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A Public Voice That’s Missing [Kettering 2016]

The 16-page report, A Public Voice That’s Missing, by David Mathews was published July 2016 and found on the Kettering Foundation’s site. This report grew from a speech David Mathews gave at the National Conference for Dialogue and Deliberation in 2014. This report discusses the need for more of a public voice presence in civic engagement from both “sides”; from the government or organization to more authentically engage the community and the citizenry to be more active in engage those who make decisions.

A feeling of hope for an increasing public voice is instilled throughout this report because of the rise of organizations dedicated towards working to engage the community via dialogue and deliberation. The public has deeply held values about the shape of their lives and this report proposes that the lack of interest from the public may be more a lack of connections being made by government or organizations from these values to decisions/policy. It is important to lift up these connections and also, working through the conflicts which may arise because of conflicting values. No matter the place, “it is important to know what people feel is valuable, what options they want to consider, what role they think citizens should play, what tensions have to be worked through, whether judgment is being exercised, and if people are ready to move forward in a direction they can ‘live with’.”

Below is an excerpt from the report and you can read the original on KF’s site here.

From the report…


It is no secret that the American people have been unhappy with our political system for some time, and they doubt that the system can reform itself. The public’s loss of confidence in government as well as other major institutions is well documented and widely reported. Worse still, the distrust is mutual. Under these conditions, polarization flourishes. All of this is occurring despite numerous efforts by institutions to engage the public and demonstrate accountability. Many officials aren’t persuaded that what citizens have to say is useful. As one officeholder described the problem: he hears both everything and nothing from the public.

In Washington, as well as in our statehouses, policymaking is usually dominated by three voices. Obviously, one is the voice of elected officials. Another is the voice of special interests, whose number has grown enormously in a relatively short time, as have the issues they represent. The third voice, also quite powerful, comes from professionals who staff our bureaucracies. They speak in an expert voice. There is value in all of these, yet there is little of what I think of as a public voice being heard.

However, the issues where a public voice is needed most are those that have no well-defined solutions and no demonstrably right answers that can be measured objectively. We have to depend on our best collective judgment. At the end of the day, we, the people, have to decide.

Making a public voice more audible in our capitols won’t cure all our political ills. However, if the political system doesn’t seem likely to reform itself, people reason that they have nowhere else to turn but to themselves as a public. While a public voice may not be totally sufficient, it is certainly necessary.

The question is whether those in the best position to help this voice emerge realize the opportunity they have and what it will take to seize it. They are the only ones who can answer this question. I fervently hope they will.

Download the interim report for free here.

About Kettering Foundation
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.

Follow on Twitter: @KetteringFdn

Resource Link: KF_PublicVoice_2016

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