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Listening for, and Finding, a Public Voice (Connections 2015)

The four-page article, “Listening for, and Finding, a Public Voice” by Bob Daley was published Fall 2015 in Kettering Foundation‘s annual newsletter, Connections 2015 – Our History: Journeys in KF Research.

The article describes how the design of deliberative democracy by David Mathews, president of Kettering Foundation, and Daniel Yankelovich, president of Public Agenda; sought to address what it meant to have “a public voice”. From this inquiry came a series of deliberative forums around some of the more important current issues, and the results were then shared with policymakers. Kettering Foundation created A Public Voice, a nation-wide broadcast that would act as the annual report of these deliberative forums, which first aired April 1991 and continues to today. Below is an excerpt from the article. Connections 2015 is available for free PDF download on Kettering’s site here.

KF_Connections 2015From the article…

The question was: If the public doesn’t offer infallible wisdom for policymakers, what does it offer? The exchange between Henry and Cheney marked the beginning of the foundation’s inquiry into a public voice—not, mind you, the public voice, but a public voice—that continues today.

In his 2012 book, Voice and Judgment: The Practice of Public Politics, Kettering Foundation senior associate Bob Kingston said researchers wanted “to learn more clearly how the public might find and exert its will in shaping its communities and directing its nation (which sometimes seems, paradoxically, more oligarchy than democracy).”

The research plan included a series of deliberative forums held throughout the country on urgent national issues followed by reporting outcomes to policymakers…

In 1990, it was suggested, Kettering could build NIF’s influence in Washington, and its underlying vision of politics, through a widely distributed, annual report of the forums not much different from the National Town Meetings.

To envision the celebration’s annual national town meeting as a program televised from coast to coast was an incremental step forward. Kettering’s goal was to reach political and media leadership with a message about deliberative democracy and the public voice. To attract congressional attention, the reasoning went, NIF had to be of interest to a significant public audience in congressional districts.

The best way to ensure congressional attention to a public voice, it was felt, was to have congressional participation in the video. The second best way, it was further felt, was to ensure that the discussion was widely seen by elected officials’ constituents.

After reviewing several options, public television—considered to command a reasonable, national audience—was targeted. The foundation’s senior associate Bob Kingston was executive producer; Milton Hoffman, experienced in public affairs, public television programs, was the producer; and senior associate Diane Eisenberg handled distribution.

A Public Voice ’91, a one-hour public affairs television program was taped on April 15, 1991, at the National Press Club. It was the first time A Public Voice was used formally to describe forum outcomes. Bob Kingston was the moderator. Four members of Congress, four members of the press, and four members of the public joined him.

By September 5, 1991, 123 public television stations and 49 cable systems had broadcast the program and it was being distributed by community colleges to their local public access channels. The program continued to be produced in much the same format as the first one from 1991 through 2007. At its peak, A Public Voice was broadcast by nearly 300 public television stations across the country every year.

The program was seen as the central thrust in the foundation’s campaign to bring a new sense of politics to the consideration of the nation’s political and media leadership. The video had a single purpose: to show that there is something we can call “a public voice” on complex and troubling policy matters. And this public voice is significantly different from the debate on these issues as it is recorded in the media and significantly different from the debate “as we hear it through the mouths of political leaders.”

About Kettering Foundation and Connections
KF_LogoThe Kettering Foundation is a nonprofit operating foundation rooted in the American tradition of cooperative research. Kettering’s primary research question is, what does it take to make democracy work as it should? Kettering’s research is distinctive because it is conducted from the perspective of citizens and focuses on what people can do collectively to address problems affecting their lives, their communities, and their nation.

Each issue of this annual newsletter focuses on a particular area of Kettering’s research. The 2015 issue, edited by Kettering program officer Melinda Gilmore and director of communications David Holwerk, focuses on our yearlong review of Kettering’s research over time.

Follow on Twitter: @KetteringFdn

Resource Link: www.kettering.org/sites/default/files/periodical-article/Daley_2015.pdf

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