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Does Deliberation Work? A Summary of the Usefulness of Deliberation in Professional and Civic Organizations

This 12-page Kettering Foundation report by Jeffrey D. Greene of the University of Montana Department of Political Science provides an overview of the findings revealed in two workshops conducted by the Kettering Foundation that involved professional and civic organizations. In short, the central question that this report addresses is: What do we know about the use of deliberation in these organizations with respect to the way they interact with the public?

We’ll share the conclusion here in full…

Conclusion: What have we learned about the use of public deliberation in professional and civic organizations?

KetteringLogoThe workshops revealed that professional and civic organizations are using public deliberation. The motivations for public engagement vary, but illustrate a willingness to use the practice and a belief that greater public involvement and engagement in issues is a healthy and potentially productive avenue to pursue. However, based on the conversations that occurred at the workshops, it is impossible to draw any firm conclusions aside from the fact that these organizations are interested in and are attempting to use deliberation to engage the public for a variety of reasons. Educations groups see deliberation as a teaching tool.

Some civic groups see deliberation as a way to increase membership in their organization. Other civic groups see deliberation as a way to involve citizens in solving community or regional problems. Some professional groups view deliberation as a way to promote reforms while at the same time helping their organization’s public relations. The reasons for using public deliberation appear to be as varied as the groups that participated in the workshops. A few organizations, such as the Columbus Health Department and to some degree the American Bar Association, sought to involve people in the problem-solving process. One common theme that applied to most organizations was that public deliberation helps educate the public about issues.

One problem that is evident from the discussion is that the working concept of “civic engagement” or “engaging the public” is not clearly defined for the groups that participated. Ambiguity existed about getting the public involved in community service and what it actually means to be civically engaged. Some organizations felt that to be truly civically engaged was something deeper than just performing community service. It is fair to conclude that organizations have different ideas about the meaning of this concept.

The problems cited by the organizations about holding forums were similar to the problems faced with using forums generally. Some of the main problems noted were that many people feel that the forums are talk without action. For some, endless dialogue solves nothing.

Some cited the problem of bringing in experts who sometimes reject the general the idea of NIF; they may dominate the discussion. Others cited the idea that local issues are closer to citizens than the larger, national issues. That is, it is easier to get citizens to attend forums that are about community problems than national issues. Most organizations noted the problem with people being too busy to participate, which is reflected in the characteristics of mobile society and communities in which people do not know their neighbors.

The transcripts brought to light a point that may be used in future research and workshops. The Kettering Foundation asked the right questions at both workshops, but the answers provided by participants were less clear. The transcripts begged that certain questions be asked again. All of these questions were embodied in the questions posed at the workshops.

What led your organization to try or become interested in using public deliberation?

More specifically, what was your motivation for wanting to use public deliberation and what benefits did (or do) you hope to attain?

  • How is your organization using deliberation?
  • How does your organization define civic engagement?
  • What problems have you encountered in any endeavors using forums?
  • What do you view as the most positive aspects of using deliberation to interact with the public in your organization?
  • What, if any, results have your organization attained by using deliberation?

The conclusions about what we have learned about the use of deliberation by profession and civic organizations are summed up in the following points.

  1. Professional and civic organizations have demonstrated an interest in using deliberation to interact with the public.
  2. The motivations for using deliberation to engage the public vary among organizations.
  3. There is a great deal of activity that has been set in motion to use deliberation in by professional and civic organizations that participated in the workshops but it is too early to draw conclusions about the progress or results.
  4. Professional and civic organizations have not clearly defined what it means to be civically engaged. There appears to be confusion over whether community service and being civically engaged are synonymous. This might be attributed to the nature of the organizations themselves. The purpose of the American Bar Association and the League of Women Voters, or the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, is different.
  5. The problems associated with hosting forums appear to be similar to any organization or group that hosts forums.
  6. No clear conclusions can be drawn (based on the transcripts of the workshops) about the true effectiveness of using deliberation to engage the public.

Resource Link: www.nifi.org/stream_document.aspx?rID=16322&catID=19&itemID=16321&typeID=8

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