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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

John Gastil’s Op-Ed for the Seattle 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.

Fewer than one-in-four Americans expect Washington to “do what is right” most of the time, according to a July 2007 CBS poll. A Pew Research Center survey in March found that only one-in-three Americans believe the federal government “cares about what people like me think.” Those are grim statistics for a nation once heralded as the global icon of democracy.The Presidential candidates have yet to tap successfully into this wellspring of alienation, but this Saturday in Keene, New Hampshire, Democratic candidate John Edwards launched the One Democracy Initiative to do just that.

Among the items featured on the Edwards reformgasbord are full public financing and free airtime for Congressional candidates, new restrictions on lobbyists, and items seasoned for the Democratic palate, such as paper trails for electronic voting machines.

The proposal with top billing in the One Democracy Initiative merits special attention. Edwards pledges to create a “Citizen Congress” that would bring together one-million citizens in a network of local town halls and online forums. The idea is to draw citizens back into the business of governing by giving us a special responsibility for deliberating on federal policy priorities.

At the present time, our elected officials record our sentiments through polls, talk radio, blogs, ad hoc public forums, and the blunt instrument of elections. The public voice Washington hears is already thrice filtered, by special interest campaigns, media frames, and politicians themselves.

Edwards proposes an alternative means of public expression in American politics. I say American politics because other nations have already undertaken reforms like the Citizen Congress. While Edwards was delivering his speech in New Hampshire, the European Union was holding a Deliberative Poll, in which hundreds of randomly-selected citizens speaking 21 different languages discussed their region’s future. Federal governments from Denmark to Australia to Brazil have experimented successfully with a variety of new designs for public deliberation, as have many communities in the U.S. and Canada.

The immediate inspiration for Edwards appears to be the 21st Century Town Meeting developed by the civic organization AmericaSpeaks. Edwards refers to this when he cites the “citizen-centered projects” that have “given ordinary people a voice in designs for the World Trade Center memorial, the redevelopment of New Orleans, [and] health care reform in California.”

If it follows this model, the Citizen Congress will invite Americans to participate in policy-oriented public meetings. Using modern communication technology to synchronize geographically dispersed venues, the Congress will let people seated in small discussion groups to merge their voices into a large national forum that gradually moves—over the course of a long day—from recording public concerns to setting broad policy priorities.

Even this much is speculation, however. Edwards’ proposal is currently a 150-word sketch on a campaign website. At this stage, I find myself in the position of a fan who discovered and adored a garage band before they went mainstream. Having studied deliberative reforms for fifteen years, I hope that Edwards’ proposal remains true to its roots. The Citizen Congress can satisfy this hard-core fan only if its final form is transparent, representative, deliberative, directive, and influential.

  • Transparency requires that the Congress’ procedures be open to scrutiny. After all, this reform is about restoring public trust.
  • To ensure the Congress is representative, it should mix open-invitation events with smaller ones that use random samples to validate the work of larger bodies.
  • To deliberate in depth, the Congress must have ample information and time. The most successful citizen deliberation involves week-long meetings (or more), rather than exclusively holding one-day-wonders.
  • Each session, the Congress must also develop a clear policy directive, lest its advice be misunderstood, misrepresented, or ignored.
  • In the end, the Congress must have influence. Edwards proposes creating an advisory body, but if Washington does not heed its advice, people will continue to tell pollsters that politicians do not “care about what people like me think.”

We should scrutinize the details of the One Democracy Initiative and ask other Presidential candidates whether they, too, support its most important reforms. In particular, by looking closely at the Citizen Congress we might help to shape this nascent institution into a deliberative body that we helps Washington earn at least a measure of our trust.

John Gastil (jgastil@u.washington.edu)

For: Seattle Times
Written: Sunday, October 14, 2007
Length: 705 words

Op-Eds About Edwards Proposal for Citizen Congresses

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

On Saturday, October 13th, Senator and Presidential Candidate John Edwards gave a speech in Keene, New Hampshire that could have a major impact on our field. In his speech, he called for the creation of “Citizen Congresses” that would regularly convene one million Americans in national deliberations on critical policy issues. These congresses are part of his One Democracy Initiative, which references AmericaSpeaks’ and Study Circles’ work, as well as Deliberation Day and the newly-formed November 5th Coalition. Here is an excerpt from the speech:

“I believe in the wisdom of the American people, and I think the more power they have in our democracy, the better our country will be. That’s why every two years, I will ask one million citizens to come together to tackle our toughest issues in local forums across the nation. These Citizen Congresses will combine old-fashioned town halls with 21st century technology. They will give regular Americans a chance to speak to each other, and to their elected officials in Washington, without the filters of interest groups and the media. Like so much of what Washington needs, this idea of grassroots democracy is already working out in the real world, in towns just like this one.”

AmericaSpeaks’ Joe Goldman was contacted weeks earlier by the Edwards campaign about this, and Joe gave me (NCDD’s Sandy Heierbacher) and a number of other leaders in the field a heads-up on the speech. Joe encouraged us to submit letters to the editors of our local papers, and provided some helpful background information, ideas and tips to help us get started. The purpose of the op-eds is not to support Edwards or his specific public engagement plan, but to raise awareness of the importance of public engagement and the fact that it is already happening across the country – and to encourage the other candidates to go beyond rhetoric and propose their own concrete solutions for bringing the public back into politics.

I contacted some NCDD members who I felt would be able to quickly write op-eds, and I’m collecting their op-eds and those of others Joe contacted so we can display and/or link to them in one place. I also encouraged NCDDers in general to consider submitting op-eds to their local papers.

This is a great opportunity for people in the D&D community to join forces to raise awareness about the need to for the public to have a greater voice in the governance process. As a community, we need to figure out how to respond quickly and collectively when things happen that can raise awareness of D&D – whether they be crises, conflicts or high-level PR opportunities like this one. Perhaps this effort can set a precedent for us to accomplish this. Here is what we have so far…

(Important: click on the Democracy Communications Network tag to find these and other op-eds, blog posts, etc. written on this topic.)

Op-Eds

  • An op-ed by Harris Sokoloff in the Philadelphia Daily News
  • An op-ed submitted by Kim Pearce for the San Francisco Chronicle
  • An op-ed by NCDD’s Sandy Heierbacher in the Harrisburg, PA Patriot News
  • An op-ed by Barnett Pearce for the San Jose Mercury News
  • An op-ed by John Gastil for the Seattle Times
  • An op-ed by Peter Muhlberger for the Dallas Morning News
  • An op-ed by Archon Fung in the Boston Globe
  • An op-ed by Doug Crocker for the Orange County Register
  • An op-ed by Steve Pyser in the Philadelphia Inquirer
  • An op-ed by Phil Neisser for the Watertown Daily Times
  • An op-ed by Mica Stark in the Manchester, NH Union Leader
  • An op-ed by Kathryn Liss for the Asheville (Oregon) Citizen Times
  • An op-ed by Lisa Blomgren Bingham in the Indianapolis Star
  • An op-ed by Tina Nabatchi in the (Syracuse, NY) Post Standard

Blog Posts, etc.

Tips and Templates

And for those of you interesting in writing letters to your editors, here are some helpful documents (from AmericaSpeaks’ Joe Goldman and the Kettering Foundation’s David Mathews)…

Proposal for Regularly Convening One Million Americans in “Citizen Congresses”

This announcement was included 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.

Proposal for Regularly Convening One Million Americans in “Citizen Congresses”

Presidential hopeful John Edwards unveiled a government reform agenda today that calls for regularly convening one million Americans to make recommendations to national lawmakers based on a report produced by AmericaSpeaks, called Millions of Voices (pdf).

AmericaSpeaks is delighted to have our work recognized in this way and believes that all Presidential candidates should take a bold step in this direction by outlining their own plans for regularly incorporating the views of a large and representative group of Americans into their policy decisions.

Help move this issue onto the agenda of all Presidential candidates and voters across the country by taking action today:

Write an opinion piece or letter-to-the-editor to your local paper using this announcement as a point of introduction to:

  • highlight the importance of involving the public in policymaking;
  • point to successful examples of deliberative democracy by practitioners like AmericaSpeaks; and,
  • call on all Presidential candidates to present a plan for regularly engaging citizens in policy discussions

Contact by email or phone the Presidential candidates you’ve been following and urge them to present their own plan for regularly engaging citizens in national policy decisions.

Donate to the work of AmericaSpeaks and help us keep citizen engagement on the national agenda for the 2008 election and beyond.

Please let us know if you take any of these actions or – if you would like a sample letter to the editor – by contacting me, Joe Goldman, Vice President of Citizen Engagement at facilitator@americaspeaks.org.

Today’s announcement opens a unique window of opportunity for institutionalizing regular citizen deliberations in our national policy decisions, no matter who is elected President.

I hope you will join us in advancing this goal with candidates, voters and opinion leaders from all political stripes by taking action today!

AmericaSpeaks | 1050 17th NW – suite 701 | Washington | DC | 20036

Guidance for Writing Op-Eds on Edwards Proposal

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.

Joe Goldman from AmericaSpeaks sent this extraordinarily helpful message out to those considering writing op-eds…

Background on the Situation

This week, a unique opportunity has arisen for people in the citizen engagement field to collaborate with one another and raise awareness about the need to provide the public with a greater voice in the governance process. If we are successful, it may serve as a precedent for creating an ongoing public communications network for the citizen engagement field.

The purpose of the memorandum is to offer guidance for individuals who have expressed interest in writing an op-ed or blog post to take advantage of a major candidate for President calling for regular national discussions.

The Facts

Former Senator Edwards will unveil a government reform agenda as part of his Presidential campaign. Among his proposals for government reform, Senator Edwards will call for the creation of a Citizen Congress that will on an annual or biannual basis convene one million Americans in national discussions on issues of high public concern. The Citizen Congress will offer our nation’s leaders with advisory opinions on the challenges facing our country and the trade-offs among different solutions.

The current plan is for this speech to be made on Saturday in Keene, NH. As is true with anything on a campaign, this could change at any point. Op-eds and blog posts should be targeted to immediately follow the speech.

Linking the Announcement to Your Message

It is up to you to write about whatever key message you would like. In general, our intent is not to write about the candidate, but to use the announcement as an opportunity to talk about the importance of involving the public in policy making. To help jog your thinking, here are examples of ways that you can frame the announcement and link to your message:

• Across the globe, public leaders have begun advocating new means of involving citizens in governance. [quick references to Canada, Britain, France, Venezuela, etc.] Now, finally, a candidate in the United States has followed suit…

• 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 [possible local reference here]. Now, a Presidential candidate has picked up its scent 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 the crowded Democratic primary, candidates are looking for ways to distinguish themselves in a field where policy positions often match up quite closely. John Edwards may have found a way to set himself apart by being the first to call for …

From there, you could simply say “it’s about time,” “here’s what he proposes,” and “here’s why this direction of engaging the public is important.”

Sample Messages about Engaging the Public in National Discussions

It is up to you to write about whatever message you would like. Here are examples of messages with regard to the value of national discussions. However, you may choose to focus on local civic engagement or other important topics that are vital to your work.

1. Challenge: We Need to Rebuild the Public’s Trust in Our Democratic Institutions

– The American public no longer trusts its leaders to do what is right. People do not see their values reflected in Washington and have lost faith in the institutions that are supposed to represent them.

— According to a July 2007 CBS News/NYT Poll, the percentage of Americans who think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time” has declined steadily from its peak after September 11th from 55% in 2001 to 24% in 2007. Similarly, a CNN/USA Today/Gallop Poll in January 2006 found that 32% of people trusted government to do the right thing “just about always” or “most of the time,” compared to 60% in October 2001.

— 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.”

– Special interest groups have come to dominate our political system. By flooding the capital with paid lobbyists and flooding the air waves with one-sided advertisements, special interest groups prevent our nation’s leaders from finding common ground and working in the public interest.

— There is no shortage of examples of critical public issues on which leaders have been unable to find agreement to support the common good of the nation. One can look back to the Clinton 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 – in which special interest groups manipulated the system and prevented action from taking place. A national consensus will help to provide leaders with a mandate to act.

– 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 interest of the nation.

— See The Broken Branch by Mann and Ornstein

2. We Need to Look Beyond Elections to Fix Our Democracy. Democracy is More Than a Spectator Sport.

– On the issues of highest public concern – Iraq, taxes, health care, jobs – Americans have no formal way to wrestle with the choices facing policy makers and let their preferences be known.

— All to often, when we talk about fixing our democracy, we focus on elections: campaign finance reform, redistricting, and policies to increase voter turnout. People need a voice beyond elections. Special interest groups don’t just try to influence elections. They pay lobbyists to influence decision making the other 364 days of the year and spend millions of dollars to shape public opinion outside of the election cycle.

3. 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 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.

– 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 make the public less subject to manipulation. By providing the public with a chance to learn about an issue and struggle through the tough policy trade-offs involved, deliberation would increase resistance to spin by special interests.

4. In Local Communities Across the Nation and Countries Around the World, Citizens Are Already Playing a Role in the Policy Making Process

– Insert examples as needed

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

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