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Book Club Launch: Summary of Foreward & Intro from Martin Carcasson

Hello all, and welcome to the first NCDD book club. My name is Martín Carcasson, and I’m a communication studies professor at Colorado State University and the director of the CSU Center for Public Deliberation (CPD), which I founded in 2006 to serve as an impartial resource to the northern Colorado community and provide capacity for a wide variety of deliberative events.

I’ve been asked to start us off in the discussion of the new book Democratizing Deliberation by summarizing the Foreword by Kettering President David Mathews and the introduction by Derek Barker, Noelle McAfee, and David McIvor, who also serve as the book’s overall editors.

So what I have here is a rundown of each selection including some of my initial thoughts. As Sandy requested, I included quite a few quotes I thought people may want to respond to directly.

One brief note of self-disclosure… The CPD is a part of the NIF network, which is connected to the Kettering Foundation, which has published this book. I have worked closely with them and completed research for them over the last 6 years. David Mathews’ work has certainly influenced my conception of deliberation, and I’ve worked closely with Derek Barker as well. I’m not here to cheerlead, but I thought I would be transparent about that as we get this conversation going.

Let’s start with David Mathews’ foreword

Mathews starts it off by writing: “Democracy has many meanings, and debating its meaning is one of the characteristics of a democracy” (vii). Seemed a particularly apt way to begin NCDD’s first book club book.

The foreword provides an overview of the Kettering Foundation’s perspective and experiences researching and supporting deliberative efforts since the 1970s.  Mathews explains how their understanding of deliberation has expanded and adjusted throughout the years, and how they now see deliberation…

“as decision making on normative or morally charged issues that require the exercise of judgment rather than reason alone. This decision making proves to be difficult because things that people hold dear or consider valuable are in tension with one another, and the tensions can’t be eliminated because they grow out of shared concerns….Because the tensions can’t be resolved by eliminating one or more of the imperatives, they have to be worked through to the point that people find some balance and can move ahead, even if they aren’t in full agreement. We have found that these tensions lie behind many problems that appear to be technical yet can’t be solved unless the tensions are recognized and addressed” (ix-x).

For me, this focus on tensions, trade-offs, and tough choices is a hallmark of deliberation and the NIF model, and is particularly important to the way I do my work personally. I recognize, however, that there are tensions to focusing on such tensions. Some argue that we get bogged down when we focus on the tensions, making it harder to ever move to action as “paralysis by analysis” tends to take over. Others support more of a social justice perspective and may argue that to frame the heart of problems like poverty or environmental degradation as involving tensions between competing values gives too much credit and support to perspectives that should not be so strongly supported. For me, one potential topic of discussion focuses on these issues: to what degree should we focus on tensions as the heart of the deliberative perspective?

David then turns to the relationship between deliberation and action, which will clearly be a key theme throughout the book, and is always a critical issue at the NCDD conferences I have been a part of since 2006.  David argues that Kettering has also come to see “deliberative decision-making as part of acting, not as something separate or distinct. We have called this integrated activity deliberative politics” (x). We’ll see more on that from the introduction chapter.

The foreword ends with David taking on the misimpression that Kettering focuses on “some special, esoteric technique that can only be mastered by highly trained experts” (x). This raises another interesting topic for me. What degree of expertise does deliberation require? This is one of the basic questions of democracy when focused on whether the general public can truly be expected to deliberate, but here I mean more in the sense of the expertise of the deliberative practitioner.

In some ways, the NIF model makes it easy for anyone to potentially grab a discussion guide, either read an accompanying moderator’s guide to running forums or perhaps attend a short training session, and then host a deliberative forum. As the deliberative movement matures and we think more deeply about the move to action and the deep commitments to equality and inclusion—i.e. as it “democratizes”—to what degree do the expectations on deliberative practitioners increase to the point of requiring much more time and a broader skill set?

Introduction: Democratizing Deliberation (Barker, McAfee, and McIvor)

The introduction walks through three broad steps taken in democratic theory over the past 50 years: (a) the prevailing “adversarial democracy” view from the middle of the 20th century focused on competing interests and elections, (b) the “first generation” development of the deliberative ideal built off of the flaws of the prevailing view, and (c) the next/current generation of deliberative thinkers and practitioners adjusting to the flaws of the first generation.  Many topics of conversation here, including reactions to the three steps overall and the specific tenants and criticisms of each.

The authors summarize the first generation of deliberative democracy theory by drawing on John Rawls and Jurgen Habermas, and explain how in 20 short years, John Dryzek would argue that among theorists, the “essence of democracy itself is now widely taken to be deliberation, as opposed to voting, interest aggregation, constitutional rights, or even self-government” (quoted, 7). Through the influence of Rawls and Habermas, and then further developed by Gutmann and Thompson, Cohen, Benhabib and others, key concepts to deliberative theory such as legitimacy, consensus, rationality, reciprocity, and inclusion are introduced that remain key aspects of the theoretical discussion concerning deliberation (pp.9-10).

The authors then focus on three critiques of first-generation deliberation:

  1. The deliberative ideal could not make room for different identities or forms of expression
  2. Deliberation was seen as purely communicative and divorced from action and passion.
  3. Even if desirable, the deliberative ideal was too impractical to make a difference on a large scale.

The next generation is responding to these flaws with three trends related to “democratizing deliberation”:

  1. Broadening the understanding of deliberative reason and discourse and welcoming more forms of expression, including a mixture of emotion and reason.
  2. Shifting from a focus on consensus to recognize that disagreement is an unavoidable aspect of the process of working through difficult choices.
  3. Allowing for new theories of how deliberation might be practical on a larger scale and in a wider variety of contexts, which shift deliberation away from a theoretical construct to a more “practical, problem-solving, and world building activity”(14).

Key questions to perhaps address here include:

  • Were the main tenants and critiques of the prevailing view and the first-generation captured sufficiently?
  • Are the current trends adequately beginning to address those critiques?
  • What other consequences or flaws have arisen due to the new trends?

In the conclusion, Barker, McAfee, and McIvor write: “The thinkers in this volume present a more complex picture of deliberative theory than is commonly recognized—both by its proponents as well as its critics. Rather than dichotomous oppositions between reason and emotion, consensus and difference, freedom and power, thought and action, and theory and practice, these essays present a view of deliberation that is sensitive to the complexity of democratic politics in large-scale pluralistic societies.” (15)

For me, this final quote brought up a question. As the chapter is framed, each step was clearly a reaction to the one before it. Does the story represent a Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis pattern, or is it more of an ongoing evolution that will see many more stages? To make the case for the former, perhaps the hallmark of deliberative theory and practice now, as exemplified by the quote, is recognizing the inherent and ongoing tensions between reason and emotion, consensus and difference, freedom and power, thought and action, and theory and practice. Early stages perhaps strayed too far from seeking the golden mean between these, framing one side as virtuous and the other corrupt. Are we at a stage where we recognize the inherent, never-ending tensions between these concepts, and can now focus on helping our communities negotiate them?

So with that, let’s get this started. All of you can obviously bring up any issues, questions, or ideas that came to you as you read, my comments and questions are just to help get us started. I’ll jump in every once in a while during the discussion, but I am not considering myself the moderator of this discussion, just the initial catalyst.

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  1. Noelle McAfee says:

    Terrific start, Martin! I’m glad you’ve highlighted David Mathews point about tension and asked us this: to what degree should we focus on tensions as the heart of the deliberative perspective? I would say “to a high degree” indeed — as a matter of deliberators’ facing true dilemma, what Bernard Williams calls “dilemmatic choice.” (See Bonnie Honig http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2267/is_n3_v61/ai_15853265/pg_3/)
    And you’re right that those operating in a simple justice frame resist this. All my friends in the public interest community tend to see solutions as simple good over evil matters, which makes deliberation irrelevant and advocacy key. Personally, there are many issues that I think are simple but to be deliberative I need to appreciate how those with different p.o.v. are motivated by things that I can at least recognize as important.

    • Thanks so much for starting us off by being the first to comment, Noelle! I agree that it’s hard to get advocacy-focused people to “get” the value of understanding different points of view. They may sign on to the concept of deliberation, but often only because they think people will come around to their perspective if only they thought deeply enough about the issue at hand.

      • Margaret Holt says:

        Sandy, often when we talk about deliberation, we talk about what we are doing with others, but one of my NIF colleagues, Windy Lawrence (Texas), pointed out in an email in Februay the internal tension for individuals in a deliberation:

        I think it’s at the heart of what we are trying to do when we deliberate – we are attempting to be authentic in our own voice, true to our life experiences, values etc., while simultaneously trying to remain open to the possibility of change – and these two forces are a tension that we carry with us as we deliberate. Windy Y. Lawrence, February 4, 2012

    • Margaret Holt says:

      My experience with National Issues Forums suggests that many folks have not taken an opportunity prior to the forums to consider their own self interests, let alone those of others. They feel “tension”, but they haven’t named the tension. As ridiculous as this may sound, first they have to come into a space to talk. Something has to happen for people to recognize “we need to talk.”

  2. Phil Neisser says:

    Thank you Martin and Noelle. My two cents are something like this: I think that we need to say loudly and clearly that deliberation welcomes tension, or rather that deliberation offers a way society can manage tension productively without excluding any point of view. But this does not mean that tensions are “the heart of the deliberative perspective.” To me they are not. To me the tensions that deliberation can help us deal with are instead at the heart of human life, in that differing people often hold incompatible beliefs on issues of importance to them. In other words, deliberation does not make create the tension or make it worse, and it has the potential to make it better. Thus what we need to do is frame deliberation as inherently ready to include competing points of view. And during deliberative discussions those people who do not see any competing values at play in the issue at hand – and who therefore think we should stop analyzing and instead get to down to business and work for justice – can and should voice that point of view. If they instead want deliberation to begin where they’re already at on the issue, I would respond that they are confusing deliberation with advocacy, just as Noelle said. One can advocate in many realms; deliberative venues are one type of venue. And if we do not include all peaceful comers in those settings then the deliberation will not succeed. real democracy is time-consuming but worth it.

    • Interesting distinction, Phil! I’m glad you jumped in. I wonder… would you be comfortable with the statement “exploring tensions are at the heart of deliberative practice” (or deliberative processes) rather than “the deliberative perspective”? Looking over the foreward, I don’t see David Mathews using the term “the deliberative perspective” — I think that came from Martin’s question in the summary above. (I’m looking at p. ix)

      • Phil Neisser says:

        A while ago in this impressive discussion Sandy asked me a question and I only now saw it. Yes, Sandy, you have better articulated what I was trying to say, with the word “exploring” a key addition. Good deliberative practice explores tensions; that is indeed at it’s heart. And, while deliberative practice is based on the hope that it will lead to a reduction in tension, it is also accepting of the inevitability — even the desirability — that disagreements will persist, no matter how much, or how rationally, the participants talk with each other. It is exciting to see so many participants in this conversation articulating this idea so well.

        As to the risk of elitism, many of you have also spoken wisely, recognizing that our societies feature high levels of inequality of involvement in politics, preparation to be involved in politics, resources to enable involvement in politics, and amounts of power available to those who do take the trouble to get involved. This is a major challenge to democracy everywhere, and something that dialogue and deliberation events cannot wipe away no matter how well designed. Thus if and when we see such inequality appear in our events let us not beat ourselves up over that as if such results mean that we are being “elitist.” On the other hand, it is up to us to use dialogue and the dialogue message as best we can to bridge the gap. In this part that means getting the word out — and showing over and over — that “ordinary people” can indeed participate wisely in public discussions, at least given the right set-up (as has been said well by so many of you). And in part that means that those who convene conversations must be committed to trying to bring all stakeholders into the process.

        Finally, I think it is important to remember (since we are discussing a theory book) both that we need theory to clarify what we are doing and what we should be doing, and that in many practical situations it is not necessary – or even wise – to offer or worry about certain theoretical distinctions, such as that between dialogue and deliberation. We might say, as theorists, that in deliberation the process of giving reasons and trying to weigh reasons is at the fore, because a primary aim is reflection to support decision-making (not necessarily making actual policy decisions, just having as an aim seeing what can all can decide together on a given subject). Whereas in dialogue the process of sharing so as to mutually understand and include is at the fore. Yet in practice these two sorts of process are not mutually exclusive, and both can lead to the forming of new publics (as has been said).

    • Phil,

      I certainly agree with your points. When I explain my work to new groups, I typically start with an explanation of wicked problems, and make the point that most of the problems we face in a diverse democracy involve competing underlying values in tension that require high quality communication to be able to address. Wicked problems can never be solved, but we can certain find better ways to balance the competing values or even transcend the tensions. I then explain how our dominant forms of public problem solving are either adversarial or expert based, neither of which handle wicked problems well. I then offer deliberative politics as an alternative that can.

      Overall, its not at all that deliberation introduces or creates tensions, but rather the problems we face inherently have those tensions, and while the dominant forms of politics avoid them or frame things as if there is no tension (i.e. good v. evil), deliberative politics works both to uncover those tensions and help people work through them. Deliberative politics, at its best, is designed to help us have the conversations we need to have, which in turn supports the sort of creative, colloborative actions wicked problems require.

      • Kim Crowley says:

        I’d like to shift the focus of the “tensions” question a bit from *degree* to the question of what *types* of tension matter most. In the best conflict resolutions I’ve created, I’ve gotten in the door at the point of surface tension, tunneled right past that to get inside, opened the windows to let out some of the steam, and then found that at core there never seems to be a tension in values, contrary to surface appearances.

        We all seem to share the same core values that Mathews listed: “the need to be free, to be secure, to be treated fairly.” Tensions seem always to be about the “best” route to get to these values, not the values themselves. I think we two often get distracted by ineffectively choosing tensions to frame.

        If tensions don’t actually lie in core values, then the real work is figuring out what criteria to program into our deliberative GPS in order to find satisfying routes to the core values we share. If we just ask for “best” route, we’re doomed. When we clarify what kind of route we want (scenic? least time? shortest distance? — to use the road metaphor) then the tensions among criteria no longer seem like tensions to me — they are just areas that need clarity when it comes to programming the dialogue software so to speak.

  3. One of the things that caught my attention in the intro was the distinction between an earlier understanding of deliberation as focused on reason and rhetoric, which emphasized protecting discourse from the “undemocratic forces of partiality, emotion, inequality, rhetoric, and coercion,” and the newer understanding of deliberation as “making room for affect, emotion, storytelling, and particular perspectives.”

    When we held the first National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation in 2002 (which of course led to NCDD forming as a Coalition), we often felt it was important to distinguish between dialogue and deliberation, and particularly to encourage dialogue (focused more on sharing stories and perspectives) to occur before deliberation (focused more on exploring different options and understanding potential trade-offs) since many deliberative efforts seemed very weak in that area, moving quickly from brief introductions to rational discussions about options.

    Has this truly changed in practice, or just in the minds of theorists? Are deliberation practitioners providing sufficient space for emotion, storytelling, and so on? I’d be curious to see book club members’ perspectives on this.

    • Lori Britt says:

      To Sandy’s point about distinguishing between dialogue and deliberation, this has continued to be a challenge for me to make sense of. Part of me says it doesn’t make sense to try and tightly define and demarcate but part of me sees value in clarification.

      I think, first of all, that all forms of deliberation work best when we can operate from within dialogic principles. But I also respect that at times, the conversation needs to just be about truly seeking to understand one another and not doing “choice work” and so thus, I think there are “dialogic” gatherings that would not be considered deliberative if we narrowly construct deliberation as choice work. One more monkey wrench to throw in – if we are clarifying definitions, how is a commitment to social justice causes through deliberation not “advocacy”?

      It seems to me with the issue of what counts as dialogue and what counts as deliberation and with Noelle and Martin’s comments about the differences between those with a social justice sense and those with a deliberative sense what happens is that we try to define things in a way which keeps others from the table, from the right to claim what they are doing as within the purview of deliberative democracy.

      Which may lead to my third point (if anyone else can follow my stream of consciousness here…) about the critique of deliberation as requiring “expertise” and skills which set deliberation apart as something only a select few can do. Our job at practitioners of deliberation (I am academic but one who teaches students to lead deliberative processes) I think we should be about inviting as many people to the “table” and to the conversations as possible. Yes, there are some necessary skills and critical vantage points we can help instill in others, but I think our job is to build capacity in others. If we can show others the benefit of engaging in these types of conversations in their communities, in their living rooms, and in the places of everyday talk (looking forward to the Mansbridge chapter), I think we spread the seeds that will lead to re-engagement and ward off paralyzing cynicism.

      Looking forward to the continued discussions.

  4. Barbara Simonetti says:

    From where I sit which is more practicioner than academic, I still see deliberation efforts, and even some dialogue efforts, being too controlled and closed and not planned with enough time to go deep. It takes time to to tell stories and respond from an authentic place. I suspect a lot of this has to do with fear. That is, fear on the part of the process leaders that the strong feelings underlying tensions can lead to anger and loss of control of the process. This seems to happen despite the fact that most of us can recite the stages of group formation that puts storming as a prerequisite to performing.

    • I understand that academic theories can be frustrating to think about when you are lodged in the middle of real life happenings.

      Would you be willing to share your thoughts on how the next generation can influence the current process leaders and assure them that the old models–anger and a loss of control–are being replaced by the newer ones as identified on page 14?

    • Lori Britt says:

      Do you think this has to do more with a potential loss of control by facilitators or a recognition of the limited amount of time many people may be willing to give to participate in such events. I like things like the Study Circles model for long-term commitments and really getting to understand the issues and one another’s perspectives deeply, but I also know that at some events that are rub in a few hours, there is not room for as much storytelling. How do we balance these impulses?

      • Barbara Simonetti says:

        Lori, I think it is some of both but there are ways to let go of control and let the dialogue be less restricted even in a smaller time frame. For instance, I was with a group this week who during a 75 minute session, allowed only 20 minutes of peer interaction that was not mediated by the facilitator. These peer to peer conversations also only allowed us to speak with 2 other individuals in the room. The goal was to help weave the community while getting answers to some critical questions. I think they only got about half way to where they could have gotten if they had let go a little more of the process and allowed a little more of the World Cafe or Open Space process flavor into the meeting..

      • Hmm. I wonder if part of this is trust. We talk a lot about citizens not trusting public leaders, and increasingly about public leaders not trusting citizens much either. Do facilitators and D&D organizers also have a lack of trust for citizens’ knowledge or capabilities? Or perhaps they don’t trust “the process” enough…

      • Nancy J Hess says:

        At root we are talking about building community which includes many venues for dialogue, interaction, sharing. When a practitioner steps in, the work to be done extends far beyond the design of one engagement around deliberation. Perhaps we can work at finding ways to map these communities (using graphic facilitation or other creative approaches) to illustrate all the junctures for interaction, beyond the immediate context, so people understand that deliberation extends from community. Whether they choose to develop the community is another matter, but raising awareness is a core competency for our work.

  5. Roger Bernier says:

    I have enjoyed reading this book so far and appreciate the work of all those who have supported it and those who have contributed to it.

    When seeking to interest government in public engagement, I have found it useful to highlight that public engagement is for those situations in which there are competing values. I would not say it is for normative or moral decisions, but for difficult public policy decisions or “sticky issues”. We need to be able to make the case for how public engagement adds value for decision makers, and assistance with addressing “sticky issues” has potential traction.

    I believe solving problems entails multiple stages, and while we only deliberate to ultimately take action, we should see dialogue and deliberation as separate because they take place at an earlier stage in the problem solving process. If dialogue and deliberation are linked to action too strongly, there is too much risk that participants will not come open-minded to the process but instead come with their solutions already in mind. As Steve Rosell once said to me when we discussed this challenge, he said we tell clients “having the answer is a learning disability.” That take the focus away from action at the early stage of the process.

    Roger Bernier

    • Thank you for posting, Roger. I can’t help but ask a follow-up question to your comment:

      What then are the best ways to get people to disassociate dialogue and deliberation from action…that is, to see them not as precursors to action but as the ends to their own means?

      • Roger Bernier says:

        I would say dialogue and deliberation ARE precursors to a decision and a decision is a precursor to action or implementation. In the case of government agencies seeking to better inform their decision making, the citizens are being asked to provide thier input into a pending decision not to take responsibility for implementing the decision. That would be the responsibility of the government agency making the decision, though of course citizens could support or help implement if that was indicated. Perhaps it resembles in some way the work of a jury. Jury members are not expected to go beyond rendering their verdict. Likewise, citizens can be engaged in rendering a public judgment on a difficult decision.

      • Thank you for clarifying, Roger!

    • One way I have been thinking about this lately is as a cycle rather than a linear process. I see democracy as an ongoing conversation, and the richer the conversation, the better we will do balancing the various competing values and tensions underlying all tough issues (see my response above).

      The work of the CPD is now based on the notion of the deliberative cycle, which moves from deliberative issue analysis, to convening, to facilitating interactive communication (debate, deliberation, or dialogue, depending on the situation), and then reporting, which feeds back to deliberative issue analysis (I am away from my main computer, but I can post the graphic tomorrow morning). Action lies in the middle. Depending on the issue, we may need to take several paths around the cycle, hopefully with each trip around the cycle improving the conversation. Yes, at some point we act, but in terms of the cycle, action simply changes the dynamics of the ongoing conversation. Since wicked problems are never solved, actions that attempt to provide a better way of managing the tensions are not an end point, but rather just another way to shift the conversation.

      This cycle has helped me realy think about the links between debate, deliberation, dialogue, and action.

      • Martin Carcasson says:

        Here is the link to the deliberative inquiry graphic (http://www.cpd.colostate.edu/cycleofdeliberativeinquirychart.pdf).

      • Barbara Simonetti says:

        Martin, the idea of a cycle really resonates. It puts me in mind of the learning cycle from adult learning literature and of the concept of an ongoing strategic conversation from business strategy literature. Both are derived from observation of how groups of adults actually learn and come to the possibility of both individual and collective action. Both acknowledge the idea of iteration and, especially in the case of business strategy, they are based on the assumption that accelerating change, increasing interdependence and increasing complexity all require continuous learning in conjunction with many minds in order to know what to do next as groups and as individuals.

      • Martin Carcasson says:

        Yes, Barbara, the cycle is very much connected with the idea that our communities need to see themselves as learning communities, constanting learning and adjusting.

    • “I have found it useful to highlight that public engagement is for those situations in which there are competing values. I would not say it is for normative or moral decisions, but for difficult public policy decisions or “sticky issues”.”
      I am having trouble understanding your differentiation between “competing values” and “moral decisions.” Can you elaborate? Last night I moderated NIF’s Nation in Debt where participants talked about self-reliance, about more responsibility to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves, about fairness in asking a wise investor to bail out a foolish investor. To me and the participants, these are competing values and also moral issues.

  6. Charles Knickerbocker says:

    Here’s a link to the book –

  7. Great summary.

    I’m intrigued by the thread on “legitimacy” throughout the Introduction. It helps frame what I take to be one of the practical problems of theories of democracy. In an earlier understanding, democracy is all about the clash of competing interests, and “an adversarial contest for resources”. Yet we find, at the end of the twentieth century, that this adversarial contest now undermines rather than supports legitimacy. Hence the crisis (p.6).

    In the comments above, I read references to authenticity, going deep, giving time for the process to work, and not being seen to come with pre-conceived answers as pointers to legitimacy as well.

    This suggests, first, that “legitimacy” (or perhaps “perceived legitimacy”) is one of the acid tests of effective democracy; second, that processes that lead to perceived legitimacy in one time and context may fail in other times and contexts, and third, that our various democracy-supporting processes, even when they work, generally rely on other, almost invisible factors that we tend to take for granted, till they change or disappear.

    If we understood these hidden factors, our theories of democracy might be more stable and, conversely, we might become even more adept at adapting our processes to take the shifts in the previously hidden factors into account.

    • Dave Sanford says:

      Just catching up. Chris says above “processes that lead to perceived legitimacy in one time and context may fail in other times and contexts”, seems like if we use some vague and hackneyed description of legitimacy (e.g. greatest good for the greatest number) and whatever the best polling information for perceived legitimacy – sure deliberation and democracy have to always be evolving better methods and mechanisms or it will fail in both real legitimacy and perceived – which presumably is at least somewhat related. I expect that understanding the hidden factors will help.

  8. Janice Thomson says:

    On the issue of “tensions”, in the foreword, what stood out to me was the line “tensions lie behind many problems that appear to be technical yet can’t be solved unless the tensions are recognized and addressed.” Consider, for example, how GMO regulations were developed in Europe (in open public deliberation which included a wide range of issues) vs. in the US (behind closed doors among “experts” asking a limited set of technical questions). Few public policy issues are in fact “purely technical”.

    In the introduction, the idea that deliberative democracy may be better suited to modern realities than the old model of political party as interest aggregator is interesting indeed. What seems to be missing though is an answer to the question “what about the politically disenfranchised?” In advanced democracies around the world, the number of people who are completely disconnected from public life AND whose interests are no longer represented by political parties has grown significantly since the 1970s. The idea of deliberation helping to create a “culture of civic action” is certainly appealing, but could it also inadvertently reinforce exclusion?

    • You bring up an issue I wrestle with daily. Do you think that technology and the fact that people are growing up with smartphones and tablets and computers at their fingertips is causing individuals to be more engaged or making them more isolated? What impact does that have on deliberation?

      • Janice Thomson says:

        I was actually thinking about people who are excluded from public life due to economic/social/cultural factors. Engaging such groups in deliberation requires extra effort and cost that is rarely expended. In a sense, the old paternalistic model of strong political parties might have served them better (think post-WWII British Labour Party).

        However, since technology does tend to narrow the range of people and ideas we encounter, that could indeed also exclude people from broader public life.

        The answer in regards to deliberation would be the same though for both types of exclusion — a need for extra efforts to engage the unengaged, as well as methods designed to meet their needs, not just those of the engagers.

  9. Lori Britt says:

    Just a test comment to see if my gravatar is working!

  10. I wanted to bring in something from David’s foreward. David talks about deliberation not being “some special, esoteric technique that can only be mastered by highly trained experts” (x). This reminds me of Eric Liu’s recent article in The Atlantic, “Democracy Is for Amateurs: Why We Need More Citizen Citizens.” In the article, Eric talks about the “work of democratic life — solving shared problems, shaping plans, pushing for change, making grievances heard” becoming too professionalized. He’s talking about lobbyists, regulators, consultants, bankrollers, wonks-for-hire, and ‘smart-ALECs’.

    Do folks think deliberation is elitist in some ways? (And in what ways?) Have we slipped too far toward the groups Eric called out? Or are we perhaps the antidote, or the bridge between everyday citizens and an ever-professionalized democracy?

    Eric’s article is at http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/05/democracy-is-for-amateurs-why-we-need-more-citizen-citizens/256818/ if folks want to check it out.

    • Martin Carcasson says:

      One of the reasons I included the question in my summary about the level of expertise needed for deliberation connects here. I do think that our political communication is dominated by elites and entrenched voices that often shut the public out (or just see the public as spectators/voters/consumers, not real actors or problem-solvers). I think deliberative efforts can be elitist, but when done well should go beyond that. I do believe the general public has the capacity to deliberate difficult issues if given a good environment, so I don’t think the public needs expertise or that deliberation is just for elites, but I think that our political environment is of such low quality (due to the dominance of strategic voices that frame things in simple ways, demonize opponents, and cause undo polarization, etc.) that the first necessary step for any deliberative effort is to undo alot of the damage and rebuild relationships and trust. That takes work and capacity to do well, which I believe increases the necessary skill level of deliberative practitioners. I do still believe that anyone can host an NIF forum or a World Cafe, and I believe those sorts of events are beneficial to our democracy and make important impacts. But as I argued in Beginning with the End in Mind (http://www.publicagenda.org/files/pdf/PA_CAPE_Paper2_Beginning_SinglePgs_Rev.pdf), if we want to move beyond the first order educational and individual impact effects of deliberation to broader community impacts and to improve institutional decision-making, the ante gets raised, and to be done well (i.e. supported by good information, honoring equality and inclusion, leading to action, etc.) it requires significant capacity and expertise.

      Perhaps a story may help. I started the CPD 6 years ago primarily to give students an interesting experience and play with the idea of the impact a “passionately impartial” organization could have on a community. I assumed my students and I would pick some topics, try to get people to show up, and run forums. All pretty much 1st order stuff. We realized very quickly that we were filling a void in the community, and that the community really needed us to help with a wide variety of issues. Our events very quickly became much more than simple meetings run by students, and now had real consequences. For the past 5 years, every CPD event was initiated by an outside organization asking us to help them (the city, school board, United Way, etc.) As those consequences increased, I came to realize that what happens before and after the meeting were potentially more important that the meeting itself. The problem is that the “before and after” work required different skills sets I had to develop, and required ALOT of time.

      I certainly recognize the tension here. Democracy needs high quality communication, and that is clearly not happening naturally (the marketplace of ideas is selling alot of bad product, while the good stuff sits on the shelf). For communities to develop the capacity to initiate and sustain robust deliberative efforts, they need people and institutions with significant capacity, expertise, and time to dedicate to the work, but that brings in the elitist charge and the realize on expertise.

      Nonetheless, my experience is that we do need people and organizations to fill the void in our community and to dedicate themselves to serving as impartial resources and process experts. I’ve argued that our best bet in colleges and universities, but other options exist as well (public libraries, civic entrepreneurs, community foundations, etc.). As the value of deliberation becomes more mainstream, more and more private firms will be able to sustain themselves as well as institutions realize it is worth paying for.

      I fear I’m rambling now, but I do think this book clearly lays out this growing tension between doing deliberation well (inclusive, open to multiple voices and means of communication, appropriately tied to action, supported by good information) and the necessary capacity, time, and resources to do it well. I guess I come down in the camp that, yes, our communities need deliberative expertise, so lets go about figuring out how to develop that capacity in more and more communities and make it more and more of a viable career path (as well as a basic part of civic education at all levels).

      • Renee Heath says:

        Hi Martin et al.,

        I have to say I also believe strongly that we need to develop the skill and capacities for deliberation. I also founded a university association TOLCS (Teaching Our Leaders Civil discourse and Service) at the University of Portland. Although we are still developing our reputation, we are starting to be called upon by the university and the community to facilitate public dialogues, collaboration, etc. Given our rapid growth, there is obvious need– and a community that recognizes the need for civil conversations. The impetus for this faculty/student partnership is grounded in two places.

        First, I founded the association shortly after the rancorous health care debate that stymied civil discussion on an important issue. But perhaps more importantly, I recognized our communication students were skilled and trained in methods of debate, persuasion, argumentation and advocacy, but rarely did they have an on-going format to practice the other things we teach: critical listening, dialogue, appreciative inquiry, consensus decision-making, etc. I believe there remains a great gap in skill and practice that hopefully we are on the cusp of changing. When high schools teach critical listening and dialogue on par with speech and debate, we’ll know we’ve made it! (Sadly they are cutting even those programs but that is another issue)

        Which brings me to another small rub in this chain of conversation, as a communication studies professor and former practitioner immersed in community collaboration, I am troubled by arguments that separate talk and action. Of course there is always a balance in moving conversations towards something, a decision a policy etc. But the act of participating in deliberations, dialogues, collaborations, etc, is action. It has the potential to incrementally change norms for how societies make decisions. Yes, I recognize the Pollyanna in this writing, but isn’t this why we belong to networks such as this? Because we fundamentally believe our efforts change things? I look forward to reading what more the book has to say about the issue of deliberative skills. And I think communication folks have something to add here.

      • “our communities need deliberative expertise, so lets go about figuring out how to develop that capacity in more and more communities and make it more and more of a viable career path (as well as a basic part of civic education at all levels).”

        Here, here! Couldn’t agree with this more. We’ll be focusing a large part of the 2012 NCDD conference on just this.

      • Yael Harlap says:

        Renee: I really appreciate your flagging the persistent dichotomizing of talk vs action.

    • I’ve been thinking about this article since you posted, Sandy. When I design and publicize programs I am usually thinking of how to connect the dots for possible attendees. If I can provide clues with regards to the “what’s in it for me right now” factor, then a program is more likely to be successful. What I think Liu is saying in his article is that more people need to be connecting the dots for themselves. That’s a hard one, I think, for many people when it comes to the topic of deliberation.

      I am pretty new to this topic. I sometimes still struggle when encountering push back while explaining the benefit of community members learning how to talk civilly with each other. As much as it seems like the benefits don’t need to be spelled out, in reality, I have found that this topic is not natural or comfortable to many people. I think this is where the idea that it is an elitist concept comes from. It takes effort to understand and to participate. People are so busy and already have so many things on their to-do list, it is hard for some to take the time to think and contribute in activities to “reclaim civility,” as Liu suggests.

    • Yael Harlap says:

      This is just a short comment, but I think we have a quite good example of how citizen citizens CAN take on the tasks of dialogue and deliberation in the Occupy movement. There’s a lot to be learned from Occupy. Over here in little Bergen, Norway there isn’t much going on (people are too comfortable and wealthy to get hot and bothered about stuff – and they trust the government to do good on their behalf without asking enough questions about what that government is doing) – so I haven’t experienced Occupy firsthand. However, from what I have been reading here and there, it seems like a very interesting process of collective decision-making and action. AND also interesting how much push-back and call-out there has been from women and People of Colour organizing to make Occupy better – including an effort to change the movement’s name from a word that is associated with deep pain for indigenous communities (not to mention that from many First Nations/Native American perspectives, the whole of North America is already occupied…).

      Anyhow, I ramble. But I was just struck by the potential usefulness of exploring a case example. Perhaps others here have more experience with the Occupy movement, or alternately, the World Social Forum, etc. It might be interesting to carry a case or two through our conversations about the book, as we move from one chapter to the next.

  11. Vicenç Rullan says:

    Something that worries me about deliberation (or the lack of) is that most people I know are not very much concerned about *how* decisions are reached and they seem to care only about *the content* of these decisions.

    To me, decision making *process* is quite important. I am looking for ways to raise awareness of the importance of giving everybody a voice in issues that affects them.

    For example, in this economic crisis I do not see people in charge in my country asking for people’s opinions in regards of which expenditure needs to be reduced or cut. They only decide by themselves and after that they communicate they decisions, with no chance for public dialogue.

    • Vicenç – Two years ago, Pew and Peterson funded, and AmericaSpeaks coordinated, a national discussion on the budget and the deficit: . Though the results were communicated formally to the Supercommittee then in operation, the event was not official, so not a full answer to your plea.

      The event however does let us consider Sandy’s question about elitism – in particular, what we mean by “elite”. AmericaSpeaks went to some lengths to make the 3500 participants demographically representative, but one couldn’t just show up at one of the venues and expect to participate. However one *could* participate via webchat to some extent.

      Further, face to face participants started by reviewing a briefing book covering a neutral view of revenue and spending issues. So, one did not have to come in as a budget expert to participate, but one did have to be comfortable digesting a reasonable chunk of information. Again, elitist (in our judgement) or not?

  12. Roger Bernier says:

    Yesterday’s postings prodded me to reread the Introduction to the book and I thought I would share what I see to be my task as a reader of future chapters.

    The Introduction posits that there is a turn in deliberative democracy away from a too exclusive “reason-giving to one another” process to one which is more inclusive of other forms of sharing knowledge and experience. The authors advance certain reasons for why this turn is needed and posit that it may better address some of these shortcomings.

    I think it would be important to discuss whether or not the shortcomings are real before going on to read about or discuss the solutions.

    For example, I question the idea that public engagement is divorced from action when government and citizens are engaging in shared decision making to co-produce decisions which government will implement.

    Also, when citizens are brought together to help decide what to do, they necessarily have to discuss their values or what matters most to them. These values discussions are a pathway for citizens to share their emotions, beliefs, and experiences with others and I believe they constitute a form of “reason giving to one another” that can be compelling.

    Anyway, I believe the ideas raised in the Introduction are an attempt to frame the book contents for us and we should be clear on the foundations of this framing effort and whether or not we think it is sound.

    • Thanks for posting these questions, Roger! I wonder… when this book talks about “deliberation” is the frame of reference primarily deliberation as it plays out in National Issues Forums, since Kettering has worked so closely with NIF over the years? People have long questioned how National Issues Forums — which are often 2-hour forums held at colleges and universities partly as an educational tool — can link to decision-making and action more closely. Is this call to reframe deliberation in part a response to that critique of NIF? And if so, how is it generalizable to all forms of deliberation?

      • Martin Carcasson says:

        Part of it as well is that the first generation that they talk about were more theoretical. I would argue–and the authors may agree–that practitioners on the ground never really ran things as if we needed purely rational discussion focused on consensus where people checked their interests at the door. So practitioners have always been more tied to the issues they discuss as the next generation. The problem is that many of the critics of deliberation (Sanders, Mouffe, Fraser) were primarily reacting to the ideals put forward by Habermas and Rawls rather than the actual work done by practitioners. The second generation theorists, in this sense, are catching up to the practitioners.

      • That’s a really good point, Martin!

  13. I, too, have enjoyed reading the comments posted so far on the Forward and Introduction. It strikes me that most of the attention so far has been devoted to Martin’s first question: “To what degree should we focus on tensions as the heart of the deliberative perspective?”

    I would like to focus a brief comment on his second question: How much expertise should deliberation require?

    Martin’s question cannily taps into the current situation where many of the tensions in modern public discourse appear to arise over this very question. NIF-style deliberations more-or-less all assume that you need to study and learn what someone has decided are the facts of an issue before getting into discussion that deserves to be called deliberation. An opposite position that seems to surface regularly is that expertise is suspect and ignorance and lack of information deserve equal consideration. Meanwhile, the “qualification” of citizenship suggests only that you need to be breathing for a fixed number of years in order to have opinions on public affairs. As an academic with a healthy respect for expertise and professionalism, and a thoroughgoing democrat (small d) I often find myself conflicted over this point.

    • Roger,
      You bring up a good point. I personally like the idea of framework, of getting to read and learn about multiple sides of an issue before discussing it in a group setting– but that could be very off-putting to some. Do you think this basic principle of deliberation contributes to it being tagged elitist at times?

      • Yes, I think that could easily be a basis for a charge of elitism. And I don’t think that those of us who believe in deliberation have very good answers for the charge. There are a great many technical questions in modern public life where such “elitism” may be the only legitimate response. The score on global warming is probably 99 scientists “for” for every one ‘against’; so how do we regard the argument that “I never read any of the evidence but I know there is nothing to global warming”, for example?

        Certainly “uninformed people have the right to speak also” but what is the proper regard for their comments?

      • Jennifer Wilding says:

        As a practitioner, the question of expertise is interesting. Expertise for what? I think it does, and should, require skill and effort to develop a discussion guide. The guide should be clear and neutral, particularly if an entity will act on the results of the deliberation. It requires some expertise to moderate a deliberative forum (although most folks who are willing to not participate can do a decent job). When it comes to participants, my experience is that almost anyone can come to the table and participate effectively if they’re willing to listen to other perspectives. Some colleagues and I recently conducted 20 focus groups with local citizens to find out how they want to be engaged in public issues. One of the major concerns was related to information. People wanted the chance to learn enough to be able to participate with confidence, and they wanted facts rather than beliefs to guide action. (We talked to folks across the political spectrum, and this was pretty consistent.) I do think that deliberation doesn’t always require a three-approach discussion guide. It can be as simple as asking how someone else (older or younger, with more or less money, or from another part of the country) might approach an issue to get people to consider values and tradeoffs in a deliberative manner.

      • Janice Thomson says:

        The format in which background information is often presented in deliberative events (in written form only) is definitely elitist. It assumes everyone is a verbal learner, when the majority of people learn best in other ways. Some projects use videos as well, which is good. It is even possible to approach issues in ways that also engage kinesthetic learners — e.g., physically moving around the room to express opinions, constructing things. The D & D world could definitely learn something from teachers and museum exhibit designers in how to present information to a wide range of people. I know this isn’t the subject of the book, but it’s what I think of in the context of how much information is needed and how deliberation can be elitist.

      • Kim Crowley says:

        I see elitism as anything that develops unnecessary dependency on those who fit certain profiles. D & D, as commonly practiced, seems to favor a small subset of learning styles and personalities.

        Possible antidotes to elitism:

        1) Capacity building — Bring more skills to people in the general population. Create more room for the professional to sometimes become less like a surgeon called in when the situation gets really difficult and more like a health coach who prevents illness by making the patient stronger.

        2) Pollinate in radically new venues — We’ll always have a need for the sequestered deliberation venue, but some portions of practice might be given new life out in the real world. Food for thought: What are the smallest practices that could survive and be effective if transplanted to another environment?

    • Yael Harlap says:

      Thought #1: How can people engage in deliberation when they have little knowledge – or worse, are misinformed – about an issue? The greatest challenge here, as I see it, is not how to get people to read in advance, or how to share information so people with different learning styles can learn (NOTE: much evidence suggests that people may have different learning preferences, but that there is really no such thing as “learning styles”). Rather, I think the challenge is that people come to the table with different ontological and epistemological perspectives. All the scientific evidence in the world is going to be unpersuasive to someone who dismisses the scientific method as a legitimate way to construct knowledge because that person has a different position on what kind of warrant would support a particular claim. How to get beyond that?

      Thought #2: How to engage all sorts of people in a deliberative process? One way to engage a lot of people who are not already engaged is through the arts. If folks are interested in this, I’m happy to share some resources. Myself, I work with Theatre of the Oppressed (TO). The founder of TO, Augusto Boal, in his later years, developed what he called Legislative Theatre, which uses TO and other techniques to develop ideas that can then be applied through policy. There’s a lot more where that comes from…

      • Kim Crowley says:


        I hope you can join us two weeks from now when we discuss the Dryzek chapter. We’ll be looking at difference democracy including how to engage different kinds of people. I look forward to hearing more about your theater work!

  14. david stein says:

    I have often been asked about the connection between talk and action. In most of the forums that I have conducted, the question is asked” so what do we do next”. I find that citizens who attend the forums are ready to move forward on the issue but how to move and who leads or at least coordinates the move is a weak point in the model. I also have found that the term deliberation makes the session, at least to the participants, seem to formal. In my group in columbus ohio we use the term citizens for public discussion. Deliberation can include the discussion model but not all discussions are deliberations. I am curious to see how this idea of democratizing deliberation will be developed. The idea is intriguing and can perhaps better link talk and action.

    • Jennifer Wilding says:

      David, we’ve found the same thing. Whenever we can, we engage “action partners.” These are nonprofits or other groups in the community that work in the field under discussion. At the end of the deliberation, they have materials available so that anyone who wants more information or to volunteer can do so. I don’t know how many people take us up on it, but people seem to appreciate the effort to connect the discussion with action. When we’ve had funding for it, we’ve also hired nonprofits to convene action teams of people who participated in the forum. Some were able to select a bite-sized piece of work and were very effective, while others got hung up in planning or never found a focus. In general, 30-50 percent of forum participants signed up for an action team, which suggests a strong desire to connect the forum with action, and team members said that action was influenced by the deliberative forums.

  15. Thank you Martin for teeing up some great questions — and to all for the good conversation. I am a practitioner – with many thanks to KF and NIF as my initial frame of reference (back in the 90’s, I led NIF trainings in facilitation and issue framing). As a civic educator and community builder, my goal in any forum is for participants to have three outcomes: 1 – they learn more about the issue (especially the gray areas); 2 – they learn more about the perspective of “others” (and where there may be or may not be common ground); and 3 – they come to recognize (and ideally claim) their personal role in making progress on this issue.

    The tension is essential to achieving these outcomes. A well constructed choice framework (where no one of the choices is a “slam dunk”) purposefully creates a dynamic tension that moves people past assumptions about “easy answers” into a place of “planned discomfort.” As people grapple themselves internally with the tug and pull of different values, a different kind of listening and curiosity happens. Most people will “lean into” the conversation, using each other as aids in a joint discovery of better options.

    On Martin’s expertise question, I conducted a lot of NIF issues forums with community members of below average education. It’s been a while (so I’m not up to date with the current materials), but most issue books could be simplified to a distilled description of the trade-offs. I found that adults with limited education had no difficulty with the inherent ambiguities in competing values – life experience was sufficient practice for that. The expertise came in with the actual construction of the choices — and in creating an accessible way of summarizing the policy information (resisting the temptation to go too deep). As a final note, these forums were successful occasions for education and engagement — rather than sessions for refining policy recommendations. But that was also my experience with better educated audiences as well.

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