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Op-Ed by Steve Pyser in the Philadelphia Inquirer

This article was written as part of the “Democracy Communications Network,” a 2007-2009 project that encouraged leaders in deliberative democracy to periodically write op-eds and blog posts as part of larger, collaborative media campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of quality public engagement. Use the “Democracy Communications Network” tag to see the articles  written in association with this project.

This op-ed was published on Friday, October 26, 2007 in The Philadelphia Inquirer. The op-ed is also available at www.philly.com/inquirer/opinion/20071026_Citizens_must_bring_themselves_back_into_government.html.

Putting Citizens in the Center
By Steven N. Pyser

The November elections are just around the corner. Will you vote or wait for the “Main Event” – the presidential election of 2008?

What might be keeping you away from the voting booth? (a) powerful connected lobbyists achieve surprising results to your detriment, (b) your vote doesn’t matter against pay-to-play campaign contributions, (c) your citizen voice isn’t heard by a government impacting your daily life, (d) you feel disconnected from the entire process, (e) all the above.

This writing is a call for action for everyone that believes (or once believed) our democracy is a tool of positive change to make your community and country a better place.

Are there possibilities for change and unfulfilled promise in your community and country? Would you prefer a government that listened to ordinary citizens as part of governing? If so, read on.

Americans are fatigued by the loss of civility in politics and its contagious conflict. We the People are weary of logjams that hamper progress and permeate politics. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported in March 2007 that Americans feel increasingly estranged from their government and barely a third (34%) agree “most elected officials care what people like me think.”

Recent elections cloaked in partisan politics have pitted neighbor against neighbor and through careful calculus turned our land into a patchwork of red and blue.

Several years ago visionary Tom Atlee published an innovative book on citizen dialogue and deliberation, The Tao of Democracy, stating democracy was about “creating processes that allow people to empower themselves, not about Great Leaders saving the people.”

On Saturday, October 13th, 2007 presidential candidate Senator John Edwards spoke in Keene, New Hampshire. He called for creating “Citizen Congresses” of one million Americans in national deliberations on critical policy issues. Meeting every two years, they would offer our nation’s leaders advisory opinions on the challenges facing our country and trade-offs among different solutions. This writing is not an endorsement of Senator Edwards for president, but rather, a strong expression of support for his citizen centered approach.

New ways of successfully involving the public in governance are occurring in Canada, Britain and France. Public engagement has been successfully field-tested in communities across the United States. Recent documented accomplishments are available in The Journal of Public Deliberation (http://services.bepress.com/jpd/), National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (www.thataway.org) and The Deliberative Democracy Handbook: Strategies for Effective Civic Engagement in the 21st Century, John Gastil and Peter Levine (Editors).

Sharing ideas and information are not new to Americans. During one hot summer in our city of Philadelphia in 1776, a group of concerned, enlightened citizens met, suspended their political assumptions and through the spirit of dialogue created a lasting representative democracy model.

Research shows citizen participation through dialogue yields new and workable solutions. Dialogue is not a soon forgotten brief statement or question made at government call for public comment. Through dialogue, citizens engage in high quality conversations. It is the suspending of assumptions, shared inquiry and learning to think and reflect together that makes it powerful. Dialogue stands in stark contrast to the default political mode of debate — a beating down by argument with frequent attacks and interruptions.

The Philadelphia Inquirer and The University of Pennsylvania have delivered recognized public engagement programs that have energized the public and informed elected officials. As a strategic public involvement practitioner, I have worked on many of these local initiatives that touch the lives of our neighbors including Citizen Voices on Philadelphia’s Future (www.greatexpectations07.com). After each event, participants regularly approach me excited their voice was heard and are committed to next steps to help shape our future.

All stakeholders touched by government can benefit from the collective solutions created through public consultation. First, the government must be listening. Public engagement is neither a political issue nor should it become one. Senator Edwards’ “Citizen Congresses” idea must receive a fair hearing and not be summarily dismissed for political gain or a bump in the polls. It is easy to be dismissive. Politicians should offer their own plan for bringing the public back into governance if opposed to Edwards’ initiative.

Steven N. Pyser, J.D. is a strategic public involvement practitioner, speaker, author and attorney. He is Managing Editor of The Journal of Public Deliberation and member of the Editorial Board of the IAP2 International Journal of Public Participation. He can be reached at steve@thedialogue.net.

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