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John Gastil’s Op-Ed for the Seattle Times

This article was written as part of the “Democracy Communications Network,” a 2007-2009 project that encouraged leaders in deliberative democracy to periodically write op-eds and blog posts as part of larger, collaborative media campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of quality public engagement. Use the “Democracy Communications Network” tag to see the articles  written in association with this project.

Fewer than one-in-four Americans expect Washington to “do what is right” most of the time, according to a July 2007 CBS poll. A Pew Research Center survey in March found that only one-in-three Americans believe the federal government “cares about what people like me think.” Those are grim statistics for a nation once heralded as the global icon of democracy.The Presidential candidates have yet to tap successfully into this wellspring of alienation, but this Saturday in Keene, New Hampshire, Democratic candidate John Edwards launched the One Democracy Initiative to do just that.

Among the items featured on the Edwards reformgasbord are full public financing and free airtime for Congressional candidates, new restrictions on lobbyists, and items seasoned for the Democratic palate, such as paper trails for electronic voting machines.

The proposal with top billing in the One Democracy Initiative merits special attention. Edwards pledges to create a “Citizen Congress” that would bring together one-million citizens in a network of local town halls and online forums. The idea is to draw citizens back into the business of governing by giving us a special responsibility for deliberating on federal policy priorities.

At the present time, our elected officials record our sentiments through polls, talk radio, blogs, ad hoc public forums, and the blunt instrument of elections. The public voice Washington hears is already thrice filtered, by special interest campaigns, media frames, and politicians themselves.

Edwards proposes an alternative means of public expression in American politics. I say American politics because other nations have already undertaken reforms like the Citizen Congress. While Edwards was delivering his speech in New Hampshire, the European Union was holding a Deliberative Poll, in which hundreds of randomly-selected citizens speaking 21 different languages discussed their region’s future. Federal governments from Denmark to Australia to Brazil have experimented successfully with a variety of new designs for public deliberation, as have many communities in the U.S. and Canada.

The immediate inspiration for Edwards appears to be the 21st Century Town Meeting developed by the civic organization AmericaSpeaks. Edwards refers to this when he cites the “citizen-centered projects” that have “given ordinary people a voice in designs for the World Trade Center memorial, the redevelopment of New Orleans, [and] health care reform in California.”

If it follows this model, the Citizen Congress will invite Americans to participate in policy-oriented public meetings. Using modern communication technology to synchronize geographically dispersed venues, the Congress will let people seated in small discussion groups to merge their voices into a large national forum that gradually moves—over the course of a long day—from recording public concerns to setting broad policy priorities.

Even this much is speculation, however. Edwards’ proposal is currently a 150-word sketch on a campaign website. At this stage, I find myself in the position of a fan who discovered and adored a garage band before they went mainstream. Having studied deliberative reforms for fifteen years, I hope that Edwards’ proposal remains true to its roots. The Citizen Congress can satisfy this hard-core fan only if its final form is transparent, representative, deliberative, directive, and influential.

  • Transparency requires that the Congress’ procedures be open to scrutiny. After all, this reform is about restoring public trust.
  • To ensure the Congress is representative, it should mix open-invitation events with smaller ones that use random samples to validate the work of larger bodies.
  • To deliberate in depth, the Congress must have ample information and time. The most successful citizen deliberation involves week-long meetings (or more), rather than exclusively holding one-day-wonders.
  • Each session, the Congress must also develop a clear policy directive, lest its advice be misunderstood, misrepresented, or ignored.
  • In the end, the Congress must have influence. Edwards proposes creating an advisory body, but if Washington does not heed its advice, people will continue to tell pollsters that politicians do not “care about what people like me think.”

We should scrutinize the details of the One Democracy Initiative and ask other Presidential candidates whether they, too, support its most important reforms. In particular, by looking closely at the Citizen Congress we might help to shape this nascent institution into a deliberative body that we helps Washington earn at least a measure of our trust.

John Gastil (jgastil@u.washington.edu)

For: Seattle Times
Written: Sunday, October 14, 2007
Length: 705 words

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