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The classic accounts of deliberative democracy are also accounts of legitimacy: ‘that outcomes are legitimate to the extent they receive reflective assent through participation in authentic deliberation by all those subject to the decision in question’ (Dryzek, 2001, p. 651). And yet, in complex societies deliberative participation by all those affected by collective decision-making is extremely implausible. There are also legitimacy problems with the demanding procedural requirements which deliberation imposes on participants. Given these problems, deliberative democracy seems unable to deliver legitimate outcomes as it defines them.

Focusing on the problem of scale, this paper offers a tentative solution using representation, a concept which is itself problematic. Along the way, the paper highlights issues with the legitimate role of experts, the different legitimate uses of statistical and electoral representation, and differences between the research and democratic imperatives driving current attempts to put deliberative principles into practice, illustrated with a case from a Leicester health policy debate. While much work remains to be done on exactly how the principles arrived at might be transformed into working institutions, they do offer a means of criticising existing deliberative practice.