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NCDD Members’ Views on the Systems Challenge: Results of an Online Dialogue at CivicEvolution

At the 2008 National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation, we focused in on 5 of the most pressing and challenging issues our field is facing – issues that past conference participants agreed are vital for us to address if we are to have the impact we’d like to have in our communities. One of the five challenges we focused on was the “Systems Challenge” — embedding D&D in our public and private systems. Our co-leaders for the Systems Challenge were Matt Leighninger, Executive Director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and Will Friedman, Executive Vice President of Public Agenda.

Six months before the conference, we used the online dialogue and collaborative proposal-writing tool CivicEvolution.org to engage the NCDD community around the 5 challenges.  Here is the summary of the discussion, prepared by 2008 conference planning team member Madeleine Van Hecke.

Summary of the Pre-Conference Online Dialogue on the Systems Challenge

Systems Challenge graphicThe “Systems Challenge” focuses on rooting the values and practices of dialogue and deliberation in our public and private systems (governance, schools, organizations, etc.) so that using more democratic methods of involving people, making decisions and solving problems can happen more naturally and more easily in such systems. Below is an outline of the great conversation we had at www.CivicEvolution.org

A. What makes it hard to root D&D values into larger systems?

  1. Lack of accessible language to communicate with others about D&D.
  2. Dysfunctional democratic institutions that impede genuine democracy.
  3. Educational systems that discourage inquiry and dialogue.
  4. Difficulty in making D&D practices used to address temporary issues standard practices.

B. What might help to root D&D values into larger systems?

  1. Envision what “success” in rooting D&D in larger systems would look like – and what the steps needed to achieve that would look like.
  2. Model D&D as a normative practice.
  3. Work to create structural changes in the system.
  4. Have a conference session to explore how people are using film and other media to introduce D&D ideas.
  5. Demonstrate that D&D practices can help solve a problem important to the system.
  6. Make D&D practices part of the professionals’ tool kit.
  7. Make D&D practices part of the ethical code of professionals.
  8. Make more people responsible for decision-making.
  9. Find ways to use technology to advance D&D without leaving behind those who are not part of the technological culture.
  10. Influence educational settings so that they encourage D&D practices and help students develop D&D values and principles.
  11. Encourage changes to make schools more humane and more conducive to students’ learning D&D principles.
  12. Ways to explore this challenge further in a conference session.

Full Summary

I. What makes it hard to root D&D values into larger systems?

A. Lack of accessible language to communicate with others about D&D

We need an accessible language (see Challenge B which deals directly with this need) in order to make D&D integral to other systems. Decision-makers won’t support the use of dialogue, facilitation, etc. until they experience “that heartfelt feeling that some essential (and heretofore missing) piece in the puzzle of their understanding has just slipped into place,” and for that to happen, we need “clear identity as a field” that is expressed in compelling and accessible language. (Brandon Williamscraig)

B. Dysfunctional democratic institutions that impede genuine democracy.

“We (NCDD) talk about democratic agencies and conversations as if they were not tainted” (but) “as long as governments represent the wealthy and powerful and dominant white cultural values, few people can have “access to, or a functional relationship with our government… we need to embed dialogue (not deliberation) into our institutions” in order to remove the sense of separateness and isolation and regain our sense of society as “an infinitely diverse totally interdependent occurrence held together by love.” How to do this? “There was a great model proposed in 5th century Athens, and Socrates gave his life for it.” (Rogier Gregoire)

“I’ve spent many an hour (and brew) contemplating the chicken or the egg question of democracy and D&D in a top-down culture. It probably calls for broadly democratic movements willing to put narrow agendas aside to build democratic culture and D&D literacy at the same time.” (Dennis Boyer)

C. Educational systems that discourage inquiry and dialogue.

“The misunderstanding or resistance to dialogue in the society is the result of a 100 years of social engineering in our schools (which is based on) an answer driven instructional model that discourages if not outright prohibits inquiry, essential to dialogue.” (Rogier Gregoire)

D. Difficulty in making D&D practices used to address temporary issues standard practices.

Most of the civic experiments that have emerged in the last decade have been temporary organizing efforts, mobilizing a diverse, critical mass of people to address an important public issue over a short period of time. (But) Even when they are successful … temporary efforts don’t often lead to structured, long-term changes in the way citizens and government interact. So “how can we ‘embed’ democratic principles in the work of our public institutions, so that deliberation and democratic governance become commonplace in the way that our communities (and countries) conduct their public business?” (Matt Leighninger)

Caveat about this challenge:

(Caveat from Jacob Hess) “While supporting the goal of making D & D integral to various systems, Jacob Hess reminds us that sometimes establishing an alternative approach separate from the dominant system is more effective than trying to integrate a new approach into a system which resists change and may dilute or distort that ‘authentic alternative’ – so let’s do ”both-and.”

II. What might help to root D&D values into larger systems?

A. Envision what “success” in rooting D&D in larger systems would look like – and what the steps needed to achieve that would look like.

“If we start by describing the desired state then we might have another way of describing this challenge and the title of the challenge… (would success be) when a town hires a Director of City-wide D&D to help people talk about their problems using D&D… Or is it “success” when they no longer need a position dedicated to D&D because it is so second nature, it is a pattern of behavior, the norm of the community and everyone has the skill to lead and/or participate? (Taylor Willingham)

B. Model D&D as a normative practice (rather than “convincing” systems to adopt D&D)

“If we are living D&D in our own practice and orgs and communities etc. then that introduces and models and becomes a norm of practice in a way that doesn’t focus on convincing.” Erin Kreeger reflects on her experience in coming out as a lesbian in high school and then being asked to educate others through speaking on panels and at conferences. She found that she “made a lot more progress by “being out” than “coming out.” … (that is) “When I treated me being a lesbian as something normal, it truly became more normal for other people.” Should we approach D&D in this way, as a “normal” way of relating/communicating?” (Erin Kreeger)

C. Work to create structural changes in the system

Matt Leighninger describes the structural changes that he believes necessary to have D&D that leads to action and policy change occur in our lives. Basically, it needs to be “an organized effort, staffed, structured, connected to decision-makers” – and to be sustained it needs “to be staffed more permanently, made politically legitimate, and incorporated into an updated legal framework for citizen participation.” (Matt Leighninger) Matt discusses this in this book Visions of Embeddedness, 2006, Vanderbilt University Press.

D. Have a conference session to explore how people are using film and other media to introduce D&D ideas.

“Documentaries often have D&D materials to support their media. For example, see Unnatural Causes, a film currently running on PBS: http://www.unnaturalcauses.org/. I would love to see a workshop at the conference on how people are using film to stimulate discussion” using guides based on D&D principles.” (Taylor Willingham)

E. Demonstrate that D&D practices can help solve a problem important to the system.

One way to introduce D&D into larger systems is to identify a “felt need” that D&D can address. Example: The problem of bullying is being addressed in some schools through what is essentially having children and teens experience a dialogic process. For a documentary film showing the teens in some of these sessions, see the clip entitled “Teen Files” at www.challengeday.org/our_program/videos.html (Madeleine Van Hecke)

F. Make D&D practices part of the professional’s tool kit.

For public administrators and policy analysts D&D could be regarded as a part of the professional toolkit and might also be installed in “best practices.” (Dennis Boyer)

G. Make D&D practices part of the ethical code of professionals

For those within regulated professions with codes of ethics or standards it may be worth the effort to expand the concepts of public input, open meetings, due process, and other procedure requirements to include more fully deliberative means of public governance interaction. (Dennis Boyer)

H. Make more people responsible for decision-making.

There might be ways to install D&D in employment relations, corporate social responsibility, and regulatory environments through enlarging deliberative obligations to broader categories of stakeholders, shareholders, and employees. (Dennis Boyer)

I. Find ways to use technology to advance D&D without leaving behind those who are not part of the technological culture

How do we insure the techno savvy advanced enable those without the means to participate fully in the conversations ? … Perhaps one year is devoted to making NCDD technologies available to as many populations as possible. (J. Allen Johnson)

J. Influence educational settings so that they encourage D&D practices and help students develop D & D values and principles

Explore what educational strategies D&D has that can be imported into an educational environment that supports transformation and encourage the spread of the “best educational” practices when these involve students learning the tools needed for D&D. Encourage “transformative changes in the teachers themselves in terms of how they view education, learning, children’s capabilities, etc.” (Patricia Boone-Edgerton Longoni)

Make sure that theses “best practices” represent efforts at transformation and that they they are sensitively adapted to the new situation. (Rogier Gregoire)

K. Encourage changes to make schools more humane and more conducive to students’ learning D&D principles.

These changes would include:

Improve the ability of teachers to collaborate openly in the management of classroom practice; rethink the design of the modern school in ways that lead to transformation from within, not imposed; implement a methodology for determining instructional effectiveness that is not based on everyone producing the same right answer; abandon competition as a motive for intellectual effort; promote civic sensibilities, fellowship, and communal responsibility as an aspect of instruction; support critical thinking and an an inquiry based pedagogy; question the assumptions and mythologies that promote and perpetuate racism, for one critical but practical policy. (Rogier Gregoire)

L. Explore this challenge further in a conference session

Have a conference session that focuses on how to introduce D&D into larger systems, including how to describe what D&D can do for that system that would make its value apparent to decision-makers.

Sample Questions to be addressed:

1) What are some effective ways to make more organizations aware of the benefits of D&D?

2) What keeps organizations from adopting these approaches (e.g., lack of confidence in their ability to implement some of the approaches?)

3) What can the D&D organization do to help the organizations address those obstacles?

4) What are some creative ways to use media (films, documentaries, a work of fiction, etc.) to illustrate D&D to newcomers?

5) What are some creative ways to get top-level decisions makers (e.g., CEO’s) in a situation where they personally experience the benefits of D&D?

6) When D&D has been adopted and made an integral part of a system, how did that happen? (Madeleine Van Hecke)

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