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One Facilitator's Take on CaliforniaSpeaks

Elliot Shuford of Healthy Democracy Oregon sent us this great announcement/review of CaliforniaSpeaks today. Last Saturday, AmericaSpeaks ran a huge forum engaging thousands of Californians on the health reform debate. Video links connected participants in a dozen counties. Here’s Elliot’s blog submission…

“On Saturday, I attended an interesting exercise in deliberative democracy. CaliforniaSpeaks drew nearly 3,500 people throughout the state to talk about health care. Eight sites were linked via satellite including Sacramento, San Diego, Eureka , Fresno, Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo, Oakland-San Francisco and Riverside-San Bernardino. The event was organized by AmericaSpeaks and backed by The California Wellness Foundation, Blue Shield of California Foundation and The California Endowment.

The goal of the event was not a “blue sky” discussion about health care, rather a focused push, to create momentum for legislative action on health care proposals that the California Speaks staff stated were the most politically feasible (AB 8 and the Governor’s plan).

CaliforniaSpeaks operated at several levels, from the mirco-level (individual small groups) to the macro-level (multiple, linked sites creating a statewide conversation). Participants sat at small tables in groups of 8-10. Each table had a facilitator and a laptop computer, and each person had their own keypad for entering personal information. Important points and ‘themes” from the conversations were typed into the laptops by a volunteer participant. That information was then sent through a network to be summarized by the “theme team” and quickly projected onto a big screen at each site. At certain points throughout the day, participants used personal keypads to enter information and vote or rank preferences on policy options.

At the micro-level, a few observers at the Los Angeles site noted the facilitation at their tables didn’t support “real dialogue” and that the format of the day didn’t force participants into considering the difficult trade offs for the policy options under consideration. Deliberation, therefore, wasn’t really happening either, they said. On the other hand, when, at the end of the day, participants were asked about whether they were satisfied and felt heard, the data clearly showed they did.

At the macro-level, the America Speaks staff was able to seamlessly handle some minor glitches with the keypad technology and opened up the agenda on the fly to allow discussion of the single-payer health care proposal. This was significant, given that strong interest in single payer bill emerged from many participants and it was not originally a big part of the day’s agenda. Also from the big picture perspective, Governor Schwarzenegger and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez made appearances at the event which showed how much work went into connecting this event to legislative process. The symbolism of their attendance along with 3,500 everyday Californians is important to consider from a political perspective.

A full report of the process is expected soon. Despite a few shortcomings, I was ultimately impressed with how well this event was run, especially given the scant 2 ½ months in which America Speaks had to organize it. From a production standpoint, it was a technological marvel that inspires the imagination. The real test of efficacy though, will not be whether California Speaks, but whether the elected leaders will listen and act on health care in the coming months.

– Elliot Shuford, Elliot@healthydem.org

Thanks, Elliot, for submitting this very thoughtful post about this important event! 

There’s much more online about CaliforniaSpeaks if you’re interested in learning more. Here are some links Joe Goldman posted on the DDC blog recently:

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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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  1. Tim says:

    I had the chance to be a volunteer table facilitator at the event in Oakland. During the day, I was able to take a few pictures that illustrate the process.

    Having read the preparatory material on the issues, I was prepared to see quite a bit of controversy. Interestingly, though, the participants at my table (along with many others in the room, it seemed) unanimously supported the Single Payer model, which — much to their dislike — was not the main focus of the discussions that day.

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