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JPD Special Issue Looks at “The State of Our Field”

JPD logoThis month, the Deliberative Democracy Consortium (DDC) and the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) released a special issue of their collaboratively produced Journal of Public Deliberation, and it is a must-read.  They collected writings from leading scholars and practitioners of our work – including numerous NCDD members and our director, Sandy Heierbacher – to create this special issue focused on “The State of Our Field”:

This is a special issue that assess the state of our field, celebrates our successes, and calls for future innovative work. The authors are scholars and practitioners who represent the diversity of our field and provide a wide range of perspectives on deliberation, dialogue, participation, and civic life. The ideas from this issue will be discussed at the upcoming Frontiers of Democracy conference, after which the editors will write an “afterword” reflecting on lessons learned.

We’re excerpting all of the abstracts of the articles in this issue here on the blog, because we think it will entice you to read these important articles. The special issue starts with an introductory overview, then is divided into three areas of focus: the scope of our field, challenges to our field, and promising future directions that some of us are taking.

Visit www.publicdeliberation.net/jpd to download each article for free.

JPD Volume 10, Issue 1 (2014) Special Issue: State of the Field


The State of Our Field: Introduction to the Special Issue by Laura W. Black, Nancy L. Thomas, and Dr. Timothy J. Shaffer – “This article introduces the special “State of the Field” issue. The essay highlights some of the key tensions that our field is wrestling with at the moment, and advocates that we think carefully about the terms we use to describe our work. It previews the articles in this special issue and urges future work in the field to take up the ideas, questions, and challenges posed by these essays.”

The Scope of the Field

Why I Study Public Deliberation by John Gastil – “The author argues that scholars can best advance public dialogue and deliberation by conducting systematic research on practical innovations that have the potential to improve political discourse. The author explains and justifies this position through a personal narrative that recounts formative experiences with debate, group dialogue, political campaigns, academic research, and electoral reform.”

A 35-Year Experiment in Public Deliberation by David Mathews – “In the late 1970s, a small group of academics and former government officials began an initiative that led to the creation of a network of National Issues Forums (NIF) in 1981. NIF-style deliberation is based on the assumption that the greatest challenge in collective decision making is dealing with the tensions that result when many of the things most people hold dear are brought into conflict by the necessity to act on a problem. Public deliberation is a naturally occurring phenomenon that makes use of the human faculty for judgment. The most powerful insight from the NIF experiment has been the recognition that democracy depends on constant learning and that deliberation is a form of learning.”

Repairing the Breach: The Power of Dialogue to Heal Relationships and Communities by Robert R. Stains Jr. – “Dialogue can be a powerful force for healing communities and relationships broken by divisions of identity, values, religion and world-views. This article explores the reparative effects of dialogue and the elements that make them possible: re-authoring stories, communicating from the heart and witnessing others’ identities in constructive ways.”

What We’re Talking About When We Talk About the “Civic Field” (And why we should clarify what we mean) by Matt Leighninger – “The field of public engagement is experiencing a harmful identity crisis. While advocates of public participation may all agree that our work relates somehow to democracy, we have not established or articulated a common vision of what that really means. This lack of clarity has dire consequences, producing rifts between academics and practitioners, community organizers and deliberative democrats, civic technologists and dialogue practitioners, policy advocates and consensus-builders. Worst of all, the lack of clarity about democracy provides no help to people who are trying to create sustainable, participatory political systems in Egypt, Thailand, Ukraine, and many other countries. None of the participatory tactics and assets we have developed will reach their full potential if we don’t admit, to ourselves and the world, their true significance: these aren’t just props for conventional processes, but building blocks for new political systems.”

Democracy by Design by Nancy L. Thomas – “Renewing US democracy will require an active and deliberative public, people who can work together to address pressing social and political problems. To engage effectively Americans need an understanding of how American democracy works, its foundations and the complex and sometimes changing dimensions to those foundations. Advocates for increasing active and deliberative citizen engagement need to work with reformers in different areas of democracy’s ecological system, integrating public engagement with reform efforts in justice and equal opportunity, knowledge and information development, and government integrity.”

The Next Generation of Our Work by Sandy Heierbacher – “In this reflective piece, Sandy Heierbacher, Director of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD), outlines some of the trends she has been noticing from her unique vantage point in the rapidly growing and innovating field of deliberative democracy. Heierbacher reflects on ways this field, centered around practices designed to engage citizens in the decisions and issues that effect their lives, is changing its relationship with government, becoming more receptive to online tools for engagement, shifting its attention back to local efforts, focusing attention on building infrastructure, and increasingly relying on collaboration to achieve its goals.”


Public Engagement Exercises with Racial and Cultural “Others”: Some Thoughts, Questions, and Considerations by Yea-Wen Chen – “Concerns about the inadequacy of using dialogue to address the material realities of race and racism motivate this essay. Hence, I reflect on the current state of conversations on race, diversity, and inclusion from the standpoint of cultural and racial “others.” To orient my reflections, I first unpack assumptions about what might constitute “productive” public deliberation on race. I argue that productive public engagement exercises on race (a) move participants into praxis, (b) require participants to consider cultural identity differences, and (c) demand an understanding of how social forces such as racism and whiteness hinder and/or enable public engagement processes. I then reconsider public engagement from a cultural lens and rethink intercultural communication as publicly deliberating highly charged topics such as race. Finally, I caution against relying on cookie-cutter formulas to address complex issues such as race and recommend utilizing the strategy of counter-storytelling in public engagement exercises on race.”

Deliberative Democracy, Public Work, and Civic Agency by Harry C. Boyte – “This essay locates deliberation and deliberative theory as an important strand in a larger interdisciplinary and political movement, civic agency. The civic agency movement, and its related politics, a politics of civic empowerment, include a set of developing practices and concepts which enhance the capacities of diverse groups of people to work across differences to solve problems, create things of common value, and negotiate a shared democratic way of life. Stirrings of civic agency can be seen in many settings, including efforts to recover the civic purposes and revitalize the civic cultures of institutions such as schools and colleges.”

The Unfulfilled Promise of Online Deliberation by Jannette Hartz-Karp & Brian Sullivan – “Since online deliberation has not delivered on the expectations of more considered, democratic participation, the authors propose less focus on technological ‘fixes’ and more on re-conceptualizing its primary purpose to gathering resonance in an authentic public square. The ideas that emerge can then be deliberated in representative face-to-face public deliberations, with the coherent voice that results contributing to more inclusive, legitimate, and implementable democratic decision-making.”

A Brief Reflection on the Brazilian Participatory Experience by Vera Schattan Pereira Coelho – “The article highlights Brazilian participatory experiences such as the participatory budget and the policy councils and conferences. Based on research done by the author on daily routines and policy impacts of these forums, it is argued that there is still a long way before fulfilling normative expectations. In light of these challenges, reflections about how to move forward in the future are presented.”

Beyond Deliberation: A Strategy for Civic Renewal by Peter Levine – “To expand opportunities for discussion and reflection about public issues, we should look beyond the organizations that intentionally convene deliberations and also enlist organizations that preserve common resources, volunteer service groups, civics classes, grassroots public media efforts, and partisan, ideological, and faith-based movements that have some interest in discussion. Many of these groups are not politically neutral; more are adversarial. But they have a common interest in confronting the forces and decisions that have sidelined active citizens in countries like the US. They are all threatened by the rising signs of oligarchy in the United States. Collectively, they have considerable resources with which to fight back. It is time for us to begin to stir and organize–not for deliberation, but for democracy.”

Finding A Seat for Social Justice at the Table of Dialogue and Deliberation by David Schoem – “What does it mean for the dialogue and deliberation or public engagement community to exclude social justice from its mission and activities? Many dialogue and deliberation organizations, though clearly not all, shy away from either an explicit or implicit acknowledgement of issues of social justice or inequality, and power and privilege. This article argues that the field needs to 1) work intentionally for social justice and serving the public good for a strong, diverse democracy, 2) confront the illusion of neutrality, and 3) address issues of privilege and power. It discusses five principles to achieve this goal.”

Deliberative Civic Engagement in Public Administration and Policy by Tina Nabatchi – “This article explores deliberative civic engagement in the context of public administration and policy. The field of public administration and policy is seeing a resurgence of interest in deliberative civic engagement among scholars, practitioners, politicians, civic reformers, and others. Deliberative processes have been used to address a range of issues: school redistricting and closings, land use, and the construction of highways, shopping malls, and other projects. Additional topics include race and diversity issues, crime and policing, and involvement of parents in their children’s education. Finally, participatory budgeting, which has been used with success in Porto Alegre, Brazil since 1989 and has been employed in over 1,500 cities around the world, has been one of the most promising forms of deliberative civic engagement. Finally, the article suggests what we must do to build a civic infrastructure to support deliberative civic engagement, including government, but also practitioners and scholars.”

Key Challenges Facing the Field of Deliberative Democracy by Carol J. Lukensmeyer – “Deliberative Democracy has proved its value as an alternative to governance dominated by special interests, but its use in governing remains inconsistent. Overcoming this challenge will require the field to focus its energy on 1) building a cadre of elected leaders and public officials who understand deliberative democracy’s value and how to do it, 2) engaging with the media so that it becomes an effective partner for the field and a more productive part of our democratic system, and 3) continuing to embrace opportunities – like Creating Community Solutions – to work in unique partnerships, build national infrastructure to support high-quality deliberation, and innovate across methodologies and models.”

Promising Future Directions

The Design of Online Deliberation: Implications for Practice, Theory and Democratic Citizenship by Idit Manosevitch – “The essay focuses on the role of design in online deliberation, and outlines three directions for future research. First, research must embed the study of the technical and organizational architecture of online discussion spaces, as an ongoing area of inquiry. Scholars need to take stock of varying available design choices and their potential effects on the deliberative quality of online public discourse. Second, looking more broadly, research must examine the design of deliberative processes as they manifest themselves via digital technologies. The author discusses the importance of surveying the broad array of processes that are currently employed, and the varying theoretical assumptions that they convey. Third, the essay concludes with an outline of possible implications that online deliberation endeavors may have on democratic citizenship, and calls for further research on the broader implications of this work for promoting healthy democratic societies.”

Deliberation In and Through Higher Education by Dr. Timothy J. Shaffer – “This article explores how deliberative democracy has the ability to change how colleges and universities function. Deliberation offers a powerful way for students, faculty, staff, and community partners to learn and practice modes of reasoning and deciding together in a variety of settings such as classrooms, other campus settings, and in communities. The article includes scholarly resources as well as examples of deliberation in various contexts. The article suggests that deliberation can replace, or at least complement, many of the more familiar models pervasive in our institutions.”

The Critical Role of Local Centers and Institutes in Advancing Deliberative Democracy by Dr. Martín Carcasson – “Utilizing the development and early history of the Colorado State University Center for Public Deliberation as an example, this paper makes the case for expanding the number of and the level of support for such campus-based centers as critical resources for expanding deliberative democracy. Due to their ability to not only provide deliberative capacity to the community, but also to attract students to our field and equip with them with essential skills, to strengthen the connection of colleges and universities to their local communities, and to contribute to the further development of deliberative theory and practice, these local “hubs of democracy” represent a natural “win-win-win-win” that warrants significant focus as we work to develop the deliberative culture of our communities.”

A Path to the Next Form of (Deliberative) Democracy by Patrick L. Scully – “Supporters of deliberative democracy must work through complex tradeoffs if we hope to realize the full potential of empowered civic engagement in which citizens employ multiple forms of action and change. In order to sustain citizens’ interest, time, and resources in creating a robust civic infrastructure, we need to engage them in more highly empowered forms of civic engagement than is now typical of many deliberative initiatives. Our field’s strong emphasis on temporary public consultations diverts a disproportionate amount of time, intellectual capital, and other resources from efforts to improve the ability of citizens and local communities to have stronger, more active, and direct roles in shaping their collective futures. One set of choices facing us centers on tensions between reformism and more fundamental, even revolutionary changes to democratic politics. Other key tensions are rooted in aspirations for deliberative democracy to serve as both an impartial resource and as a catalyst for action.”

The State of Our Field in Light of the State of Our Democracy: My Democracy Anxiety Closet by Martha McCoy – “There is a large and troubling gap between the promise of deliberative innovations and the most prevalent practices of our largely dysfunctional democracy. A web of factors is widening this gap and increasing the urgency of addressing it. With democracy in crisis, the deliberative civic field is engaging in more collaborative efforts and in more pointed conversations about how to have a systemic impact. To have any chance of improving the state of democracy, our field needs to: 1) envision and work toward structural change; 2) find more compelling ways to describe empowered public participation and more welcoming entry points for experiencing it; and 3) address the challenge of equity head-on. As a field, we have begun to address the first two, though we have much more to do. Our field has been more reticent to address the challenge of equity.”

The Compost of Disagreement: Creating Safe Spaces for Engagement and Action by Michelle Holt-Shannon & Bruce L. Mallory – “The experiences gained in almost two decades of supporting community-based deliberative processes highlight the importance of balancing participants’ desire for civility and safety with the passionate expression of deeply held values and beliefs. Effective deliberations may surface highly contested positions in which intimidation or bullying can occur. At times, even the deliberative process itself may become the object of ideological objections. This has the potential to a create a climate of fear on the part of participants and public officials seeking solutions to complex issues related to public investments, long-term planning, or improved governance. We apply the metaphor of “community compost” to emphasize the value of eliciting diverse points of view on hot topics that have divided residents as well as public officials. By turning the fertile soil of passion, values, and disagreement, we have been able to find common ground useful to decision-makers. Balancing the need for safety and the benefits of strong disagreement, shared understanding and agreement may be achieved.”

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If you’ve seen a few articles that you’d like to read more of, we encourage you to visit www.publicdeliberation.net/jpd to download the full text. Happy reading!

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Roshan Bliss
An inclusiveness trainer and group process facilitator, Roshan Bliss serves as NCDD's Youth Engagement Coordinator and Blog Curator. Combining his belief that decisions are better when everyone is involved with his passion for empowering young people, his work focuses on increasing the involvement of youth and students in public conversations.

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