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Strengthening Our Nation’s Democracy 2 – Day Two

Sandy Heierbacher, NCDD’s director, is in Washington DC this week attending Strengthening Our Nation’s Democracy 2 — a working session organized by AmericaSpeaks, Demos, Everyday Democracy and Harvard University’s Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation.   Sandy will be sharing her notes via Facebook and Twitter throughout the event and we will be collecting them here along with any comments we receive.

9:19 am –  Regarding the meeting you are at: I would propose a shift from thinking about the action starting in Washington and requesting participation from the public at large to action starting in communities and neighborhoods around the country that drives action at every level of government as well as interaction between communities seeking solutions that serve all interests and needs with this energy rising upwards to drive what happens in Washington proactively rather than reactively.

The natural trap to an event and process like this starting at the to is to create a model that also starts at the top. This is reflected in how participants in this process are less people at large than people at the top of organizations working at the national level.

A shift away from centralized and representative models needs to take place if real democracy has any hope of developing.

In summary, is there any way an event like this can support a shift so that the next event reaches up to Washington, rather than down from Washington.

Thanks for carrying thoughts for us to this event.  (Added by Kenoli Oleari on 8/3/2009 at 9:19am)


Point well taken, Kenoli! Others have raised this concern here, too, so I think it’s on people’s minds here. A balance is needed between engagement of leadership and broader public involvement.  The truth is, we haven’t done a great job connecting across the various silos in the democracy reform movement in the past, let alone collaborating to run public discussions together. I think what’s happening now – leaders coming together to bridge gaps and encourage collaboration across these disconnected, but interdependent sectors – is incredibly important.  (Added by Sandy Heierbacher on 8/3/2009 at 10:07am)

Having worked in D.C. for 25 years, I know that there is tendency (quite understandable) to see the forest, but not the trees. The solutions suggested tend to be broad-brush in nature, and revolve around what capabilities the government has.  Instead they should be starting, first, with appreciating the needs of the people at the field level, and THEN working backwards to figure out what the government can then do to make that happen.  The difference between the two problem-solving approaches (on any topic) is that one is “govt.-centric” and the other is “citizen-centric”.  (Added by Stephen Buckley on 8/3/2009 at 11:19pm)

Interesting insight, Stephen! Could you give an example of something you can imagine coming out of this kind of meeting that is more citizen-centric?  (Added by Sandy Heierbacher on 8/4/2009 at 8:28am)

Here’s an example of “citizen-centric” approach.  EPA’s policy on “public invovlement” talks about the Basic Steps that EPA employees must take in order to produce good “public involvement”.  If the language is turned around, it changes from “EPA-centric” (the things that EPA will do) to “citizen-centric” (what YOU should expect from EPA’s public involvement).  I talked to Leanne Nurse (EPA) about this while we were at UNH (No Better Time) last month. I gave her a one-pager of “their” (EPA’s) five Basic Steps, but written as a citizen-centric “Bill of Rights” that tells a citizen what he/she should expect to see from EPA. (Leanne told me she liked it alot.)   It could also be written in the format of “A Simple Checklist” (my other idea at the WH brainstorm idea). Using a checklist at a public meeting, a citizen could get up and say, “Um, excuse me, but I think you just skipped Step #3.”  I talked on this with LWV (Cheryl Graeve and Kelly McFarland Stratman; both at SND2).  (Added by Stephen Buckley on 8/4/2009 at 10:45am)

10:26 am –  Sandy — Will you bring my concern for inclusivity–does the US constitution need amending? Patterns of exclusivity have developed from the Constitution itself which is not inclusive of women, people of color. Thanks for your inclusive process, Sandy  (Added by Virginia Swain on 8/3/2009 at 10:26am)


Inclusivity is coming up a lot here Virginia. Not in terms of the constitution, though (yet). What specifically needs amending, in your view? (Added by Sandy Heierbacher on 8/3/2009 at 11:56am)

Talking about inclusivity… someone on Twitter pointed out that conservatives seem to be missing from this meeting. Link. 😉  (Added by  Tim Bonnemannon 8/3/2009 at 2:04pm)

Aren’t conservatives always severely underrepresented at meetings related to deliberative democracy and democracy reform? Apparently the public engagement field is way worse in this sense than the community organizing field and the electoral reform field… but that isn’t helping us too much at this meeting.  Definitely a problem, that we’re still figuring out how to address. At this meeting, though, with all these Obama administration people giving speeches, it’s felt more Left than usual. Joe Goldman said it well: As convenors of public forums, we are non-partisan. As advocates for a policy agenda, it’s whatever advocates we can get behind us.  I feel we in this field need to be reaching out to the Right now more than ever; otherwise, our work may always be seen as promoting liberal concepts. I have a conversation scheduled with Joseph McCormick about just this in a couple days.  (Added by Sandy Heierbacher on 8/3/2009 at 9:19am)

11:31 am –  One big issue in the Dept. of Justice is giving ex-felons the right to vote. Why don’t ex-felons not have the right to vote anyway? They did their time, and if they’re citizens shouldn’t they be able to vote?  (Added by Sandy Heierbacher  on 8/3/2009 at 11:31am)

12:15 pm –   Online tools for participation that are freely and easily available to the private sector (blogs, wikis, forums, delib tools) are not avail to govt agencies cuz of various red tape and rules. BUT there seems to be real interest in the WH to create a suite of online participation tools and best practices and make them available to gov’t agencies. What can WE do to help? What tools should be included?  (Added by Sandy Heierbacher on 8/3/2009 at 9:19am)


All of the tools should be included, or as many as possible for the practitioners involved to have as many public participation options available as possible- to use as most appropriate for the given situation. When the public sector absolutely can not use certain tools (where laws can’t be modified, etc), public-private/NGO partnerships can and should be formed. (you rock, Sandy. thanks for your updates.) (Added by Tj River Bowen on 8/3/2009 at 12:17pm)

It seems like training – from the government officials down to the “customer” will be in order for these to be utilized effectively and not monopolized by special interests. I think as a “customer” I would prefer that the tools be the same for all agencies, providing more of a one-stop shop to participate in federal stuff with the ability to customize user preferences once signed in. I am reminded of DC where the city offered a prize for the group that designed the best online citizen engagement portal using open source technology – this might be a route for the federal government to go to encourage both competition and collaboration as well as open source development.  (Added by DeAnna Martin on 8/3/2009 at 12:50pm)

Grant funding for outside agencies to provide these services for the public sector. One of the problems with red tape is the safety issue for public information — by using outside agencies who specialize in online forums this can be avoided.   Tools should also be available to public agencies, nonprofits, etc. who work in the public sector to encourage and increase participation.  (Added by Lisa Singh on 8/3/2009 at 1:24pm)

Perhaps some civics training on how local and state governments work for officials and citizens.  (Added by Timothy Collins on 8/3/2009 at 2:33pm)

The hang up may not be so much the rules as the firewalls. I’m really interested in knowing more about this effort and how the neighborhood councils in Los Angeles can help.  (Added by Greg Nelson on 8/3/2009 at 7:59pm)

3:00 pm –  My two-part question for all SND2 participants is this: Are we each willing to work together and pool our funding in a systematic and collaborative way on specific projects that collectively achieve the pieces in place to implement a intuitive that incorporates the institutions of news media, education, government, entertainment, business, and NGOs getting involved to demonstrate the efficacy of the deliberative democracy movement as a whole? If so, how so? If not, then how does one propose we advance the struggle for freedom of deliberation and collaboration in governance, which is our movement in essence, to the point where mainstream America recognizes its value and instructs political representatives to adopt such measures to inform the political process?  (Added by Alexander Moll on 8/3/2009 at 3:00pm)

3:10 pm – Thanks, Sandy, for your response. After looking through the amendments to the US constitution, I will have to revise my concern that the inclusive words “persons” and “people” are there; however, those words refer to white men writing the Constitution who excluded all other “people” or “persons” as a pattern of exclusion. An example is Amendment XIX giving women the vote. Why wound’t women have been included if they were “people”. My concerns, then, are about the patterns of government, whose views of the other (native peoples and others) were never assimilated as equal in the US system. This pattern of excluding the other has been integrated even in our foreign policy if you look at our history. Our country is very young– I think of us in our adolescence, acting out without reflection. I am a loving critic of our country in the UN whose actions reflect that exclusivity. I am hearted by President Obama’s choice of Ambassador Susan Rice who is reversing that disgraceful trend.  (Added by Virginia Swain on 8/3/2009 at 3:10pm)

3:27 pm –  Was thinking abt organizing and dialogue and del per earliest post. Most of my work has been in face of racial ethnic or religious violence. How could one NOT use these tools to build capacity of grassroots? Am with you on tech issues, that will only bring ONE segment to the table.  (Added by najeeba syeed-miller on 8/3/2009 at 3:27pm)

4:19 pm –  The caucus of deliberative democracy folks I just experienced was somewhat unwieldy, but here’s one interesting idea that came up… a congressional deliberative democracy caucus: strategically pick public officials with a background/track record in public engagement and do demonstration projects with them in their districts. This caucus could build momentum and eventually support PE legislation.  (Added by  Sandy Heierbacheron 8/3/2009 at 4:19pm)


Pilot projects are a fantastic idea, especially if the demonstration projects are networked together. this is exciting!  (Added by Tj River Bowen on 8/3/2009 at 4:26pm)

Note historical precedent from the 1930s – the Federal Forum Project was originally started with 11 demonstration cities, and then expanded. (Added by Bill Keith on 8/3/2009 at 4:38pm)

How about public officials self-selecting? I like TJs networked idea  (Added by Christine Whitney Sanchez on 8/3/2009 at 4:41pm)

Could someone give me an example of what a demostration project might be?  (Added by Greg Nelson on 8/3/2009 at 7:56pm)

A demonstration project might look something like this: as part of a ‘national dialogue’ on some contentious issue like energy independence, citizen dialogues of various sizes are held in communities, online, at the state level, etc. using a variety of different group processes.   We use the Core Principles for Public Engagement (www.ncdd.org/pep) or something similar to guide how we will assess and glean results from these various methods. The results (people’s ideas, data about how people’s opinions shifted, info about people’s values and how they weighed trade-offs, etc.) is compiled and then publicized and shared with decision-makers.   This is one super-simplified example of what a demonstration project might look like, anyway.  (Added by Sandy Heierbacher on 8/3/2009 at 10:36pm)

Great explanation of the demonstration project. One addition is to figure out a system to keep the projects accountable to the core principles. I’m a bit sick of hearing or attending ‘town hall meetings’ which are simply sounding boards for policy makers to ‘listen’ when decisions have already been made or are in progress.  Also, many elected officials have access to free public air waves- it would be great to encourage / give incentives for these demonstrations to be aired on local TV and radio / podcasts and new media.  (Added by Tj River Bowen on 8/3/2009 at 10:40pm)

This in concept resembles an earlier plan developed called, Democracy Delegates.  Democracy Delegates is a demonstration project I developed with associates from different professions dedicated to the very goal and idea of a ‘congressional deliberative democracy caucus”.  I wonder if NCDD would like to explore it further or if SND2 would like to explore it?  (Added by Alexander Moll on 8/3/2009 at 11:45pm)

That’s premature. Let’s see what the Executive Branch can do within the existing laws, and then we will better know where legislation is needed to remove barriers. A congressional caucus is a good thing when there is a continuing need for topic-specific legislation.  (Added by Stephen Buckley on 8/4/2009 at 1:19am)

8:33 pm –  Globalization takes place through a foundation of human capital. In many ways, the human capital needed for globalization is lacking. Progress is required in important areas such as elevating more women to leadership positions and having talent strategies that incorporate diversity. Managers need to understand cultural differences and adjust their styles, communications, and rewards to fit within each culture.  Misunderstanding, lack information cause conflicts and problems.   Create effective communication on different levels – it’s necessity.   (Added by Noema Chaplin on 8/3/2009 at 8:33pm)

10:17 pm –  Here’s something Carolyn Lukensmeyer said today when she was reporting out for a small group… The democracy field has been dominated by a certain conceptual approach; we must commit to the inclusion of leaders from every demographic who are already doing democracy work in their own way; it’s our job to shift our language/concept.  (Added by Sandy Heierbacher on 8/3/2009 at 10:17pm)


Thanks Sandy, and thanks to Carolyn for the considerable thinking of her group in addressing some unmet needs, in an effort to strengthen our communities and the larger society. – e  (Added by Ellison Horne on 8/3/2009 at 10:35pm)

Is she talking about America Speaks? What is the “democracy field” she is talking about? There are plenty of people committed to democracy that are working with people from every demographic. The list I saw of the group assembled for this gathering did seem to be from a rather homogeneous demographic. That is hardly the breadth of the “democracy field.” It may be the breadth of the “executive directors of national groups with some connection to democracy plus some academics and foundations.” I’m happy to acknowledge that that is a pretty rarified group. It is hardly representative of the “democracy field.”  (Added by Kenoli Oleari on 8/3/2009 at 10:39pm)

At this meeting the “democracy field” or “democracy reform field” has referred to everyone working in deliberative democracy, community organizing, electoral form, civic education, etc.  I think she was talking about how the recognizable leaders and activists in this areas tend to be on the Left. Would you argue that’s not the case, Kenoli?  (Added by Sandy Heierbacher on 8/4/2009 at 8:09am)

10:26 pm –  One of the clear themes/ areas of convergence evident in the group report-outs this afternoon is that this should be one of the things the democracy reform community works on together: an Executive Order directed at govt agencies & depts that encourages public engagement, clarifies PE principles (many brought up the Public Engagement Principles created this year, www.ncdd.org/pep), etc. What do people think?  (Added by Sandy Heierbacher on 8/3/2009 at 10:26pm)


This might be inherent in the discussion, but the same exec order should give / list public engagement resources for the gov’t agencies and depts to access. The resources should be listed by state, congressional district and zip code.  (Added by Tj River Bowen on 8/3/2009 at 10:30pm)

It can’t hurt, though this is not really democracy. It is giving the public a bit more effective way to give input to people who are deciding things for them. It would probably be a good jobs bill for consultants with access to these agencies.  (Added by Kenoli Oleari on 8/3/2009 at 10:42pm)

By “public engagement resources,” do you mean organizations and facilitators, TJ? If so, what’s your reaction to the idea of creating an online database of facilitators and consultants who can be called on, hired, etc.? I’ve been talking to other organizations (IAP2, IAF, etc.) about creating an unbranded database like this for a couple of years now, and Carolyn brought it up today. Maybe now’s the time to finally move forward…  Of course, she suggested that NCDD, IAP2, AmericaSpeaks, Everyday Democracy, etc. share their databases to create such a resource, and I have HUGE doubts about people being willing to share their databases. But if there are sufficient incentives and there’s sufficient buzz in our field, maybe we could get lots of facilitators/consultants to sign themselves up.  My idea has always been to require little (in terms of information, fields completed, money, etc.) but to allow for much (optional fields about training, programs worked on, etc.).  (Added by Sandy Heierbacher on 8/3/2009 at 10:44pm)

That’s exactly what I imagine and I think that $$$ should be given to a process to a) figure out how those groups can collaborate on the database project and create some sort of ‘industry standards’ and then a ‘vetting process’ to figure out which orgs and practitioners are included. b) give some money to each organization that contributes to the database creation and c) gives money to a gov’t agency to maintain the resource. $400,000 – $1 million project / maintenance program. Part of the maintenance of the database could be a system for agencies / departments and fellow practitioners can give feedback on quality of performance… based on the core principles and maybe some additional professional standards.  You rock, btw.  (Added by Tj River Bowen on 8/3/2009 at 10:51pm)

i think its a right step somewhere, some time – but an eo might not be setting the right tone, right now eg highlevel (ses and sr mgmt across key/lead agencies) to 1) make statement of priority and 2) ask for each agency to have discussion that joins two levels and reports. this could form the grounding for an eo?  The other place for push is in legislative process eg ensuring improved guidelines/boiler plate when “public input,” “hearings,” etc are called for (and funded!) in the formulation of new/renewed federal programs.  (Added by Lars Hasselblad Torres on 8/3/2009 at 10:52pm)

If we agree that most public meetings are poorly-attended and inadequately-run, then …  What would be better: (1) a well-run public meeting that was poorly attended, or (2) a well-attended meeting that was inadequately-run?  I choose the latter, because it’s easier to improve the way the meeting is run than it is to get people to attend.  But first, people first have to KNOW that they are being invited to engage. Right now, the federal government only publicizes 1% of its Requests-for-Comments in the Federal Register. That means about 1,000 per week are NOT properly publicized.  That’s why I think the EO (or Open Govt. Directive) should direct the creation of an easy online way for people to be notified about the proposals that affect them. (That was the “MyGov.gov” idea that I offered in the OGD brainstorming session.) (Added by Stephen Buckley on 8/4/2009 at 2:00am)

I like that idea very much, Stephen.  (Added by Sandy Heierbacher on 8/4/2009 at 7:30am)

To keep the conversation going – I choose #1. Because the likely alientaing effect of a poorly-run meeting on future invovlement, trust in civic/government life is more damaging than fewer people who had a good experience and sharing that news with their networks of friends and family.  (Added by John B. Stephens on 8/4/2009 at 9:25am)

I agree, John! Too many people have been turned off of public engagement because of poorly-run meetings and meetings that promised more than they could deliver in terms of action.  (Added by Sandy Heierbacher on 8/4/2009 at 10:15am)

Of course, even though *I* made it an “either/or” choice, it does not have to be. It was a false-choice.  BUT, by presenting that question (i.e., meetings that are better-run or better-attended), I wanted to remind people that there are two (2) aspects to improving engagement:  1. Quality – How well the meeting is run.  2. Quantity – How many people are involved.  As we seek solutions, we need to keep in mind that both of these aspects affects the other (e.g., poorly-run or unclear meetings will decrease attendence; poor attendance will decrease legitimacy of the meeting).  We need to improve BOTH at the same time.  (Added by Stephen Buckley on 8/3/2009 at 10:27am)

Sandy et. al., I don’t agree with much of what I am hearing here. As a civic engagement practitioner for local government (who has also done public engagement work involving cultivating and facilitating the inclusion of hundreds of people in structured dialogues of different types), I have noticed that when some managers and leaders don’t like what they see happening or when they see it happening, processes can be hijacked — everything from timing, to how a meeting is conducted, to what is done. It sounds to me like you are blaming ‘practitioners who don’t deliver,’ easy enough to do if you are doing engagement on a consulting basis, from where you can safely sit and issue judgment of others who may not meet your standards — but if you are like me and are doing this full time in local government, you know that the best plans (even those involving the best consultants helping with the process) can be waylaid by govt. managers, and even contracted items can be difficult to implement.  As an aside, I think it is unproductive for people to issue general statements about “poorly attended” or “poorly run” meetings, and / or meetings which “promise more than they can deliver,” without reference to specific circumstances which you observed and without specific suggestions to actually improve the situation you are identifying. Otherwise, this is just a glorification exercise.  (Added by Colin Gallagher on 8/3/2009 at 11:00am)

Andy Fluke
Andy Fluke is the co-founder of NCDD and currently provides creative support to many of NCDD's publications and events. He also works with a handful of other NCDD members on a variety of projects as consultant and designer. More about his work can be found at www.andyfluke.com.

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