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Op-Ed by Kim Pearce for San Francisco Chronicle Open Forum

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.

Almost everyone I speak with feels the way I do—our current political process for discussing crucial and complex issues and arriving at wise and sound solutions is broken. Take any controversial domestic or international issue and you will find the inability of congress to act. Citizens are left mostly on the sidelines watching our politicians battle it out without a way to effectively contribute to the national conversation.

Finally, a Presidential candidate has recognized the importance of “thinking outside of our current political box.” On Saturday, October 13, Presidential candidate John Edwards proposed the “One Democracy Initiative: Returning Washington to Regular People.” Among other things, Edwards is calling for the creation of a Citizen Congress that would convene one million Americans on a biannual basis to discuss important national issues. Sounds improbable? Fortunately, we have success stories of just this kind of citizen engagement in countries such as Canada, Australia, and Denmark. Sadly, America is not leading the way in involving citizens in important policy discussions.

Why is a proposal like this important? For starters, we need to rebuild the public’s trust in our democratic institutions. Most Americans no longer trust their leaders and we have lost faith in the institutions that are supposed to represent us. Time and time again, our best, most respected political leaders have lamented that the atmosphere in Congress has changed and that governing has become more about winning and partisanship than representing the best interests of the nation. The issues are too important and the risks too high for this kind of behavior to occur.

Second, we need to look beyond elections to fix our democracy; democracy is more than a spectator sport. Special interest groups don’t just try to influence elections. They spend millions of dollars to influence decision making on Capital Hill the other 364 days of the year. On the issues of highest public concern—Iraq, health care, education, jobs—Americans have no formal way to wrestle with the choices facing policy makers and let their preferences be known. We need a mechanism by which to meaningfully involve the public in these critical issues.

Third, national discussions will strengthen our democracy by providing a voice for the public and identifying common ground positions for which leaders can advocate. National discussions will empower the public and increase the capacity of our governing institutions to address difficult policy issues. Not only does a national discussion identify clear public priorities, it mobilizes citizens behind those priorities. It builds the political will needed to act by creating a constituency behind a given action. National discussions will also make the public much less vulnerable to manipulation. By struggling through the tough policy trade-offs in any decision, deliberation increases the resistance to spin by special interest.

Lastly, in local communities across the nation and in countries around the world, citizens are already playing an effective role in the policy making process. The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (www.ncdd.org) is an umbrella organization involving hundreds of groups working across the country and around the world to involve citizens in meaningful dialogue and deliberative processes that can and do make a difference. Over the last fifteen years, these groups have demonstrated that well organized and facilitated events (even those involving thousands of people in remote locations) are possible, that they strengthen democracy and civic engagement, and they make it easier for political leaders to make tough decisions that move the country forward.

The time has come for creative and bold ideas about how to involve the public in the policy issues that affect us all. I applaud John Edwards in his clarion call for a Citizen Congress. I hope the other Presidential candidates take the same kind of bold leadership, recognizing that the current system is broken and that one way to fix it is to provide meaningful opportunities for citizens to be involved in the choices that affect us all.

Kimberly Pearce
Professor, Communication
De Anza College
Cupertino, CA

Setting Standards in San Jose, California case study

This 2006 case study examines Public Agenda’s work with the San Jose Unified School District and the Danforth Foundation to initiate a program of focus groups that would culminate in a district-wide community conversation on academic standards and expectations.

Resource Link: http://www.publicagenda.org/public-engagement-projects/setting-standards-san-jose-california

Transforming Public Life: A Decade of Citizen Engagement in Bridgeport, CT

On the face of it, the story of Bridgeport, Connecticut, is a familiar one. After losing much of its manufacturing and industrial base following the Second World War, the city confronted the problems of many old industrial cities—high unemployment, a shrinking tax base, the growth of violent crime and drugs. So far, so familiar. But what sets Bridgeport apart from cities with similar histories is the evolving story of its uncommonly rich civic life. When it comes time to solve community problems or make and implement public policy, the institutions, organizations, and individuals of Bridgeport defy business as usual through a remarkably inclusive and deliberative citizen-centered approach to problem solving. This 2007 case study written by Will Friedman, Alison Kadlec, and Lara Birnback for Public Agenda traces the evolution of this unusual civic culture and reflects on its lessons.

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

Reframing “Framing”

This 5-page article (2007) written by Will Friedman for Public Agenda addresses the concept of nonpartisan framing for deliberation, which aims to clarify the range of positions surrounding an issue so that citizens can better decide what they want to do.

While framing has received significant mainstream attention of late, what is not being discussed is the limited context in which framing is conceived. The current infatuation with framing is concerned virtually exclusively with the power politics of parties and interest groups, and the winning or losing of their respective battles. But what if we asked instead about the relationship of framing to fostering citizenship and enabling democratic deliberation and dialogue? What if we were to reframe framing to focus less on how it can help one side or another win the political game and more on what it means, and can mean, for strengthening the democratic process?

Resource Link: http://www.publicagenda.org/files/Reframing%20Framing.pdf

NCDD’s Three-Year Strategic Plan

The NCDD staff, Board of Directors, Steering Committee, and membership all participated in a collaborative visioning and planning process to provide us with clarity about NCDD’s objectives, vision, resources and strengths, and a blueprint for effectively incorporating all of these things into our decision-making process. Our Strategic Plan is the result of this process. For an organization that is being pulled in dozens of different directions due to the varied needs of our members, our field of practice, our communities and humanity in general, this plan will help ensure that NCDD develops into an efficient, forward-thinking organization.

Funds from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation enabled us to work closely with Cathy Flavin-McDonald of the Leadership Research Institute to answer the question “What is the vision of what NCDD can and should be, and how can we get there from here?” We are indebted to both the Hewlett Foundation and to the Leadership Research Institute for their roles in enabling this plan to come into fruition.

National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, January (2007)

Resource Link: www.ncdd.org/exchange/files/docs/NCDD_%20Strategic_Plan.doc

Sandy Heierbacher, Director of NCDD
sandy@thataway.org
717-243-5144

Ready for 21st Century Careers Choicework guide

Whether they’re planning to attend a four-year university, a two-year degree program or enter an on-the-job training program, today’s students will be living in a world of rapid technological change where more and more good jobs and promising careers will require a solid background in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). From nursing to auto mechanics to marketing, workers will need a greater mastery of these subjects than ever before. Even many jobs that do not directly involve STEM will require the kinds of analytic skills that these subjects help students to develop. This 2005 Public Agenda Choicework guide explores the questions: How can we change these trends and make sure that all students who graduate from our high schools have the STEM education they’ll need?

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/choiceworkfor21stcenturycareers.pdf

Preventing Crime and Promoting Public Safety Choicework guide

There are a variety of strategies that can guide a police department in its efforts to prevent crime and promote public safety. Some of these strategies may be more effective for a given community than others. To help citizens better understand the range of strategies that police departments can use, the Public Agenda created this 2005 Citizen Choicework guide that reviews three key approaches: improving police procedures for solving serious crime; sweating the small stuff; and partnering with the community to fight crime.

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/public_safety.pdf

Everyone Ready for School: How Can We Ensure High Quality Early Childhood Programs? Choicework guide

Many families choose to place their children in some of preschool program, but these programs can vary widely in quality. This 2005 Public Agenda Choicework guide explores the question: How can we make sure that all preschools provide safe and enriching environments that do a good job preparing children for school?

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/school_readiness.pdf

Ensuring Teacher Quality Choicework guide

Most people would agree that you can’t have good schools without good teachers, and that it’s crucial to ensure that there is a quality teacher in every classroom. This 2005 Public Agenda Choicework guide explores the questions: How do we ensure teacher quality? What are the qualities, skills, knowledge and behaviors that set quality teachers apart?

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/teacher_quality.pdf

An Introduction to Collaborative Technologies

Look over the resources we’ve compiled in the Collaborative Technology category to get a sense of the range of tools and products that can be used by dialogue and deliberation practitioners who want to utilize modern technology in their activities – both online and off. And please use the glossary of terms for high-tech collaboration that we’ve put together!

Collaborative technology can create an interactive learning environment involving people who are hundreds or thousands of miles apart. Businesses are far more savvy with the more sophisticated packages of high-tech tools available than we are in the dialogue and deliberation community, and the prohibitive cost of many of the tools, software and services primarily marketed to businesses is the most obvious reason for that.

Many businesses with dispersed offices, workstations and factories have found that collaborative technology is clearly worth the expense. As projects get more and more complex, the need for employees and business partners to communicate and collaborate effectively via technology has increased, and the technology developed for such work has become more and more flexible, responsive, user-friendly, integrated and multifaceted. Business have found that collaborative technology offsets the expense and time required to bring people together across distances, streamlining their workflow and increasing their profits.

Collaborative Tools for Distributed or Virtual Teams

Forming and facilitating a workgroup made up of members working in different locations has many challenges. Many gaps exist between the people, the applications they are working with, and the organizations they are affiliated with.

The collaborative technology that exists today addresses these challenges in many different ways. Much of the collaborative software being marketed allows users to share and store files and attachments, create instant polls, check calendars and to communicate, brainstorm and make decisions in “real time.” Some software enables collaboration on such things as invoicing, expense reporting, project management and purchasing. Most of the software available helps increase the visibility of dispersed offices and employees, and increases productivity and access to information.

These new collaborative technology solutions improve on their earlier and more widespread brethren – the phone, the fax machine and email – by keeping track of the flow of information, discussion and decisions made over time and finding ways to integrate the new groups and ideas that are continually being generated.

Collaborative tools that the dialogue and deliberation community should consider using – to foster communication and collaboration either within our community or within the groups we work with – include: listservs, threaded discussion boards, blogs (web logs), wikis, document sharing, instant messaging and web conferencing tools. Most of these tools are available individually at very low cost, but some require more web programming know-how than others. Having all of these features integrated into one interconnected system is where the greatest expense lies.

In this high-tech world, collaborative tools are continually being developed and improved with efficiency and quality of teamwork in mind. Each new generation of collaborative applications is better equipped to foster improved relationship-building, decision-making and knowledge building. Like dialogue and deliberation, high-tech collaborative tools can enable people to listen to other perspectives, ensure that their own voice is heard, increase their knowledge of a subject, and make more informed decisions.

Some groups – like Web Lab, e-thePeople.org and Information Renaissance – have found ways to allow collaborative technology to help people engage in meaningful conversations about public issues, moving the technology beyond the workplace and into the public realm (and into the dialogue & deliberation community). AmericaSpeaks is a pioneer in using collaborative technology to enhance and connect face-to-face deliberations involving large numbers of people.

But the dialogue and deliberation community, for the most part, is still unaware of the ways in which collaborative technology can be used to help them reach out to new participants, move into the online world, manage the information generated by large programs and add pizzazz to their meetings. In fact, many people leading face-to-face dialogue and deliberation programs are wary of the idea of utilizing technology in their efforts.

Regardless of the dialogue and deliberation community’s overall readiness and interest in high-tech collaboration tools, the fact is that more and more tools and venues for online conversation and decision-making are being created every day. People have innumerable opportunities to participate in online discussions. Some of these discussions emphasize civil interactions, but most do not. Some are designed to promote thoughtful deliberation, although most do not. And some even foster ongoing small-group dialogic interactions, although the vast majority do not. On these pages, we emphasize the programs and tools that do allow higher-quality discussion to occur.

In addition to creating forums for online dialogue, deliberation and discussion, high-tech collaboration tools can be used to enhance face-to-face dialogue and deliberation in a number of ways:

  • by enabling groups to vote quickly on options or opinions
  • by mapping out a discussion visually for all to see
  • by enabling facilitators of large groups to gather and share demographic and other factual information quickly with the group, enabling participants in large-scale programs to feel more connected to others in the room
  • by more effectively gathering the notes, themes and decisions made by each small group in large-scale programs
  • by giving participants an added sense of importance or “officialness” (having their discussion and outcomes immediately submitted elsewhere can create an increased sense of value for the discussion)
  • or, if face-to-face dialogue happens either before or after an online component, the tools can enhance the process by providing participants with another means of expressing themselves and by allowing people with busy or conflicting schedules to interact for a longer period of time.

– Sandy Heierbacher
National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) (2004)

4/07 Brief Addendum on Social Media…

Much has happened on the Internet since I wrote this text a few years ago. In particular, social media platforms have taken the net by storm. By social media, I am referring to a whole cluster of things: social networking sites (MySpace, Facebook), online dating services (Friendster, Match.com), blogging services (LiveJournal, WordPress, Blogger), tagging tools (del.icio.us, Digg) and media sharing sites (YouTube, Flickr). The common features of these and hundreds of other diverse sites include: a user-generated profile, visible linkages between users, public communication forums (such as message boards or comments), and persistent traces of user behavior.

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