Methods vignettes: Deliberative mapping



Deliberative mapping (DM) is a broad framework for decision support for use where there is a complex problem for which there is no single obvious way forward.

Such a problem might be characterised, for example, by highly technical, ethical and experiential dimensions and a need to account for – in response to it – for the values and knowledge of those in wider society beyond ‘the experts’. One application of this framework was to consider how to deal with a shortage of donor kidneys in the UK (Burgess, Stirling et al. 2007) and another considered how to dispose of the UK’s legacy radioactive waste (Burgess, Chilvers et al. 2004).

DM works in two parallel streams, one taking members of the public (or citizens group), and the other specialists (specialists group), through a process of comparing, contrasting and ranking different options in response to the problem and according to participants’ own priorities.

In this process, DM makes use of another method covered in these briefings, multicriteria mapping (MCM). At one point the citizens groups are brought into discussion with the specialists group to allow for consultation and cross-fertilisation of ideas.

The aim is not consensus, but instead to systematically reveal divergences of opinion, framing, and perspective. Nevertheless, the illumination of diversity can also reveal common ground, which is all the more robust for being so strongly tested. So, where desired there is potential for working towards outcomes that are broadly acceptable to all parties.

The process is systematic and involves both quantitative and qualitative appraisal of the options which yields an extremely rich characterisation of the problem, the perspectives in play and resulting concrete ideas on how best to proceed. To this end, DM includes and helps unpack many different kinds of ‘expertise’ involved in appraising policy options – including a robust and balanced basis for integrating various usually-excluded kinds of ‘lay knowledge’ and ‘public values’ into complex decision making. The results of deliberative mapping also clearly show how any particular decision can be arrived at (or not), so making more transparent the process of complex decision making.

What’s involved?

Citizen participants are recruited on a systematic basis, such as a stratified sample, so as to represent a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives.

In order to respect ease of deliberation, these are then divided into a number of citizen groups. Collectively heterogeneous, each group is homogenous with respect to particular factors that are of relevance to eliciting diverging views on the topic in question, or to help enable comfortable discussion.

Specialists are also recruited in consultation with a stakeholder advisory panel, such as to represent a range of expert knowledges and specialist interests and perspectives. This might include relevant public officials who have knowledge of implementation around the issue, natural/social scientists, economists, NGO representatives and practitioners from large or small businesses.

Deliberative Mapping takes place over a number of meetings. For Burgess et al’s citizens panels this involved each citizen group meeting six times with a joint workshop in between. The specialist strand involved a one-to-one interview at the beginning and end, as well as participation in the joint workshop and a further meeting at the end. The whole process unfolded over a year and a half (Burgess et al 2007). Over the course of the meetings/interviews the groups/individuals were taken through a multi-criteria mapping (MCM) exercise.

MCM involves getting familiar with different options for how to tackle the problem at hand (developed by the researchers), and potentially offering some additional options. Participants then consider criteria with which to appraise the different options, and systematically score the options against these criteria. Finally the relative importance of the different criteria is established by distributing ‘importance points’ between them.

The joint workshop brings the citizen and specialist strands together. Organising this on an ‘open space’ basis allows citizen panellists to frame their own discussions of issues of interest by moving freely between specialists. This format also allows specialists to confer with each other and to get a sense for how members of the public approach the problem. Participants then return to the MCM exercise to see if the collective workshop has affected their appraisals.

Altogether this process yields a quantitative ranking of the options against each other, revealing the uncertainties affecting individual appraisals and the ambiguities across contrasting perspectives. The result is a ‘map’ showing the practical implications for different decision options, across the different citizens and specialist perspectives involved. A very rich qualitative resource is also built up through recording and transcribing the individual and group interviews, and the workshop. This substantiates the reasons for the different perspectives and associated uncertainties and ambiguities, as well as illuminating the basis for possible common ground.

Broadening Out and Opening Up?

The involvement of citizens as well as a range of specialists means that participation in the appraisal process is broadened out. DM seeks to democratise decision making by specifically aiming to determine the views of citizens-as-stakeholders, moving beyond the more common expert-led approaches or sampling people who have a direct link to the issue at hand (for example because they have direct experience of it or are likely to be disproportionately affected). Having said this, there is no reason why more stakeholder groups could not be involved in the process to create an even richer range of perspectives on the issue.

Because participants are also encouraged to put forward options to be considered, beyond those suggested by researchers, and come up with their own criteria against which to judge these, inputs into the mapping are broad. Through the group discussion process, numerous potential criteria and options are elicited and debated, showing how a range of possibilities become concrete inputs – for both experts and citizens. Here excellent facilitation skills are needed to ensure all voices are heard and possibilities are given due respect and consideration.

Rather than closing down around a ‘solution’, deliberative mapping systematically opens up a problem to show a whole range of perspectives on possible answers. The resulting ‘map’ (see Briefing 3 link below) can illustrate relatively more or less supported options. Furthermore, the conditions under which they are supported or not are made clear and uncertainty is systematically addressed.

Fits and Limits

Deliberative Mapping is a focusing and linking method. It focusses by asking differently placed stakeholders to appraise different possible future pathways given their experiences of past approaches, their values and expertise. This will yield a very rich range of framings. The links between different perspectives and pathways, and the conditions under which there is coalescence of view are also uncovered.

Clearly this is a time and resource intensive process that involves the researchers, citizens’ panels, an expert group and a project advisory committee. Rooms, equipment, facilitators and payment to citizen participants may also be added costs. A high level of organisation, enthusiasm and really good facilitation is needed to take a very varied range of participants through a long and often quite intense process. The qualitative material coming from the deliberative mapping will also be considerable and need transcribing and analysing.

However, DM is also rigorous, systematic, democratic and accountable in character. Where the stakes are high, these qualities can be crucial.

References and other useful sources of information

Burgess, J., J. Chilvers, et al. (2004). Citizens and Specialists Deliberate Options for Managing the UK’s Legacy Intermediate and High Level Radio-active Waste: a Report of the Deliberative Mapping Trial, June-July 2004. London, DEFRA. URL:

Burgess, J., A. Stirling, et al. (2007). “Deliberative mapping: a novel analytic-deliberative methodology to support contested science-policy decisions.” Public Understanding of Science 16: 299-322.

Briefing 1: Opportunities and Challenges for Involving Citizens in Decision Making (pdf)

Briefing 2: The Deliberative Mapping Approach (pdf)

Briefing 3: Deliberative Mapping in Practice: the ‘kidney gap’ (pdf)

Briefing 4: Citizens’ panels in Deliberative Mapping: a user guide (pdf)

Briefing 5: Using the Multi-Criteria Mapping (MCM) technique (pdf)


Material for this vignette was contributed by Dr Becky White.