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David Mathews’ Message to the NCDD Community

At the 2014 NCDD conference last fall, we were honored to have David Mathews speak during the opening session. For those who don’t know, David is president and CEO of the Kettering Foundation.

DMandMarla-borderFor his talk, we asked David to orient attendees to the past and present landscape in Washington for dialogue and deliberation.  We wanted him to look back to his days in the Ford administration, and reflect on what he and Kettering have learned over the years about how citizen deliberation can influence Washington politics and policymakers.

He took the task very seriously, delivering a thoughtful, engaging speech which received a standing ovation from attendees! After the conference, David took the time to expand on his remarks in a must-read 12-page document he prepared for us, titled “A Historic Opportunity to Add the Public Voice that’s Missing.”

David often talks about how the organizations in our coalition have the unique ability to create the conditions that are needed for a real “public voice” to develop, and could bring this voice to Washington with the right approach. In a letter to me about his expanded remarks, David wrote:

Never in our history have we had so many organizations that are dedicated to letting citizens decide for themselves rather than insisting people support a predetermined position. I believe that NCDD can play a key role in seizing this rare opportunity.

Wow! Please take the time to read and reflect on this important document. Next week, we’ll discuss David’s message to our community on the NCDD Discussion list. You’re welcome to add your comments here to this blog post as well.

David’s speech from the conference…

I also want to share some additional text David wrote in his letter to me about his expanded remarks:

The point I am trying to make now is that there are things about the public that are difficult for Washington to get a handle on, even with all the town meetings, polling data, and focus group findings. These are useful, yet not sufficient to understand how citizens go about making decisions about policy issues.  In what I’ve written, I’ve gone into more detail about what policymakers need to know–most of all, what people will do if they face up to the difficult trade-offs that have to be made in deciding on policies.  There will always be costs and less desirable consequences to consider.

Officeholders know a great deal about what people would like and what special interests want. And they understand what they have to do to retain the support of the base that elects them. But officials have more difficulty finding out what is behind people’s opinions and interests, which is what is deeply valuable to them–what they want to protect above all else.

Officeholders don’t necessarily know what citizens are willing to live with when the things that are dear to them are in conflict, as they often are. (The conflict between freedom and security is a good example.) Even people themselves don’t know what they are willing to live with until they have been in serious deliberations with one another. Deliberation is just a term for the exercise of the human capacity for judgment, and public judgment is indispensable in a democracy where citizens have to make tough choices. Deliberation creates what I am calling a genuine public voice.

As you know, I think the organizations in your coalition, the “talking tribes,” can create the conditions that are needed for this public voice to develop. And, given the dissatisfaction with politics as usual, they have an opportunity to bring this voice to Washington. To be heard, however, the talking tribes, whatever methodology they use, will have provided what Washington is missing.

Never in our history have we had so many organizations that are dedicated to letting citizens decide for themselves rather than insisting people support a predetermined position. I believe that NCDD can play a key role in seizing this rare opportunity.

Please take the time to print out and digest David’s message to the NCDD community, which can be downloaded here. Let’s take the weekend to think about the “historic opportunity” David is describing, and think about how our community might step into this role. I hope we can dive into a thoughtful discussion about this next week!

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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  1. This is a powerful and significant message, well worth the careful consideration Sandy is suggesting. I’ve printed it, read through it quickly, underlined big chunks — and am feeling some thematic responses arising in me.

    I’m not quite ready to say what these responses are just yet, but I do have a concern — maybe a pet issue with me, but I suspect it is of broad contemporary significance — which has to do with a somewhat romantic tendency to oversimplify — that David Matthews himself does mention (“the mythical voices of the people that politicians claim to hear”).

    Is this very concept of a “public voice” an appeal to bye-gone possibilities, that simply can’t exist in today’s environment? Is this deep-seated and somewhat raging unhappiness with government something that can be resolved without some major changes in the way we understand governance today?

    David Matthews says we have a rare and unprecedented opportunity because “the talking tribes” (non-governmental organizations) are willing to let citizens make up their own minds — and these agencies could/should influence the actual public decision-making.

    He does mention the internet — but barely — when he says that “civic organizations — even with ‘internet-empowered activism’ — have yet to significantly affect the formal structures for governing”.

    I will read this article carefully, and consider its main thesis in the context of what looks to me like an exploding context of social diversity — where government is hardly able or willing to talk about critical issues at all — and we’re caught in a situation, as described in news stories today — where the US military is fighting along-side and WITH, and in another context AGAINST — the military of Iran.

    It looks to me like we are not going to emerge from this present escalating complexity by clinging to simplistic notions of governance and “the public”. We need a highly-detailed very exacting and specific framework framework for compiling the “choir of purposes” that Matthews mentions. We need new models of “political science”, new models of governance based on science.

    This “choir of purposes” needs absolute fine-grained articulation in its specifics. When that capacity emerges, maybe the other good tendencies in people that Matthews mentions (e.g. how people can and will learn from each other, leading to more innovative solutions, p.9) will come to the fore and carry us through our contemporary crisis.

  2. John Eley says:

    Bruce stresses the point that any consideration that we give to the concept of “choir of purposes” requires “absolute fine-grained articulation in its specifics”. I totally agree with this emphasis. There are many aspects of the challenge that David Matthews poses. The one that seems to be gaining some traction in the NCDD community relates to the fundamentals of the relationship between our representative democracy which lodges responsibility for governing in the form of making public policy via the passage and implementation of laws in our elected officials and those institutions managed by the elected President. Our constitutional system at the federal level at least makes no provisions for direct democracy as a form of governance in which the people speak directly on public issues with an authoritative or decisive voice. They can do so only within states such as California in which referenda are controlling. But even in those states the public voice is secured via voting. Years ago Jim Rough recognized this reality at the federal level and proposed a constitutional amendment for a Wisdom Council. He now focuses on local councils. Perhaps effective public participation via deliberation can work only at local levels or at the federal level only relative to the House of Representatives. But even here only in an advisory role. So the real question is how to establish an effective role for deliberation in a representative system.

  3. Marti Roach says:

    I greatly appreciated the call to action for those skilled in supporting public discussions.

    Two things stand out to me as we consider public participation now. I think the polls show that 96% of Americans do not feel that they have voice in national issues. And, this is not irrational since we have a system that legally but undoubtedly corrupts our representative democracy. Rekindling collective citizens’ voice needs to also address this challenge to our democracy. (see NHRebellion and Lawrence Lessig’s work as an example). Deliberation cannot solve this problem of corruption by monied interests without making that issue a target for citizen deliberation.

    Secondly, I feel that we need to rejuvenate the concept of citizenship. It is certainly not embodied just in voting. Citizenship is an active process, requiring upstream (from voting) actions: following issues, discussion and dialogue (we get this!), having relationships with our electeds, and so on.

    Models such as Citizens’ Climate Lobby present opportunities for creating political will from the grass roots. Citizen advocacy organized around issues that have deep meaning for people is another area that the dialogue and deliberation community can look to in order to see how it can add value and make these efforts more effective.

    • John Eley says:

      I agree with much of what you say in this post. My key point is that all of us who work within our constitutional system while promoting deliberative democracy and citizen engagement as very worth while endeavors, have to
      accept as a given the reality that at the federal level we have a representative democracy and not a direct one. So the central issue is how can citizens do a better job of steering their representatives who bear ultimate responsibility for acting on our behalf?

    • John Eley says:

      I checked out the NH Rebellion Web Site. I now would like to add one more point. The simplest way to get what you call the corruption of money out of our system of governance is to get the government of our lives. As long as the government controls the economic fate of its citizens, including its corporations, and generates big losers and big winners and thereby impacts on the distribution of wealth, those who are impacted or who will be impacted respond in a thoroughly rational manner by attempting to influence government policies. If you reduce the impact of the government on economic interests you reduce what you call the corruption of the process by monied interests. If you want to drive the money changers out become a Libertarian.

  4. Marti Roach says:

    So great you read my post. I like your question, yet my comment suggests that we do not have a representative democracy in many ways due to the corrupting influence of money in our system and, further, that this corruption has further diminished citizen resolve to engage. So, with respect to our field of D&D, if we do not have the courage to look at some other root causes of our current limited citizen influence and engagement, we may be spending time addressing a problem that is only a symptom of a larger issue. I am curious on your thoughts on this. My best regards,

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