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Must-Read Study on Sustaining Public Engagement

At the last NCDD conference, one of the five challenge areas we focused on was the Systems Challenge: how can we make D&D values and practices integral to government, schools, organizations, etc. so that our methods of involving people, solving problems, and making decisions happen more naturally and efficiently? At the IAP2 conference last month, we asked in the final plenary session, “How can we make public engagement integral to our systems?,” so our work is sustained over time?

SustainPEThis is certainly the question of the day in our field, and Everyday Democracy and the Kettering Foundation just released a must-read research report that provides insights on how public engagement activities can grow into a diverse, ongoing practice in communities. The report, Sustaining Public Engagement: Embedded Deliberation in Local Communities, was written by Harvard University researchers Archon Fung and Elena Fagotto.

In the report, Fung and Fagotto argue that the most successful civic engagement efforts not only address particular public issues such as school redistricting, domestic violence, or racism, but also improve the quality of local democratic governance. “Those who build institutions and practices of public engagement often work at two levels,” according to the authors. Not only do they address urgently felt needs in their communities, but, although they may not have intended it, they also improve the machinery of democratic self-government.” (Also see www.ncdd.org/1571 for a new framework I love that helps practitioners think about all three types of D&D goals–including building civic capacity.)

Sustaining Public Engagement features concrete examples of sustained community-led dialogue and problem solving efforts. The report is grounded in case studies of initiatives in Kuna, Idaho; Portsmouth, N.H.; Kansas City, Kan.; Montgomery County, Md.; and communities in Connecticut, West Virginia, South Dakota and Hawaii. The case studies draw upon different approaches to public deliberation, including National Issues Forums, community-wide study circles, and several other locally designed initiatives.

Here is an excerpt from the report:

“We attempt to understand why deliberation in our study communities has successfully spread over time by developing the concept of embedded deliberation. We explain the characteristics of embeddedness and why it is helpful to understand embeddedness on two levels: some practices embed deliberative reflection while others also embed deliberative public action. The first establishes habits of ongoing deliberation to improve community relations, clarifies the understanding of public policy problems, or provides input to policymakers, while the second translates deliberation into action by mobilizing communities and resources to solve local problems.

The first level of embeddedness is a necessary condition for the second. All of the communities that have embedded public action have also developed habits of public reflection. Some communities do not move from reflection to action because the problems they attempt to solve, from limited social trust to the need for public input, require individual transformation or ad hoc involvement, not a sustained mobilization of citizens.

Drawing upon work with researcher Joseph Goldman, we suggest that three factors in communities favor embedded deliberation:

Political authority
Elected officials must support public deliberation and be willing to consider its results and even share authority with bodies of deliberating citizens.

Deliberative capacity
Public or, more often, civic organizations in the community must develop the resources and expertise to convene structured deliberations and to mobilize people to participate in those deliberations.

Demand for democracy
Though rarely evident in our study communities, embeddedness requires a popular constituency that presses for public deliberation when such engagement becomes uncomfortable or inconvenient for local elites and authorities.

We then offer some tentative thoughts about benchmarks and measures of deliberative embeddedness and the kinds of civic leadership and strategies that are likely to sustain local deliberative practices.”

Download the report (for free) from www.everyday-democracy.org/en/Resource.136.aspx.

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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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