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Op-Ed by Mica Stark for Union Leader

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.

Published by the Manchester, New Hampshire on October 24, 2007. View the article at unionleader.com.

Americans yearn for a more collaborative democracy

By MICA STARK

Increasingly, Americans are retreating from politics and public life. Whether it is partisan gridlock, money and politics, the role of special interests, or lack of trust in our elected officials, Americans are not happy with the current state of our democracy.

In many ways, the New Hampshire primary represents a hopeful time for voters of all political stripes as we seek to find a candidate that will effectively change and address the problems our country is facing.

For good reason, the Iraq war is dominating the 2008 presidential primary debate. Health care, the environment and education are also receiving considerable attention by the Republican and Democratic candidates, and by voters.

However, this month Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards delivered one of the more important speeches of the cycle thus far on the health and state of our democracy. Speaking in Keene, Edwards called for the creation of a Citizen Congress that every two years will convene one million Americans in national discussions on issues of high public concern.

The Citizen Congress will offer our nation’s leaders advisory opinions on the challenges facing our country and the trade-offs among different solutions. These convenings will combine local town halls with the latest technology to create true national discussions amongst the American people, unfiltered by interest groups.

While the merits of Edwards’ proposal need to be debated, the issue of how the public can be more involved in policymaking and governance should be front and center during the primary, and voters should be pressing all the candidates, on both sides, for their specific ideas in how they see citizens participating and partnering with the next administration in solving our collective problems.

Many of the presidential candidates have offered up good, substantive plans to expand opportunities for Americans to perform community service. While we need to continue to expand and encourage community service, we also need our leaders to tap the skills and experience of the citizenry to address our political challenges — to invite them to be part of the solution. After election day, most citizens are left on the sidelines as spectators with little opportunity to shape the decisions being made on their behalf.

Across the globe, public leaders have begun advocating new means of involving citizens in governance. Most notably, newly elected British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced a new program to regularly convene the British people in deliberations on issues like health care, education and public safety. Here in New Hampshire, one can look at Portsmouth, where a group of citizens, organized under the name of Portsmouth Listens, has effectively partnered with local government leaders to bring more citizen voice into decision making. It is the way government now operates in Portsmouth.

And the University of New Hampshire’s Co-Operative Extension program has worked with some 70 towns on “community profiles” — deliberative events that bring citizens into discussion with local leaders around substantive, local issues such as planning, transportation and schools.

As chronicled in Matt Leighninger’s book “The Next Form of Democracy,” communities across the country are moving to a shared governance model. The result is greater citizen participation, better collaboration with leaders and sound political decision making. There is a quiet but growing civic renewal movement at the local level, and it is time that all the presidential candidates offer their ideas on ways that citizens can participate in governance.

The strongest argument in defense of the New Hampshire primary is that we take politics very seriously and we challenge the presidential candidates to explain their positions on a range of issues. New Hampshire voters ask tough questions and force the candidates to engage in retail politics. In short, citizens are at the center of the primary, and we play an important role in the overall nominating process of our Presidents.

It is in this spirit that New Hampshire voters need to press the candidates on their plans to create meaningful opportunities for citizens to work together to solve our collective problems. The next President cannot and will not solve our problems alone. The American people need to be tapped to work with government, the private sector and the nonprofit sector to accomplish this.

Mica Stark of New Boston is founding chairman of City Year New Hampshire’s board of directors.

Op-Ed by Kathryn Liss for Asheville (OR) Citizen Times

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.

An idea is percolating up in America – the idea that citizens should have a greater role in making public policy. It’s been tried and tested boldly in communities across the country, locally with the Asheville – Buncombe VISION Dialogues. Now, a Presidential candidate has picked up the idea and has declared it’s time to move these ideas to the center of the American process of self-government. John Edwards has declared in Keene, NH on Oct 13 that he will, if elected, create Citizen Congresses based on the town hall concept every two years to tackle the toughest problems we face.

In a March 2007 poll by The Pew Charitable Trusts, only 34% of Americans said that they believe government “cares about what people like me think.” I think in Asheville there are government bodies and individuals that care what people think. I think we need a process for allowing those thoughts to be heard, a way to find common ground and to build on that. One of the most interesting opportunities I had while working for The Mediation Center years ago was working with private and non-profit developers to figure out how to apportion money for affordable housing. City Council was happy to adopt the guidelines this group came up with. Too often we don’t take the time at the front end to share information among stakeholders and build a common understanding of the issues before making decisions.

Since returning to Asheville after a 5 year sojourn to Maryland I am pleased to see a new initiative, the Asheville HUB starting up to address our regional issues in a coordinated fashion. I am also distressed to read in the media how often people feel that those in Council are not reflecting the needs of the greater population, but rather the moneyed interests.

Five years ago when I left, Asheville was in the middle of a series of forums called VISION Dialogues. I know that there were changes made a result of those conversations, particularly around public transportation. This weekend I was at LEAF and saw the Black Mountain/Asheville bus service which did not exist before the Dialogue on transportation. I know that there were other innovations which happened as a result of those dialogues and there are probably more that have yet to be realized but which were initiated after hearing what the people had to say.

Often decisions can be acceptable to a larger number of people when we have the opportunity to understand each other’s point of view, find the common ground and come to a mutually satisfactory agreement. I hope that Asheville will continue to use facilitated processes which invite all of its citizens to participate in making recommendations for how to move forward in a coordinated way meeting the needs of a greater number of people in the community and helping us to understand each other better.

Kathryn Liss

Tips for Writing Op-Eds on National Issues Forums

On October 15th, 2007 David Mathews (president of the Kettering Foundation) sent the following message to Directors and Alumni of the National Issues Forums Institute. NCDD’s Sandy Heierbacher was serving on the NIFI Board of Directors, so she received this message.  We shared this message as part of the 2007-2009 Democracy Communications Network project, which encouraged leaders in public engagement to write op-eds and letters to the editor on a coordinated basis to increase our collective impact.
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Editorial Prepared for Adaptation by National Issues Forums Institute

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.

Response to Sen. Edwards’ speech this past Saturday endorsing a Citizen Congress
Monday, October 15 2007

This past Saturday in a campaign speech in Keene, New Hampshire, Sen. John Edwards unveiled his “One Democracy” initiative. Several elements of that speech deserve broad attention and not just from those who support Sen. Edwards’ candidacy. We should judge candidates by the same standards we use for physicians. From both, we expect first an accurate diagnosis of what’s wrong—particularly when the symptoms indicate a serious disease—and then a compelling and realistic prescription about what should be done. On both scores, Sen. Edwards deserves high marks, especially in his endorsement of a deliberative Citizen Congress as a means of inviting the public back into the policy process.

First, regarding Edwards’ assessment of the problem this nation faces: Reiterating the message that “The American people are sick and tired of business as usual,” Edwards’ speech underlined the severity of the problem. Recent polls provide a measure of public dissatisfaction. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll shows a 33 percent approval rating for President Bush, a new low, and an even lower 29 percent approval rating for Congress. A July CBS News/NYT poll showed that only about 24 percent of the public is inclined to trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time”—a sharp decline from 55% percent registered in 2001 soon after September 11.

There is also widespread concern about legislative gridlock regarding some of the nation’s pressing concerns—America’s role in Iraq and the Middle East generally, the future of the healthcare system, the federal debt, and other issues. At a time when many are convinced that the nation is moving in the wrong direction, the most revealing indicator of what’s wrong is that most Americans feel they’re shut out of the political process. A March 2007 poll conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that only 34 percent of Americans agree that “government cares about what people like me think.”

These are signs of a deep and pervasive problem. In Sen. Edwards’ words, most Americans are “sick and tired” of business as usual. We have no way to wrestle with issues of grave concern—jobs, taxes, healthcare, Iraq—and no way to express our considered views about them. Most elected officials show little indication that they’re willing to listen to the public after the elections are over. This is a broken model of politics. To fix it, we need fresh thinking and bold measures—above all, new ways of involving the public.

Turning to his prescription about what should be done, Sen. Edwards’ “One Democracy Initiative” is a proposal to “return Washington to regular people.” It involves a three-pronged approach, which would reduce the influence of lobbyists, among other measures. The most notable feature is Edwards’ proposal to take the public’s deliberative voice seriously by asking a million citizens to participate in biennial Citizen Congresses. As Edwards describes them, they would consist of “national town hall meetings where regular Americans tackle issues together.”

In his endorsement of deliberative forums, Sen. Edwards mentioned several projects that have given citizens a voice in community solutions, including deliberative forums in nearby Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He might also have mentioned what we have done here in [town name], in a series of forums—conducted as part of the nationwide National Issues Forums network—on topics that include [the public debt, other recent forum topics].

These deliberative forums, which have been a regular part of this community’s civic life over the past [how many] years, are hard work and they are not a cure-all. But they do make a difference and they’re different from most public conversations. These nonpartisan forums focus on issues and common concerns, not personalities or party differences. We don’t necessarily reach agreement about what should be done. But these forums do identify common concerns and common values—no small achievement at a time when legislatures are gridlocked, and few people in elective office are able to bridge partisan differences.

On some issues, these local deliberations have been eye opening and horizon expanding. On other issues, the forums help people to move beyond a narrow sense of self-interest to a more inclusive view of common interests and common goals. In doing so, they have created openings for broadly acceptable public solutions—common ground for public acting.

The National Issues Forums network as a whole, which has been in place for 27 years, has involved hundreds of thousands of people in communities across the country. It provides a rejoinder to those who dismiss public deliberation as impractical and unrealistic—something that most Americans seem to have neither the time nor the inclination to take seriously. If you want to understand the value of deliberative meetings, talk to the people who have taken part in our community forums. The NIF experience bears out the hope that something like the Citizen Congress that Sen. Edwards has endorsed is realistic and long overdue. It is about time national candidates recognize that public deliberation deserves a prominent place on any list of prescriptions about how to fix the political system.

In Sen. Edwards’ proposal, the Citizen Congress would link town hall meetings in various communities, creating a different kind of public conversation in which various proposals and policies would be discussed, along with their costs and consequences. As long as public officials pay serious attention to what comes out of these forums, that’s a step in the right direction. But it’s only a first step. If local forums don’t engage people in serious deliberation, it could amount to little more than a high-tech opinion poll.

At a time of legislative gridlock when the public feels little confidence in its leaders, and most people are convinced that they are shut out of the policy process, it’s high time for new initiatives that involve the public in many ways. The National Issues Forums network has been in business for more than a quarter century. This is no longer a start-up enterprise or a shaky experiment. It is a model that works, a means of engaging citizens in real discussions about serious public concerns. Let’s build on this success story to restore the public to its rightful place in public life. Sen. Edwards’ initiative is a step in the right direction. But it’s just one step toward recognizing what needs to be done if we are to give citizens an authentic voice in the debate about America’s future.

Op-Ed by Phil Neisser for the Watertown Daily Times (upstate NY)

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.

Developing Your Voice

For years politicians have been invoking the voice of the people. “I will listen,” they say. Unfortunately, what they often hear, if they really do listen, is “you seem right to me” or “you did a bad job; you’re out.” As a result, what gets said in political campaigns is often not connected to what happens in government. Policies mostly get made by well-organized, well-funded, elites (some aligned with one party, some with the other), and elections tend to function as little more than legitimacy-conferring, feel-good events.

Perhaps in response, last Saturday presidential candidate John Edwards, speaking in New Hampshire, pledged that he would, if elected, convene a “citizen congress” every two years. Meetings of this kind (also called citizen juries and citizen deliberative councils) are already in use in quite a few American cities and towns and also play a significant role in several European countries. The concept is simple, even if the work is hard: randomly selected citizens gather, deliberate over the course of several days on a pressing issue, and, at the end, issue an advisory opinion of some kind. Facilitators help run the meetings and experts provide testimony, but it’s the citizen “jurors” who run the show.

Such meetings were common in Rochester, N.Y., in the years leading up to World War I. Local public schools turned into “social centers” in the evenings. Hundreds of citizens gathered at each center. They decided what to talk about, invited relevant guests, heard them out, debated, and sent a statement of their position to the City Council.

More recently, in December of 1994, after fatal shootings at two Boston abortion clinics, local leaders asked three pro-life and three pro-choice activists if they would meet and talk to each other, in order to defuse tension. They reluctantly agreed, and, to their surprise, proceeded to meet regularly for almost seven years. None of them changed their minds about abortion, but they did develop a deep respect for each other, and they now describe the experience as life-changing.

This makes sense. “We the people” are, after all, many people, with different ideas, concerns, experiences, and types of knowledge. When we encounter each other, in real discussions, amazing things can and do happen. We develop new understandings across borders and find common ground. We discover profound areas of disagreement, but we get to know each other better. And we come to know more about the issues of the day. As a result, we speak with more authority to politicians. We make democracy more real.

Person to person dialogue about pressing issues also cultivates community and weakens violence, not because people agree, but because they come to recognize each other’s humanity. Such recognition is badly needed in this age of terror, where people (us included) often make other people into abstractions, or declare them evil through and through, as if they’re totally unlike us, as if they’re bad guys in a cartoon.

Unfortunately, cross-border conversations are rare. Instead we tend to talk with people we already agree with. We ask questions and let the leaders do the talking. Or we say our piece at a public hearing, write a letter, yell at somebody, and watch others yell. None of this is bad, but it’s not democratic conversation.

On the other hand, the voice of the people sometimes rises to the occasion. For this to become business as usual, we the people have to take voice lessons. We do not need to sing in harmony, but to make noise with each other and listen to each other. And not just with family, friends, neighbors, and like-minded Internet surfers.

Can Edwards really change anything? Not on his own. But it seems likely that he means business. He’s not the front-runner. He has nothing to gain from being careful. And he clearly has a populist bent. I suggest we take him at his word. I suggest we learn more about what he’s talking about, and we push him on this issue.

Whether or not Edwards is elected, citizen congresses are a good idea, as we need to find ways to communicate better across the various borders that divide us, be they those of philosophy, religion, party, interest, race, or what-have-you. We need, then, to push every candidate and our elected representatives to move us in that direction.

Phil Neisser, Professor of Politics at SUNY Potsdam, is Co-Editor of Tales of the State and author of a forthcoming book about disagreement in America.

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.

Op-Ed by Doug Crocker for the Orange County Register

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.

On Saturday, 10/11, John Edwards announced his “One Democracy Initiative”, acknowledging that two political systems exist in America today – one for powerful interests and one for the rest of us. In this initiative, Edwards recognizes the wisdom of ordinary citizens and commits to a details list of reforms that promise to give back to these citizens, control over the decisions that shape their lives.

Edwards should be applauded for this commitment and his initiative deserves the attention and support of every one of us as we head in to the 2008 election cycle and decide who is worthy of leading America in the years ahead.

Doug Crocker

Op-Ed by Archon Fung in the Boston Globe

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 in the Boston Globe on October 16, 2007, and can be found online at www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2007/10/16/a_citizen_congress/.

A Citizen Congress

By Archon Fung | October 16, 2007

DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL candidate John Edwards unveiled a “One Democracy” initiative last week to enlarge the role of ordinary Americans in politics. The “Citizen Congress” is the most original part of this policy. If elected, he would convene millions of Americans in town halls throughout the country every other year to deliberate and advise public leaders on difficult issues such as healthcare, poverty, and foreign affairs.

The idea that government should talk directly to citizens about political issues, and that citizens should talk to each other, has the potential to reinvigorate American democracy. Citizen participation through influential assemblies such as Citizen Congresses would address three critical failings of the political system.

First, people often have conflicting values, contradictory preferences, and misinformed views. Many want both low taxes and good schools, healthcare, and smooth roads. Well-organized deliberations can provide citizens with accurate, balanced information and help people reach what Daniel Yankelovich called sound “public judgment.” Through deliberation, citizens with conflicting priorities and views can come to appreciate the reasons and arguments of the other side.

In a prelude to the current healthcare debate, for example, the state of Oregon expanded its public health insurance program to cover many more low-income families several years ago. With limited funds, however, Oregonians faced important trade-offs: should kidney replacement, end-of-life therapy, or preventative care take priority?

Instead of settling the matter by legislative wrangling or some back-room deal between patient advocates and health industry lobbyists, hundreds of Oregonians met in an extended series of community meetings. Values such as maintaining quality of life and preventing diseases emerged as priorities. In part because the citizens’ recommendations guided the subsequent healthcare plan, it enjoyed a level of public support that eluded Senator Hillary Clinton in the 1990s and other would-be healthcare reformers since.

Second, the political system produces many laws and policies that favor a few special interests at the expense of the majority of Americans: manufacturers over consumers; those in the education business over students and parents; medical providers and insurers over patients and their families; and politicians over voters. With the rules governing elections, voters have an interest in creating competitive elections to motivate candidates to represent them well. Sitting politicians have a strong interest in creating rules such as electoral district boundaries that get them reelected. In part because politicians, not voters, make the rules of democracy, congressional incumbents who seek reelection win 98 percent of the time.

When the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Ontario sought to reform their electoral systems recently, they created Citizens’ Assemblies to develop new voting rules rather than having politicians decide. The British Columbia Assembly had 160 members and 103 people participated in the Ontario Assembly. In both cases, members were randomly selected, like juries in the United States. Each assembly met for several months. Their final recommendations were not merely advisory; they went straight to voters in popular referendums.

Third, Americans increasingly distrust their political system and find it illegitimate. In a March 2007 poll by The Pew Charitable Trusts, only 34 percent of Americans said that they believe government “cares about what people like me think,” down from 47 percent in 1987. According to a July 2007 CBS News/NYT Poll, the percentage of Americans who thinks you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time” has declined to 24 percent in 2007 from around 75 percent in the early 1960s. In 1969, only 29 percent of Americans agreed that “the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves” rather than “for the benefit of all.” By 2004, that figure had risen to 56 percent.

If they become prominent and credible, Citizen congresses and assemblies have the potential to help connect Americans to their government and increase trust in public institutions. If Americans see each other deliberating sensibly about critical issues and public leaders heed what they say, it will be palpable evidence that government really does care about what ordinary people think.

Political leaders in Canada, Britain, Brazil, and many other countries have already recognized the potential of public participation and instituted important new ways for citizens to influence government. Rather than being the world leader in democracy, America is lagging behind in its democratic imagination and ingenuity. Edwards’s proposal marks an important, if modest, step to catch up. Perhaps it will empower ordinary Americans in the political process and, eventually, make America an example of democracy that is truly worth following.

Archon Fung is an associate professor of Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. His recent books include “Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency” and “Empowered Participation: Reinventing Urban Democracy.”

Op-Ed by Peter Muhlberger for the Dallas Morning News

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.

America faces serious and intractable problems. These include the Iraq War, climate change, unsustainable budget deficits, a health care system in crisis, global competition for jobs, and dependence on foreign energy. The public blames political leaders for deadlock on these issues, but leaders cannot tackle issues that require real sacrifices when the public is as divided or uncertain as they are on these issues.

Across the globe, public leaders are finding new ways to involve the public to address difficult problems. This past weekend, presidential contender John Edwards, expanding on Ross Perot before him, announced a program of government reform that includes a Citizen Congress. This would be a Congress of one million citizens, connected by modern technologies, to be held every two years. Results of these citizen discussions would provide a potent new public input into government. Properly implemented, a Citizen Congress could help remedy deep problems facing the country currently.

Today, special interest groups and lobbyists take advantage of and foster uncertainty in the public. We can look back to the Health Care Plan in 1994—a time in which the public believed something needed to be done to fix the nation’s health care system. Special interest groups manipulated the system, misinformed the public, and prevented any kind of action. That led to the growing health care crisis today. A national consensus would give leaders the mandate they need to act.

The public is aware of the efforts of special interests and its own weak impact on policy. This has led to a crisis of confidence in democratic institutions. In a March 2007 Pew survey, only a third of Americans said that they believe government “cares about what people like me think.” Only a quarter of respondents to a 2007 CBS / NYTimes poll think they can trust the federal government to do what is right ‘just about always’ or ‘most of the time.’

To address intractable problems and public distrust, a new kind of political process is needed. The public must become more engaged in addressing key issues. Around the world, a new model of engagement—citizen deliberation—is being tried. In the current political system, an often underinformed and overmanipulated public opinion is measured via opinion polls. In citizen deliberation, opinions are not measured until citizens have had a chance to consider balanced information on an issue and to discuss the issue among themselves. Edward’s Citizen Congress is such a deliberation effort.

In a citizen deliberation project I conducted in Pittsburgh, PA participants showed a remarkable ability to come to consensus on a difficult and long-standing problem. The city has experienced long-term population decline. As a result, a third of the seats in public schools throughout the city were empty. The School Board has tried for 15 years to close some schools in order to save the city millions of dollars it badly needs. But residents, who did not want their neighborhood schools closed, banded together to reopen closed schools.

The citizen deliberation project brought together 568 representative Pittsburgh residents to learn about and discuss the school closings issue. The deliberation shifted opinions from 36% in favor of closings to 69% in favor . After public hearings regarding these findings, the School Board closed 15 schools.

In Texas, a Deliberative Poll of citizens regarding energy issues stimulated utilities to pursue wind power, to the great benefit of the state. In a Brazilian city, a participatory budget process involved the public in budget decisions. The effort was so successful, under difficult budget constraints, that the World Bank has promoted it as a model. California this summer brought together 3500 citizens to discuss and provide crucial public input on the health care plans being considered by state government. Public discussion and consultation is becoming a regular part of Parliamentary processes in Britain. The Canadian province of British Columbia convened a citizen jury to advise on changes to the province’s constitution.

These worldwide efforts have in common the use of citizen deliberation—providing balanced information to the public, giving people a chance to discuss the issues, and then determining their opinions. Research suggests that such deliberative processes have highly positive effects on participants. They become much better informed on the issues. Their opinions typically shift strongly in the direction of expert opinion and away from their narrow self-interest. Participants become more politically active, feel more politically efficacious, and are more likely to embrace their identity as a citizen.

National discussions in a Citizen Congress will foster consensus and encourage people to focus on solutions for the common good. Rather than just talking with their neighbors, citizens respond to the opinions and views of people from across the country. Together, they seek to identify the common priorities, not of a city or a state, but of the American public as a whole. This is the kind of reasoning that will be essential to addressing the intractable issues facing the nation.

Peter Muhlberger
Assistant Research Professor of Political Science, Texas Tech University

pmuhl1848@gmail.com

Op-Ed by Barnett Pearce for the San Jose Mercury News

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.

(125-word limit)

Two Presidential candidates differ from the rest. Obama and Edwards say that there are really two political systems — one for insiders who can buy unlimited access to our leaders, and another for the rest of us. As part of his “One Democracy Initiative” announced on Saturday, 11/13, Edwards promised to create a biannual Citizen Congress, bringing well-tested social technologies (google National Coalition for Dialogueand Deliberation) to the federal government for the first time in the United States. What a good idea! This proposal deserves the support ofevery American. Other candidates should join Edwards in his commitment to reducing the gaps between officials and the public. If they do not, why should we support them?


W. Barnett Pearce

214 Yarborough Lane
Redwood City, CA 94061
650-306-9074

W. Barnett Pearce, Ph. D.
Doctoral Program, School of Human and Organization Development Fielding
Graduate University http://www.fielding.edu

Public Dialogue Consortium
http://www.publicdialogue.org

Pearce Associates
http://www.pearceassociates.com
San Jose Mercury News

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