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Common Sense California Reports on Deliberative Democracy Conference

We just received the latest update on Common Sense California’s (www.commonsenseca.org) recent conference on deliberative democracy. By all accounts, the February 23, 2007 conference appears to have been a great success, with seventy-eight civic leaders, journalists, elected officials, foundation officers, academics and students in attendance at the conference hosted by the Pepperdine School of Public Policy and Common Sense California with additional sponsorship by the New America Foundation. For updates, visit CSC’s website above, and to see an excerpt of their report, read on…

The conference proved to be an extraordinary learning experience and an opportunity for thoughtful discussion and creativity in pursuit of the basic democratic values of our republic and a higher level of performance in solving major public problems Common Sense California has been wrestling for the past 18 months with the challenge of determining how to help rebuild mutual trust between citizens and elected officials. At the Pepperdine conference we heard from leading practitioners in the field including top representatives from the Stanford Center for Deliberative Democracy (cdd.stanford.edu), AmericaSpeaks (www.americaspeaks.org), Viewpoint Learning (www.viewpointlearning.org), the Citizens Assembly of British Columbia (www.citizensassembly.bc.ca), and the proposed Citizens Initiative Review in the states of Washington and Oregon (www.cirwa.org).

Projects have been carried out in the United States, Canada, Australia, Brazil, China, and several different European nations. The topics that have been addressed have ranged from the allocation of a city budget to the planning for recovery from Hurricane Katrina to the question of integrating Catholic and Protestant youth in the schools of Northern Ireland. The size of the participating groups has ranged from a few dozen to more than a thousand persons. The amount of attention paid by the media to these processes has ranged from zero to major attention on national television.

Two consistent themes are evident when examining these diverse experiences:

(a) when “average” people are convinced that their views will be taken seriously, they are willing to study background materials carefully, to listen to their fellow participants with an open mind and to work conscientiously to achieve a practical, pragmatic solution to the problems they are tackling. Participants in deliberative democracy projects uniformly report that these meetings are highly meaningful to them and they value the opportunity to define where the public interest lies in cooperation with other citizens.
(b) Except where government officials have taken an early and strong interest in deliberative democracy projects, there is a very sparse record of these deliberative democracy experiments having a significant and enduring effect on government policy.

The Board of Common Sense California then met immediately following the conference to consider the recommendations that had emerged. In brief, the Board has adopted four priorities (in no particular order):

  • Identify and support local and regional deliberative democracy projects including such topics as traffic congestion in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties; Threshold 15/10 (an effort to expand the housing supply in San Mateo County); and work to assist local school boards to involve the public, in deeper and more effective ways than the traditional public hearing, in efforts to improve the quality of public education. We wish to identify and encourage many more such projects and work toward the careful evaluation of what can be learned from this work.
  • Seek funding for statewide citizen deliberations on pending state legislation to improve access and quality in health care.
  • Build support for a version of Citizens Initiative Review tailored to the needs of California.
  • Support the work of our colleague organization, the New America Foundation, to create a Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform in California along the lines of the existing model in British Columbia.

To pursue our priorities we will now seek to employ a staff person who can provide leadership for our efforts, under the supervision of an expanded Board of Directors, and with the active assistance of volunteers throughout California. Prior to March 25 we will post excerpts from the major presentations to the conference plus summaries of the key group discussions on future priorities on website of Common Sense California (www.commonsenseca.org).

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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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