Published on October 26, 2012

Americans Envision a Civic Infrastructure for Public Dialogue and Deliberation

By Janice Thomson

Janice Thomson was Involve's EU Public Engagement Advisor. She left in January 2012. Her work focussed on understanding and enhancing public participation at European Union level. Please email info@involve.org.uk with comments or questions on Involve's work on EU Engagement.

Janice Thomson’s take on the NCDD conference and American’s vision for Public Dialogue and Deliberation.

Over a long and rainy weekend in Seattle, I joined members of the US-based National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) in a trendy downtown eco hotel for their semi-annual conference. NCDD celebrated their 10th anniversary as an organisation by taking on the monumental challenge of envisioning a robust “civic infrastructure” for public dialogue and deliberation at the local, state, and national levels. The conference drew many Canadians and a handful of participants from other countries, but was very much dominated by Americans and American concerns.

Despite many successes, deliberative public engagement in the United States remains largely episodic and sporadic. At the same time, public discourse is increasingly adversarial, polarised, and sometimes downright uncivil. While NCDD members did not devise a solution in three days, I did leave the conference with some useful insights into how a sustainable civic infrastructure might take shape.

Social capital serves as both the foundation and lubricant for a robust civic infrastructure — i.e., knowing and trusting one’s neighbours, public officials, and others with whom one must cooperate. This theme started in a pre-conference public conversation café on creating a “compassionate community” in Seattle which highlighted the under-appreciated role of informal public spaces, such as community gardens. It moved on to the importance of building celebration and fun into public engagement, from global dance parties, to sports in rural areas and cupcake decorating parties with families. Many talked about dialogue itself as action, rather than simply a prelude to action, because it can build relationships, resolve problems, and change how communities approach issues. Communities where deliberative processes have taken root seem to start with good social capital and regular engagement activities. Communities that have reverted to ineffective processes seem to lack regular engagement activities. This may be one reason why most successful deliberative public engagement in the US takes place at the local level. Residents will transcend partisan political divides to work with neighbours on local issues, but find this challenging with strangers at the state and national levels.

Deliberative public engagement seems to be most sustainable when it is a process (not a project) that the community itself owns and which government officials trust. I was struck by how many stories I heard of wildly successful public engagement projects that were never replicated. These tended to be rather complex one-off projects designed and run by experts to tackle a specific problem. Those with staying power, such as Portsmouth Listens, were simple, customizable “‘processes” which could be run by any trained volunteer facilitators for a range of issues. “Listens” processes in New Hampshire originated in the community but involved decision-makers from the start.

Although they never promise to implement outcomes, public officials have learned to trust these processes and often do act on resident recommendations, creating a positive feedback loop. Community-owned processes, be they study circles in New Hampshire or national issues forums in West Virginia, have become an acceptable alternative from traditional town hall meetings. Noticing this phenomenon, many facilitators now regularly integrate training, both formally through workshops and informally through full transparency, into their public engagement work.

Engage politicians as politicians to support deliberative public engagement. In a dysfunctional political system dominated by powerful corporate and special interests, politicians and citizens can in fact be natural allies. Deliberative processes can allow politicians the necessary political cover to give citizens the policies they want but which traditional approaches allow interest groups to block. This in turn can be a powerful boost at election time, as witnessed by Chicago Alderman Joe Moore who almost lost his job prior to adopting participatory budgeting and was comfortably re-elected afterwards. Unfortunately, according to research from the National League of Cities, the overwhelming majority of American politicians hold citizens in low esteem and many actively fear them. Conference participants repeatedly pointed to bad public engagement processes as a key reason, such as the legally-mandated public hearing which restricts citizen input to “3 minutes at a microphone” and then forbids public officials from responding. Such processes train citizens to shout and complain to be heard.

Politicians in states with direct democracy (initiatives and referendums) appear to be more supportive of deliberative public engagement than politicians elsewhere. It was striking how many public engagement initiatives, especially government-sponsored ones, take place in the states that most heavily use direct democracy (e.g., Colorado, California, Washington, Oregon). Although deliberative democracy enthusiasts are often suspicious of direct democracy, it does appear to shift politicians’ views of the role of citizens. Involving citizens in a co-creative deliberative process can be much less risky for politicians than having citizens legislate unilaterally via initiative.

Citizens must stop behaving like demanding consumers and take responsibility for their decisions. I was actually quite surprised by how often I heard conference participants blame citizens for dysfunctional political systems. Many Americans seem to treat politics as a commercial transaction, demanding specific public goods as “fair exchange” for their taxes and punishing politicians who don’t comply. They have little sense of the common good and even less appreciation for the complex trade-offs required in public policy. To be fair, politicians help perpetuate these attitudes through unrealistic campaign promises. Deliberative processes where citizens must weigh competing needs to reach agreement can help turn residents from selfish consumers into responsible citizens.

Courage is needed to engage a divided public on a growing number of contentious issues. Conference attendees frequently alluded to the polarised, confrontational, uncivil (bordering on violent) environment in which public policy discussions can take place in America. At the same time, the effects of climate change and economic stagnation are making difficult public policy problems like water management and funding public pensions even more challenging. Furthermore, as successful public engagement processes begin to challenge the status quo, they themselves become objects of attack, from both the political right and left. For example, supposedly pro-democracy labour unions have challenged the legitimacy of the Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review. So far, conveners have diffused attacks by reaching out to and fully including opponents. This requires a particular kind of courage, especially in regions where residents are legally permitted to attend public meetings visibly brandishing firearms. It is telling that legendary America Speaks founder Carolyn Lukensmeyer has adopted promoting civil discourse at all levels of American government as her new priority.

As a professional organisation dominated by self-declared “process people”, group process was a frequent subject of discussion and often disagreement. The proper role of the online space was a particularly divisive topic. The most successful examples of online public engagement seem to use the internet for education or informed public opinion polling but reserve meaningful deliberation for face-to-face meetings, as in state-wide projects TBD Colorado, Oregon’s Kitchen Table, and municipal projects using Place Speak. Public online dialogue seems to work best for community-building at a neighbourhood level, as demonstrated by Minnesota’s BeNeighbors forums.

The conference ended with the presentation of 14 project proposals for the new NCDD Catalyst Awards which will give $10,000 to two collaborative projects. Topics proposed so far range from standardising evaluation criteria, to building a national dialogue infrastructure, to pitching a reality TV show. Final proposals are due in mid-January 2013, so there is still plenty of time to join NCDD and vote for your favourites, or even add your own idea. If Americans succeed in building a robust and sustainable civic
infrastructure in their contentious and polarised political system, there is hope that other countries can as well.

Janice Thomson

Picture credit: gfpeck

7 Responses to “Americans Envision a Civic Infrastructure for Public Dialogue and Deliberation”

  1. October 26, 2012 at 4:53 pm

    Great write-up, Janice! You did a great job overviewing our field’s and the conference’s efforts to shed light on the importance of building lasting civic infrastructure, and I love that you linked to so many examples. I’ve reposted this on the NCDD blog with a link back here.

  2. Janice Thomson
    October 30, 2012 at 6:47 pm

    Thanks Sandy. It was a truly wonderful conference that drew a veritable “who’s who” of the D&D field in North America. After participating in multiple virtual NCDD events when I lived in Europe, it was great to finally join a face-to-face meeting. Can’t wait until the next conference in 2014!

  3. Simon Burall
    November 6, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    Tessy Brittan, on twitter @TessyBritton, commented ‘Fascinating post – parts very concerning: “turn residents from selfish consumers into responsible citizens”‘. She expanded ‘A destructive approach to describe citizens in this way – on face of it brutally honest & fact of it innacurate & disrespectful?’

    I contacted Janice by email and she responded:

    “I’m so glad that Tessy brought up this point. I had meant to be provocative, but was not very artful in my choice of words. However, I think there may be more to it than that. I personally was shocked when I first heard citizens blamed for political dysfunction and wanted to rush to their defense. I tend to hold citizens in high esteem and blame dysfunctional systems or unenlightened politicians for failed public policies. This idealistic view of citizens I now realize has actually been blinding me to changes needed in citizens’ own views of their roles and especially responsibilities. I also realized that, although citizens in both Europe and the USA share many commonalities, there are also important cultural differences. When I lived in Europe, I did not fully comprehend the perverse forms traditional American individualism have taken in modern politics or the absolute pervasiveness of “marketing thinking” in American life. Americans are deeply divided over concepts of citizenship that most Europeans take for granted, like the concept of social solidarity and health care as a human right. When I lived in Europe, the many recent efforts to shift Americans from “me to we” thinking — ranging from “transpartisan” movements to efforts to “heal the heart of democracy” to the promotion of “civil discourse” – thus seemed like distractions from meaningful political reform. Since returning to the US last year, I’ve come to see them as absolutely essential elements of any such reform.”

  4. November 6, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    Thanks very much Janice and Simon for responding to the twitter reply … and thank you for writing such a fascinating post.

    I have come to view that citizens respond to existing systems, largely poorly designed, top down, over a very long time.

    I think that those involved in shaping policy and designing social systems have a long way to go in terms of communicating and collaborating with citizens in honest, meaningful, productive and imaginative ways. So my response isn’t in defence of an idealist view of citizens – but an appreciation that responsibility lies equally between citizens and government – and all the other elements surrounding these.

    This means we have an enormous opportunity to make society function better – and I look forward to a future where the systems start to match our more optimistic wishes of the future. I think that if we make tougher demands on ourselves first, we are more likely succeed.

  5. Janice Thomson
    November 6, 2012 at 8:54 pm

    Thanks Tessy for your comment. I completely agree with you that responsibility lies equally with citizens and government.

    The idealism toward citizens was my own, stemming partly from the fact that I first became involved in public engagement at the European Union level. EU citizens have had very little say in EU policy and politicians have often deliberately kept them in the dark. The USA has an entirely different kind of political system, culture, and tradition of citizenship which is challenging me to change my own thinking.

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