Why governing in a time of polarisation requires different tools and processes

8 min readMay 10, 2024


Most public officials are unaware of the tools and systemic reforms that might help them encourage collaboration, facilitate dialogue and deliberation, and reduce polarisation.

  • The problem: In North America, and much of the world, policymaking is stuck in gridlock because officials are either afraid to make decisions on potentially divisive issues or are uncertain of how their constituents will react.
  • Why it matters: The official processes for public engagement were not designed for the polarised climate we now find ourselves in and may in fact be aggravating societal divisions.
  • The solution: There are a great many tools and systemic reforms that would help officials reduce polarisation: this essay reviews some innovations and options found in Participedia.

First published on Apolitical, this post is written by Matt Leighninger, former vice president from the research and public engagement organisation Public Agenda.

Image Credit: Make America Dinner Again

Polarisation is a problem for public officials at every level of government. One of the main reasons policymaking processes are in gridlock throughout the world is because officials are either afraid to make decisions on potentially divisive issues, or simply do not know what their constituents really want them to do. In most places, the official processes for public engagement fail to meet this challenge because they do not foster deliberation or collaboration among different groups of people. Indeed, our current democratic systems may actually be aggravating the divisions in our societies.

Most public officials are unaware of the tools and systemic reforms that might help them reduce polarisation. But these democratic tools and reforms exist: hundreds of them can be found on Participedia, the largest online collection of case examples, methods, and organisations related to public participation. With resources like these, and with a more open-minded approach to democracy, we now have ways to address both the short-term effects and the long-term causes of polarisation.

Division and democracy

In some cases, polarisation isn’t necessarily closely connected to particular policy questions, but rather reflects deep political, structural, ideological, and cultural differences. Especially when these cleavages feed one another, they produce animosity, hostility, and mistrust between followers of different political parties. These kinds of polarisation can often make it difficult for officials to predict where conflicts will emerge, especially at the local level. While the United States is perhaps the most high-profile example of polarisation, it has become a global challenge, driven by various combinations of stark ethnic, ideological, cultural, and religious differences.

Most citizens are concerned about the rise of polarisation and would like to do something about it. Public Agenda’s Hidden Common Ground research reported that 93% of Americans say it is important to reduce divisiveness in the United States. Meanwhile, 45% of Americans say they have worked with someone who has different political views to solve a problem in their community. People seem to agree that human beings can understand each other, respect their differences, and achieve compromise.

In many countries, people blame polarisation on their leaders and systems of government. “Many politicians are artificially dividing society,” said former Irish Prime Minister John Bruton in a recent webinar on Global Learning on Democratic Innovation. And part of the problem, Bruton pointed out, is that “very few people support institutions in which they have no say”.

Most observers warn that increased polarisation is a ‘threat to democracy’, but they appear to assume that democracy is an unavoidably static, ineffective, relatively weak form of government. While it is true that democracy, as it is practised in most places today, is losing effectiveness and popularity, that doesn’t mean we should give up on it. In fact, in most countries, citizens seem to be asking for more democracy, not less.

Participedia: Crowdsourcing information about democratic innovations

Participedia is an online resource designed to help people act on this idea that more democracy is the answer to problems like polarisation. Like its namesake Wikipedia, the crowdsourcing site allows people to report on democratic innovations. They can contribute write-ups and supporting documents about cases, methods, and organisations that use citizen engagement to move democracy forward. A community of academic researchers and participation practitioners helps to check, edit, and in some cases complete the entries. From its inception as a partnership between the University of British Columbia and Harvard University, and continuing at its new home at McMaster University, Participedia has grown to encompass over 3,000 searchable entries from 135 countries.

The entries on Participedia include democratic practices and reforms that address many different kinds of public priorities. Some focus on gathering input on policymaking, while others aim to strengthen social capital and cohesion. Still, others support volunteerism and problem-solving by citizens themselves, and some try to accomplish all of those goals as part of the same system.

Among Participedia entries, there are three types of innovations that seem particularly promising for addressing the divisions in our societies: 1) Local efforts to bring people together. 2) National or even multi-national initiatives that try to use technologies at sizes required to meet the shifting scale of public issues. 3) Changes in governance processes that try to make bridge-building and collaboration among citizens a regular feature of political systems.

Proven local practices

The first way of dealing with division — local efforts at bridge-building and collaboration — has the longest history and the greatest track record of success. Most of these processes aim for a representative diversity of participants. Many of these processes name racism or inter-ethnic tension as a central factor, spoken or unspoken, in polarisation and division. Others simply aim to provide a ‘safe space’ for participants to address all kinds of racial, religious, political, or other differences. And they usually involve deliberative processes, relying on paired or small-group discussions that happen face-to-face, often with skilled facilitators or mediators. When people meet in these kinds of settings, where they have the chance to share experiences and interact on a more human level, they are more likely to empathise with one another, find common ground, and understand the reasons for their disagreements.

The skills for these types of local bridge-building are often disseminated through training and fellowship programs, such as the Women’s Mediation Training Network in the Horn of Africa, and the MAOZ social change network in Israel. They have also been used as part of youth camps (the Heart to Heart Summer Camp for Jewish and Palestinian Israeli Youth), regular bridge-building social events (Make America Dinner Again), or as part of efforts to spread awareness of historical events (‘Region of Consciousness’ in Austria). Local bridge-building efforts are also connected and supported by national or international organisations like Involve, Everyday Democracy, and the Sustained Dialogue Institute.

Visit the Women’s Mediation Training in the Great Lakes & Horn of Africa Region Case on Participedia.net.

Scaling through technology

Starting at least 20 years ago, some organisations began trying to use digital technologies to bring bridge-building practices online. Many of these platforms are designed to facilitate one-on-one interactions, rather than small-group processes, using live video and discussion questions to structure the experience. Organisations like Soliya were among the first to pioneer this sort of ‘virtual exchange’.

Part of the attraction of these tech-aided processes is that they can build bridges between people living in different places, and thus overcome the geographic sorting — particularly by income, ethnicity, or religion — that can lead to relatively homogeneous communities. Campaigns like Germany Talks, Britain Talks, and the Europe-wide My Country Talks have been among the most ambitious attempts at online bridge-building. Media organisations like Germany’s Die Zeit and The Mirror in the UK have helped to lead these efforts.

In the US, 2021 has been an active year for these kinds of initiatives. A national engagement effort called America Talks involved thousands of people in one-on-one virtual discussions. To facilitate discussion across divides, participants answered a few short survey questions and were then paired with someone who is politically different from them.

An emerging subset of these tech-enabled bridge-building efforts is using artificial intelligence (AI) to help people find common ground on policy questions. For example, Polis is a platform that allows participants to vote on different statements, uses AI to identify opinion groups, and helps people craft compromise statements that bring together the opinion groups through further voting. The platform has been used as part of the vTaiwan process, a nationwide effort in Taiwan that also convenes face-to-face workshops for developing statements and action steps.

New machinery for collaboration in democracy

Whether the bridge-building focus is local, national, or global, these efforts may reach their greatest potential if they can connect with another type of democratic innovation: reforms that provide greater roles for citizens, including better representation of those affected by policies, and more deliberation and collaboration among citizens, as well as between citizens and decision-makers.

Though the examples of new processes that become a regularised part of policymaking are not as common as for the other two types of democratic innovation, there are some stand-outs. One case is the Kahnawake Community Decision-Making Process used by communities of the Mohawk Nation in Quebec, Canada. This process adapts traditional tribal governance for the contemporary context, allowing community members to propose legislation. The proposals are considered in multiple steps that include fact-finding, community consultations, and consensus-based decisions.

“Well-designed citizen engagement processes can enable public officials to lead without fear of backlash.”

Multiple channels for reducing polarisation

Through Participedia, public officials and citizens can find examples, practices, and organisations to inspire new ways of involving citizens in the policies that affect them — ways that promise to build bridges across polarised divides, bringing new people to the table, and benefiting from their everyday knowledge and perspectives. No single method or programme will probably be sufficient: bridge-building is more likely to be successful and sustained if it is addressed through multi-channel approaches that use a diversity of processes, depending upon issues, resources, and levels of government.

To connect bridge-building with policymaking, both local and scalable practices — i.e. ones whose size and ambition can be readily adjusted to address the size and nature of a public issue — are critical. Public officials are unlikely to compromise with one another on a contentious issue if their constituents show no willingness to strike a balance. Local bridge-building efforts can establish common ground among citizens in a community, but scalable practices — and a system for aggregating the policy preferences of the people who participate in deliberative, bridge-building processes — are important for breaking legislative gridlock among regional and national officials.

Because they can create new constituencies for bridge-building, well-designed citizen engagement processes can enable public officials to lead without fear of backlash. Participedia shows that we have increasingly useful information about these processes: their purposes, their strengths and weaknesses, their contexts, as well as their organisation and feasibility.

This essay was created as part of a partnership with Participedia & Public Agenda. Participedia is a global network and crowdsourcing platform for researchers, educators, practitioners, policymakers, activists, and anyone interested in public participation and democratic innovations. Public Agenda is a nonpartisan research and public engagement organisation dedicated to strengthening democracy and expanding opportunity for all Americans.




A global community sharing knowledge and stories about public participation and democratic innovations — Join us at Participedia.net!