Slow Democracy: Deliberation – More Than Just Talk

This post appeared on April 11, 2013 at the Orton Foundation's Cornerstone Blog. You can see the original post here.

This is the third in a four-part series adapted from the book Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout (Chelsea Green, 2012).

The scene at the public hearing is all too familiar. A tired-looking panel sits in front of the auditorium at a table cluttered with documents and microphones; although the room is full of chairs, most are empty. Citizen questions and discussion are not encouraged, testimony is polarized and tempers flare.

The “public hearing” is one of the most-used citizen participation processes in the United States, with many local and state governments legally mandated to use it. But leaders and citizens are often frustrated by the format.

While originally devised to improve participation, hearings are too often framed as contests between points of view. They’re not structured to seek common ground or collaboration, and occur too late in a process to be taken seriously.

As former Missoula, Montana mayor Daniel Kemmis observes, “A visitor from another planet might reasonably expect that at a public hearing there would be a public, not only speaking to itself but also hearing itself… But this almost never happens.”

Sadly, “public hearings” are frequently neither.

But scholars and practitioners in the emerging field of “dialogue and deliberation” are working to sweeten the democratic experience.

Effective “deliberation” is much more than just talk. Not a negotiation, not a debate, and certainly not the shouting matches that have come to characterize many public issues, a healthy deliberative process includes some key qualities.

As defined by communications authority John Gastil, key elements include analytic processes, such as: sound research; values clarification; determining a variety of viable solutions; evaluating the pluses and minuses of each solution; and making the best decision possible. But they also include social processes, like: making sure everyone gets a chance to speak; ensuring that participants understand each other; valuing local knowledge as well as expert opinions; and ensuring mutual respect.

Municipal managers and academic leaders increasingly agree that while voting is important in a democracy, it’s not enough. Entire university institutes are now dedicated to deliberative democracy. Check out the Center for Democratic Deliberation at Penn State, the Center for Public Deliberation at Colorado State, or theInstitute for Civic Discourse at Kansas State, to name a few—none of which existed ten years ago.

Inclusion—making sure everyone can participate—continues to be the bedrock of a good “slow democracy” process. But when it comes to public engagement, quantity isn’t everything; we also need to think about quality. New models that incorporate face-to-face deliberation are popping up all over the US:

  • Two dozen American states and many cities allow voters to create public policy by ballot, via initiative and referendum systems. Supporters of this process argue that it keeps power close to citizens, especially important in this era of deep skepticism about government. However, “ballot initiatives” lack a forum for citizen discussion and amendment. Instead, special-interest campaigns often result in a misinformed, polarized electorate and multiple re-votes. What to do? The Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review, created in 2011, strengthens ballot initiatives by incorporating deliberation. Here, a random sample of citizens hears from experts and advocates, then deliberates on the merits of the issues. Oregon officials value the resulting “citizens’ statement” so highly that they distribute it to every voting household in the state.
  • An innovative technique called Participatory Budgeting (PB) is used in more than 1,200 cities and towns across the globe, including eight districts in New York City and four wards in Chicago. Here, citizens (not elected officials) come face-to-face to deliberate and decide on discretionary funding in their local budgets. Internationally acclaimed for improving local governance, PB has inspired a new wave of engaged citizen-leadership in many cities.
  • The Orton Family Foundation finds that focusing engagement efforts on youth pays big dividends. InCortez, Colorado, Heart & Soul Community leaders polled 400 high school students to learn about their interests. More than 300 youth responded, and 54 said they wanted to get involved with the Heart & Soul project and their City as a whole. That interest prompted local boards and committees to create seats for youth representation. In Manchester, Vermont, the Foundation’s youth engagement initiative lead to youth voting members sitting on almost all Town boards.

Citizen engagement and public deliberation are more than just “feel-good” concepts. They strengthen our economy. A 2011 report from the National Conference on Citizenship shows a correlation between citizen engagement and community resilience against unemployment.

They help us respond to crises. As recent storms such as Irene and Sandy have shown, federal resources go further when they’re partnered with local leadership, volunteers, and collaboration.

They can also change us personally—for the better. For instance, new research on juries reveals that people who have engaged in these empowered deliberations are statistically more likely to vote.

Structures that allow citizens to frame issues and craft collaborative solutions are a superb match of today’s skills and today’s complex problems. Deliberation is more than just talk; it’s a key element of creating resilient communities.