Strengthening the Bridge of Civic Engagement

As the field continues to grow and address the deep divides in our country, we wanted to share this thoughtful piece written by NCDD member, Ashley Trim, Executive Director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. In the piece, she talks about how building and bridging civic engagement in this country is very similar to building actual bridges. She writes that for a long term solution to be able to support the community, both sides of the bridge need to meet in the middle in order to function. We encourage you to read the piece in the post below or find the original on the New America blog here.


Building Bridges from Both Sides

This blog is part of the civic engagement blog series released in tandem with the “Building Civic Capacity in a Time of Democratic Crisis” white paper. To read the rest of the series, click here.

Today, we face an interesting political challenge, not just in our legislation, but in how we address the strength and capacity of our civic processes. It has become clear that our country must consider more than just physical infrastructure to truly address the nation’s durability, endurance, and stability.

However, infrastructure and architecture can offer useful sources of inspiration.

The arch-style bridge is one of the most ancient, used in the aqueducts of Rome and in designs from the present day. Building these bridges has become more efficient with modern technology, but the original design is still so commonly relied on because of its natural strength. However, it must be built from both sides. It bears tremendous weight across chasms, but only when both sides meet in alignment. What a beautiful picture of what renewed civic engagement must look like here in the United States!

In June, we welcomed an extraordinary group of men and women to Pepperdine’s beautiful Malibu campus for a deep dive into public engagement. The cohort were majority city government professionals. And one thing was clear: They were eager to build their civic muscles.

“This is how you build a civic engagement bridge from both sides,” I thought as I listened to their struggles, insights and enthusiasm throughout the three-day course.

Too often on both the right and the left, community organizing models have taken a combative approach to engagement between the people and the government – drafting demands, recruiting or band-wagoning behind outsider candidates, developing “tactics” and “strategies.”

Instead of building an arch, we seem to dig the chasms that divide us deeper and wider.

This blog highlights a number of ways that civic entrepreneurs such as Participatory Budgeting’s Maria Hadden, New York City’s Regina Schwartz, and the City of Baltimore’s Rev. Kimberley Lagree are offering new models of engagement. In my near-decade of working with local governments to improve public engagement practices, I can attest that a growing number of local government staff and elected officials at home and abroad are also looking to bridge the divide. For them, however, using this ancient approach can be done with some new, innovative strategies:

Rethinking Relationships

Following the great scientific advances of the 19th and 20th centuries, educators began to apply scientific methods to other fields: professional schools of public administration were established to turn out experts who would analyze the problems facing communities and implement solutions accordingly.

Then the 21st century arrived with a revolution in communications technology, an economic recession and recovery, and increased diversity of every kind in communities across the country. With its questions of culture and community, this new context proved too complex for the expert analysis model of simply solving issues from a scientific approach. Many local government practitioners are now seeking a new model that sees government less as a problem identifier and solver, and more as a convener and facilitator of difficult and rewarding conversations about the appropriate responsibilities of the whole community in creating and delivering a vision for the future.

Experimenting with New Processes

If you’ve ever seen an episode of NBC’s Parks and Rec you may recognize the traditional engagement process. An elected body on a dais, staff flanking them with notebooks or computers, a nearly empty council chamber or auditorium. Everyone gets 3 or 5 minutes at the microphone. The decks are easily stacked. The local government has done its legal duty and everyone goes home. Rarely is a heart or mind (or even a policy) substantively changed.

Over the past decade, more and more city governments have started looking at new ways of engaging residents – from participatory budgeting to pop up engagement stations to online platforms. Many are realizing that true engagement comes not when residents feel heard, but when they are heard; when government poses the right questions and is open to creative answers. True engagement also involves residents talking to each other. Only when this happens are community members invited into the hard work of governance, made aware of competing priorities and stories that may not parallel our own.

Prioritizing Inclusivity

City staff calls them the “usual suspects” — the same dozen residents that show up at every council meeting. They are predictably old and white, far from an accurate reflection of the population of most cities.

Across the country, cities are exploring ways to make engagement reflect the community. They know that inclusivity means more than not turning someone away at the door. It requires proactive efforts, often overcoming deeply-rooted mistrust. Some of the processes mentioned above are ways of breaking down barriers, as are offering materials in relevant language translations, orally or visually; holding meetings in different locations and at different times of day, partnering with cultural leaders, providing food and childcare. When they are honest, even cities on the cutting edge of public engagement know they have a long way to go, but they’re working on it.

Which leads to a final thought:

Building Strong Bridges is a Rickety Business

Building bridges is hard work. With arch bridges, the structure is only stable when the two sides finally come together. We could say the same for building engagement. As we build toward each other, we rely on support from a variety of sources: community leaders, thought leaders, individual citizens, champions within the government. Sometimes it may seem like all our efforts are going to holding up what little structure is currently in place. Our best efforts may feel rickety at best. But we must persevere through the unstable stage, until the spans meet in the middle. If we do so, we’ll create valuable infrastructure that can bear the weight of community long into the future.

You can read the original version of Ashley Trim’s piece on the New America blog at www.newamerica.org/political-reform/blog/building-bridges-both-sides/.

Benefits and Challenges of Digitizing Deliberative Democracy

We wanted to share this article from NCDD sponsor, The Jefferson Center about the potential of digital democracy. The article talks about the powerful impact digital democracy can have and lifts up some of the challenges faced. It explores several examples and asks “what other ways do you think civic participation organizations can use technology to increase democratic participation?” and we invite you to leave your thoughts in the comments below!  You can read more on post below or find the original version the Jefferson Center blog here.


Digitizing Deliberative Democracy

The smartphones in our pockets can seemingly accomplish anything—even things you didn’t know you needed (like downloading virtual bubble wrap). While various apps and our social media feeds may threaten our productivity and full night’s sleep, they also connect us to people, organizations, and information at our fingertips. However, there’s one key area that hasn’t quite reached its full digital potential: democracy.

While we live in an increasingly interconnected world, we also use the internet to join neighborhood associations, alumni pages, and other community groups. Digital spaces, which can be used on a city to national scale, may have the power to cultivate meaningful local impacts. It’s no secret that trust in the institutions and processes that govern our lives as citizens is in decline. Could digital democracy, that seeks to involve citizens anywhere, anytime, be the fix?

Increasing Accessibility

Jimmy Carter, writing in a recent op-ed for the New York Times, writes the United States needs to improve “systems for inclusive and effective political participation” in the digital era. Between outdated communications, layers of bureaucracy, and purposeful confusion tactics, it can be extremely difficult for citizens to know where to go, and who to talk to about community grievances or ideas.

If democracy is rule by the people, then it makes sense to engage citizens with the tools right at our fingertips. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center poll, nearly 9 in 10 Americans are now online, and 77% of Americans own a smartphone. People with limited mobility, job commitments, vehicle troubles, childcare responsibilities, and any other hindrance to participating in person could have their voices heard more easily.

At the Jefferson Center, we’ve seen these trends in action. In our current project with the Minnesota Community Assembly Project, citizens in Red Wing, Minnesota wanted strengthened digital public engagement from their city. Better digital platforms would allow more citizens to reach out directly to elected officials to offer their input and recommendations, have conversations with other community members, or vote directly on public decisions.

Digital Democracy in Action

Digital democracy has been taking root around the world, and it’s easy to find success stories. In Seoul, South Korea, residents use an app called “mVoting” that allows residents to share their thoughts on the “city’s public parks, bus routes and designated smoking areas.” To date, there have been 181 cases that have been officially accepted as Seoul policy.

Meanwhile in Spain, “Decide Madrid” is a similar app which asks residents to submit suggestions or new laws, and other communities members can voice their support on suggestions. A South Australian program called “YourSAy” is trying to accomplish a similar task, by offering an online forum where citizens can take part in discussions, vote in polls, and decide where government funds are spent within broader engagement efforts that include face-to-face meetings. The UK Parliament has also begun a system of “evidence checks”, which invites citizens to examine current policies, and the evidence used to support these policies, to identify any gaps or problems.  A United States start-up firm called “Innovote” is also working to increase participation and accessibility by taking the vote to your phone, working with governments across the country.

Harnessing people power through technology would require apps, website, and other digital engagement tools. But in the long run, inviting people to participate remotely likely saves time and money, as well as delivering representative results.

Challenges to Inclusive Participation

In Taiwan, the website “vTaiwan” seeks to gather citizen views on issues. The results are collected and the program condenses the range of opinions into core citizen views. The website doubles as a facilitator, where stakeholders can participate in digital discussions, and policies are eventually formed on a national scale.

While the program has been scaled up over time, digital participation still remains in the thousands. Taiwanese activist Audrey Tang states that one driver of this lower participation may be because the process works well when primary stakeholders are online. When affected citizens don’t use the same technology, the process may be limited to niche issues. However, the website has been successful in both deciding and implementing policy, and popularizing media coverage around social enterprise company law, Uber ride service, and others. Minister Jaclyn Tsai commented that the process can be successful “if we can all take the time to understand the problem, read the data, while also listening to the views of the people—and enter a discussion, we are much more likely to reach a consensus.”

While accessibility to democratic conversations may increase for some, many citizens may not have stable internet access, or feel comfortable enough with technology to participate. In order to create representative solutions to issues, technology could be brought to different communities, combining new techniques and traditional advocacy to listen to more people.

Translating the Process

While these examples have largely focused on national and local government, there’s opportunities to broaden this scope. For instance, digital democracy could be used to ask what kind of local news citizens want to read, helping journalists to decide what issues to cover and how best to inform their communities. This could also be used to reduce diagnostic error, by engaging digitally with healthcare consumers to gather patient-focused perspectives.

At the Jefferson Center, we’re incorporating digital tools to recruit people to participate in our Citizens Juries, inform community members, and facilitate decision making. What other ways do you think civic participation organizations can use technology to increase democratic participation?

You can read the original version of this blog article from the Jefferson Center at www.jefferson-center.org/digitizing-deliberative-democracy/.

Submit Your Proposals for the Innovations in Participatory Democracy Conference

We are thrilled to announce the upcoming Innovations in Participatory Democracy Conference in Spring 2018 that will convene civic practitioners, of all ages, to explore innovations in how people participate in democracy. The conference is the creative effort of several fantastic organizations working to empower their community, including NCDD sponsoring org the Jefferson Center, and NCDD member org the Participatory Budgeting Project. Proposals are to be submitted by November 1st, so make sure you get yours in and reserve your space at this great event by purchasing your tickets ASAP.

We strongly encourage you to read the announcement from the Participatory Budgeting Project below or you can find their original post on their blog here.


Get involved with the Innovations in Participatory Democracy Conference

The Innovations in Participatory Democracy Conference will bring together more than 250 youth, educators, advocates, elected officials, and researchers to explore innovations that empower community members to make real decisions and directly participate in government.

Our conference kicks off just as 10 public high schools wrap up two weeks of voting in the Phoenix Union High School District—where students are using participatory budgeting to decide how to spend $55,000.

Join us! Purchase your tickets now at discounted rates.

Call for Proposals

In order to plan a conference that’s as participatory as the innovations we’re exploring, we want to hear from you!

We’re excited to review creative, engaging, and interactive proposals (check out these example session types) that focus on innovations in participatory democracy such as participatory budgeting, citizen juries and assemblies, and key practices that connect civic engagement and deliberation with decision-making.

Submissions close November 1, 2017.

We’re especially interested in proposals that:

  • are creative, engaging, and interactive;
  • showcase a diversity of opinions, experiences, and backgrounds;
  • encourage interaction, discussion, and/or skill-sharing with session attendees;
  • are accessible to people of any background or experience level;
  • promote new collaborations among conference attendees.

Submit your proposal for the 2018 Innovations in Participatory Democracy Conference.

On behalf of the powerful team planning the Innovations in Participatory Democracy Conference, we’re excited to shape this conference and the future of participatory democracy with you!

We look forward to reviewing your proposal and to working together to grow and deepen the impacts of innovations in participatory democracy.

You can find the original version of this blog post on the Participatory Budgeting Project’s site at www.participatorybudgeting.org/join-us-for-ipdconference/.

Using Thick and Thin Engagement to Improve Politics

The NCDD network specializes in structures and processes for better civic engagement, which is why we wanted to share an insightful piece written by Matt Leighninger from Public Agenda, an NCDD member org. In the article, he gives concrete ways to improve politics from the ground up, by strengthening networks using both thin and thick ways of engagement. We encourage you to read Leighninger’s article below or find the original on Public Agenda’s blog here.


Fixing Politics by Strengthening Networks for Engagement

As David Brooks pointed out in his column on “How to Fix Politics,” our political system has reached a perilous state of dysfunction and distrust, and it is unlikely that any solutions to this crisis will come from the political parties or their presidential candidates.

Brooks is also right that the partisanship and incivility that plague our politics are not just due to poor manners or bad process skills. They are based in much deeper structural flaws in how leaders and communities engage each other around important issues and resulting strains in the relationship between citizens and government.

Brooks argues that strong community networks are essential for successful politics, and uses a 1981 quote from one of our founders, Daniel Yankelovich, to illustrate how long the weakening of those networks has been going on. “If we’re going to salvage our politics,” Brooks says, we’ll have to “nurture the thick local membership web that politics rests within.”

This kind of argument is often dismissed as a sentimental notion, or a lament over our lack of civic virtue, but it shouldn’t be. There are specific proposals and measures that can accomplish it.

Strengthening networks for engagement should be one of our top public priorities, and there are in fact a number of concrete ways to move forward on it. Much of our work at Public Agenda centers on these challenges, and we are part of a field of other organizations and leaders – from neighborhood organizers to innovative public officials – who have pioneered more productive formats and structures for democratic politics.

There are two kinds of communication that need to be happening for those networks to strengthen and grow. One kind, as Brooks references, is “thick” engagement that is intensive, informed and deliberative. In these kinds of settings, people are able to share their experiences, learn more about public problems, consider a range of solutions or policy options and decide how they want to act.

Other tactics produce “thin” engagement, which is faster, easier and potentially viral. It encompasses a range of activities that allow people to express their opinions, learn about other people’s views and affiliate themselves with a particular group or cause.

When thick and thin engagement activities are common and interwoven in community life, they can:

  • Facilitate faster, more far-reaching dissemination of information from governments, school systems and other public bodies.
  • Allow citizens to provide information back to the institutions, in ways that are convenient for people.
  • Foster discussion and connection, and the strengthening of personal relationships, among different groups of citizens, and among citizens, public officials and public employees.
  • Provide choices for people to make at the level of the family and neighborhood;
  • Create deliberative processes in which people can make informed public policy choices;
  • Encourage and support citizens to contribute their energy, ideas and volunteer time to improving their communities.

By understanding what thick and thin engagement look like, and what they can accomplish, communities can assess and improve their systems of engagement, or “civic infrastructure,” defined as “the laws, processes, institutions, and associations that support regular opportunities for people to connect with each other, solve problems, make decisions and celebrate community.”

Stronger civic infrastructure could include more productive and participatory public meetings, revitalized neighborhood and school associations, and vibrant local online forums. Overall, it should establish a better “ground floor of democracy” that fosters new leaders, creates social connections and helps people work together on common concerns like ensuring public safety and improving the quality of education for our young people.

The structural elements that support these activities can include:

  • new laws and ordinances on public engagement;
  • tools for engaging residents for neighborhoods and schools;
  • annual participatory budgeting processes;
  • public engagement commissions;
  • tools for measuring engagement and the strength of networks;
  • citizen advisory boards that engage rather than just trying to represent residents; and
  • protocols, job descriptions and professional development that help public employees understand how to support productive engagement.

While some of these elements are clearly the province of governments and school systems, many other components are ones that should be supported by neighborhood groups, nonprofits, businesses, faith communities, universities, foundations and other stakeholders.

David Brooks is right that strengthening the web of community networks can help fix politics, at every level of government. There are practical ways to do this – this is a matter for policy, law, cross-sector collaboration, and long-term planning. We should be proactive, and think constructively, about how we want our democracy to work.

You can find the original version of this article on Public Agenda’s blog at www.publicagenda.org/blogs/fixing-politics-by-strengthening-networks-for-engagement.

Second Phase of D&D training with Am. Library Association

In the beginning of the year we launched our two-year partnership with the American Library Association (ALA) on the Libraries Transforming Communities: Models for Change initiative. For this collaborative project, we are working to train librarians on D&D methods and processes which they can in turn share with their communities to further make libraries hubs of community engagement and agents for change. We were thrilled at the response during the first phase of the project, which focused on large and urban libraries featuring NCDD member orgs Everyday Democracy and World Café.

Starting in September will be the second phase of the project, to provide D&D training tailored to academic libraries and further deepen the impact these spaces have on collaborative change on campuses. This round is comprised of three webinars featuring NCDD member orgs Essential Partners and National Issues Forums; and those that attend all three webinars will be invited to the in-person pre-conference workshop at the 2018 ALA Midwinter Meeting early next year. This partnership is an incredible opportunity to share the work of our field and increase the possibilities for our members to network with librarians over the long-term. We encourage you to read the announcement from ALA below and you can find the original here.


Announcing Free Dialogue & Deliberation Learning Series for Academic Libraries

ALA’s Public Programs Office, the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) and the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) invite academic library professionals to attend a free learning series that teaches several dialogue facilitation approaches and helps librarians position themselves to foster conversation and lead change on their campuses and beyond.

Through Libraries Transforming Communities: Models for Change, a two-year ALA initiative in collaboration with NCDD, academic library professionals can participate in three online learning sessions and one in-person workshop, all free of charge, between September 2017 and February 2018.

Attendees of this professional development training will learn to convene critical conversations with people with differing viewpoints; connect more meaningfully with library users and better meet their needs; and translate conversation into action.

Registration is currently open for three online sessions:

Each session will be recorded and archived for free on-demand viewing on the Programming Librarian Learning page.

Individuals who view all three webinars, live or recorded, will be invited to attend the free, one-day pre-conference workshop at the 2018 ALA Midwinter Meeting in Denver (Feb. 9 to 13, 2018). Details about the pre-conference will be available in fall 2017 and will be shared during the webinars.

LTC: Models for Change is made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant number RE-40-16-0137-16.

You can find the original version of this announcement on the ALA’s Programming Librarian site at www.programminglibrarian.org/articles/announcing-free-dialogue-deliberation-learning-series-academic-libraries.

Recap from Frontiers of Democracy 2017

Outgoing NCDD Youth Engagement Coordinator Roshan Bliss attended this year’s Frontiers of Democracy Conference hosted by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University in the Boston area. The conference was held from June 22-24 and focused on the theme, Deliberative Democracy in an Era of Rising Authoritarianism.

Around 150 of D&D scholars, practitioners, and leaders participated in workshops, discussions, and plenaries focused on the question of what the rising leaders who appear opposed to democracy around the world means for the field of dialogue, deliberation, and public engagement, and most importantly, how we should respond. The full schedule for Frontiers 2017 is still available to check out here with detailed information on plenaries, speakers, and break out sessions.

NCDDers were prominently featured in the gathering’s schedule, including NCDD Board member Wendy Willis of Deliberative Democracy Consortium, who gave opening remarks on the effect of loneliness on civic life. Roshan presented a workshop on Saturday afternoon with several individuals, including Shari Davis of the Participatory Budgeting Project – a NCDD member org, on the promise and potential of seeing student governments as key venues in which to grow and spread deliberative democracy. Organizational NCDD member Ashley Trim of the Davenport Institute challenged our field to be more genuinely open to conservatives and you can read her poignant talk on Healthy Democracy’s site here. The gathering ended with a challenge from Dr. Archon Fung for our field to rethink the role of power in the work of dialogue & deliberative democracy and to deeply consider that we may not change much without engaging in real ways with efforts to build and wield it.

We wanted to lift up the post-conference reflection piece from Peter Levine, where he explores the direct and indirect paths to deliberative democracy and the future of dialogue and deliberation work. He wrote:

“My main point is that we must consider the choice between direct and indirect paths to deliberative democracy, taking due account of the institutions, incentives, power structures, and social divisions that actually exist in our society.

For what it’s worth, my own view would be that it’s important to build and sustain a movement devoted to explicit work on dialogue and deliberation. Deliberative experiments yield knowledge of group processes, generate models that can be inspiring, and produce a cadre of professionals whose well-deserved reputations for skillful neutrality make them useful at opportune moments.”

For more information on the Frontiers conference, check out the info from Tisch below or on their website here. You can also look through the #demfront hashtag on twitter or this great Storify page that Joshua Miller created of the #demfront hashtag which you can see here.


Frontiers 2017 via Tisch

Thanks to everyone who joined us at an exciting, thought-provoking, and timely Frontiers of Democracy 2017. You can watch video of this year’s introduction, “short take” speakers, and one of our afternoon plenaries, below. (Click on each video’s description for timestamps that allow you to skip to a specific speaker’s presentation.)

Frontiers 2017 was focused on multiple frameworks for civic and democratic work developed respectively by Caesar McDowell of the Interaction Institute for Social Change and MIT, Archon Fung of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and Tisch College’s Peter Levine. Our short take speakers included Rev. Dr. F. Willis Johnson, the senior minister of Wellspring Church in Ferguson, Missouri; Wendy Willis of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and the National Policy Consensus Center; and Hardy Merriman, President of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

In addition, the Journal of Public Deliberation, the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, and The Democracy Imperative held a pre-conference symposium on “Deliberative Democracy in an Era of Rising Authoritarianism.”

More about Frontiers of Democracy
Frontiers of Democracy is an annual conference hosted by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. The event is organized in collaboration with several partners, which in 2017 included Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center and the Deliberative Democracy Consortium.

Now more than ever, the frontiers of democracy are threatened around the world. Leaders and movements that have popular support—yet are charged with being undemocratic, xenophobic, and illiberal—are influential or dominant in many countries. Meanwhile, many peoples continue to face deep and sustained repression. Social movements and networks are confronting this global turn to authoritarianism. This conference brings together scholars and practitioners from  do to defend and expand the frontiers of democracy.

Frontiers of Democracy immediately follows the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, a 2-week seminar for scholars, practitioners, and advanced graduate students.

Stories and Reflections from Elevate Engagement

Last month, I had the great pleasure of attending Elevate Engagement, a conference hosted by the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon and organized in partnership with NCDD member organization Journalism That Matters.

Over 130 participants took part in this conference, including many journalists, some engagement practitioners (NCDD member orgs the Jefferson Center and Healthy Democracy among them), activists, and others. Organizers used Open Space, World Cafe, Pro-Action Cafe, and other engagement techniques to discuss the question, “How do we elevate engagement for communities to thrive?”

Over the course of the four days, I heard a whole host of stories of journalists making efforts and succeeding in creating more quality engagement with the communities they serve. A couple examples I recommend checking out include:

  • The Evergrey organized a trip and conversation between King County, WA voters (who voted 74% for Clinton in 2016) and Sherman County, OR voters (who voted 74% for Trump).
  • Spaceship Media and the Alabama Media Group brought together women who voted for Trump in Alabama with women who voted for Clinton in California for an online dialogue on a variety of political issues.
  • KPCC, Southern California Public Radio, launched “Unheard LA – the stories of where you live,” a community-driven storytelling series that featured community members sharing their experiences in various formats (music, poetry, etc.). They also went a step further and shared what they learned when they stopped talking and started listening.

These are just a couple stories, out of many inspiring ones I heard in my time attending the conference. I found it noteworthy that some of these efforts incorporated good dialogue and facilitation practices, whether or not the journalists were knowledgable of these practices (some were, some were not). I also noted that for others, there was a strong desire to do more, but a sense of struggle or an uphill battle to achieve this kind of level of engagement.

Some of the challenges I heard were that this kind of quality engagement can take time, which does not always fit the realities of the newsroom. Others noted the need for additional resources, in terms of staff, time, and money to carry out more quality engagement. And for others, it really boiled down to finding good models and good partners to be able to engage communities which have traditionally been hurt and/or unheard by journalists and media outlets. The desire to be able to reconcile with communities who have been shut out, misrepresented, or harmed by media was a strong theme throughout the conference.

My own biggest takeaway was that journalists have a strong desire and sense of mission to build better engagement, but that many also think they need to take it on alone. I was joined by other NCDDers in sharing the message that our network has a wealth of skills, models, and experience for engagement, and that many (if not all!) of us are willing partners for journalists in these efforts. NCDD intends to continue our conversation with Journalism That Matters about this and to find further opportunities to connect journalists and engagement practitioners. Working together can help both of our fields achieve our goals and, more importantly, raise the voices of the people across our country.

For more information, check out the Elevate Engagement website where you can learn more about the conference and check out session notes. You may also want to take a look through #PDXengage17 on Twitter to catch videos, quotes, and other participant thoughts.

NCDD Orgs Respond on How to Save American Democracy

As we grapple with a quickly changing political environment, many are struggling with the current state of American democracy and what are the best steps to repair our damaged system. Over the course of the year, several writers have expressed their beliefs that the way to improve our political system is to reduce public participation and increase political intermediaries/institutions.

In a direct response to these viewpoints, NCDD member org Healthy Democracy, recently published the article on their blog, Actually, More Public Participation Can Save American Democracy, which can be found here. The Deliberative Democracy Consortium, also a NCDD member org, wrote an immediate follow-up piece inviting the dialogue, deliberation, and public engagement community to respond to these claims and the writers themselves. For information on how to send your responses, read the DDC’s article on their blog here.

The article from Healthy Democracy can be found below or read the original on their blog here.


Actually, More Public Participation Can Save American Democracy

Lee Drutman of the New America Foundation, writing on Vox.com’s Polyarchy blog, makes a bold statement: more public participation isn’t the answer to our political woes because the reasonable, civically-minded voter is a myth. This is the latest in a trend of articles analyzing American politics and the role of citizens, beginning with Jonathan Rauch’s sprawling analysis for the Atlantic of our political system and its populist weaknesses.

Fortunately, Mr. Drutman’s analysis is narrowly focused and should not discourage those of us who have broader imaginations about democracy and the power of an active citizenry. Public participation is not limited to voting for or against representative policymakers, as Drutman asserts. Rather, civic life is a rich ecosystem of opportunities to participate in our grand experiment in self-governance. The individual voter is the building block of democracy. Civically-minded wise Americans exist across the land, and they are doing good, important work in their communities.

Drutman’s article relies on a series of assumptions that are, at the very least, not the whole picture. They are based largely on assumptions that Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes make in their recent Brookings paper advocating for an increased role of political intermediaries and a decrease in direct democracy. In their world, participation in politics is limited to the election of representatives; the sole result of a citizen exerting their political wisdom is to vote out politicians who prioritize interest groups over the people; and, finally, making politicians serve the people is the end goal of public participation. But in reality, citizenship and public participation encompass a wide array of powers and responsibilities. To be clear, I don’t take issue with the negative impacts of unbridled, reactive populism. Rather, I see clearly the vast and largely untapped potential of democratic wisdom at the citizen level.

The mythical citizen

Drutman articulates others’ assertion that there is a mythical wise citizen who will save our democracy by influencing politicians to serve the people. This citizen is “moderate, reasonable, and civic-minded” and if given more power would compel politicians to behave differently. It would indeed be naïve to assume that this magic citizen would influence American society so greatly that they could change the fundamental behavior of politicians. In that way, the author’s objection to this mythical citizen is easy to make.

And I agree that waiting for a perfectly reasonable, moderate, and civically minded voter to fix our Republic is a flawed strategy. Thankfully for all of us, public participation is much broader, deeper, and more creative than that. The various mechanisms of public participation build civic literacy, increase citizen power through knowledge and interaction with our political systems, and build bridging social capital among disparate groups. There are positive downstream impacts on our local, state, and national communities that come from citizens engaging in their communities in a meaningful way.

Drutman also addresses the role of political intermediaries. These intermediaries, which he defines as “politicians, parties, and interest groups” are the people who help people recognize what their interests are through cues. But this group is depressingly limited, and strikingly partisan. It ignores faith leaders, universities, media, community groups, advisory groups, citizens’ juries, and local government engagement folks. These groups, many of which are nonpartisan, provide moral leadership, knowledge, and granular information about voter interests that Drutman’s definition of intermediaries ignores.

The power of regular citizens

Drutman’s article forecloses the citizen’s ability to participate in democracy in ways that consider tradeoffs and the long-term view. There is a glimpse of possibility in his discussion of hybrid systems, citing Rauch and Wittes’s assertion that ““better decisions” come when specialist and professional judgment occurs “in combination with public judgment.” Unfortunately, Drutman rejects the concept by conjecturing that hybrid systems are not possible because they would not have a clear person who is “in charge” and holding the power. In fact, the entire field of democratic deliberation is devoted to creating hybrid systems that connect citizens with policy experts and allow them the time, space, and information to carefully consider policy choices.

Of course, power is held both formally and informally, and differently depending on the situation. In a classic representative system, elected policymakers have the ultimate power, and they can gather input in various forms. There are also stakeholder processes where groups can be given very strong recommending power, to the point where it would be politically infeasible to reject their advice. There is also direct empowerment of citizens, such as through ballot initiatives and referenda, where a majority vote of the people makes policy. Drutman’s claim that “voters are not policymakers” is simply not true in states, cities, and counties with direct democracy.

Creative solutions

In all of these cases, there are opportunities to merge technical expertise with citizen participation. The example with which I most familiar is the Citizens’ Initiative Review. This process, which was developed by Healthy Democracy, is a hybrid system in which a microcosm of representative citizens (reasonable, moderate, and civic-minded, by the way) examines a ballot measure. They draw upon the arguments of partisan intermediates (advocates for and against the measure) and the input of independent policy experts. Their goal is to provide to their fellow voters a clear statement that outlines the key facts about a ballot measure as well as the best arguments on each side.

The result of public participation in the Citizens’ Initiative Review is an artifact that can be used by voters to make civic-minded decisions when participating in direct democracy. The knowledge that a group of fellow citizens spent four days sorting through the issue on their behalf is an inspiring service, one that can compel not only the people in the room but those who read their statement and appreciate the service to be more civic-minded and engaged in their own lives.

Research by scholars in the political science, communication, and government fields affirms that the Citizens’ Initiative Review process is democratic, deliberative, and unbiased. Their analyses find that Citizens’ Statements are highly accurate and are a reliable source of information for voters. They also find that voters actually do use the statement when casting their ballots, and that voters who read the statement have more knowledge and are more confident in their knowledge.

This piece is not intended to be an advertisement for the Citizens’ Initiative Review, but the fact is that reforms like it are rare and most folks do not have the opportunity to witness these processes and their results. In our unique position as a deliverer of these reforms, we see the extraordinary transformation that regular people undergo when called to serve their fellow voters in this way. The vast majority of citizen participants leave with a better understanding of democracy, political values, and policy analysis—not to mention a deeper understanding of the policy topic under study.

It should be noted that one reason these reforms are rare is because they disrupt the work of partisan intermediaries who would prefer to deliver information to voters through a lens that suits their own ends, often at the expense of accuracy. In a refrain familiar to many political observers, partisan intermediaries’ assessment of the value of nonpartisan intermediaries corresponds closely with how well the information produced via nonpartisan means supports their partisan ends.

Democracy starts–but does not end–with politics

You see, citizen participation takes many forms. And participating in democracy does not fit neatly in the world of policy and politics. It is a common lament recently that hyperpartisanship has led to two Americas, and that our problem is that we refuse to talk to one another. Well, the first step to breaking down hyperpartisanship is to personally know people with politics that oppose your own. Any action that builds bridging social capital (social capital across heterogeneous groups) is an act of democracy. Then, when our democratic systems are stressed, we can draw upon that social capital for resilience. If we can see the other side as people, and don’t demonize, dehumanize, and disregard them based on partisan cues, we can stay engaged in democracy with one another.

In the close of his piece, Drutman calls on us to abandon the search for the mythical average citizen and seek an alternative. Since the author fails to articulate an alternative, I offer one here: let us expand our understanding of public participation to include the multitude of civic actions that add value to our democracy.

We can start in the realm of policymaking and politics with deliberative democracy. Well-designed deliberative processes (see the National Issues Forums, citizens juries, and the Citizens’ Initiative Review, among others) give voters a structured container to consult experts, consider tradeoffs, and deliberate the merits, consequences, and underlying values of policy choices. These processes take time, patience, and resources, but it is a worthwhile investment in the health of our democracy.

Let’s also work to build social capital through community work. A bank of social capital can give us the tools and relationships to better consider policy tradeoffs and impacts to our communities in the future. Additionally, an expanded conception of public participation gives voters opportunities to grow into more civically literate people. Not only can they better understand and act on their interests, they will be more likely to consider political problems creatively if they choose to enter representative politics. These kinds of programs are all around us. See Community Oregon, our experiment in building statewide urban-rural social capital in the state of Oregon, as well as other organizations that bring different types of people together to build connections across differences (e.g. Everyday Democracy, The Village Square, and many others).

The mythical citizen is all around us. She sings in a choir, volunteers her time, helps her neighbor with homework, and teaches her grandchild about the branches of government. She is doing democracy in her everyday life. She is serving her fellow citizens. She is our Plan B.

You can find the original version of this Healthy Democracy blog article at: https://healthydemocracy.org/blog/2017/06/13/actually-more-public-participation-can-save-american-democracy/

To respond to this article via the Deliberative Democracy Consortium blog, click here: http://deliberative-democracy.net/2017/06/15/we-invite-you-to-respond/

Save the Date for David Mathew Center’s 2017 Civic Institute

The NCDD member organization, David Mathews Center for Civic Life announced the date for their upcoming 2017 Civic Institute on August 18. The 2017 Civic Institute is a day-long opportunity to meet with fellow civic engagement enthusiasts and practitioners to explore the future of Alabama. Participants choose one of three event tracks to delve into deeper during Civic Institute, which are: building civic infrastructure, renewing civic education, and creating civic media. This event will also serve as the official launch of the three year forum series, What’s Next, Alabama? which will be an opportunity for Alabamians to envision the future of their communities. We encourage you to read more about the 2017 Civic Institute in the announcement from David Mathews Center below or find the original version here.


2017 Civic Institute – Save the Date: August 18, 2017

The 2017 Civic Institute is your chance to connect with civic-minded change-makers and thought leaders from across Alabama in a dialogue on our state’s past, present, and future. From the morning panel discussion on the “geography of economic prosperity” in rural and urban communities, to the keynote address by Dr. David Mathews, (President and CEO of the Kettering Foundation), the day will be packed with engaging speakers and interactive sessions centered around some of the most profound issues we encounter as Alabamians.

Participants are able to choose among three different learning tracks for the day, including: building civic infrastructure, renewing civic education, and creating civic media. Each track includes a deliberative forum in the morning, as well as an interactive workshop in the afternoon–all in addition to the panel discussion and keynote address, which will be delivered over lunch!

With our state’s bicentennial on the horizon, we believe that the Civic Institute is the perfect event to collectively ponder the power of our citizens and our communities to build the kind of Alabama they want to call home. To this extent, the Civic Institute will serve as the official, statewide launch of the DMC’s newest forum series, aptly titled, What’s Next, Alabama?

This series is a three-year endeavor, focused on what economic prosperity means in different communities across our state. The series will conclude in 2019, coinciding with Alabama’s bicentennial celebrations, and will frame the conversation about our future, even as we celebrate our past.

2017 Civic Institute Learning Tracks:

Building Civic Infrastructure:
This learning track is tailor-made for those wanting to engage their own communities in dialogue and deliberation around important local issues. The morning forum is an abridged “What’s Next, Alabama?” forum, entitled, “The State We’re In.” This will be a deliberative experience in which participants will ask, “where are we now” as a state? What is the story of Alabama at the start of the 21st century? How far have we come? How far do we have to go? Instead of focusing on the assets and challenges of a single locale, this forum will give participants the opportunity to embrace a statewide perspective in order to reimagine the productive potential of what binds us together collectively, and what sets us apart from each other idiosyncratically.

The afternoon workshop, “Building Civic Infrastructure,” will equip participants with the tools necessary to engage their own community in dialogue and deliberation. From naming and framing local issues, to convening and moderating forums, participants will receive a crash course in the building of a meaningful and durable civic infrastructure capable of supporting and sustaining a robust public life for its citizens. The aim of the workshop is to give participants everything they need to bring “What’s Next, Alabama?” forums to their own communities.

Renewing Civic Education:
This track is perfect for educators, government officials, and anyone else interested in transforming the idea of civic engagement into real action. This learning track begins with a deliberative forum on the state of civic education (and education more broadly) in Alabama. With renewed interest in civic education statewide, this forum will be an opportunity to discuss what civic education could and should look like beyond the classroom. How do we get young people to be active citizens in their own communities? How can we create synergy between the classroom and the community? Is there a curricular way to achieve this, or should we also broaden our own understanding of youth engagement to include students and young people playing an active role in local government? These are some of the questions that will frame the morning discussion.

The afternoon workshop, “Community as Classroom: Equipping Youth for Civic Leadership” will give attendees a chance to connect with–and learn from–local elected officials from all over the state that are breaking new ground when it comes to young people playing an active role in their communities. Participants will hear from local elected officials about how they are working side by side with youth to confront the epidemic of brain-drain, retain the young talent they have in their communities, and propel that next generation into civic leadership roles.

Creating Civic Media:
This track is ideal for those interested in the fields of media, journalism, art, technology, and public life. To begin, attendees will participate in a group discussion entitled, “Flipping the Script: A Dialogue on Media, Representation, and the Role of Alabama in the National Imagination.” This dialogue is meant to elucidate ideas about the role that our state plays–willingly or unwillingly–on the national stage. We will discuss the production of “Alabama” as an archetype in traditional media and popular culture, before being introduced to emergent forms of media that serve to disrupt the conventional representations of Alabama as a monolith. This dialogue will lead naturally into the afternoon workshop, where participants will get a hands-on primer into actually creating civic media that defies typification and demands nuance.

The afternoon workshop, “Creating Civic Media: Provoking Thought, Inviting Action” is a crash course in solutions-oriented journalism and restorative narratives, aimed at creating connections among citizens and journalists to bridge the gap between statewide or national media outlets and local stories that often go unnoticed. Participants will learn best practices for crafting an op-ed piece for their local newspaper, or for a larger outlet. This workshop will teach participants how to take a local story from abstract idea to published piece. This is your chance to connect with other journalists, writers, and active citizens to tell your community’s story, reframe the narrative, and flip the script.

You can find the original announcement from David Mathews Center at: www.eventbrite.com/e/2017-civic-institute-tickets-33344668802

Key Lessons on Community-Police Relations from APV2017

Last week, NCDD member orgs the Kettering Foundation and the National Issues Forums Institute hosted the 2017 “A Public Voice” forum that convened D&D practitioners with congressionl staff to talk about how to improve community-police relations. For those of you who couldn’t tune in to the livestream of the event, we wanted to share this insightful write up of the event’s highlights from our friends at Everyday Democracy below. We encourage you to read their piece below or find the original here. And if you’d like to watch the whole 90-minute recording of APV 2017, you can find links to it here.


A Public Voice 2017: Safety & Justice

EvDem LogoHighly-publicized police shootings, especially of unarmed black boys and men, have highlighted a national crisis of public safety and justice. These devastations lead us to ask how we can reduce crime as well as police violence, and how we can balance security and liberty. The National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI) recently published a Safety & Justice guide and is moderating forums throughout the country to help people grapple with these issues and work towards solutions.

“A Public Voice,” the Kettering Foundation and NIFI’s “annual exploration of public thinking on key issues,” held on May 9 in Washington, D.C., provided the opportunity for Kettering to share with policymakers their insights from the 150 Safety & Justice forums held so far. Senior Associate Leslie King represented Everyday Democracy.

In his opening address, David Mathews, President of the Kettering Foundation, declared “There is no one in this city, no matter how important they are, that can answer questions of judgement – we have to do that.” He characterized the event as part of the work to bridge divides between the people and the government of America.

At tabletop discussions, NIFI moderators, deliberative practitioners, Congressional staffers and federal officials discussed how people are thinking and talking about issues of safety and justice. Those watching the livestream of the event had the chance to listen in to one of those discussions. Read on for insights from the conversation.

A policing perspective

“We in policing have to demystify policing,” one participant remarked, and went on to describe a 70 year-old woman who only just learned about the concept of community policing after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown. Part of demystifying the profession, according to him, requires acknowledging when someone has done wrong – otherwise, he said, the public assumes what police are thinking.

Talking about Safety & Justice leads to conversations about, and capacity to address, other issues

Leslie King pointed out that in dialogues about community-police relations, participants invariably end up talking about related issues such as employment, housing, and education. Having dialogues and organizing around community-police relations, she added, ends up building community capacity to deal with other issues. Community members realize they have agency and that government officials can’t simply dictate solutions.

People want to address root causes

In an online Safety & Justice forum, a representative from Kettering shared that the most-agreed-upon point was the need to invest more in education in communities with high rates of crime. He saw this as evidence of people’s desire to address root causes of violence and crime.

Gail Kitch, who serves on the NIFI’s board, reported on common themes from the initial Safety & Justice forums. These included:

  • People feel we urgently need to increase understanding and mutual respect between police and people of color. Popular suggestions for achieving this included police making connections with youth, and police going through cultural and racial bias trainings.
  • Participants took responsibility for the issue. Many identified community building and improving relationships within the community as tools to reduce crime.
  • Many expressed the belief that it is unsustainable for police to deal with mental illness and drug-related issues.
  • People expressed a desire to address root problems such as unemployment, poverty, and inequality.

In closing, Mathews described Kettering’s work as “awakening the capacities of people to deliberate with one another.” He left participants and viewers with a challenge he called daunting, but not hopeless: “to build on what grows” – a quote he credited to J. Herman Blake. Every person has the capacity for good judgement, he said — the job of people in the deliberative field, then, must be to nurture that ability.

You can find the original version of this Everyday Democracy blog post at www.everyday-democracy.org/news/public-voice-2017-safety-justice.