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Bridging the Gap between Public Officials and the Public

This 2011 report by Tina Nabatchi and Cynthia Farrar for the Deliberative Democracy Consortium explores what elected officials know and think about public deliberation, as well as what they need to know to assess the potential value of public deliberation as a governance tool. Data from interviews with twenty-four state legislators and senior staff for federal legislators yielded some provocative results with practical implications for the field of public deliberation. Download the full report here.  Also check out the authors’ Powerpoint presentation (which you are welcome to use freely, they say) at this link on the DDC site.

Only four respondents had familiarity and/or experience with deliberation. The majority of those interviewed for this study did not know what public deliberation was, and even after explanation, had trouble understanding how this approach differs from what they already do to engage their constituents. With few exceptions, the respondents conflated it with their present engagement practices such as polling, public hearings, town halls, tele-town halls, and opportunities to hear individual stories. Perhaps most interesting was the sheer skepticism lawmakers expressed about the feasibility of deliberation. Given that lawmakers generally did not believe public deliberation is possible, they were hampered in assessing its utility.

All the legislators recognized that constituent engagement is a job requirement (“a necessary part of the game”) and essential for political survival. Standard forms of engagement were also seen as a way to foster connections and two-way communication between legislators and constituents – to enable lawmakers to hear and respond to the concerns, needs, and positions of the “real people” as distinct from special interests.

Despite these benefits, lawmakers were quick to point out several challenges and risks of engaging constituents, including limited resources and complicated logistics, dealing with an “angry” and “hostile” public, and the difficulty within a partisan political environment of engaging constituents in a realistic discussion of legislative options. Each of these drawbacks to “traditional” participatory mechanisms has important implications for public deliberation. Simply put, these risks and challenges shape and color the way lawmakers think about citizens, the role of public officials, and the potential of public deliberation.

While the lawmakers could generally see the intellectual, ethical, and philosophical reasons for using public deliberation, they had trouble imagining how it could be employed in the “real world.” Beyond their suspicion that deliberation would be logistically challenging and resource intensive, they doubted the motivation and willingness of citizens to participate in such processes; were fearful of being attacked by angry, partisan, and uninformed citizens; apprehensive of cultivating critics, being caught off guard, or subjected to negative press coverage; and worried that such processes would be “hijacked” or “commandeered” by organized interests.

They argued that deliberation was not politically feasible and expedient because they are forced to cater to the loudest and most extreme voices and the people with money to finance campaigns. They felt trapped in and saw fellow legislators as corrupted by a legislative system that is itself not civil and deliberative. Few saw political incentives to support the use of public deliberation, except perhaps, as some state legislators suggested, on issues that are politically ‘unwinnable’ – where there are tough decisions to be made, the politics are polarized and partisan, public misconceptions about what is possible abound, and there are no incentives for legislators to compromise.

Given these experiences and perceptions, it is unsurprising that legislators said they would need to see and understand the methods and processes of public deliberation for themselves before they would be able to assess the value of the deliberative approach or the content of a particular deliberation. Personal exposure would enable them to understand how deliberative processes are different from, and in some contexts and for some purposes, better than, what they already do. Proposals for a deliberative process would need to align with the interests and concerns of the member, be implemented at a district (as opposed to national) level, and with the buy-in of the member and her/his staff from the start.

Five specific considerations emerged as critical:

  1. Lawmakers want to know who organizes the deliberation and how the event is structured. They overwhelmingly indicated that it would be important for the organizers, conveners, and moderators to be neutral, balanced, and non-partisan, and to be perceived as having these qualities.
  2. All of the interviewees indicated that it would be important to ensure that participants in such processes are demographically, politically, and ideologically diverse.
  3. The majority of lawmakers were interested in seeing evidence that public deliberations are civil, informed, and take account of the complexities of the policy issue under discussion.
  4. Lawmakers were curious about the likely impacts of deliberation on participants, particularly in terms of trust in government, learning, understanding the complexities of issues, openness to different perspectives, and increased political engagement.
  5. Some lawmakers wanted to know how public deliberation might influence the policymaking process, and were interested in evidence demonstrating the public’s willingness to confront and address tough choices and tradeoffs. Information showing that all perspectives were considered, and that new, politically viable and attainable options or ideas were generated would be welcomed.

Based on these findings, we offer four broad recommendations intended to help the democracy and civic reform community advance the use of public deliberation as a governance tool.

Invite lawmakers to witness public deliberation – educate them through involvement.
Hearing about deliberation does little good; description is not enough, lawmakers need to participate in, or at least observe, a deliberative process to understand it. Participation should not be limited to a familiar format (e.g. being on a panel as part of a plenary session), but must include exposure to what is most distinctive about public deliberation, namely discussion among ordinary citizens. Invitation by a known and trusted person or group is the golden rule of legislator recruitment.

Build the capacity of the field to respond to the interests, needs, and concerns of lawmakers, as well as the characteristics of the political and legislative process.
For public deliberation to become a regularly used governance tool, the field must build its capacity to address issues central to the realities of modern lawmakers. Promising capacity- building approaches include: 1) focusing deliberative events on lawmakers’ priorities and concerns; 2) the development of a robust network of neutral, balanced, experienced, locally trusted, and non-partisan organizations who can partner with legislators to deploy deliberation on issues as they arise; 3) the use of consistent, opportunistic, and locally-driven follow-up to deliberative events; and 4) the purposeful design of public deliberations to address, in advance, lawmakers’ perceptions about legitimacy and utility.

Build documentation and evaluation into the design of public deliberation processes, and communicate the results to legislators promptly after deliberation.
Key documentation and evaluation indicators will include whether 1) the organizers, conveners, and moderators of the event, as well as any informational materials used during the event, are demonstrably neutral, balanced, and non-partisan; 2) participant recruitment is carried out in a way that produces demographic, political, ideological, and geographic diversity; 3) the deliberations are structured so as to promote informed, civil, constructive, serious, open-minded, and productive discussion; 4) the deliberation helps create a ‘better public’ and ‘better citizens’; and, 5) the conclusions reached by participants are informed by a broader range of perspectives, generate new options or ideas, and are politically viable and attainable.

Develop and implement a comprehensive and concrete education campaign organized around specific deliberations and aimed at politicians, policymakers, the press, and the public.
While we recognize the limitations of any educational effort that does not include personal exposure to the process, we recommend that the field develop and implement an education campaign that is responsive to the concerns and suggestions of the lawmakers. It will also be important to educate the public, the media, and other policymakers about the methods and value of public deliberation. For each of these audiences, vividness and concreteness will increase the likely success of such efforts.

The next phase of the SOND (Strengthening Our Nation’s Democracy) initiative will use these findings as the framework for presenting data from several major deliberative initiatives conducted in 2010, supplemented by generic information about public deliberation assembled over the years. The resulting presentations will be shared with key stakeholders, including groups representing elected officials at the state and national levels, interested funders, and the public deliberation community at large. The reactions to those presentations will further inform the field’s ongoing effort to make public deliberation useful for democracy.

Resource Link: http://www.deliberative-democracy.net/index.php?option=com_docman&task=doc_download&gid=31&Itemid=92

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Add a Comment

  1. Ash Roughani Says:

    This is a really strong set of recommendations. However, it seems like they might be too much cart before the horse. I would expect policymakers to be more deliberative themselves prior to encouraging their facilitation of deliberation among members of the public. Otherwise, it seems that the the incentive for them is to co-opt the public in pushing an ideological agenda. With historically high levels of polarization, my efforts are focused on bringing about such changes by building a new political party that embraces collaboration and deliberation as process values. What we need is a change in culture within our politics.

  2. Monique Says:

    Hello Ash, your comment above leads me to believe that a successful method of addressing the problems between lawmakers and their constituents is to introduce ‘a change in culture within our politics’ by ‘building a new political party that embraces collaboration and deliberation as process as values.’ I find your solution intriguing and wonder if you would be willing to share more details on that particular approach.

    It’s been my experience that dialogue and deliberation is an effective means to creating understanding between others as well as the means to organizing and generating ideas for implementation of cultural and/or political changes. Therefore I am curious about to know more about your seemingly parallel approach.

    This is a thought provoking article…thank you Sandy for posting it here. Although the approach mentioned sounds time consuming, it also sounds like a method that can be put into place for the long term.

  3. Matt Leighninger Says:

    One key thing to remember about this report is that it focuses on the attitudes and experiences of state and federal legislators, not local officials. There are some important differences – among other things, local officials have done a lot more D&D and other kinds of public engagement than their state and federal counterparts. For more on local officials’ attitudes about participation, see the excellent report by Bill Barnes and Bonnie Mann of the National League of Cities, “Making Local Democracy Work.” http://www.nlc.org/File%20Library/Find%20City%20Solutions/Research%20Innovation/Governance-Civic/making-local-democracy-work-rpt-10.pdf

  4. Tina Nabatchi Says:

    Thanks for commenting on this piece. You might also want to look at the accompanying presentation, which presents more tailored recommendations for different audiences, including public officials, funders, and the field of public engagement (see: http://www.deliberative-democracy.net/index.php?option=com_docman&Itemid=92).

    The observation that we need “a change in culture within our politics” is interesting to me, especially because so many of the people we interviewed suggested the same. I was really struck by the issue of political incentives in the interviews with legislators. Most of the legislators recognized that the system is broken, that legislatures are no longer functioning as civil and deliberative bodies. Almost all of them found this troubling. However, they also felt trapped in the system – forced to cater to the loudest and most extreme voices and to the people who can finance campaigns. Together these issues mean there is little political incentive for them to try deliberation. It’s risky to potentially upset campaign funders and more than a challenge to translate deliberatively-developed recommendations into policy action at the legislative level (one voice among many makes no difference). Any political party (existing or new) would have to deal with these issues regardless of whether collaboration and deliberation are its process values. So, yes, I think we need to change the system on the inside – we need collaboration, dialogue, and deliberation as values in politics – but we also need to change the incentives from the outside – we, as members of the public, have to show that we value these values. Right now, we aren’t making that clear to our politicians.

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