Free NIFI Issue Guides and Save the Date for APV 2018

The National Issues Forums Institute, an NCDD member org, recently sent out an announcement via their newsletter offering free copies of their Coming to America issue guide on immigration, if requested by April 2nd. These guides are to be used for deliberation and then the results are given back to NIFI for analysis, so that they can share at the upcoming event, A Public Voice 2018 (#APV2018) on May 8th. APV is an opportunity for NIFI to talk with policymakers and their staffers about early feedback from the deliberative forums on immigration and the role of deliberation in democracy. You can learn more about this offer below and sign up to receive updates from the NIFI newsletter here.


FREE Materials Offer!

It’s not too late to request your free issue materials

Coming to America: Who Should We Welcome, What Should We Do?

Please join us and help your community be heard.

In partnership with the Kettering Foundation, the National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI) is making the digital version of the new issue guide about immigration,  Coming to America, FREE to download.

Also, for a limited time, FREE printed copies are available to forum conveners who sign up – REQUEST YOURS NOW.

All you have to do is plan to hold a forum on or before April 2, 2018 and agree to make sure participant questionnaires (also provided) get back to us for analysis and reporting.

About the issue guide
The immigration issue affects virtually every American, directly or indirectly, often in deeply personal ways. This guide is designed to help people deliberate together about how we should approach the issue. The three options presented in the issue guide reflect different ways of understanding what is at stake and force us to think about what matters most to us when we face difficult problems that involve all of us and that do not have perfect solutions.

How Information from Forums Will Be Used
Scheduled for May 9, 2018, this year’s A Public Voice event in Washington, DC, will present early insights from National Issues Forums (NIF) immigration forums around the country, giving policymakers the chance to learn more about citizen deliberation and its role in our democracy.

In early 2019, the Kettering Foundation and National Issues Forums Institute will publish a final report on the 2018 NIF immigration forums, followed by briefings for individual elected officials, Capitol Hill staffers, and other policymakers.

We hope you’ll join us in this important work by signing up for your free Coming to America issue guides by clicking here:  https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/2018APV

You can find the original announcement of this on NIFI’s newsletter, which you can sign up for here.

Participatory Budgeting Coming to NYC High Schools

Very exciting news from NCDD member org – the Participatory Budgeting Project, Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced that participatory budgeting will soon be happening in all NYC public high schools. With over 400 high schools, this is bringing PB to schools in a way that sets a powerful precedent for youth engagement and participation in democracy. Friendly reminder about the Innovations in Participatory Democracy conference happening next week and we encourage folks in the NCDD network to attend!

For those that will be at IPD, NCDD will be co-presenting a session on the first day which you can learn about in our blog post here and we also plan on having an NCDD meet up on Friday night – which we would love for you to join! You can read the PBP announcement below or find the original here.


BIG News for PB in Schools – and a BIG invitation!

Did you hear? Just this week Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the launch of Participatory Budgeting (PB) in all public high schools in New York City!

That’s over 400 schools in total!

In his State of the City address, Mayor de Blasio emphasized:

“We’ve got to prove to our young people that they’ve got the power to change the world around them. When people feel empowered they participate. When they can see the impact they’re making they come back for more. So starting next school year public school students will learn how to stay civically engaged and to fight for the future they believe in with our Civics for All initiative.”

At the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP), we’re fighting for this future alongside young leaders like Jacinta Ojevwe and Vanessa Gonzalez – two of our youth scholarship recipients for the Innovations in Participatory Democracy Conference.

To continue growing this work, we’re hosting many conference sessionson how to engage, support, and empower youth leadership in reimagining democracy. I’m especially excited to open our conference at Phoenix’s Central High School during their PB vote – where we’ll hear from students and teachers and see nearly 3,000 students cast their ballots on how to spend part of the school district budget.

We’re eager to continue scaling and deepening the impacts of PB because, as Mayor de Blasio said:

“We know that when students feel that opportunity to make a difference it will be the beginning of a long lifetime of participation.”

Will you join us in empowering even more young leaders, and celebrating with them at our Innovations in Participatory Democracy Conference?

For a preview of the PB vote in Phoenix, see (and share!) our PB in Schools Video.

Hope to see you there!

You can find the original version of this PBP blog post at www.participatorybudgeting.org/big-news-pb-schools-big-invitation/.

Addressing Safety in Schools by Turning to Each Other

In the wake of the current gun violence, NCDD sponsoring organization Essential Partners recently shared this piece written by their executive director Parisa Parsa, on the urgency for people to come together and address how do we keep our schools and communities safer. She talks about the need to come in conversation with each other from a place of creativity and with the purpose of recognizing our shared values, and rise above the current polarization. These conversational practices are vital in order to deepen relationships and ultimately work towards preventing another mass shooting from happening again. You can read the Essential Partner’s article below or find the original version here.


…As if our lives depend on it

The question was: what is at the heart of the matter for you when you think about the question of whether guns should be allowed in schools?

Seven people ranging in age from their 20’s to their 60’s, 4 women and 3 men, leaned in to listen closely to one another’s responses. They had many different views on the question of guns in schools, and guns in American life in general.

When it came time for him to speak, one man’s eyes welled with tears. After a long pause he said:

“Here is what is at the heart of the matter for me: I don’t want to be talking about this at all. I don’t want to live in a world where kids are not safe going to school. So when someone asks me what I think, all I can think is how can we make this stop?”

The simple recognition of our shared grief and anger brought more of the group to tears, and began a shift in the conversation. Person after person had already shared the values they learned growing up about guns, and now enriched by one anothers’ stories the sense of companionship led to a new entry point to thinking together. What would it take for our town prevent mass shootings?

The conversation later turned to social isolation and the need for folks to really look out for each other, to know each other’s’ children. And to offer services for those in need who might escape other attempts at outreach. And support for concerned parents.

The community still needed to talk about the issue at hand: the question of arming school personnel. But this small group was now also armed with the beginnings of a conversation that could help them work together on many of the other known contributing factors to preserve safety in schools. Perhaps, I thought, working on some of those other things together would help them deepen their relationship so that the continuing conversation about guns could have more creativity than the zero-sum perception both sides have been diving into. And which we dive into again and again.

Most recently, we’ve watched it in the wake of the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Social media has been awash, as ever, with people’s grief and anguish, fear and outrage. This time, the young people who survived the shooting almost immediately made a very pointed ask of our nation’s leaders. They asked the grown-ups in charge to sort out whatever needs sorting out to keep this from happening again.

The initial message they shared in the days immediately after the shooting was simple: as a nation we have to sort this out together. Their initial leadership was their refusal to accept that the current polarization in our conversation on guns is inevitable and permanent. And they are absolutely right to refuse the current story that this is an issue we cannot touch as a nation.

The students weren’t all, or even mostly, activists before the incident. Some were gun rights advocates, some gun control advocates, many more neutral and uninvolved. As the media conversation has continued, a predictable pattern has emerged: the loudest and most extreme voices have been amplified, put into debate mode with politicians at a Town Hall, lashed out on Twitter. And then came the responses: the kids are paid actors, being manipulated by left-wing interests, their Tweets analyzed and criticized for their violence and perceived extremism.

When the shouts begin, the door of possibility closes and we can’t figure anything out together. There is no listening, no further understanding, just suspicion and accusation. One “side’s” gains in activism get a counter-attack or build greater cynicism, driving the other “side” to feel justified in nasty rhetoric. So the win of one side becomes the rallying cry for the other, locking us in a battle few of us would have chosen. And the din leaves no space for the many folks who find themselves somewhere in the middle between the two defined “sides.”

The thing is, we can have sensible conversations with our neighbors who don’t agree. In our conversations about guns in Montana, Massachusetts, Colorado, New Hampshire, and Wyoming we have found some trends that are worth considering and also cause for hope.

  1. Taking the time as a community to work toward building trust and understanding (even when we don’t agree, and won’t agree) can in itself be a factor in reducing gun violence. A Yale study in 2014 found a correlation between high social cohesion and reduced gun violence. Dialogue about guns can actually be a preliminary preventative measure, reducing alienation and isolation; building trust and understanding.
  2. Neither gun rights advocates nor gun control advocates feel heard or understood by the other side, but when invited to share their values and beliefs without trying to persuade or convince, 97% of participants felt heard and understood. And 94% of participants believed they could use the dialogue process in other settings where there is a conflict over diverse views.
  3. When we spoke with focus groups about this issue, we heard shared values across the spectrum of belief on this issue: a desire to live in safe communities, a belief in the importance of education, and a sense of responsibility for others.

Friends, there is no one but us, no time but now, and no way forward without turning to one another. Let’s start engaging in deep, honest, conversations about this violence in our nation. Our communities, and our lives, depend on it.

Here are three things you can do today to change the conversation:

  1. Invite a friend or family member with different viewpoints into conversation, and propose these agreements to get you started.
  2. Share a reflection on how you came to your own position on the Constitutional right to firearms, gun control, based on your own experience. Let it open up a conversation that asks others to share their own.
  3. When you encounter someone with a view you don’t share, try asking a question that invites them to speak about their experience that led them to that view. Try: Tell me a story from your life that has shaped your thinking about this.

You can find the original version of this Essential Partner’s blog piece at www.whatisessential.org/blog/if-our-lives-depend-it.

Digital Engagement Census Deadline Extended to Mon. 2/26

Shared with us by NCDD member, Tim Bonnemann on our Main Discussion listserv, the ParticipateDB 2018 Digital Engagement Census deadline has been extended until this coming Monday, February 26th. The survey, hosted by several international partner organizations, seeks to identify the digital engagement tools that people have been using and for folks to provide feedback on their experience using the tools. You can read more about the survey in the post below or find the original on ParticipateDB’s site here.


ParticipateDB 2018 Digital Engagement Census

Today, after extensive prep work since we first floated the idea back in 2016, we are excited to launch the ParticipateDB 2018 Digital Engagement Census, a global practitioner survey aimed at improving our understanding of how technology is shaping community engagement today.

Over the next ten days, we hope to hear from people working in community engagement and public participation in places all around the world to answer two basic questions:

  • Which digital engagement tools or services have you used in your work lately?
  • What were your experiences and lessons learned?

Respondents who leave us their contact information will:

  • be among first to get their hands on the interim report (to be issued later this month),
  • receive an invitation to our exclusive follow-up event, and
  • receive an electronic copy of the final report free of charge (to be issued later in March).

We are exceptionally pleased to be partnering with a group of renowned international organizations and practitioner networks in this field. This project wouldn’t be possible without their support and guidance. Thank you!

Please head to the project page for more details. When you get a chance, please take a few minutes to complete the online survey and share it with your colleagues near and far: ParticipateDB 2018 Digital Engagement Census

You can find the original version of this article at http://blog.participatedb.com/2018/02/09/welcome-to-the-participatedb-2018-digital-engagement-census/.

Public Agenda on the Importance of Measuring Engagement

One of the many ways to express the importance of engagement is to have effective ways to measure engagement efforts. In a recent piece by Matt Leighninger of NCDD member organization Public Agenda, he wrote on some of the challenges to engagement and why the need exists to be more effective at how engagement is measured, both qualitatively and quantitatively. This article is part 6 in the series on ways that public engagement needs to improve and the links to the 5 previous installments are at the bottom of the page. You can read the article below or find the original on Public Agenda’s site here.


How Public Engagement Needs to Evolve, Part 6

How can public engagement evolve in order to meet the needs and goals of citizens today? My previous post explored how public institutions may collaborate in their efforts to support engagement so that it becomes more efficient, systemic and sustained. For this final installment in the series, I’ll address the need for better ways to measure the perceptions, processes and outcomes of engagement, so that people know how to continually improve it.

Measuring engagement, especially in quantifiable ways, has always been difficult. There are a number of challenges, including:

  • Difficulty in defining engagement. Many leaders understand engagement to mean the one-way dissemination of “correct” information to the community, in order to disprove “incorrect” information. Some see it as purely meaning face-to-face meetings, while others are focused mainly on online interactions.
  • Differing forms of intensity. Engagement varies in intensity, from “thick” forms that are deliberative, labor-intensive and action-oriented, to “thin” forms that are fast, easy and potentially viral. Both are valuable, but for different reasons. Counting website hits or social media impressions may overemphasize the thin forms, while counting participation in meetings may overemphasize the thick forms.
  • Just counting heads may give you the wrong impression. Counting participants in any setting may be deceptive because in places where conventional forms of engagement are the only ones being used, people tend to mostly engage when they are angry or fearful about decisions being made by government. In this sense, higher numbers of people “engaging” can be a sign that governments are failing to practice more proactive, productive forms of engagement.
  • Inexperienced engagement staff. Counting staff positions dedicated to engagement as an indicator of government’s commitment can be misleading – since engagement is often defined in limited ways, these “engagement” job positions are often devoted to traditional PR or stakeholder relations. These jobs are often given by public officials to people who were particularly active campaign volunteers, but who have only a narrow and limited background in what engagement can do for governance and problem solving, and the many forms it can take.
  • Inability to measure impact. One of the most critical measures of engagement, especially to citizens, is whether public input has some kind of meaningful influence on public policies and practices. This is a particularly difficult thing to assess; it defies quantitative measurement and is subject to many different variables.

Despite these challenges, it is possible – and, in fact, critically important – to assess public engagement, including quantitative measures of both processes and outcomes. (Leighninger and Nabatchi, “How Can We Quantify Democracy?” Dispute Resolution, Fall 2015). Engagement practitioners have been able to measure how many and what kinds of people are participating. They’ve also been able to examine if people value the engagement, how the experience affects them, and whether engagement inspires and supports volunteerism, voting and other civic measures.

However, in most places, these kinds of measurement practices are done only sporadically and on a project-by-project basis. Leaders and practitioners are more likely to be focusing on the basics – how many people are participating, and the demographics of those participants – and have not begun assessing community members’ perceptions of engagement opportunities, or evaluating the impacts of engagement on volunteerism or policymaking. When measurement does occur, the findings are often not shared with the community and community members are rarely asked to help gather, analyze or act on the data.

If we can do better measuring on a more regular basis, we may connect the findings about engagement with some of the high-level indicators that are being used to track community success. These include the Civic Index that the National Civic League has maintained for over 25 years, the Civic Health Index developed by the National Conference on Citizenship a decade ago, and the Soul of the Community research produced by the Knight Foundation. There are also specific community examples like the Wellbeing Index in Santa Monica, California. While these indexes are interesting and helpful for assessing where the community stands, it’s unclear whether and how a community’s engagement level impacts the overall scores.

We probably need a family of measurement tools in order to bridge the gap between narrow evaluations and broad indicators. I’ve written about potential tools and have also been involved in creating others. One example is the Participatory Democracy Index, which is being piloted in beta by the World Forum on Democracy in Europe. The more that we can connect people who are building new tools, the more we can learn from one another and ensure that we are on the same page about fundamental questions, like how we are defining engagement. Public Agenda convened an online dialogue among people who are grappling with the measurement challenge, so that we could compare notes and see if there are common themes in our work. Later in the year, the Knight Foundation will release a white paper based on what we found.

By doing a better job of measuring engagement, we can help clear up some of the confusion about what engagement means and why it is important. Many public officials and other leaders use the rhetoric of community building, citizenship and democracy, but the language often seems to be used mainly as a window dressing, making it difficult for citizens to monitor their progress or hold public officials accountable for their rhetoric. Finding new ways to measure these interactions can be a powerful way of making engagement more meaningful and productive.

You can find the original version of this article on Public Agenda’s blog at www.publicagenda.org/blogs/how-public-engagement-needs-to-evolve-part-6.

Recap on our Tech Tues Feat Iceland’s Citizens Foundation

NCDD hosted another one of our informative and exciting TechTues calls earlier this week! We were joined by around 100 participants from across the world to learn more about Citizens Foundation, their digital democracy solutions, and how they are working to strengthen civic engagement in Iceland and internationally.

We recommend you listen to the recording if you weren’t able to make it because it was a great call!

On the call, Robert Bjarnason of Citizens Foundation walked participants through a brief history of how democracy has evolved throughout the last millennium in Iceland and set the stage for the work they are doing today. Founded in the aftermath of Iceland’s economic collapse in 2008, Citizens Foundation sought to improve public participation in government and policy change, by creating open source tools and implementing more democratic processes. They specialize in participatory budgeting, policy crowdsourcing, and other open source projects spanning several countries in Europe and in Australia.

Some of our favorite quotes from Robert during the Tech Tuesday:

  • “A key factor is to make participation fun. Make it informational and educational, but it can’t be boring. People have too many other options, there’s competition for attention, so make it an enjoyable experience”
  • “Lower the barrier to reach more people and not just the usual suspects”
  • “It’s key to let people know about the effort, they can’t participate if they don’t know about it.”
  • “If you listen to the people, the people will listen to you.”
  • [In response to a question on how do you make participation fun?] “Complicated is how you kill fun, make it simple and use pictures!”

If you were unable to join us on the call, never fear! We recorded the webinar which can be found on the archives page here. Access to the archives is a benefit of being an NCDD member, so make sure your membership is up-to-date (or click here to join).  We had an active chat discussion which raised some really interesting questions and examples, and you can check out the transcript of this chat by clicking here. Robert also shared the slides from his presentation, which you can find by clicking here, in case you wanted to scroll through them.

Tech_Tuesday_BadgeBig thank you to Robert and everyone who participated on the call to make it engaging and informative! We encourage you to check out the TechTues recording and learn more about Citizens Foundation’s ongoing work at https://citizens.is/. To learn more about NCDD’s Tech Tuesday series and hear recordings of past calls, please visit www.ncdd.org/tech-tuesdays.

Finally, we love holding these events and we want to continue to elevate the work of our field with Tech Tuesdays and Confab Calls. It is through your generous contributions to NCDD that we can keep doing this work! That’s why we want to encourage you to support NCDD by making a donation or becoming an NCDD member today (you can also renew your membership by clicking here).

MetroQuest Webinar on Finding Common Ground, Feb. 28th

Coming up at the end of February, NCDD member org MetroQuest will be hosting the webinar, How to Design Public Engagement to Find Common Ground; co-sponsored by NCDD, IAP2, and the American Planning Association (APA).  This webinar will be an opportunity to learn more on how to design public engagement efforts that uplift the common ground amongst the community and create solutions that demonstrate these shared ideals. You can read the announcement below or find the original on MetroQuest’s site here.


MetroQuest Webinar: How to Design Public Engagement to Find Common Ground

A 5-star recipe for public engagement – how to find common desires and build a winning plan!

Wednesday, February 28th
11 am Pacific | 12 pm Mountain | 1 pm Central | 2 pm Eastern (1 hour)
Educational Credit Available (CM APA AICP)
Complimentary (FREE)

REGISTER HERE

When it comes to urban and transportation planning, motivated groups with competing demands often emerge in community outreach efforts. On February 28th, learn how online community engagement can help find common ground to build a plan citizens will support.

Mark Evans from BartonPartners and Mary Young with the Town of Westport will share their success in engaging the public to inform the Saugatuck Transit Oriented Design Master Plan. Find out how online engagement provided a fun and safe way for citizens to provide input without fear of reprisal from local insurgent groups. The result? A master plan that meets the common desires of the local community.

Register for this complimentary 1-hour live webinar to learn how to …

  • Create a public engagement process to find common goals
  • Ensure privacy in the process to uncover the true priorities
  • Optimize citizen engagement to go beyond motivated groups
  • Collect informed, constructive input from all demographics
  • Find the balance between livability, character, and transportation
  • Gain transparency with actionable data to support your plan

You can find the original version of this announcement on MetroQuest’s site at http://go.metroquest.com/Westport-City-Plan-Barton-Partners

NIFI Deliberation Day Coming up Monday, February 19th

NCDD member org – the National Issues Forums Institute, will be hosting Deliberation Day on Monday February 19th, where folks will have five back-to-back opportunities to participate in an online deliberative forum on immigration. Participants will have a chance to use NIFI’s Common Ground for Action online forum, where the results will then be part of A Public Voice 2018; an annual event hosted by Kettering Foundation and NIFI that bring Congressional and agency staffers together in a working meeting to discuss results from the deliberative forums (learn about APV 2017 here). NIFI is offering complimentary copies of their issue guide, Coming to America, before April 11th and have a free recorded webinar available on moderating these deliberative forums. We encourage you to read the announcement below or you can find the original here.


Join Us for Deliberation Day – Monday, February 19, 2018

Five Back-to-Back Online Forums about Immigration

Moderators and conveners around the country are planning and holding public deliberative forums about the issue of immigration to help kick off the 2018 A Public Voice forum series. At least 40 forums are already being scheduled, and more are in the works. A notable feature of this year’s forums, Deliberation Day, scheduled for Monday, February 19th, will include five, back-to-back Common Ground for Action online forums.

You are invited to choose a time that works best for you and participate in one of the online forums on February 19th. And you can help by sharing this invitation and the registration links below with your friends, family, and communities. All forums will use the brand-new Coming to America: Who Should We Welcome, What Should We Do? issue framework.

All forums will be held on Monday, February 19th (Presidents’ Day)

Click on a link to register:

Forum 1: 10:00 am – 12:00 pm EST
Forum 2: 1:00 pm – 3:00 pm EST
Forum 3:  3:30 pm – 5:30 pm EST
Forum 4:  6:30 pm –   8:30 pm EST
Forum 5:  9:00 pm – 11:00 pm EST

If You’re Planning to Hold a Forum – FREE Materials Offer

For a limited time, the National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI) is offering complimentary sets of 20 Coming to America issue guides and questionnaires to conveners holding forums before April 1, 2018. Click here or contact Darla Minnich at dminnich@nifi.org to sign up to receive your free materials.

Please let us know about your forums. When you’ve scheduled your forum (either before or after April 1, 2018), please let us know about it by posting your information on the NIFI web site in the Events section. You must log in to submit an event; or send your forum details (contact name and email address, date, time, location, city, state, zip code) to Patty Dineen at dineenp@msn.com.

Watch a Webinar about Moderating Coming to America Forums

On January 30, 2018, Kara Dillard presented a one-hour webinar about convening and moderating forums using the new National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI) issue guide titled, Coming to America: Who Should We Welcome, What Should We Do? The webinar, Moderating the Coming to America Deliberative Forums, was recorded and has been archived. Click here to watch the webinar.

You can find the original version of this blog post from NIFI at http://conta.cc/2G94kX4.

Don’t Miss Tomorrow’s Tech Tuesday Featuring Iceland’s Citizens Foundation!

In case you missed our original announcement, we have an exciting NCDD Tech Tuesday call featuring Iceland’s Citizens Foundation, tomorrow February 13th from 2-3pm Eastern/11am-Noon Pacific. This FREE call will showcase Citizen Foundation’s digital democracy tools and how they are working to strengthen civic engagement in Iceland. You don’t have to be an NCDD member to participate in the webinar, so we hope you will join us! Register ASAP to save your spot on the call.

Róbert Bjarnason, from the nonprofit Citizens Foundation in Iceland, will present digital tools for upgrading democracy in Iceland and beyond, outlining the Foundation’s digital democracy work since 2008. Projects including policy crowdsourcing and participatory budgeting using open source tools will be demonstrated in this webinar. As highlighted in the Financial Times, since 2011 the citizens of Reykjavik have voted online to select close to 1,000 community improvement projects totaling over $20 million dollars.

The Citizens Foundation open source digital democracy tools have been used in over 20 countries and by over 1 million people to change policy and help rebuild trust between citizens and their governments. Collaborating with E-Democracy.org in the United States to help others deploy and measure civic digital outreach efforts, a new case study (request a copy) comparing paid Facebook and Google advertising used to reach nearly every citizen of Iceland will be shared in brief.

Róbert is a successful entrepreneur that introduced the web to Iceland in 1993 and in 1995 to Denmark. Before co-founding the Citizens Foundation in the year 2008 he worked in the online gaming industry where his team received many industry awards.

Robert has many years experience and much success in using digital tools for democracy, and he is looking forward to sharing his knowledge and experience with us. Don’t miss out on this unique opportunity – register today!

About NCDD’s Tech Tuesdays

Tech Tuesdays are a series of learning events from NCDD focused on technology for engagement. These 1-hour events are designed to help dialogue and deliberation practitioners get a better sense of the online engagement landscape and how they can take advantage of the myriad opportunities available to them. You do not have to be a member of NCDD to participate in our Tech Tuesday learning events.

Strengthening Public Engagement with Volunteers

Public engagement practices can be best accomplished with the help of volunteers as NCDD member org Everyday Democracy points out in this article. Volunteers can provide several benefits to public engagement, because of their community expertise and additional support for the work that needs to be done. In the article, Evdem gives examples from across the country of engagement work being done with the help of volunteers to drive a more participatory democracy. You can read the article below or find the original on Everyday Democracy’s site here.


A New Take on the Role of Volunteers in Public Engagement

EvDem LogoFor every one professional athlete, thousands of amateurs play pickup games in the spare time.  For every Broadway actor, hundreds take up theater as a hobby on a community stage.  For every band with a hit single, there are dozens of musicians jamming in garages or playing covers in bars.

The “professionalization” of these activities, or forms of art, has obviously not stopped those with far less training and skill from taking up the craft.  If anything, we often see an upsurge in hobbyists when a professional rises to prominence–think of the impact Tiger Woods had on golfing, or how American Idol inspired shower singers to take the stage.

This all has relevance in the context of deliberative democracy and public engagement for a few reasons.  In the last few decades, this field has experienced significant growth in the number of practitioners focusing on public engagement as a profession or occupation; that is, receiving specialized training and making their living in the design and convening of public engagement.  More and more governments–particularly at the local level but also in counties, regions, and states–have worked with such professionals to evolve their public engagement strategies away from the “three minutes at the microphone” public hearings that satisfy few citizens’ needs.  The profession has helped governments involve citizens earlier and more robustly and meaningfully than hearings held the night of a vote.  Decisions made by those governments incorporate more of the public’s interest and often prove more politically sustainable.

So, where might that leave those who care deeply about including the public in political deliberation but who have another professional calling?  What about those who have retired and lack the stamina for a full-time job but would love to be involved?  What about full-time students focused on academics but interested in internships, course credit, or community.

The number of public engagement “professionals” (defined as those who make most or all of their living doing this work) does not seem to meet the demand for public engagement nationwide–especially in cities where engagement may happen on multiple topics simultaneously.  But that does not necessarily mean government agencies have been willing to fund the amount of public engagement that they believe they need.  Elected officials often pay lip service to the need for better, more expansive public engagement, without budgeting funds for that purpose.

Consider the difference between what a professional and a volunteer (or an “amateur”) might bring to their work in this field.  Those who come to this work as volunteers often bring the perspective of their other profession or career and a different way of framing questions to discuss with the public or respond to comments made during dialogue.  They may also bring a special level of passion and commitment to their opportunity to facilitate; they may view it as a unique opportunity for them in ways that professionals doing the work every day might not.

Additionally, while many public engagement professionals or volunteers do work in their own communities and are recognized and trusted by community members, they often “parachute into” a community where they lack relationships that local volunteers might have.  Those volunteers may make community members participating in a public dialogue feel more at ease, particularly if the volunteers are hosting dialogue in their homes or in familiar local hangouts, rather than governmental facilities.

All of these assets (and others) have led several communities to embrace the role of volunteers in public engagement. For instance: in Arizona, Project Civil Discourse has involved volunteers as facilitators of small group discussions held at forums on issues affecting quality of life in the state.  They call upon all participants to follow a pledge: “I pledge to engage in the basic principles of civil discourse: to respect diverse points of view, listen with an open mind and speak with integrity. I call upon all civic leaders to meet the challenge of solving difficult social issues by adhering to these principles, thereby creating a better world for ourselves and future generations.”

In the Pacific Northwest, the Countywide Community Forums empowered residents in the greater Seattle area to discuss local issues facilitated by volunteer hosts.  Participants could register online to find conveniently located meetings and join a group of between 4 and 12 participants discussing a common topic, introduced by a video.  Participants and their volunteer host even decide on a meeting place and time.  In an evaluation of the program, the King County Auditor’s Office reported, “Overall, participants are satisfied with this engaging, nonpartisan effort and report that they learn about the topic and King County policies.”  The auditor recommended that the Forums “engage [volunteer] citizen councilors and others in providing feedback and ideas and helping make the program more attractive to users.”

Chicago developed a model replicated in other cities (including Columbus, OH) known as “On the Table,” in which thousands of volunteers host dinner dialogues to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing the local community.  Some 55,000 people participated in roughly 3,500 volunteer-led dialogues in 2016, with dinners occurring in private homes or offices and public spaces (up to the host’s discretion).  The Chicago Community Trust, which helped organize the day of dinners, reported that out of the respondents from 2016 who participated in On the Table in previous years, 57 percent  participated in follow-up conversations over the past year, 46 percent stayed in contact with other attendees and 24 percent worked with one or more attendees on an idea.  One third of surveyed 2016 participants also said they made specific plans to work with one or more attendees.  More than three-fourths of those surveyed said the dinners helped them better understand both community issues and how to address them.  Everyday Democracy’s Anchor Partner InterFaith Works in New York hosts a similar dinner dialogue program, aimed at promoting deep inter-faith conversations.

In nearby Oak Park, Illinois, Dinner & Dialogue gave community volunteers a chance to host discussions in their homes over meals paid for by the City of Oak Park on topics including diversity, race, and inclusion.

In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and other communities across the state, Everyday Democracy Anchor Partner New Hampshire Listens,  and its affiliate Portsmouth Listens, recruit volunteer facilitators to host multiple dialogue sessions, often in their homes and on consecutive weeks, and to guide their small groups towards consensus on a local issue.  Portsmouth’s process involves volunteers from the get-go:

“Portsmouth Listens volunteers and city officials form a Steering Committee drawing together stakeholders in the question or issue.  This committee frames the dialogue question to be given to the study circles. For example, ‘How do we balance the tax burden and level of services needed to make Portsmouth the best place to live and work for everyone?’ (Dialogue on FY12 city budget)…Portsmouth Listens recruits and trains neutral facilitators and develops a study guide for the four two-hour sessions that the study circles will deliberate….Citizens in the small groups or Study Circles deliberate for two hours a night over four weeks to answer the question….The individual Study Circles write their conclusions in a report, and present their findings. The reports are presented to relevant government bodies (city council, planning board, etc.) in person and their written reports are published in the newspaper.”

Building on New Hampshire’s model, in Austin, “Conversation Corps” has recruited and trained hundreds of volunteers to host dialogue throughout the city on topics recommended by the City of Austin, the Austin Independent School District, and the public transit agency, Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority.  Through carefully designed discussion guides, volunteers could give participants an overview of the topic and some background statistics and pose specific questions that agencies felt would yield information helpful to their policymaking.  As Austin transitioned into a single-member district City Council, with ten members representing districts instead of six members elected at-large, conversations in all ten districts helped better connect voters to their elected officials and gave a more accurate picture of public opinion across the city.  To date, more than 200 volunteers completed training.

Additionally, models like the “meeting in a box” utilized in multiple cities and “Text, Talk, Act,” a project of Everyday Democracy and several other partners, drew upon the energy of volunteers to bring topics that would have been discussed at a public meeting into their circles of friends, community organizations, and the like.  These self-facilitated discussions did not require host training or volunteer coordination as much as a willingness on the part of the initiating participant to report their group’s findings back to the sponsoring entity at the conclusion.  In an evaluation of the Text, Talk, Act dialogue on mental health, a study found:

“participating in Text, Talk, Act leads to an increase in participants’ ability to recognize a peer in need, ability to reach out to a peer in need, ability to talk about the topic of mental health, likeliness to seek additional information, and likelihood to implement information or skills from TTA. Furthermore, participants reported positive experiences based on the technology used by TTA, clarity of TTA purpose, and the relevancy/usefulness/quality of TTA content. These satisfaction indicators support the participants’ likelihood to recommend TTA to others…Also, when participants were asked, ‘what are the best ways to engage youth on the topic of mental health, TTA was voted to be the third most effective or popular method (after face to face conversation and social media).”

Countless other examples exist of volunteers contributing to the work of public engagement, but this survey illustrates the variety of ways in which those charged with engaging the public can multiply their forces and improve their reach into their target populations.  While volunteers may lack the time and expertise that public engagement professionals bring to the table, they can entice those disinclined to participate to change their minds, and they can bring about a revolution in the ways the public engages.

You can find the original version of this article on Everyday Democracy’s site at www.everyday-democracy.org/news/new-take-role-volunteers-public-engagement.