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Developing “Text, Talk, and Act”: A new strategy for combining ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ engagement

NCDD members may be interested in contributing to the development of a new public engagement process that will roll out in December as part of the National Dialogue on Mental Health. “Text, Talk, and Act” has been developed by Matt Leighninger of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium (DDC), the other members of the National Dialogue’s Creating Community Solutions partnership, and the directors of two civic technology nonprofits: Michelle Lee of Textizen and Michael Smith of United Americans. Sandy Heierbacher of NCDD, Raquel Goodrich of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, and Mary Jacksteit and Sue McCormack of CCS have been instrumental in making this happen.

We developed this process because we were looking for a way to involve more young people, with the technology they use most, in a way that captures national excitement and produces meaningful small-group dialogue.

Essentially, what we are doing is combining the strengths of ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ engagement. Thick engagement has been a key element of public participation for a long time, though it has proliferated dramatically in the last twenty years; it happens mainly in groups, either face-to-face, online, or both, and features various forms of dialogue, deliberation, action planning, and policy choicework. Thin engagement has developed more recently; it happens mainly online, and is easier, faster, and potentially more viral – it is done by individuals, who are often motivated by feeling a part of some larger movement or cause.

Both thin and thick engagement have their merits – and their limitations. We wanted to find better ways to weave together these two strands, thickening the thin forms and thinning out the thick. “Text, Talk, and Act” resulted directly from this conversation.

Like most kinds of thin engagement, “Text, Talk, and Act” is easy to organize. You don’t need moderators, discussion materials, computers, or screens: just participants with text-capable cellphones. (If not everyone has a cellphone, you need only ensure that there is one cellphone per small group.)

  • Participants form into groups of 4-6 people, then start the 60-minute process by texting ‘START’ to 89800.
  • They receive a welcome text, followed quickly by a few polling questions about mental health, such as “1 in 5 people experience mental illness each year. Take a guess: Half of all mental health problems begin at age: A) 14, B) 24, C) 30”
  • Each time the participant texts in a response, they receive a text with the next question.
  • Aggregated results of the polling can be viewed online in real time.
  • Participants are asked to accept some guidelines: “Let’s talk guidelines: 1. Listen w/ respect, 2. It’s OK to disagree but don’t make it personal, 3. What’s said here stays here. Is this OK?”
  • The participants then receive the first of several dialogue questions, including: “Without naming names, talk about how mental health issues have affected you or people you know (Take 15 mins to discuss in groups & reply NEXT to go on.)”
  • Responses to these dialogue questions are not recorded. (And phone numbers are not kept in the system after the process has ended.)
  • Next in the sequence are polling and dialogue questions on the best ways to “make a difference” on mental health issues.
  • One of the final questions asks participants to “commit to 1 action to help make a difference” – participants can text in their ideas, which can then be viewed online along with other ideas from their school, university, or community.

The process is designed to last one hour, but the technology allows people to start any time they like (on December 5th), and take as long as they like. Participants will also be able to organize a “Text, Talk, and Act” event after the 5th.

We used the Textizen platform for the high school pilot of “Text, Talk, and Act,” held at Rex Putnam High School in Milwaukie, Oregon. “This exercise has created a more trusting environment in our class,” one student said. “We understand each other better now.” Our college pilot, at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island, used the United Americans platform. Please contact either Textizen or United Americans if you are interested in using this process.

Meanwhile, please join us on December 5th in trying out this new process! There are three easy steps:

  1. Bring some people together on the 5th
  2. Have them form into groups of 4-5, with at least one cellphone per group
  3. Ask them to text “START” to 89800

Learn more and sign up for updates at www.creatingcommunitysolutions.org/texttalkact, and see Sandy’s previous post about the project at www.ncdd.org/13369 (including the infographic NCDD’s Andy Fluke created for the project!).

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Matt Leighninger
Matt Leighninger is Executive Director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and a Senior Associate of Everyday Democracy (formerly the Study Circles Resource Center). He is the author of the 2006 book "The Next Form of Democracy: How Expert Rule Is Giving Way to Shared Governance -- and Why Politics Will Never Be the Same."

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