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Will powerful conversations solve state and local budget crises?

What would happen if professional organizers and facilitators of dialogue and deliberation decisively and publicly demonstrated their capacity to help cities and states solve their biggest problem — collapsing budgets — and then broadly promoted that fact?

What’s the crisis?  States, cities and towns across the United States are collapsing under mountains of debt.  The mortgage crisis crashed property taxes, the primary source of revenue for cities.  Cities are cutting off services from education to police to road repair. Comparable crises are hitting state governments, some of whom are selling off public properties, utilities and service institutions, resulting in a major privatization of the commons.  Some states and cities are contemplating bankruptcy, thereby scaring off bond investors.  See these articles for fascinating and troubling information on all this.

Advocates and practitioners of processes like Study Circles, Future Search, Dynamic Facilitation, Open Space Technology, and many other approaches have proclaimed the power of whole-system conversations, citizen engagement and stakeholder dialogues to solve the problems of communities.  Shouldn’t the power of such conversations be seriously considered by every legislature and administration? Shouldn’t the dialogue-and-deliberation approach be in the news as much as problematic solutions like staff layoffs, union-busting, bankruptcy, and increasing elementary school classroom size to 60 students?

The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, the International Association for Public Participation, the International Association of Facilitators, and the many networks of practitioners would clearly benefit from greater demand for powerful facilitated conversations. Clearly, the budget crisis is an opportunity of epic proportions.  But how might it be engaged?

Market experts know the power of strategically offering free products and services as part of a campaign to increase overall sales.  Stores offer weekly specials — so-called “loss leaders” — to entice consumers into the store where they will see, want, and buy full-priced products.  Workshop leaders offer free teleseminars to attract potential buyers for their full-priced workshops.  Software companies and online providers offer free basic services to a mass audience, some of whom then buy full-featured services. Businesses of all kinds provide pro bono services and donate products to charity not only to do good, but to enhance their image and demonstrate the value of their products and services, thereby increasing demand for their profitable offerings.

Is it possible that some network, coalition, or organization of dialogue and deliberation professionals would come together to STRATEGICALLY deliver free or heavily discounted services to 5-10 towns, cities or states for well-done, well-studied, well-documented, and well-publicized work on their budget crises?

Ideally such an effort would integrate a number of methodologies and approaches like the ones mentioned above, plus some participatory budgeting approaches, in each town.  Such an “integrated program” would use each methodology for what it does best and, hopefully, arrange things so results or participants from one process feed into another process in a way that magnifies the value of both.  The outcomes of these model projects — including research results, videos, and testimonials from all parties involved — would then be heavily promoted to public officials, citizens, activist organizations and foundations around the country.  (I can imagine such a potent collaboration would be very attractive to foundations, especially if the practitioners are offering their services pro bono or for greatly reduced fees.)

As much as I’d like to see an integrated approach done to benefit the whole field, clearly this opportunity could be grabbed by practitioners of a single method, if they dived in and did it in a strategic way, including intelligent use of the results in marketing their services.  If we can’t collaborate on this sort of thing, at least we can compete in ways that benefit the whole society!

The purpose would be to make it CRYSTAL CLEAR that powerful conversations offer governments and citizens ways out of the crisis that are both less expensive and less damaging than most of the other solutions currently being pursued. Powerful conversations would probably also increase the health, vitality and capacity of the communities and governments that use them.

I am a visionary and writer, not an organizer.  But I hope this vision inspires or provokes some dialogue and deliberation professionals and/or some funders and/or some activists to take this on.  ThePoint would be a great resource for pulling it together.  I would be happy to be a thinking partner — pro bono, of course — for whoever chooses to actually do it.

- Tom Atlee, cii@igc.org

Awed by the evolutionary challenges and opportunities we face as a civilization, Tom Atlee researches and promotes dialogue, deliberation, and other resources for collective intelligence and conscious evolution. Tom founded The Co-Intelligence Institute in 1996 and wrote The Tao of Democracy in 2003.

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  1. Tom-
    I agree. What would you propose as the next step? Choose cities/towns that might be a good venue for such engagement? Maybe a design team to pull it together? It is a situation ripe with opportunity.

  2. Tom Atlee says:

    As I said, I'm not an organizer, so take this with a bushel of salt.

    One approach would be to have an organizer work full time on it. They'd know what to do.

    Another is to have some NCDDer put out a call on the NCDD listserv to join a convening/design team. Ideally you'd get practitioners who were collaborative rather than territorial/ideological about their methodology so that some synergies could be woven together out of diverse methodologies (this is something I'd be happy to be a thinking partner on). Also it would be good to have one or more philanthropists or foundations involved who can partner on the project.

    There would need to be a creative dance here between (a) which practitioners might have energy for this; (b) which towns/cities might be eager to give it a good try, with active support from one or more local sectors and (c) which foundations might give seed money for a really good trial. If the practitioners volunteer their time and the city provides venues, moral support, media and some volunteer help, then the foundations would only have to provide for materials, transport, and maybe a few other method-dependent things (like pay for random citizens participating in a Citizens Jury). I have a sense that this would only work if all parts of this puzzle were working collaboratively on it with a strong shared intention. This is what an organizer would pull together.

    But finding the right people/institutions for a, b, and c is the challenge. It seems like outreach to state leagues of cities and mayors associations etc., would locate interested cities and towns. I'm sure philanthropists have networks that could be worked through — and I know that a lot of foundations that wouldn't necessarily support D&D, per se, would nevertheless support a public engagement project on the budget IN THEIR GEOGRAPHICAL AREA of concern. It would be great if NCDD as an institution took on promoting this, but I know that NCDD as an institution is largely Sandy and Andy, and they're already up to their ears. I don't know the scene in IAP2 or IAF.

    What is needed is organizing energy by an individual or team who are visionary, passionate, determined, and competent. I imagine them coming from NCDD, but they could come from anywhere.

    There are, of course, many case studies of good D&D work in cities and towns. But all that has less power because it is not part of a coherent, conscious campaign to spread the word and create demand, nor is most of it about the current budget crisis (which is where so much attention is now stuck), nor are there many efforts that demonstrate the synergistic power of multi-process programs.

    My belief is that if the efficacy of this approach were demonstrated in a truly systematic and compelling way, and promoted broadly, that that would create an environment where we'd suddenly see a lot more support for this approach. Even cash-strapped cities would financially support it because it would have proven to save so much more money than it costs.

    What do you think?

  3. Craig Paterson says:

    Thanks for your thought pieces, Tom. I've been ruminating on these ideas for a while now…pre-dating your post in some of my blog entries as well. Here are a few preliminary thoughts:

    Many decentralized, site-specific conversations make more sense than an organized, broad-strokes approach. And…the use of many different methods makes more sense than trying to focus on just one practice.

    As I've shared in previous posts, a common purpose can bind together many different threads of conversation. My favorite these days came from a city manager at the California NCDD gathering: "Build a great community…together." I feel this goal is difficult to attack…and it requires an inclusive, local and active approach to whatever problems need to be addressed.

    A short list of questions can be created and then adapted for local use on many different topics. My feeling again is that budget cuts are easy to propose in isolation…as if they don't have consequences. I want to know where an on-going human need will be met, given a program cut or elimination. I ask…"If not here, where?"…and "If not us, who?" Human need doesn't go away just because a government program is cut.

    Tech networking is available to link local, decentralized efforts. Think of the rain…life-renewing rain comes from a cloud with a constantly changing shape. So…if we create a cloud…the rain will fall.

    Finally…I don't believe there is a right way or right place to start these conversations…the most important thing is that 'we' start…and then connect our efforts.

    Various thoughts for others to chew on…

  4. Great post, Tom!

    As you may know, IAP2 recently (re-)launched in the US (follow http://iap2usa.wordpress.com or http://twitter.com/IAP2USA for occasional updates).

    I'm on the Board of Directors, and we're getting ready for our first in-person meeting next week in Austin, TX.

    We're still setting up, so there's a lot on our plates right now. I'll check with the other Board members to see if this is something we can pursue at this point. Previous conversations have touched upon these issues before so there is definitely some interest in exploring our options together.

  5. On a side note, if the goal is to really get the word out I'd probably hire three PR/press/marketing people for every full-time organizer. ;-)

  6. John Backman says:

    Some serious depth of thought here, and (being on the vision/writing side of things myself) I so appreciate the big-picture thinking here. It does, though, leave me with some familiar questions.

    Over the past couple of years, I've seen a number of visionary proposals and calls to action come through my inbox. They all seem to run up against the same roadblock: how to translate the worthy vision into solid commitment from a critical mass of people–and from there to concrete, effective action.

    So, my questions: Does anyone know for sure how this translation takes place? Are there "real life" models that we could benchmark to enhance our success? Do we know, for instance, whether it makes more sense to ally our collective knowledge with existing movements (No Labels, Coffee Party, etc.) or to start something entirely new and professional-driven? What on earth does it take to effect large-scale culture change–or at least culture change in the halls of power? What academic discipline might have the most insight into these matters?

    My point is more epistemological than "practical": I keep thinking that we need to know how to evaluate possible next steps before actually taking any, so we make best use of the collective energy that is always such a scarce resource.

    Thoughts, anyone?

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