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Op-Ed by Mica Stark for Seacoast

This initiative was 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.

Published in the Portsmouth Herald on Sunday, December 14, 2008. Viewable at Seacoast Online at www.seacoastonline.com/articles/20081214-OPINION-812140316.

Tapping citizen input: Setting priorities, solving problems

December 14, 2008

The writer is the outreach and engagement director for the Carsey Institute and the Democracy Imperative at the University of New Hampshire. He is a former resident of Portsmouth and helped to start Portsmouth Listens.

By Mica Stark

The 2008 presidential election engaged record numbers of citizens in the democratic process. A record number of people voted across the country (more than 125 million) and in New Hampshire (more than 719,000) on Election Day. Throughout the election, polls found that voters were paying a lot of attention to the candidates and the campaign. Both campaigns, but particularly the Obama campaign, attracted record numbers of donors and active volunteers. In short, Americans were hyper-engaged in the election and this is good news for the health of our democracy.

President-elect Barack Obama will start his presidency facing historic challenges on many fronts. However, I think one of the largest challenges and opportunities he faces in the short and long term is how to involve and engage citizens with government in solving our collective problems. Historically, after Election Day, most citizens are left on the sidelines as spectators with little opportunity to shape the decisions being made on their behalf. Public Agenda’s president Ruth Wooden remarked after the election, “The problems we face as a nation are great, and we cannot afford to leave citizens out of solving them. The hugely effective grassroots organizing that took place during the election season ought to be mobilized to keep Americans engaged and learning. The vast majority of Americans would be happy to hear the message: ‘The election may be over, but your job as citizen isn’t done yet.'” I couldn’t agree more.

What might this look like? Fortunately, several national democracy building organizations have been working together on ways that the next administration can effectively engage citizens and strengthen democracy. Everyday Democracy, Demos and AmericaSpeaks recently released their recommendations in a new report, “An Agenda for Strengthening America’s Democracy.” They advocate for three broad efforts: establish a White House Office on Civic Engagement that works to increase collaboration among federal agencies and trains staff about the values and methods of public participation and collaborative government; convene national discussions to provide citizens with a voice in the policymaking process; and adopt policy reforms for increasing local participation in public life and eliminate obstacles to public engagement.

The 2008 Civic Health Index found that 80 percent of survey respondents support the idea of organized national discussions on critical issues and requiring Congress to incorporate the findings of the discussion. To be clear, national discussions would be highly organized and would require citizens’ investment of time. The discussions would provide policymakers with an independent, nonpartisan means of assessing the informed opinions and collective priorities of the American people; help public officials and the nation get past instinctive and adversarial positions on difficult questions and find pragmatic solutions to complex problems; and forge a stronger link between Americans and their government, while providing policy makers with positions that command wide public support.

Serious, integrated public engagement and deliberation efforts should not only be pursued by Obama, but they should also be pursued here in New Hampshire by Gov. John Lynch and state lawmakers. There are many good examples of organized citizen deliberations at the local level in New Hampshire. Portsmouth Listens has developed a strong partnership with the City Council and local citizens. In fact, Portsmouth Listens is often used by leading democracy organizations as one of the best examples of imbedded citizen engagement. And dozens and dozens of communities now have local energy committees that are working in concert with local public officials to address serious energy issues.

At the state level, we are in need of organized, statewide discussions on the major issues facing the state. The most pressing public policy issue facing New Hampshire is the state’s budget deficit and the slumping economy. Beyond needing to address the deficit in the current budget, the projected budget deficit in the coming years is an even larger problem. In Charlie Arlinghaus’ Union Leader column from Nov. 26, he wrote, “The legislative session will see many arguments and debates over raising taxes, cutting spending, finding new revenue sources, and changing the budget process.” This is true. There will be many ‘arguments’ about what to do about the budget, but how organized will it be and will citizens be involved in an organized fashion?

We have yet to have a serious, well-organized statewide deliberation to talk about what New Hampshire residents want and expect from our state government. There have been and are numerous efforts by interest groups to advocate for particular budget and tax positions. However, there has not been a serious, study-circle type deliberation that gets citizens’ thoughts for state spending, priorities and revenue.

It is high time that our state’s political, business and civic leaders — from all parties — work together to design a substantive deliberation process that engages hundreds of Granite Staters in the difficult task of setting budget priorities and how we are going to pay for those priorities. There are many proven and well-established processes to effectively engage citizens and public officials in this type of deliberation. Obama, Lynch and our other elected officials cannot and will not solve our problems alone. New Hampshire citizens and the American people need to be tapped to work with government, the private sector and the nonprofit sector to solve our collective problems.

DCN Topic 4: Strengthening the Relationship Between Citizens and Government

This was the fourth topic 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.

In the aftermath of an historic election, the Obama Administration is poised to move from a new and more democratic style of campaigning to a new and more democratic mode of governing. Already, an ambitious attempt to involve large numbers of citizens in the health care policy debate has been launched through the change.gov website (see http://change.gov/page/s/hcdiscussion).

NOW IS THE TIME for all of us who have expertise and experience in this area to make our voices heard. We urge you to join us in writing op-eds on this topic, giving your best ideas and drawing on the best examples of democratic governance that you know about. There are many possible questions and angles:

  • How should the new administration address the challenges and opportunities of democratic governance in the 21st Century?
  • Is the health care initiative a good step forward? (How might it be improved?)
  • Is the Agenda for Strengthening Our Nation’s Democracy a promising set of proposals?

More ideas and talking points are outlined below.

We encourage you to…

  1. Write an op-ed (or blog post) on this topic, giving your best ideas and drawing on the best examples of democratic governance that you know about. Feel free to use the ideas/talking points/fodder below, and our tips for writing op-eds.
  2. Submit your op-ed to your local papers, or get it posted to some blogs.
  3. Email your piece to Sandy Heierbacher at sandy@thataway.org so we can track what’s been submitted and published, and add it to the website.
  4. Also submit your piece on the Change.org transition website.

And if you’ve already written something along these lines and you’d like to see it posted here, send it on over!

If enough articles are written, we also hope to literally “hand them over” to our contacts on transition team, with a brief summary letter.

Op-Eds written/published so far…

A few ideas and talking points…

Use the comment field below to submit your own ideas for talking points!

Obama Quotes

  • “I will open the doors of government and ask you to be involved in your own democracy again.”
  • “This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.”
  • “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

Talking Points

“Public engagement” or “citizen engagement” is more than just getting people to vote and to volunteer in their communities. Government must also engage citizens in the policy decisions that affect their lives.

Our nation is at a unique point in its history. We face great, unprecedented challenges, but we also have remarkable opportunities for change. Now is the time to come together to advance the ideals that we all share.

There are many meaningful and exciting ways the new administration can build on the citizen engagement it began in the election campaign and carry it into governance.

A new civic engagement agenda signals a new way of governing.

Now is the time to broaden and deepen federal agencies’ commitment to public engagement. Federal agencies and officials should reach out to citizens and include them in policy making, strategy development, and service delivery.  This is not only important to the health of our democracy; it strengthens our country’s capacity to solve important public problems. Greater engagement and inclusion will improve decisions, reduce the risk of political gridlock on difficult questions, and increase the legitimacy of government action.

A healthy democracy needs the capacity to involve its citizens in key decisions. Government cannot be left to leaders, experts, and pundits with the public only weighing in on election day. People from all walks of life should be encouraged to wrestle with tough questions, seek common ground, and develop and articulate their views. Policymakers should see themselves as part of this larger process, not as a world unto themselves.

The government must build an infrastructure of participation that provides a voice for everyone in the policy making process.  True democracy requires ensuring that the voices of the powerful are not unduly elevated. Public, open and participatory processes are essential. We envision an America that practices people-centered governance.  One that actively seeks and genuinely values everyone’s participation.

Talking Points on the Idea of National Dialogues…

The new Administration should call for regular national discussions on the issues of highest public concern, like foreign policy, energy, taxes, health care, and jobs. Every citizen should have a seat at the table. National discussions could be another one of the signature initiatives of a new civic engagement agenda that signals a new way of governing.

More than 80 percent of the respondents in a recent survey expressed support for the idea of organized national discussions on critical issues. The sentiment was bipartisan: 60 percent of Republicans and 70 percent of Democrats described themselves as “strongly” in favor of the idea.

National discussions would:

  • Provide policy makers with an independent, non-partisan means of assessing the informed opinions and collective priorities of the American people
  • Help public officials – and the nation – get past instinctive (and often adversarial) positions on difficult questions
  • Dilute the influence of special interests and build political will for policymakers to act in the common good
  • Stimulate local and regional action on national problems by public agencies, private businesses, nonprofits and citizens themselves
  • Forge a stronger link between Americans and their government, while providing policy makers with positions that command wide public support

Initiatives You May Want to Promote or Mention…

The Agenda for Strengthening Our Nation’s Democracy

The Agenda, posted at www.americaspeaks.org/StrengtheningDemocracyAgenda, recommendations (among other things) establishing a White House Office of Civic Engagement, a call for regular national discussions, and a unique set of policy reforms to increase participation in public life. The Agenda was developed by a diverse group of 49 thinkers, advocates, and academics who came together from across the fields of electoral reform, deliberative democracy and community development. The three convening organizations were AmericaSpeaks, Everyday Democracy and Dēmos: A Network for Ideas.

The Transpartisan Alliance’s American Citizens Summit

In Denver, Colorado this February, the first-ever American Citizens’ Summit seeks to catalyze a nationwide, transpartisan partnership among citizens, organizations and businesses seeking to empower grassroots solutions to our nation’s most pressing challenges. Learn more at www.transpartisan.net.

Various Offices and Departments People are Calling For

There are many other initiatives out there you may want to mention in your op-eds. Many are being kept fairly private, but you may want to support the Peace Alliance’s ongoing campaign to establish a U.S. Department of Peace. You may want to write about Search for Common Ground and Rob Fersh’s idea of a U.S. Consensus Council. Tom Atlee of the Co-Intelligence Institute has called for a Department of Democracy, with offices such as an Office of Democratic Culture and an Office of Public Participation and Citizen Engagement, and that may be something you’d like to mention.

Report from NCDD 2008: Action & Policy Change Challenge

At the 2008 National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation, we focused on 5 challenges identified by participants at our past conferences as being vitally important for our field to address. This is one in a series of five posts featuring the final reports from our “challenge leaders.”

Action & Change Challenge: Strengthening the relationship between D&D and action and policy change.

How can we increase the likelihood that D&D engagement streams of “exploration,” “conflict transformation,” and “collaborative action” will result in community action? How can we increase the likelihood that the “decision making” engagement stream will result in policy change? What can we learn from promising D&D efforts that did not result in the action or policy change desired?

Challenge Leader:
Phil Mitchell, Director of the Greater Seattle Climate Dialogues


Report on the Action & Policy Challenge:

We are here to make the world a better place. Sometimes good process in itself is enough. Usually it is not. Usually good process must contest for power in places where power does not give up without a fight, ie., everywhere. What can we do to maximize the chance that our processes will bear fruit in terms of desired action and policy outcomes?


Session Materials from NCDD 2008

Please note: We are providing the following material in the format provided to us by the session leader. Most of the materials are MSOffice documents.

Materials from the Pre-Conference Trainings

Deliberative Democracy and Higher Education: A Workshop on Innovative Democratic Education and Leadership

Practicing What We Preach, presentation by Bruce Mallory [download file]
Venues for Democratic Leadership and Decision Making [download file]
Venues for Teaching and Learning Deliberative Democracy [download file]

Materials from the Concurrent Workshops

Attracting Conservative Citizens to Dialogue Events:
Liberal-Conservative Campus Dialogue & Mormon-Evangelical Interfaith Initiatives

Slide Presentation [download file]
Summary [download file]

Exploring How our Work in D&D Contributes to Social Change
Overview [download file]
D&D Handbook promo [download file]

University and College Centers as Platforms for Deliberative Democracy
Handout 1 [download file]
Handout 2 [download file]

How to Teach a Course on Deliberation
Presentation [download file]

Compassionate Listening: D&D from the Inside Out
The Five Practices of Compassionate Listening [download file]

Beyond the Tools: Applying D&D Principles to Online Engagement
Handout [download file]

Tools for Dealing with Uncertainty, Ambiguity, and Paradox: Reflective Methods for Group Development
Handout [download file]

How Can WE Revitalize Democracy with D&D? – Part 2
Notes from Workshop [download file]

Additional Materials

Closing Remarks by Harold H. Saunders, Chairman and President of the International Institute of Sustained Dialogue [download file]

November 5th Coalition

The November 5th Coalition was a collaborative initiative dedicated to using the 2008 presidential election as an opportunity to foster deliberation about how we can collectively mobilize the energies and talents of ordinary citizens to address our challenges. Those involved believed the campaign could be a watershed, where citizens reclaim their standing as partners of a government that is truly “of, by, and for the people.” The Coalition was named for the day after the election, when we hoped a new chapter in our civic work would begin – a partnership between voters and elected officials.

Sandy Heierbacher of NCDD was involved in this initiative, as was Harry Boyte of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Democracy and Citizenship, Peter Levine of CIRCLE of the University of Maryland, Cynthia Gibson and others affiliated with the Case Foundation, Will Friedman and others at Public Agenda, and more (listed below).

This resource remains as an archive. (more…)

Success Is What Counts: A Community Conversation to Help All Community College Students Achieve Choicework guide

Community colleges are often faced with the challenge of helping students who are struggling to overcome the many difficulties they often face. This 2008 Public Agenda Choicework guide explores the question: How can the college and the community work together to close achievement gaps and help all students succeed?

Based on decades of research and experience concerning how average citizens think and talk about issues, Public Agenda’s Choicework Discussion Starters are designed to help groups and communities talk productively about public problems. Public Agenda’s Choicework guides and Discussion Starters outline several different approaches to solving specific public policy problems, along with the pros, cons and trade-offs of each choice. They use everyday language, not professional jargon, and focus on the kinds of concerns and values that non-experts can readily understand.

Resource Link: http://www.publicagenda.org/files/pdf/ATD_Success.pdf

Framing for Deliberation

This 2008 working paper written by Alison Kadlec and Will Friedman for Public Agenda shares the preliminary results of research they are conducting to learn about the impacts of different types of issue framing on the capacity and willingness of diverse groups of individuals to engage in productive dialogue and deliberation about complex issues. The research builds on and tests ideas presented in Will Friedman’s article “Reframing Framing,” in which Friedman distinguishes between typical media framing that presents issues in dualistic ways (debate style) and efforts made by organizations like Public Agenda to frame issues in ways that clarify a range of positions and trade-offs involved in any proposed solution to a problem (what Public Agenda calls “Citizen Choicework”). Their research is aimed at challenging the mainstream preoccupation with issue framing as the domain of power politics (e.g., partisan and interest group competition for citizen allegiance through persuasive framing), by exploring how different approaches to issue framing might impact people’s ability to understand and grapple more or less effectively with difficult public problems.

Resource Link: http://www.publicagenda.org/files/pdf/CAPE%20Working%20Paper%20Framing%20for%20Deliberation.pdf

To read Kadlec and Friedman’s 2009 paper on issue framing for deliberation, check out Beyond Debate: Impacts of Deliberative Issue Framing on Group Dialogue and Problem Solving.

Channel Political Energy into Renewed Activism

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

Succession planning in organizations is well-represented in theory, but lacking in practice. For more than a year, our country has enjoyed an impressive escalation and excitement with civic participation, especially connected with the presidential and congressional races. Most of us see this adrenaline rush to engage continuing through the political party conventions up to the November election. Why don’t we right now get to work on a plan for citizen engagement that remains active and elevated beyond November? What are the citizen endeavors we can ramp up to keep up the momentum?

If you have renewed enthusiasm for public work, or if you currently are leading new civic activists, spend some time thinking about the initiatives that will need this energy when the campaign tents are folded. Former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards had a plan for a Citizens’ Congress. Let’s push for something like what he described and create a habit of citizen deliberation around public policies that doesn’t fizzle or idle until the next campaign. We can do better.

Margaret E. Holt

This short Letter to the Editor by Margaret Holt was published in the Athens Banner-Herald (Athens, Georgia) on June 25, 2008. It can currently be viewed online at www.onlineathens.com/stories/062508/letters_20080625036.shtml.

The letter was also published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on June 27, 2008, and can be viewed at www.ajc.com/opinion/content/printedition/2008/06/27/lettsed.html.

An Open Letter to PdF Participants

This Open Letter for Personal Democracy Forum (PdF) participants was written by Matt Leighninger in June 23, 2008 – right before the PdF conference. It can also be found at www.personaldemocracy.com/blog/entry/1964/an_open_letter_to_pdf_participants.

Welcome to the Table of Power, Bloggers: Are you democratic revolutionaries or just another interest group?

Dear bloggers, online activists, Internet advocates, and digital journalists:

You’ve arrived. No matter what else happens between now and November 5th, with this election you can lay claim to a permanent place at the political table. It is abundantly clear that the ways in which candidates raise money, recruit volunteers, and reach voters have been irrevocably changed by your online work.

It has received less attention, but you’ve also arrived in local politics. The ways in which people meet their neighbors, talk about public problems and opportunities, organize activities, and interact with local officials have also changed irrevocably.

Those local efforts are part of a larger democratic transition (as I wrote about in The Next Form of Democracy) that is reshaping the relationship between citizens and government. Ordinary people are more capable, confident, and skeptical than ever before. Citizens may have less time for public life, but they bring more knowledge and skills to public problem-solving. They feel more entitled to the services and protection of government, and yet have less faith that government will be able to deliver on those promises. They are less connected to community affairs, and yet they seem better able to find the information, allies, and resources they need to affect an issue or decision they care about. Online communication has greased the skids for all of these changes. Overall, 21st Century citizens seem better at governing, and worse at being governed, than ever before.

In response to these trends, local officials and other kinds of leaders (including online organizers and activists) are attempting many different civic experiments – some successful, some not – to help their communities function more democratically and more effectively. In the last ten years, these kinds of projects have proliferated dramatically, allowing hundreds and sometimes thousands of citizens to address policy issues such as race, crime, education, corrections, immigration, growth and sprawl, youth development, public finance, community-police relations, and economic development. (For some of these stories, see http://helpline.deliberative-democracy.net/ or www.everydaydemocracy.org.)

The best examples of these efforts employ four successful principles:

  1. They recruit people by reaching out through the various groups and organizations to which they belong, in order to assemble a large and diverse “critical mass” of citizens.
  2. They involve those citizens in a combination of small- and large-group discussions: structured, facilitated small groups (either online or face-to-face or both) for informed, deliberative dialogue; and large forums for amplifying shared conclusions and moving from talk to action.
  3. They give the people who participate the opportunity to compare values and experiences, and to consider a range of views and policy options.
  4. They effect change in a number of ways: by applying citizen input to policy and planning decisions; by encouraging change within organizations and institutions; by creating teams to work on particular action ideas; by inspiring and connecting individual volunteers; or all of the above.

Your skills and imagination could propel this shift even further, helping to meet some of the interesting challenges and opportunities that emerge as citizens take more active roles in governance. The Internet holds immense potential not just as a forum for discussion, but as:

  • A vehicle for tracking and measuring public engagement processes. Online platforms could track questions such as: How many people are participating? How diverse and representative are they? Are they satisfied with how the process is going?
  • A force for accountability. Online systems could help people answer questions like: How was citizen input used by public officials on a particular policy decision or plan? Have community organizations of various kinds – neighborhood associations, nonprofits, businesses – made decisions or taken action on the issue? Have individual citizens volunteered their time to help address a public problem?
  • A way to make public discussion more civil and productive. Groups like e-democracy.org, Ascentum, e-thepeople, and Information Renaissance have developed online platforms that use a variety of techniques (moderation, facilitation, no anonymous participants, etc.) to ensure respect and civility, and that focus the conversation on points where citizens can gain the greatest traction.

So you clearly have the capacity, in these and many other ways, to accelerate and amplify this shift toward more democratic forms of governance. Online technology can bring the political system closer to the people, can dramatically enlarge the number and diversity of people who participate in public life, and can help them participate in much more intensive and productive ways.

On the other hand, simply making more information available online, and providing more arenas for people to comment on it, is unlikely to produce these changes, or even to support them in a significant way. Online commentators could simply become another chattering class, another set of voices trying to pressure public officials and dig out damning details. Without attending to the other elements of successful democratic governance – recruitment, deliberation, facilitation, action planning, etc. – the democratic impact of the new technology may be positive but limited.

Making politics more “open” is a terrific priority – but if that’s all you do, then you’ll just be making a space for yourselves at the political table and not welcoming in the people with less time, less education, less confidence, less faith in government and community, and/or a lower level of technological skills. It is a pattern repeated often in American history: one group gets into the smoke-filled room, then closes the door on the others following behind.

Your response to this may be: “So what! We’re opening things up – if people don’t care enough to participate, we’ll govern without them!” If so, it would be helpful to say this now; it would clarify that online commentators and activists constitute a powerful new interest group in American politics.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think that’s what you want. The alternative – clarifying the role you want to play as democratic revolutionaries – will require more attention to what is happening on the ground in local politics, not just what is happening in the ether of the presidential campaign.

Matt Leighninger
Deliberative Democracy Consortium

3rd DCN Topic: Two Momentous Civic Opportunities

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

For our third round in June and July, 2008, members of the Democracy Communications Network are writing about one of two momentous civic opportunities that could engulf or enrich our democracy:

  1. The Internet has revolutionized campaigning; how might it revolutionize governance?
  2. British conservatives are using civic themes and citizen engagement to fuel their revival; can American conservatives (or liberals) do the same?

Articles, blog posts and op-eds on these topics:

Background, resources, and ideas for writing on these topics:

Several historic civic opportunities have emerged during this historical presidential campaign. These are critical chances to strengthen our governments, our political parties, and our democracy; if we miss them, we risk a period of disillusionment, disempowerment, and alienation that would deal a serious blow to our democracy-building efforts of the last decade.

Members of the Democracy Communications Network (DCN) have unique experiences and expertise to draw from in answering these critical challenges. You have the credibility and authority to raise awareness of these opportunities and how we might best meet them. We hope to help you get your voices heard in the national discussion.

The DCN was created to amplify and disseminate key messages about democracy through op-eds, blogs, radio, and other communications channels. We chose John Edwards’ Citizen Congress plan as a focus of our first round of writing, and we collectively were able to get 21 pieces published in various newspapers and blogs. Race and democracy – in the wake of the King anniversary and the Wright controversy – was our second topic, and those articles are still trickling in (please let us know if you have published a piece that we may not know about).

Write About a Momentous Civic Opportunity

For the third round (June and July) we’re asking you to write about one of the two momentous civic opportunities – described in further detail below – that could engulf or enrich our democracy:

  1. The Internet has revolutionized campaigning; how might it revolutionize governance?
  2. British conservatives are using civic themes and citizen engagement to fuel their revival; can American conservatives (or liberals) do the same?

[Do you have a third? Do you disagree with either of the two above? Good! Please feel free to challenge this list, both with other DCN members and in the pieces you write.]

We are hoping that you will write some kind of op-ed, blog post, or letter to the editor of your local newspaper. As with our earlier efforts, the point of this would be:

  • NOT necessarily to endorse a candidate or an idea put forward by a candidate (though of course, those kinds of decisions are up to you).
  • To make the point that both presidential candidates should be putting out specific proposals (not just vague language) about how they think citizens and government should work together to make decisions and solve problems.
  • To highlight the work that you, and others like you, are already doing – candidate’s proposals should build on these existing examples of democratic governance.

1. The Internet has revolutionized campaigning; how might it revolutionize governance?

In his recent Atlantic Monthly article (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200806/ambinder-obama), Marc Ambinder argued that “some of the best-known presidents in U.S. history have stood at the vanguard of past communications revolutions—and that a few have used those revolutions not only to mobilize voters and reach the White House but also to consolidate power and change the direction of politics once they got there.” Ambinder acknowledges that Senator Obama is at the forefront of this trend. Senator McCain is scrambling to catch up, however; it seems clear that, whoever wins in November, this will be the first presidential campaign in which the Internet has played a truly central role.

This could have unexpected consequences after Election Day. Ambinder argues that online campaigning has further fuelled voters’ expectations and capacities – it has strengthened their claims to play a role in governing. But is Obama (or McCain) prepared to accommodate this unprecedented volume of online interest or access?

Online governance will require different uses of the technology than online campaigning.
“Today Obama is like a brand, his campaign like a $250 million company, and the voters like customers; the persuasion flows one way,” Ambinder says.

“Technology has concentrated a fair amount of political power in hubs outside Washington. But Washington has not harnessed that power successfully. If Obama wins, and if he can harness the Web as a unifying force once the voting is done, he could be a powerful president indeed—the kind that might even deliver on some of the audacious promises that Obama the candidate has made. But the Web, like the politics it seeks to transform, is unruly and fickle. The online networks that have turbocharged Obama’s candidacy could end up hemming him in, and even stalling his agenda, as president.”

Do you have experiences or expertise with online civic engagement, or with trying to coordinate online with face-to-face efforts, that would help illuminate this challenge and opportunity?

2. British conservatives are using civic themes and citizen engagement to fuel their revival; can American conservatives (or liberals) do the same?

People sometimes assume that Obama is the ‘civic candidate,’ but McCain has used the same kind of language about democracy and citizenship, both in this campaign and in his 2000 effort. Neither candidate has been specific enough about how he would involve citizens differently to stake sole claim to this territory.

David Brooks points out in a recent New York Times op-ed that the key to a Republican resurgence might be to follow the lead of their counterparts in Britain. The British Conservative Party, which won a string of electoral victories in May, has been trumpeting “community, relationships, civic engagement and social responsibility.” “These conservatives are not trying to improve the souls of citizens,” writes Brooks. “They’re trying to use government to foster dense social bonds. They want voters to think of the Tories as the party of society while Labor is the party of the state. They want the country to see the Tories as the party of decentralized organic networks and the Laborites as the party of top-down mechanistic control.”

“The Conservative Party has spent a lot of time thinking about how government should connect with citizens. Basically, everything should be smaller, decentralized and interactive. They want a greater variety of schools, with local and parental control. They want to reverse the trend toward big central hospitals. Health care … is as much about regular long-term care as major surgery, and patients should have the power to construct relationships with caretakers, pharmacists and local facilities.”

This new focus has appealed to British voters. “The Conservatives have successfully ‘decontaminated’ their brand. They’re offering something in tune with the times.” Should McCain try something similar? Should Obama? Can either go as far, as effectively, as the British Conservatives in describing how they want citizens to have different roles in education, health care, and other areas?

How might decentralization and increased local control contribute to citizen involvement work? How might it hurt? Do you have experiences or expertise on this topic that you can share?

Please remember to send a copy of your work, noting the target publication or blog, to sandy@thataway.org. All pieces related to this effort will be posted on the NCDD website. And don’t forget to look over the tips for writing op-ed articles at http://ncdd.org/rc/item/4911.

Next Topic: Maintaining Democracy’s Presence in the Media

In August and September, writers in the Democracy Communications Network will tackle another set of issues, including: “The presidential campaign is generating colossal numbers of voters, donors, and volunteers; what kind of civic infrastructure do we need to accommodate these people after the election?” Your suggestions are welcomed for this and other upcoming rounds of writing.