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Book Club Week 7: Sustaining Public Engagement

For this week’s NCDD book club discussion on Democratizing Deliberation, Jan Inglis offers a summary of the chapter Sustaining Public Engagement: Embedded Deliberation in Local Communities by authors Elena Fagotto and Archon Fung.

Jan has a background in applying research in adult development and complexity science to designing public deliberation and decision making processes in response to complex issues, especially connected to climate change and commons management of resources. She has recently been appointed to the board of NCDD’s sister organization, the Canadian Community of Dialogue and Deliberation (C2D2).

I was very motivated to put my name forward as a chapter leader on this chapter when the book club was announced. I find that the concepts shared in the chapter very relevant to the kind of “big world” change that many of us are grappling with and know is necessary.  The authors say this requires building upon, and going beyond, the skills developed in one-off deliberative processes regarding single issues. This implies commitment, skills, institutionalization and financial support at many levels.

Discussion Question 1:

How do we pragmatically transform the culture and structures through which we collectively engage, so that as the authors says, “a habit of deliberation among citizens” is embedded? (p.129)

Elena and Archon share their investigative methodology and interpretations gathered from nine communities they researched. They offer the reader analysis of why these communities showed success in adopting deliberative interventions. The authors’ definition of a community that has embedded deliberation is one that “utilizes methods of more or less formally organized deliberation, to consider a range of public issues or problems, over a period of several years.” (p.130)

Discussion Question 2:

What do you think are prerequisites for institutionalizing the practices of public deliberation? Do you know of other examples where these practices have become embedded?

Beyond describing how these communities dealt with specific problematic issues, Elena and Archon inquire more deeply into how organized public deliberation may also address foundational deficits in democratic practices that they name as: current weak social fabric, unstable public judgment, gaps in communication and accountability between officials and communities, and insufficient government resources to tackle social challenges.

Discussion Question 3:

How would you characterize limitations in current democratic practices that make it difficult for us to respond to complex issues?

The authors divide deliberative practices into two levels: deliberative reflection and deliberative public action, describing how they think that “The first level of embeddedness is a necessary condition for the second.” (p.131) The second they say requires institutionalization for its implementation. I appreciate that they have made these distinctions and feel that many public processes are designed to build skills for the first level, but fewer are designed to support the latter.

Discussion Question 4:

Do you agree? Do you think these levels have to be sequential, or can they be achieved simultaneously? (i.e. can engagement in the shared analysis of issues, and deliberation required to decide on actions, actually develop reflection amongst those who might not otherwise come to reflection easily?

I look forward to responses to these questions or any other thoughts that people have in reading this chapter.

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  1. Fagotto and Fung point in interesting directions regarding the institutionalization of deliberation, but I wish they’d delved deeper into their case studies here.

    They note the importance, in New Castle, of YWCA sponsorship, which brought credibility, training and it seems other support for a large group of facilitators, and the Y’s active promotion of study circles with other organizations

    If someone managed to recruit the YWCA to this cause, it would be instructive to know how it was done (it may be that the initiative started with the YWCA) and how the perceived lack of opportunities for African American and Latino residents was a driver in this process. It would be instructive to know how the Y recruited its several dozen partners, and the measures in place (budget line items? implementation committees? ) that will help to maintain the Y’s commitment over time.

    In Fung’s study of “mini school boards” and hyperlocal police/citizen boards in Chicago
    he delved into the political challenges of sustainability in that context: the police department and the school system provided some funding, training, and oversight for these local boards, which helped sustain them, but also made it much easier for the police department and school system to constrain citizen participation when it became politically awkward.

    Similar close attention to the politics of resources and power would be very illuminating for the nine case studies in this chapter. Independent sponsorship, by the YWCA, university, or other organization apart from government is part of the answer, but surely there’s more to the story.

    • Jan Inglis says:

      Chris I can certainly relate to your advocating close attention to the influences of resources and power when attempting to gain institutional support for public deliberation. I think that finding a funder/sponsor that both understands the importance of well designed public engagement processes and who also will will not be perceived as biasing those processes is very difficult for any social change efforts. Having a broad group of partnering organizations can offset that centralized influence to some degree but developing that partnership itself requires time commitment and resources and where can that come from?

      I have long advocated as an ideal that every community should have access to a community college where civic studies were available to adult learners, public engagement facilitation was offerred for specific issues and training provided for upcoming citizen facilitators. This could benefit specific issues as well as over time support the deeper cultural change that can scale up and transfer to create the embbedded habit of how we would naturally respond to social issues. But funding and initiative would is still needed for even that concept.

      In terms of advocating for instituionalizing public engagement practises at both the community level, provincial/state level or federal level, what trends or successes are people noticing that could be added to this discussion?

      • Money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money. Examples of how existing long-term or multi-organization deliberative efforts were funded and sustained would be most useful here.

        For instance, David Kahane may have insights on how the Alberta Climate Dialogue he mentioned in previous Book Club comments will be sustained over time. https://ncdd.org/9013/comment-page-1#comment-8261

        And since I could have started this post with “people, people, people, people, people, people, people, people, people” just as well :-), it would be just as interesting to find out how these kinds of efforts sustain energy, participation, and attention.

  2. Derek W. Barker says:

    Thanks to everyone who has been taking time out of their jobs and vacations to keep following this discussion. We included this piece to provoke thinking about the practical implications of “democratized” concepts of deliberation. It seems to me that the “deliberative entrepreneurs” that most successfully embedded deliberation in local governance structures were, according to the authors, very savvy in thinking about impact, power, etc. This is different from the stereotype of the deliberation field as focused on discourse and process divorced from action. They thus seem to address many of the challenges laid out by Mansbridge and Iris Young. Still it is worth further discussion if these are typical of the deliberative practice community, and if not, why not?

    • I really appreciate your adding these posts on why you chose the various articles you did for this compilation, Derek! Thanks so much for participating in the book club over the past couple of months.

  3. The questions posed here are both big and timely. I’m fairly certain that the sudden drop-off in postings has nothing to do with Jan’s summary and questions – which are excellent – and everything to do with the time of year (vacations, the Olympics, etc.) and the larger political context – notably Congress, and the Presidential campaign, particularly he “horse race” coverage by the media and the apparent avoidance of issues by both candidates.

    I’ve thought a lot about Question 2 (institutionalizing the practice), especially since I grew up in a context (the upper Midwest) where citizen engagement was fairly encouraged and sustained, and have lived much of my adult life in Appalachia, where engagement and deliberation by citizens is less frequently practiced, and often discouraged or blocked. I’ve also thought about it from the standpoint of my interest in nonprofits, voluntary action and the independent sector.

    Organizations like NCDD, the Alberta Climate Dialogue and others mentioned here are probably one of the most important starting points, but that brings us to the question of resources. Most of the ongoing dialogues I am most familiar with have had some level of public funding – particularly from city and county governments or universities. I would be genuinely interested in hearing about other funding arrangements.
    Has anyone, for example, had any success with a dialogue cooperative, or charging admissions, for-profit dialogue “clubs” or other innovative financing?

    There was an interesting case study published in Nonprofit Management and Leadership a few years ago about a trio of large national foundations in the U.S. that opted out of supporting deliberation activities, apparently because the demand was so great and the methodology so straightforward that they didn’t believe they had the resources to support it all or have an impact. I haven’t heard of any new major foundation initiatives since that time (the early 00s).

    Perhaps at some future time when the economy improves, there ought to be a national initiative for incorporation of dialogue into the accepted activities and functions of local government: A local Department of Deliberation and Dialogue alongside the other public utilities, or a community-wide United Way style federated funding scheme. In my own state, both the (previous) Governor and the (current) Secretary of State seem to have made some attempts along those lines through statewide nonprofits/initiatives, but neither initiative has really taken off as of yet. There is an established state-wide nonprofit (of which I am a board member) but, as for many others, the boat is small, the oars are few and the ocean is very wide. At my university,I was able to get a small amount of funding to establish a multi-disciplinary center that attracted a lot of initial interest among faculty (as long as we had money), but ongoing funding was not forthcoming and the current effort struggles.

    On second thought, perhaps it was the reminder of the many challenges the chapter reminds us of that explains the relatively few comments: People are thinking, and not (yet) writing.

  4. Arlot Hall says:

    This has been the most useful chapter in the book for me as it relates to the work I am doing to create library based centers for community dialogue in Alaska. It speaks to three challenges I have encountered all of which are aspects of community organizing: 1) Identifying and engaging community activists, 2) Creating a conceptual awareness of dialogue and deliberation as a different way of creating relationships, and 3) Developing a strategy to provide support for community leaders in their efforts to create a program that will engage their communities.

    The concept of embeddedness is useful as an organizing goal for changing democratic behaviors as distinct from organizing an event or even a program which are more means than ends.

    The section titled “Making Democracy Work” addresses some of the reasons I am compelled to do this work and stimulated the following insights and questions.

    Democratic Deficit # 1: Weak Social Fabric
    • The foundation for deliberation begins with dialogues that build trust and create relationships of respect. I think analysis and theories of deliberation too often neglect the importance of dialogue.
    • I find value in the observation that “initiatives whose goal is to build healthy community relationships through personal change must touch a large number of people over long periods of time.”

    Democratic Deficit # 2: Unstable Public Judgment
    • There is a growing body of knowledge from neuroscience and psychology that suggests that humans are not primarily rational actors. The dichotomy between head and heart or reason and emotion may be on oversimplification of a more complex neurological system that is not driven or directed by reason.
    • Public judgment and the Yakelovich inspired Kettering model of deliberation may be overestimating the importance of information and choice making. I have come to believe that information is not knowledge. Knowledge is created from information when people consider how it is relevant to their lives and how they will change their behavior in response to it. The public knowledge necessary for public judgment is the product of group dialogues that are more about creating or finding meaning from which choice making could proceed.

    Democratic Deficit # 3: Gaps in Communication and Accountability between Officials and Communities
    • This quote describes our national political process: “In a noxious form of this democratic deficit , politicians and policy professionals may choose to pursue their own agendas with little regard for public interests and priorities – and apparently without fear of being checked by devices of public accountability.”
    • The public judgment in the foregoing deficit is of little value in a system that does not respond to or respect it.
    • How do we hold our representatives accountable? What is the value of public judgment or democratic deliberation if those in power do not listen?

    Democratic deficit # 4: Insufficient Governmental Resources to Tackle a Range of Social Challenges

    • How is it possible that a national economy that has seen such enormous growth in GDP does not have the resources to tackle social challenges.
    • The inequality of wealth and income are the social challenge.

    The transition from Embedded Public Reflection to Embedded Public Action works best on a community level. How do we get from reflection to collaborative governance?

    • Arlot – you may be interested in looking at the work of the Hartford (Conn.) Public Library. They have been doing community dialogues for several years on several different topics. Some of the library folks are interested in sharing what they’ve learned, and you may be interested in connecting with them. Here’s the website to the most relevant page I can find: http://bit.ly/HPL10006. Here’s a link to the specific page about the last dialogues they did (now in the “action” phase): http://bit.ly/HPL10005

  5. Arlot – Good luck. Derek reminded us of Young’s question of linkage and Mansbridge’s vision of the larger deliberative system. I expect that you’ve considered both in your work.

    Linkage: How does one “add up” the results of different deliberations across space (one in Anchorage, one in Bethel) or time (one in April, one in July)? In a state as large as Alaska, this is bound to come up. I think this is a key issue in dealing with the instability of public judgement.

    Deliberative system: People will hold dialogues outside any formal context as well as within it. Is this something you’re considering as you set up the centers and the processes to guide them?

    • Arlot Hall says:

      Chris: Thank you for responding. I am not sure what you mean by “instability of public judgment” or how it relates to my efforts. I can say that my immediate goal is the creation of a network of library based programs in civic dialogue that are owned and operated by the communities they serve. My hope is modest: that people will find value in dialogue and deliberation as a method for building trust, respect and a different way of relating with one another. Perhaps the most we can hope for is the evolution of a collective awareness about the value of the “public work” described in the next chapter by Harry Boyd. His thoughts about participator democracy as a way “to reconstruct the world, not simple to improve its decision making processes” is consistent with my belief that dialogues as experiences that address human values and the construction of meaning are a necessary precondition for deliberation. When I consider the challenges of democracy in 21st century America, I do not know if we agree there is a need to reconstruct our democracy and, if so, what citizen behaviors are necessary to achieve the change we might desire. I do know that the one essential behavior in dialogue and deliberation is the ability to listen as a practice of suspending judgement and making space in ourselves for others to reveal themselves. As the Dalai Lama has written in his new book “Beyond Religion” we need to begin with a recognition of our interdependence and the practice of compassion.

      • Arlot – Instability of public judgement was my rephrasing of Deficit #2.

        Is there going to be any attempt to connect the processes from the different centers you hope to set up, or to use the centers in a coordinated way (e.g. to discuss an issue that affects all Alaskans).

  6. Arlot Hall says:

    I am hopeful that will happen. We are in an embryonic stage now with much work to do in helping communities to organize. To continue the metaphor, I feel like a midwife working with people without a due date. Or maybe a fertility doctor trusting in the possibilities of emergence.

  7. David Boyd says:

    I apologize for not participating sooner!
    I’m also ashamed that I did not read this article when it first appeared in 2009 – It provides an excellent framework that can easily be used to help to explain to non-practitioners what deliberation provides and why we need more of it!

    I’ll try to be brief in my comments.

    1. Someone on the thread wished that there were more details about the case studies. Good point. Also, I think there could be more case studies. However, I don’t intend this as a criticism of the article – there are clearly limits to time, space, and the resources of any author! So, here are two thoughts. First, I’m not completely familiar with all the wonderful areas of the NCDD web site (so if this already exists, I apologize!), but an on-line “repository” of case studies would be really great. I remember another site starting this (was it bettertogether.org?)? But the idea would be to create a template where practitioners could enter key information about their projects. I understand that all of us take pride in our projects (personally, I think some of my work, particularly in St. Louis with the Regional Citizen’s Network was as exciting and innovative as anything out there!!!), but the idea I want to promote is sharing and collaborating. If, for example, Arlot were able to search the data for others who have done similar projects, he would be able to reach out and talk to someone there to learn from their experiences. Second, I suspect I could get “flamed” for this idea, but what about some sort of awards program? I’ve worked with the American Planning Association for many years and one of the things I’ve always promoted is the idea of giving away as many awards as possible. I understand complaints that being fast and loose with awards could dilute the quality of the work…but my counter-argument is that if we truly believe in the power of deliberation, and if we want to do more of it, then we have to do a better job of promoting it. Everywhere. All the time.

    2. Resources. I appreciate the section of the article on “strategies for establishing and sustaining deliberation”. Clearly, there is not a “on-size-fits-all” solution. I might go so far as to say that every project, every program is just a bit different. There are probably some common characteristics (which could emerge through the case-study depository discussed above). Undoubtedly there are issues of scale – if you’re working at a 12-county scale with cadre of 120 facilitators the resources you need are very different than if you are running a study circle in a church basement over a potluck dinner. The large scale projects I’ve worked on required a semi-complicated melange of support from public, private, and NGO/academic institutions. And in fact, I would argue that if you can structure your project in such a way – tapping into the multi-sectoral resources of the community – you will develop a strong and resilient base.

    So, that’s enough for now. Back to the Olympics! Enjoy your summer!

    • Hi, David! You suggested an online repository of case studies. One of the things NCDD has compiled over the years in our online Resource Center is case studies, stories, and resources that contain multiple case studies. You can find them at https://ncdd.org/rc/item/category/case-studies-stories — or use the “I’m Looking For…” sidebar feature at https://www.ncdd.org/rc to cross search the “Case Studies & Stories” category with various tags.

      But there’s a new resource site that we’re excited about called Participedia.net. That site is meant to be a careful repository of detailed case studies that are organized and presented in a way that is useful for researchers. I think some of its functionality is aligned with what you were suggesting.

      • David Boyd says:

        Thanks Sandy!
        The site seems to grow more quickly than I can absorb! So, thanks for the hint on the Case Studies and the new Participedia site!


  8. Arlot Hall says:

    My comments thus far not been responsive to the questions posed above, so here is another perspective:

    Discussion Question # 1:

    I continue to struggle with the limited focus on deliberation as a rational choice making process. My experience has given me the insight that the goal is to change how people relate to one another in community beginning with dialogues that build trusting relationships from which deliberations can take place. It is the trust building that acknowledges emotions, values and interests that makes deliberations possible.
    This does not detract from the value of embeddedness as process that uses formally organized experiences to create the relationships from which deliberation can take place.

    Discussion Question # 2:

    The creation of trusting, respectful relationships is a precondition to deliberation. We may not be the rational creatures economists assume us to be and rational arguments packaged as deliberation may not be sufficient to build community or promote democratic behaviors (whatever they may be).

    Discussion Question # 3:

    Moving from talk to action is a challenge. Reflection is important to developing action strategies. Where and how to we first discover our common values so we can describe the world we would like to create together? This would be a strategic activity which would define the context within which the tactical activity of deliberation or choice making would serve as the means to the end.

    Discussion Question # 4:

    I am not sure that I disagree with this within a limited context. I do see embeddedness as an organizational challenge for communities. The question is what do we want to embed. Perhaps it is a changed cultural pattern of people in community defined by mutual respect, recognition of interdependence, compassionate listening and the importance of trust. Do we first need to embed new social behaviors that can be supported by formal structures that contain, support, and nurture dialogic and deliberative practices? How could we describe democracy in terms of human behaviors? What behaviors are necessary to a functioning democracy?

    There definitely needs to be an organizational structure but embedding that structure within an institutional framework is dangerous. Consider the sustainable example of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step programs which avoid institutional confinement.

  9. Jan Inglis says:

    Great to see these comments

    One thing that I noted in the chapter, that Derek also commented on, is that to go beyond one-off deliberations towards embbedding the habit in the community also requires a movement from just facilitation to that of social entreprenurship. And further to that I beleive it is important to also think of all participants as social entrepreneurs since through the process of deliberating they are creating new resources, new creative approaches and solutions, new capacities, savy, relationships, policies, institutions etc. From a commons paradigm perspective, this is part of the wealth creation and abundance that goes beyond the scarcity mentality and competition of the old paradigm of a classical growth and depletable resource based economy.

    As Arlot quoted, we needed to be about reconstruting the world not just improving its decision making

    But supporting/funding the transition is certainly a challenge and I am appreciating the consideration of this challenge that people are bringing to this discussion.

  10. Arlot Hall says:

    Absolutely yes. It is social entrepreneurship.

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