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IJP2 Article Part 7: Build on and learn from what’s already in place

In order to build the “joint ownership” described in the previous section posted about the “Systems Challenge,” a necessary step in many communities is to convene and connect the various groups and leaders who are already mobilizing people locally around issues and problems. Our challenge leaders suggest that community foundations and others who tend to play convening roles should bring these local leaders together to talk about what’s currently being done and by whom, and to start thinking and talking about a) how they can work together better and b) what barriers to collaboration need to be overcome.

hands200pxDuring our “Reflective Panel” plenary session, a conversation among four leaders in the dialogue and deliberation community, panelist Carolyn Lukensmeyer (President of AmericaSpeaks) emphasized the need for practitioners to understand and work within the existing political structures in their communities. She advised practitioners to:

  • Develop relationships with the people in the agencies and government sectors you want to influence to do this work regularly, such as city managers, key leaders in agencies that have some resources, and elected officials.
  • Coordinate your efforts with the predictable cycles of decision making, such as with budget cycles.
  • Know where there is a felt need to link public will to political will, and seek to understand the issues related to this felt need.

Some workshop presenters focused on the importance of learning from and building on processes that have been embedded in government for decades or centuries. Woodbury College faculty member Susan Clark’s workshop, Direct Democracy in the Mountains, explored what can be learned from Vermont and Switzerland’s long-running town meetings. “For centuries,” Clark says, “town meetings have involved citizens from all income and education levels and political perspectives in the ‘public talk’ at the heart of this decision-making institution.”

Another example of long-standing embedded processes that are certainly worth learning from is neighborhood assemblies and neighborhood council systems. According to Matt Leighninger (2009), “the history of these neighborhood governance structures offers a rich legacy of successes, mistakes, strengths, and weaknesses that can inspire and inform democracy reform at every level of government.”

HalSaunders200pxSeveral workshops focused on creating or capitalizing on what Archon Fung and Elana Fagotto (2009) call deliberative catalysts – “centers that promote deliberation and assist organizations that seek public input or want to increase civic engagement.” One workshop focused on establishing university and college centers as platforms for deliberative democracy. Across the country, a diverse network of university-based public deliberation programs focused on practical scholarship and hands-on deliberative activities has been forming in recent years.

Another workshop, led by Taylor Willingham (LBJ Presidential Library) and four of her colleagues at various libraries across the country, urged public engagement practitioners not to overlook libraries and university extensions programs, since they are “the people’s university, the public’s forum for dealing with contentious public issues.” Extensions educators provide problem-solving expertise in every county in the U.S., and libraries are ideal venues for public forums. As the co-presenters pointed out, there are more libraries in the U.S. than there are McDonald’s restaurants.

Other workshops recognized individuals and government agencies championing the systematic use of public engagement processes in our institutions. One workshop highlighted the innovative Citizen Councilor Network of King County (Seattle area), which has gotten local government to actively promote and support the formation of numerous small dialogue groups that meet to discuss on an ongoing basis important regional and societal issue.

Newer efforts that build on existing structures were highlighted at the conference as well, e.g., Vets4Vets, a program which trains Iraq-era veterans to facilitate dialogue among new veterans. Working closely with the Veterans Administration (VA), Vets4Vets’ goal is to build an international peer support community using local groups, phone and internet connections among the growing number of vets who have served in the global “War On Terror.”

Next section (coming soon):  Establish your own definition of success

Note from Sandy:

This is my seventh blog post featuring content of an article published in the latest edition of the International Journal of Public Participation (IJP2), titled Taking our Work to the Next Level: Addressing Challenges Facing the Dialogue and Deliberation Community. The article outlines our learnings in two of the five challenges we focused on at the 2008 NCDD conference in Austin: the “Systems Challenge” (How can we make D&D values and practices integral to government, schools, and other systems?) and the The “Framing Challenge” (How can we talk about and present D&D work in more accessible ways?). You can download the full article from the IJP2 site.

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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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