With the proliferation and application of democratic innovations around the world, the empirical study of deliberative and participatory processes has shifted from small-scale environments and experiments to real-life political processes on a large scale. With this shift, there is also a need to explore new theoretical approaches in order to understand current developments. Instead of analyzing democratic innovations in isolation, the recent ‘systemic turn’ in the field encourages us to broaden our perspective and evaluate democratic innovations as complementary parts of a political system.

This paper will draw upon a qualitative case study, based on interview and supported by survey data, of the ‘Estonian Citizens’ Assembly Process’ (ECA), in order to operationalize the systemic approach to deliberative democracy and illustrate how this can be applied to an analysis of democratic innovations.

The ECA spanned more than a year (November 2012 to April 2014) and covered three political arenas: the public sphere, democratic innovations and representative institutions. The systemic analysis highlights the deliberative strengths and weaknesses of arenas and institutions, and illuminates how various arenas and democratic innovations did and did not complement one another in the creation of a deliberative process. The systemic analysis offers two possible interpretations of the ECA. The more affirmative interpretation is it constituted a deliberative system, as it did perform the three main functions fulfilled by different arenas and institutions. The more critical interpretation is that the ECA partly failed to be a deliberative system, due to social domination and decoupling of institutions.