heard. How we go about the process of deliberation matters to its capacity to achieve the transformative outcomes it seeks. 

So I have suggested we need to develop ways of ‘deliberating with care’.[2] In her recent pamphlet for Compass, ‘Towards a Good Society’, Ruth Lister includes the importance of the ethics of care as one dimension of a strategy for building a Good Society post crisis. The word ‘care’ has appeared within public discourse to an unprecedented extent in recent weeks. Care workers have received the kind of recognition one might hope will lead to radical change in terms of salary levels and conditions of service. Making care work and the circumstances in which it is carried out visible is a necessary but not sufficient step towards its proper valuing. But the dangers of claims that the NHS runs on love highlights the necessity for a political perspective on what care is and what it involves. Apart from its association with love, care is often associated with references to compassion and kindness. It is identified as an individual virtue, an attitude and emotional tendency. But care is much more and much harder than that. And it is here that the analysis of feminist care ethics offers a resource that can help us move beyond an exhortation that we should all be kind to each other.

Care is a relationship rather than an individual virtue. We need to understand what it means both to give and to receive care and the webs of relationships which can enable and support this. Care is purposive – it seeks ways in which we can live well – or better, together. It is a practice that encompasses different phases associated with principles that Joan Tronto has named as attentiveness, responsibility, competence, responsiveness and solidarity.[3] It focusses our attention on injustices and the damages they create, and the need for contextualised responses that embrace both the human and the more than human world. The ethics of care brings together personal, political, moral and relational ways of acting and thinking about our essential interdependency. 

We can apply this way of thinking about care to the micro processes of deliberative democracy. This can help us understand what is necessary to design deliberative and participatory spaces which have the capacity to include those who have been marginalised; to generate ideas about and responsibility for responses to current challenges, and to build solidarity amongst people who are differently positioned in relation to the ravages of this pandemic. These are spaces in which organisers are attentive to the diversity of backgrounds and ways of speaking of participants, and which encourage all to notice and attend to others. Where there is an acknowledged responsibility not only to act competently in planning and conducting deliberative processes, but also to follow through in relation to the ideas and proposals that are generated. But also where different competences amongst participants are recognised and supported to contribute to outcomes. They are also spaces in which all become attuned to ways in which co-participants are responding to the process and responsibility for minimising distress and encouraging engagement can be developed. Such spaces can build solidarity by these means and by enabling different aspects of identity to be expressed and brought into the conversation. The current crisis is an opportunity for those who hold powerful positions to acknowledge the vulnerabilities that are part of the human condition. 

The small spaces of democracy are necessary to an overarching strategy of building a caring democracy capable of enabling the Good Society that Compass is campaigning for. They can offer an important part of the process of ensuring that ‘what comes after’ the Covid-19 crisis does not retreat to business as usual.

Marian Barnes is an Emeritus Professor in Social Policy at the University of Brighton.

[1] Barnes, M (1999) Building a Deliberative Democracy An evaluation of two Citizens’ Juries, London, Institute for Public Policy Research. 

[2] Barnes, M (2012) Care in Everyday Life: an ethic of care in practice. Bristol, The Policy Press. Chapter 8.

[3] Tronto, J. (2013) Caring Democracy: Markets, Equality and Justice. New York: New York University Press.

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