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Report from NCDD 2008: Action & Policy Change Challenge

At the 2008 National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation, we focused on 5 challenges identified by participants at our past conferences as being vitally important for our field to address. This is one in a series of five posts featuring the final reports from our “challenge leaders.”

Action & Change Challenge: Strengthening the relationship between D&D and action and policy change.

How can we increase the likelihood that D&D engagement streams of “exploration,” “conflict transformation,” and “collaborative action” will result in community action? How can we increase the likelihood that the “decision making” engagement stream will result in policy change? What can we learn from promising D&D efforts that did not result in the action or policy change desired?

Challenge Leader:
Phil Mitchell, Director of the Greater Seattle Climate Dialogues


Report on the Action & Policy Challenge:

We are here to make the world a better place. Sometimes good process in itself is enough. Usually it is not. Usually good process must contest for power in places where power does not give up without a fight, ie., everywhere. What can we do to maximize the chance that our processes will bear fruit in terms of desired action and policy outcomes?


Session Materials from NCDD 2008

Please note: We are providing the following material in the format provided to us by the session leader. Most of the materials are MSOffice documents.

Materials from the Pre-Conference Trainings

Deliberative Democracy and Higher Education: A Workshop on Innovative Democratic Education and Leadership

Practicing What We Preach, presentation by Bruce Mallory [download file]
Venues for Democratic Leadership and Decision Making [download file]
Venues for Teaching and Learning Deliberative Democracy [download file]

Materials from the Concurrent Workshops

Attracting Conservative Citizens to Dialogue Events:
Liberal-Conservative Campus Dialogue & Mormon-Evangelical Interfaith Initiatives

Slide Presentation [download file]
Summary [download file]

Exploring How our Work in D&D Contributes to Social Change
Overview [download file]
D&D Handbook promo [download file]

University and College Centers as Platforms for Deliberative Democracy
Handout 1 [download file]
Handout 2 [download file]

How to Teach a Course on Deliberation
Presentation [download file]

Compassionate Listening: D&D from the Inside Out
The Five Practices of Compassionate Listening [download file]

Beyond the Tools: Applying D&D Principles to Online Engagement
Handout [download file]

Tools for Dealing with Uncertainty, Ambiguity, and Paradox: Reflective Methods for Group Development
Handout [download file]

How Can WE Revitalize Democracy with D&D? – Part 2
Notes from Workshop [download file]

Additional Materials

Closing Remarks by Harold H. Saunders, Chairman and President of the International Institute of Sustained Dialogue [download file]

November 5th Coalition

The November 5th Coalition was a collaborative initiative dedicated to using the 2008 presidential election as an opportunity to foster deliberation about how we can collectively mobilize the energies and talents of ordinary citizens to address our challenges. Those involved believed the campaign could be a watershed, where citizens reclaim their standing as partners of a government that is truly “of, by, and for the people.” The Coalition was named for the day after the election, when we hoped a new chapter in our civic work would begin – a partnership between voters and elected officials.

Sandy Heierbacher of NCDD was involved in this initiative, as was Harry Boyte of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Democracy and Citizenship, Peter Levine of CIRCLE of the University of Maryland, Cynthia Gibson and others affiliated with the Case Foundation, Will Friedman and others at Public Agenda, and more (listed below).

This resource remains as an archive. (more…)

Success Is What Counts: A Community Conversation to Help All Community College Students Achieve Choicework guide

Community colleges are often faced with the challenge of helping students who are struggling to overcome the many difficulties they often face. This 2008 Public Agenda Choicework guide explores the question: How can the college and the community work together to close achievement gaps and help all students succeed?

Based on decades of research and experience concerning how average citizens think and talk about issues, Public Agenda’s Choicework Discussion Starters are designed to help groups and communities talk productively about public problems. Public Agenda’s Choicework guides and Discussion Starters outline several different approaches to solving specific public policy problems, along with the pros, cons and trade-offs of each choice. They use everyday language, not professional jargon, and focus on the kinds of concerns and values that non-experts can readily understand.

Resource Link: http://www.publicagenda.org/files/pdf/ATD_Success.pdf

Framing for Deliberation

This 2008 working paper written by Alison Kadlec and Will Friedman for Public Agenda shares the preliminary results of research they are conducting to learn about the impacts of different types of issue framing on the capacity and willingness of diverse groups of individuals to engage in productive dialogue and deliberation about complex issues. The research builds on and tests ideas presented in Will Friedman’s article “Reframing Framing,” in which Friedman distinguishes between typical media framing that presents issues in dualistic ways (debate style) and efforts made by organizations like Public Agenda to frame issues in ways that clarify a range of positions and trade-offs involved in any proposed solution to a problem (what Public Agenda calls “Citizen Choicework”). Their research is aimed at challenging the mainstream preoccupation with issue framing as the domain of power politics (e.g., partisan and interest group competition for citizen allegiance through persuasive framing), by exploring how different approaches to issue framing might impact people’s ability to understand and grapple more or less effectively with difficult public problems.

Resource Link: http://www.publicagenda.org/files/pdf/CAPE%20Working%20Paper%20Framing%20for%20Deliberation.pdf

To read Kadlec and Friedman’s 2009 paper on issue framing for deliberation, check out Beyond Debate: Impacts of Deliberative Issue Framing on Group Dialogue and Problem Solving.

Channel Political Energy into Renewed Activism

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

Succession planning in organizations is well-represented in theory, but lacking in practice. For more than a year, our country has enjoyed an impressive escalation and excitement with civic participation, especially connected with the presidential and congressional races. Most of us see this adrenaline rush to engage continuing through the political party conventions up to the November election. Why don’t we right now get to work on a plan for citizen engagement that remains active and elevated beyond November? What are the citizen endeavors we can ramp up to keep up the momentum?

If you have renewed enthusiasm for public work, or if you currently are leading new civic activists, spend some time thinking about the initiatives that will need this energy when the campaign tents are folded. Former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards had a plan for a Citizens’ Congress. Let’s push for something like what he described and create a habit of citizen deliberation around public policies that doesn’t fizzle or idle until the next campaign. We can do better.

Margaret E. Holt

This short Letter to the Editor by Margaret Holt was published in the Athens Banner-Herald (Athens, Georgia) on June 25, 2008. It can currently be viewed online at www.onlineathens.com/stories/062508/letters_20080625036.shtml.

The letter was also published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on June 27, 2008, and can be viewed at www.ajc.com/opinion/content/printedition/2008/06/27/lettsed.html.

An Open Letter to PdF Participants

This Open Letter for Personal Democracy Forum (PdF) participants was written by Matt Leighninger in June 23, 2008 – right before the PdF conference. It can also be found at www.personaldemocracy.com/blog/entry/1964/an_open_letter_to_pdf_participants.

Welcome to the Table of Power, Bloggers: Are you democratic revolutionaries or just another interest group?

Dear bloggers, online activists, Internet advocates, and digital journalists:

You’ve arrived. No matter what else happens between now and November 5th, with this election you can lay claim to a permanent place at the political table. It is abundantly clear that the ways in which candidates raise money, recruit volunteers, and reach voters have been irrevocably changed by your online work.

It has received less attention, but you’ve also arrived in local politics. The ways in which people meet their neighbors, talk about public problems and opportunities, organize activities, and interact with local officials have also changed irrevocably.

Those local efforts are part of a larger democratic transition (as I wrote about in The Next Form of Democracy) that is reshaping the relationship between citizens and government. Ordinary people are more capable, confident, and skeptical than ever before. Citizens may have less time for public life, but they bring more knowledge and skills to public problem-solving. They feel more entitled to the services and protection of government, and yet have less faith that government will be able to deliver on those promises. They are less connected to community affairs, and yet they seem better able to find the information, allies, and resources they need to affect an issue or decision they care about. Online communication has greased the skids for all of these changes. Overall, 21st Century citizens seem better at governing, and worse at being governed, than ever before.

In response to these trends, local officials and other kinds of leaders (including online organizers and activists) are attempting many different civic experiments – some successful, some not – to help their communities function more democratically and more effectively. In the last ten years, these kinds of projects have proliferated dramatically, allowing hundreds and sometimes thousands of citizens to address policy issues such as race, crime, education, corrections, immigration, growth and sprawl, youth development, public finance, community-police relations, and economic development. (For some of these stories, see http://helpline.deliberative-democracy.net/ or www.everydaydemocracy.org.)

The best examples of these efforts employ four successful principles:

  1. They recruit people by reaching out through the various groups and organizations to which they belong, in order to assemble a large and diverse “critical mass” of citizens.
  2. They involve those citizens in a combination of small- and large-group discussions: structured, facilitated small groups (either online or face-to-face or both) for informed, deliberative dialogue; and large forums for amplifying shared conclusions and moving from talk to action.
  3. They give the people who participate the opportunity to compare values and experiences, and to consider a range of views and policy options.
  4. They effect change in a number of ways: by applying citizen input to policy and planning decisions; by encouraging change within organizations and institutions; by creating teams to work on particular action ideas; by inspiring and connecting individual volunteers; or all of the above.

Your skills and imagination could propel this shift even further, helping to meet some of the interesting challenges and opportunities that emerge as citizens take more active roles in governance. The Internet holds immense potential not just as a forum for discussion, but as:

  • A vehicle for tracking and measuring public engagement processes. Online platforms could track questions such as: How many people are participating? How diverse and representative are they? Are they satisfied with how the process is going?
  • A force for accountability. Online systems could help people answer questions like: How was citizen input used by public officials on a particular policy decision or plan? Have community organizations of various kinds – neighborhood associations, nonprofits, businesses – made decisions or taken action on the issue? Have individual citizens volunteered their time to help address a public problem?
  • A way to make public discussion more civil and productive. Groups like e-democracy.org, Ascentum, e-thepeople, and Information Renaissance have developed online platforms that use a variety of techniques (moderation, facilitation, no anonymous participants, etc.) to ensure respect and civility, and that focus the conversation on points where citizens can gain the greatest traction.

So you clearly have the capacity, in these and many other ways, to accelerate and amplify this shift toward more democratic forms of governance. Online technology can bring the political system closer to the people, can dramatically enlarge the number and diversity of people who participate in public life, and can help them participate in much more intensive and productive ways.

On the other hand, simply making more information available online, and providing more arenas for people to comment on it, is unlikely to produce these changes, or even to support them in a significant way. Online commentators could simply become another chattering class, another set of voices trying to pressure public officials and dig out damning details. Without attending to the other elements of successful democratic governance – recruitment, deliberation, facilitation, action planning, etc. – the democratic impact of the new technology may be positive but limited.

Making politics more “open” is a terrific priority – but if that’s all you do, then you’ll just be making a space for yourselves at the political table and not welcoming in the people with less time, less education, less confidence, less faith in government and community, and/or a lower level of technological skills. It is a pattern repeated often in American history: one group gets into the smoke-filled room, then closes the door on the others following behind.

Your response to this may be: “So what! We’re opening things up – if people don’t care enough to participate, we’ll govern without them!” If so, it would be helpful to say this now; it would clarify that online commentators and activists constitute a powerful new interest group in American politics.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think that’s what you want. The alternative – clarifying the role you want to play as democratic revolutionaries – will require more attention to what is happening on the ground in local politics, not just what is happening in the ether of the presidential campaign.

Matt Leighninger
Deliberative Democracy Consortium

3rd DCN Topic: Two Momentous Civic Opportunities

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

For our third round in June and July, 2008, members of the Democracy Communications Network are writing about one of two momentous civic opportunities that could engulf or enrich our democracy:

  1. The Internet has revolutionized campaigning; how might it revolutionize governance?
  2. British conservatives are using civic themes and citizen engagement to fuel their revival; can American conservatives (or liberals) do the same?

Articles, blog posts and op-eds on these topics:

Background, resources, and ideas for writing on these topics:

Several historic civic opportunities have emerged during this historical presidential campaign. These are critical chances to strengthen our governments, our political parties, and our democracy; if we miss them, we risk a period of disillusionment, disempowerment, and alienation that would deal a serious blow to our democracy-building efforts of the last decade.

Members of the Democracy Communications Network (DCN) have unique experiences and expertise to draw from in answering these critical challenges. You have the credibility and authority to raise awareness of these opportunities and how we might best meet them. We hope to help you get your voices heard in the national discussion.

The DCN was created to amplify and disseminate key messages about democracy through op-eds, blogs, radio, and other communications channels. We chose John Edwards’ Citizen Congress plan as a focus of our first round of writing, and we collectively were able to get 21 pieces published in various newspapers and blogs. Race and democracy – in the wake of the King anniversary and the Wright controversy – was our second topic, and those articles are still trickling in (please let us know if you have published a piece that we may not know about).

Write About a Momentous Civic Opportunity

For the third round (June and July) we’re asking you to write about one of the two momentous civic opportunities – described in further detail below – that could engulf or enrich our democracy:

  1. The Internet has revolutionized campaigning; how might it revolutionize governance?
  2. British conservatives are using civic themes and citizen engagement to fuel their revival; can American conservatives (or liberals) do the same?

[Do you have a third? Do you disagree with either of the two above? Good! Please feel free to challenge this list, both with other DCN members and in the pieces you write.]

We are hoping that you will write some kind of op-ed, blog post, or letter to the editor of your local newspaper. As with our earlier efforts, the point of this would be:

  • NOT necessarily to endorse a candidate or an idea put forward by a candidate (though of course, those kinds of decisions are up to you).
  • To make the point that both presidential candidates should be putting out specific proposals (not just vague language) about how they think citizens and government should work together to make decisions and solve problems.
  • To highlight the work that you, and others like you, are already doing – candidate’s proposals should build on these existing examples of democratic governance.

1. The Internet has revolutionized campaigning; how might it revolutionize governance?

In his recent Atlantic Monthly article (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200806/ambinder-obama), Marc Ambinder argued that “some of the best-known presidents in U.S. history have stood at the vanguard of past communications revolutions—and that a few have used those revolutions not only to mobilize voters and reach the White House but also to consolidate power and change the direction of politics once they got there.” Ambinder acknowledges that Senator Obama is at the forefront of this trend. Senator McCain is scrambling to catch up, however; it seems clear that, whoever wins in November, this will be the first presidential campaign in which the Internet has played a truly central role.

This could have unexpected consequences after Election Day. Ambinder argues that online campaigning has further fuelled voters’ expectations and capacities – it has strengthened their claims to play a role in governing. But is Obama (or McCain) prepared to accommodate this unprecedented volume of online interest or access?

Online governance will require different uses of the technology than online campaigning.
“Today Obama is like a brand, his campaign like a $250 million company, and the voters like customers; the persuasion flows one way,” Ambinder says.

“Technology has concentrated a fair amount of political power in hubs outside Washington. But Washington has not harnessed that power successfully. If Obama wins, and if he can harness the Web as a unifying force once the voting is done, he could be a powerful president indeed—the kind that might even deliver on some of the audacious promises that Obama the candidate has made. But the Web, like the politics it seeks to transform, is unruly and fickle. The online networks that have turbocharged Obama’s candidacy could end up hemming him in, and even stalling his agenda, as president.”

Do you have experiences or expertise with online civic engagement, or with trying to coordinate online with face-to-face efforts, that would help illuminate this challenge and opportunity?

2. British conservatives are using civic themes and citizen engagement to fuel their revival; can American conservatives (or liberals) do the same?

People sometimes assume that Obama is the ‘civic candidate,’ but McCain has used the same kind of language about democracy and citizenship, both in this campaign and in his 2000 effort. Neither candidate has been specific enough about how he would involve citizens differently to stake sole claim to this territory.

David Brooks points out in a recent New York Times op-ed that the key to a Republican resurgence might be to follow the lead of their counterparts in Britain. The British Conservative Party, which won a string of electoral victories in May, has been trumpeting “community, relationships, civic engagement and social responsibility.” “These conservatives are not trying to improve the souls of citizens,” writes Brooks. “They’re trying to use government to foster dense social bonds. They want voters to think of the Tories as the party of society while Labor is the party of the state. They want the country to see the Tories as the party of decentralized organic networks and the Laborites as the party of top-down mechanistic control.”

“The Conservative Party has spent a lot of time thinking about how government should connect with citizens. Basically, everything should be smaller, decentralized and interactive. They want a greater variety of schools, with local and parental control. They want to reverse the trend toward big central hospitals. Health care … is as much about regular long-term care as major surgery, and patients should have the power to construct relationships with caretakers, pharmacists and local facilities.”

This new focus has appealed to British voters. “The Conservatives have successfully ‘decontaminated’ their brand. They’re offering something in tune with the times.” Should McCain try something similar? Should Obama? Can either go as far, as effectively, as the British Conservatives in describing how they want citizens to have different roles in education, health care, and other areas?

How might decentralization and increased local control contribute to citizen involvement work? How might it hurt? Do you have experiences or expertise on this topic that you can share?

Please remember to send a copy of your work, noting the target publication or blog, to sandy@thataway.org. All pieces related to this effort will be posted on the NCDD website. And don’t forget to look over the tips for writing op-ed articles at https://ncdd.org/rc/item/4911.

Next Topic: Maintaining Democracy’s Presence in the Media

In August and September, writers in the Democracy Communications Network will tackle another set of issues, including: “The presidential campaign is generating colossal numbers of voters, donors, and volunteers; what kind of civic infrastructure do we need to accommodate these people after the election?” Your suggestions are welcomed for this and other upcoming rounds of writing.

2nd DCN Topic: Racism in Our Nation

This was the second topic focused on by the “Democracy Communications Network,” a 2007-2009 project that encouraged leaders in dialogue and deliberation to periodically write op-eds and blog posts as part of collaborative media campaigns that raise awareness of the importance of quality public engagement. Use the “Democracy Communications Network” tag to see all the great articles that were written in association with this project. Also see the General Tips for Writing Op-Ed Articles.

Articles, blog posts and op-eds on this topic:

Background, resources, and ideas for writing on this topic:

As our second topic, members of the Democracy Communications Network are writing about the rising interest in – and action on – racism in our nation. The ongoing coverage of and commentary on statements made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright; Barack Obama’s stirring “A More Perfect Union” speech; and the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. are all near the top of the news this week, and will likely remain major topics of conversation for some time to come.

Bringing this message home to your readers

Although many newspapers, blogs, and other media outlets have already written about Wright, Obama’s speech, and perhaps the April 4 MLK anniversary, what we hope to do with these essays is go deeper and show – from our long experience in the civic engagement field – how communities are dealing with racism in different ways than they did in the past, and how officials, citizens, and activists are coming to see that action on racial equity is tied to progress on a broad range of policy issues including education, economic development, the criminal justice system, housing, and many more.

A survey released March 27 by the Pew Research Centers found that “Barack Obama’s March 18th speech on race and politics is arguably the biggest political event of the campaign so far. Fully 85% of Americans say they heard at least a little about Obama’s speech, and most (54%) say they heard a lot about it.” (More here.)

You might use the Pew survey and/or the King anniversary as a news hook, then ask: What has been happening in your city, state, or region to help people not just talk about race, but take action against structural racism? If the answer is “not much,” perhaps you can point to examples of officials and citizens elsewhere who have already moved racism to the forefront of their public agenda. If you don’t have local examples, feel free to use any of the examples or talking points below. And if you have examples or talking points that you’d like to add to this list, please send them to Sandy Heierbacher at sandy[at]ncdd[dot]org and we’ll add them to this page. We’ll also post your writings there as well, if you send them to Sandy.

Examples and talking points

· In Memphis, Tennessee, a brand-new coalition has sprung up to commemorate the 40th anniversary of King’s death with a project called Common Ground which will, in the words of Memphis Commercial Appeal editor Chris Peck, help local residents “work together to talk about race in Memphis, gain a better understanding of one another, and pledge to take on specific projects that can repair and restore race relations in this city.” (More from Peck’s column here.) With strong support from local businesses, faith communities, and the media, the first round of facilitated Common Ground circles will start meeting April 24, with an action forum planned for early June.

· Eleven years ago, board members of the Syracuse, New York, Community Wide Dialogue planned to spend a year talking about race and racism in their community. They soon realized, however, that one year of dialogue on such an important issue would not be nearly enough. In fact, they decided a decade wouldn’t do it, either. Last year, as the Community Wide Dialogue to End Racism (CWD) marked the end of its first decade, leaders reported that they were about halfway to the goal of having 10,000 people who have talked deeply about race and racism, and who have the skills to take action against the ways racism still hurts the community. CWD recently announced a new project aimed at cooling ethnic tensions on the city’s Near Northside, where many refugees from abroad are settling. (More here.)

· Syracuse, Memphis, and hundreds of other communities are addressing racism with the help of Everyday Democracy (formerly the Study Circles Resource Center), which has resources including its revised-in-2006 guide, Facing Racism in a Diverse Nation. In a forthcoming column for the spring 2008 issue of Everyday Democracy’s Focus newsletter, executive director Martha McCoy writes, “Lately, race has moved back to the front and center of our national discourse. All of us who pay attention to this issue know that this happens every decade or so. But there’s something different this time. The conversation is more about the impact of racism on our communities, our institutions, and our policies, and less about “can we all just get along.” It’s more about quality of life, and less about race as an inter-personal matter. … A new “racial literacy” is taking shape. We see it developing in small, medium and large communities, rural, urban, and suburban. It’s happening in those with very diverse populations, and those that are just starting to diversify. Communities are learning to frame and discuss questions of fairness, opportunity, and what it will take to close gaps in housing, education, public safety, and social services.”

· Matt Leighninger, author of The Next Form of Democracy: How Expert Rule is Giving Way to Shared Governance – And Why Politics Will Never Be the Same (Vanderbilt University Press, 2006), says he has noticed that while race inevitably comes up in all sorts of civic conversations, people are starting to challenge assumptions about how we talk about it. For example, he says, “The participants in these local civic experiments question the notion that racism is just an easily identifiable, individual sin – that we are all either racists or non-racists. When people take a closer look, they usually begin to see racism as a blurry spectrum, a series of individual and institutional biases that get progressively more inaccurate and damaging.” He adds: “Diversity is both a strength and a challenge: sometimes you celebrate diversity, sometimes you have to deal with it, but the challenge is how to do those things effectively, not how you can make differences disappear.” Race, he adds, may well be something we will be working on for decades to come, “the great American project” in shared governance.

· At its website, Public Agenda has a race issue guide that lays out research results and fact sheets on many policy implications of structural racism, along with discussion materials for citizens to grapple with solutions. “We’ve always been strong believers in the public’s ability to have real, meaningful dialogue on race or any other issue, given the right conditions. But there are certain things people need to get started. They need insight into the other guy’s point of view – and the public opinion research tells us that the perception gap between the races can be substantial. They need to know where things stand today, and to have a framework for discussion, some sense of clear alternatives for the road ahead. Finally they need a place in our public realm to have a conversation that encourages a real exchange of ideas rather than broadsides and bitter commentary,” said Scott Bittle, Public Agenda’s executive vice president and director of public issues analysis. “Public Agenda’s Issue Guide on Race provides some of the essential raw material for that conversation.”

· Julie Fanselow wrote a blog post at Daily Kos on March 26 that includes several other examples of communities addressing racism and attracted more than 60 comments ranging from whether dialogues – even action-oriented dialogues – about racism are simply a “feel-good” exercise to whether reparations are part of the discussion.

· In his March 20th blog post, Peter Levine compared CNN’s shallow, horse-race coverage of the Obama speech to more thoughtful reflection on the speech, including a New York Times article detailing how Obama’s speech provoked deep discussions among the staff members of a 12,000-member mostly white evangelical church in Florida. (The Times article has quotes from people across the country reacting to the Obama speech.)

· Rich Harwood wrote a blog post on March 25 making a case for why local – not national – conversations on racism are the way to go, and why conversation alone is not enough. “Deeper connections will emerge only by rubbing shoulders and finding solutions together to common challenges, demonstrating to ourselves and others that progress is possible,” he wrote.

Please be sure to offer links and/or attribution if you use any of these examples or talking points. And don’t forget to look over the tips for writing op-ed articles at https://ncdd.org/rc/item/4911.

Op-Ed by Harris Sokoloff for the Philadelphia Daily News

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.

Philly’s rules of engagement

Posted on Wed, Nov. 21, 2007 and currently available online at www.philly.com/philly/opinion/11681542.html.


IT SEEMS THAT the presidential candidates – well, two, at least – have finally caught up with Philadelphia.

Presidential candidate John Edwards recently announced his “One Democracy” initiative to expand the role of ordinary citizens in politics. One part of that initiative, a proposal to hold a “Citizen Congress” that would bring together one million citizens in a network of local “town hall” meetings and online forums,is clearly ambitious. And Senator Barack Obama recently released a plan that calls for citizen engagement in the work of federal agencies. He would like to open the closed practices of government and enable genuine citizen participation and engagement in our democracy.

This sounds like something we’ve been doing in Philadelphia for more than a decade. Indeed, the last three mayoral elections in Philadelphia have been characterized by increasing engagement of citizens with candidates. Not only have there been more opportunities for citizens to hear candidates, but those occasions are increasingly diverse, interactive and issue-focused.

The primary and general election this year provided citizens with opportunities to talk with each other and then to continue those conversations with the candidates. This model is designed to increase civic engagement and reduce political alienation. It also has contributed to the rise of optimism in Philadelphia. It is, therefore, a model that has great potential to reduce alienation and increase engagement across the country.

Thus, Edwards and other candidates and leaders would do well to learn from the Philadelphia experience over the past decade. In my capacity as director of the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, I’ve learned lessons worth sharing:

* Citizens are busy, but are interested in ongoing opportunities for engagement. One-time events, whether one or two days, are, even if fun, likely to be unsatisfying for citizens. Citizens often leave forums still puzzling over ideas raised by others. They want to continue to work through ideas and differences and find ways to turn them from conversation to action.

* Citizens want opportunities to learn and opportunities to talk. Not all citizens come with the same foundation of information. And they don’t have access to the same data, information or knowledge. Thus, we’ve tried to provide participants with some common material – reading, video, audio – and an opportunity to discuss what it means to them.

* Frame the issues in citizen, not expert, terms. Experts frame issues differently than normal citizens, often focusing on data and information, never making their underlying values explicit. But citizens always start with their values, with what’s important to them.

* Reach for “common ground for action,” not compromise or consensus. Compromise leads everyone to think they gave up more than they got. And consensus is incredibly difficult to reach on most of the issues important to us. “Common ground for action” focuses on reaching mutual understanding, often on underlying values. We’ve seen citizens in Philadelphia identify such common ground and then use it to explore areas where they might work together to make things better.

* Create feedback cycles. Few things are more alienating than spending hours or days of one’s time giving input and then having that input disappear into the political machine. Build feedback cycles into any activity that engages citizens, telling them what you did with what they told you. We learned this in 2003, when citizens involved in the Citizen Voices project wanted to monitor how elected officials responded to the issues they raised.

We know from experience that citizens can develop a clear sense of the directions they would like policy to take. Edwards’ proposal outlines a broad step in this direction, and we should encourage other candidates to create their own proposals to increase the quantity and quality of citizen engagement. They might learn from the Philadelphia experience and build on that.

Harris J. Sokoloff is faculty director, Penn Project for Civic Engagement, and executive director of the Center for School Study Councils at the Graduate School of Education.