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Op-Ed by Lisa Blomgren Bingham in the Indianapolis Star

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.

This op-ed was published on October 26, 2007 in the Indianapolis Star.

My view: Lisa Blomgren Bingham

Give the masses more ways to enter political conversation

Two-thirds of Americans do not believe government cares “about what people like me think,” according to a recent Pew Charitable Trust Poll. But how would government know what people think? The usual ways are votes, campaign contributions and, on rare occasion, showing up and waiting in line for two hours to get three minutes of microphone time at the local planning and zoning board. Recent innovations are blogs for a vocal few (certainly easier to publish than letters to the editor) and a tsunami of e-mail that public officials find increasingly hard to manage and answer.

What if there was a better way? What if people from every part of the community could actually have a conversation and not simply passively listen to a disconnected series of three-minute speeches? What if people could do a better job at democracy?

Some leaders around the world believe we can. Great Britain’s Gordon Brown, leaders of the European Union, Denmark and Australia, and an increasing number of leaders in the U.S. are using new ways to give citizens a chance to talk with one another and with government officials about important choices and public decisions.

John Edwards recently proposed Citizen Congresses as part of his One Democracy Initiative (www.johnedwards.com/issues/govt-reform). He envisions 1 million Americans deliberating every year or two on critical policy issues. His proposal is influenced by the work of AmericaSpeaks and its 21st Century Town Meeting. Using hand-held digital voting devices, wireless computer networks and projection screens, as many as 5,000 people can share views with one another and with government officials. They engage in dialogue arranged around tables of eight to 10 using trained facilitators to help make sure all voices are heard.

Gordon Brown has proposed Citizen Juries. The Citizen Jury is a group of people who discuss information about important public decisions; they try to reach consensus. Citizen jurors bring the public’s values to policy choices on cutting-edge science such as stem-cell research, genetically modified crops and end-of-life health care. They do for legislators what trial juries do for courts, bringing citizen values to decision-making.

There are also deliberative polls, study circles, public conversations and many other models. (See the Web site of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, www. thataway.org.)

These models for participation in governance are not simply public hearings with new names. Researchers found that the opportunity to speak is an important factor in whether people feel that a decision is fair and legitimate. In the early years of our democracy, there were town meetings at which people could speak about policy choices. As the nation grew, it became harder to speak up in a way that could directly influence government.

Daniel Yankelovich, a prominent political pollster, found that while people might answer a question one way initially, their views were unstable and subject to change. Through dialogue with others, people came to a public judgment that was different from their initial response.

Of course, if you bring together people who already agree with one another and do not provide enough time for deliberation or access to other information, they will simply reinforce one another and become more entrenched.

And that is a fundamental problem. Increasingly, people are picking their information sources based on views they are already comfortable with. We no longer have consensus on a national source of information like Walter Cronkite.

It is no coincidence that our political discourse has become more adversarial and less civil. Unless we talk to each other, unless we discuss issues with people who see things differently, we will just get locked into our existing positions.

Can’t we do a better job at democracy than that? WWJS? What would Jefferson say?

Bingham is the Keller-Runden Professor of Public Service at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs in Bloomington and an elected fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.

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