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Op-Ed by Tina Nabatchi in the Post-Standard (Syracuse, 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.

Tina tells us that the placement her piece was amazing – full color, on the front page of the opinion section. It’s currently on the Post-Standard site at www.syracuse.com/poststandard/stories/index.ssf?/base/opinion-0/1195207500290140.xml&coll=1.

Reviving Democracy Edwards’ ‘Citizen Congress’ plan has the potential of reconnecting us to our government

Sunday, November 18, 2007
By Tina Nabatchi
Syracuse University

As another election day passes, America faces a critical challenge: how to rebuild the public’s trust in our democratic institutions. We assert that ours is the best democracy, yet Americans feel increasingly disempowered by and disenfranchised from government. According to a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, less than one-quarter of Americans think they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time.”

Similarly, a poll by the Pew Charitable Trust recently found that two-thirds of Americans do not believe that government cares “what people like me think.” It is not surprising, then, that America has the lowest voter turnout rate among industrialized democracies. Clearly, the institutions of American government are not adequately fulfilling our vision of democracy.

And how can they? Our usual methods of political participation put citizens on the sidelines. While casting a vote is a critical responsibility in a democracy, that single vote offers no real expression of opinion on a specific policy matter. Similarly, a campaign contribution can signal broad, general support, but does not allow the expression of individual preferences on particular issues (unless you are a well-funded special interest group).

Letters to government representatives are answered by staff assistants with boilerplate correspondence. And even when an elected official shows up to hold a “town hall meeting” with constituents, there is little room for direct participation; one must show up and wait, sometimes for hours, to get three minutes of microphone time.

Most of us have no formal way to participate in decision making about the issues of highest public concern Iraq, taxes, health care, jobs, global warming, the environment, education, Social Security; the list can go on and on. No wonder the CBS News/New York Times poll found that only 10 percent of Americans believe they have a say in what the government does a “good deal” of the time!

Finally, however, one of the presidential candidates is taking on this problem. Last month, John Edwards unveiled a government reform proposal that seeks to re-engage Americans with politics and government. His One Democracy initiative calls for the participation of ordinary Americans in politics through a Citizen Congress a program in which millions of Americans nationwide would participate in deliberations about critical policy issues, identify the challenges and trade- offs facing our country, and offer advisory opinions to leaders.

Edwards’ plan has the potential to strengthen our national democracy and reverse the trend of disengagement among American citizens by offering them a new voice. It could help the public identify common priorities (not the priorities of special interests and business), foster common ground and consensus, and develop solutions for the common good. In doing so, it could create a broad public constituency to stand behind and support our leaders’ political actions, however difficult they might be. Mobilizing and engaging citizens in this way could help build the political will we so desperately need to act on serious matters of public policy.

I can hear the skeptics shouting now. But this idea can work and has. Edwards’ vision of the Citizen Congress is modeled on the AmericaSpeaks 21st Century Town Meeting, which uses trained facilitators and various partici-

patory technologies to engage thousands of citizens in dialogue and decision-making about public policy issues. There are additional citizen engagement processes that also support Edwards’ proposal, including deliberative polls, study circles, public conversations, issues forums and participatory budgeting.

Research shows that these deliberative processes do work. In addition to informing government officials about the needs and preferences of citizens, such processes also educate citizens about policy issues and the trade- offs among various policy options. The result is improved citizens’ political knowledge, interest, and efficacy, and greater trust in government.

With his One Democracy initiative and Citizen Congress proposal, Edwards joins an emerging movement that seeks to enhance the democratic processes and institutions of America and give ordinary people a greater say in the critical decisions we face as a nation. Perhaps other presidential hopefuls will follow his cue and help lead the way toward realizing Abraham Lincoln’s long-ago articulated vision of democracy as “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Tina Nabatchi is an assistant professor of public administration in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

Op-Ed by Lisa Blomgren Bingham in the Indianapolis Star

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 October 26, 2007 in the Indianapolis Star.

My view: Lisa Blomgren Bingham

Give the masses more ways to enter political conversation

Two-thirds of Americans do not believe government cares “about what people like me think,” according to a recent Pew Charitable Trust Poll. But how would government know what people think? The usual ways are votes, campaign contributions and, on rare occasion, showing up and waiting in line for two hours to get three minutes of microphone time at the local planning and zoning board. Recent innovations are blogs for a vocal few (certainly easier to publish than letters to the editor) and a tsunami of e-mail that public officials find increasingly hard to manage and answer.

What if there was a better way? What if people from every part of the community could actually have a conversation and not simply passively listen to a disconnected series of three-minute speeches? What if people could do a better job at democracy?

Some leaders around the world believe we can. Great Britain’s Gordon Brown, leaders of the European Union, Denmark and Australia, and an increasing number of leaders in the U.S. are using new ways to give citizens a chance to talk with one another and with government officials about important choices and public decisions.

John Edwards recently proposed Citizen Congresses as part of his One Democracy Initiative (www.johnedwards.com/issues/govt-reform). He envisions 1 million Americans deliberating every year or two on critical policy issues. His proposal is influenced by the work of AmericaSpeaks and its 21st Century Town Meeting. Using hand-held digital voting devices, wireless computer networks and projection screens, as many as 5,000 people can share views with one another and with government officials. They engage in dialogue arranged around tables of eight to 10 using trained facilitators to help make sure all voices are heard.

Gordon Brown has proposed Citizen Juries. The Citizen Jury is a group of people who discuss information about important public decisions; they try to reach consensus. Citizen jurors bring the public’s values to policy choices on cutting-edge science such as stem-cell research, genetically modified crops and end-of-life health care. They do for legislators what trial juries do for courts, bringing citizen values to decision-making.

There are also deliberative polls, study circles, public conversations and many other models. (See the Web site of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, www. thataway.org.)

These models for participation in governance are not simply public hearings with new names. Researchers found that the opportunity to speak is an important factor in whether people feel that a decision is fair and legitimate. In the early years of our democracy, there were town meetings at which people could speak about policy choices. As the nation grew, it became harder to speak up in a way that could directly influence government.

Daniel Yankelovich, a prominent political pollster, found that while people might answer a question one way initially, their views were unstable and subject to change. Through dialogue with others, people came to a public judgment that was different from their initial response.

Of course, if you bring together people who already agree with one another and do not provide enough time for deliberation or access to other information, they will simply reinforce one another and become more entrenched.

And that is a fundamental problem. Increasingly, people are picking their information sources based on views they are already comfortable with. We no longer have consensus on a national source of information like Walter Cronkite.

It is no coincidence that our political discourse has become more adversarial and less civil. Unless we talk to each other, unless we discuss issues with people who see things differently, we will just get locked into our existing positions.

Can’t we do a better job at democracy than that? WWJS? What would Jefferson say?

Bingham is the Keller-Runden Professor of Public Service at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs in Bloomington and an elected fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.

Op-Ed by NCDD’s Sandy Heierbacher for the Patriot 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.

The following was published in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania Patriot News on October 25, 2007.

Town by town, city by city, democracy has quietly been growing stronger in America. Stronger because everyday people are coming together to tackle their communities’ most challenging problems. And I am excited to say that Washington is finally starting to wake up and take notice.

At a speech in Keene, New Hampshire on Saturday, John Edwards unveiled a proposal to “return Washington to regular people.” He would accomplish this, in part, by using large-scale methods for getting people talking, thinking, deciding and collaborating together. Methods that I and my organization’s 700 members have seen work at the community, state, and even the national level.

We all know that special interest groups have come to dominate national politics. By flooding the capital with paid lobbyists and flooding the airwaves with one-sided advertisements, special interest groups prevent our nation’s leaders from finding common ground and working in the public interest.

To remedy this, Edwards said that every other year he would ask one million citizens (it can be done!) to participate in Citizen Congresses – networked meetings across the country where regular Americans tackle national issues together, without the usual filters of interest groups and the media. At these meetings, Americans will discuss the challenges and trade-offs facing our country and offer advisory opinions to leaders.

Edwards recognizes that his “One Democracy Initiative” is part of an emerging movement to enable people to practice democracy beyond elections. Citizen-centered projects have given ordinary people a voice in designs for the World Trade Center memorial, the redevelopment of New Orleans, health care reform in California and myriad local issues in towns across the country.

Top-level politicians in countries like Canada, Australia and Denmark have supported this kind of public engagement in national issues for years now. Sadly, America is not leading the way in involving citizens in important policy discussions.

I congratulate John Edwards for understanding that democratic reform doesn’t just mean reforming our electoral system. It means utilizing today’s technology and know-how to find new ways to enable people’s voices to influence decision-making at the local and national levels.

The Harrisburg-based National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, and its hundreds of members from across the country, encourage all presidential candidates – from the left, right and center – to go beyond rhetoric and propose their own concrete solutions for bringing the people back into politics. And we encourage you to demand the same from your favorite candidates!

Sandy Heierbacher
Director, National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD)
sandy@thataway.org

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.
(more…)

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

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