Democracy Rising is a series of blog posts on deliberative democracy: what it is, why it’s powerful, why the time is right for it, how it works, and how to get it going in your community. The series originates in the United States but will discuss principles and draw upon examples from around the world. This post is the second of three discussing key elements of deliberative democracy: inclusion, deliberation, and power. Views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the individual contributor(s) only.
When I lead workshops about public engagement, I sometimes begin by asking folks about their own experiences. I assign half of my workshop participants to public engagement “Heaven,” tasked with describing what outstanding civic participation looks and feels like, and what it achieves. The other half are assigned to “Hell,” describing public processes from, well, you get the idea.
The room quickly becomes animated. The Hell tables are especially lively, punctuated with chuckles and groans. Once a table even mutinied—assigned to discuss “Heaven,” they insisted on relishing their shared hellscape instead.
Report-outs reveal a pattern. If workshop participants are local leaders, they’ll often describe Public Engagement from Hell as time consuming and poorly attended. Our workshop erupts with laughs of recognition as they add that those who do show up are the most strident on any issue: residents are uninformed, or worse, misinformed, but that doesn’t keep them from gassing on all night. Too often, they report, engagement is uncivil, and at worst, it’s dangerous.
Meanwhile, if my workshop attendees are ordinary citizens, they describe Public Engagement from Hell as sitting with sweaty hands in a stuffy room, faced with crackling microphones and intimidating 2-minute time limits. Leaders don’t listen, won’t answer questions adequately, and offer no evidence that input will be used. It’s probably too late in the process to make a difference anyway; worse than a waste of time, this engagement is an insult.
But once the “Hell” tables have vented, a calm usually comes over the room. The “Heaven” tables have been reflecting on effective engagement experiences, and their recollections also resonate.
These leaders describe processes yielding true insights from residents, revealing new angles to improve projects. Public engagement helps them identify potential problems before projects advance too far. Respectful discussions allow residents to take in new information and their neighbors’ perspectives. Rather than taking an adversarial role (with leaders or with each other), residents become supporters and even ambassadors of community efforts.
Meanwhile, residents describe the joy of meeting neighbors and discovering surprising connections and collaborations. Contributing their local knowledge strengthens their sense of community. For some, what begins as one positive meeting blossoms into active volunteerism or new leadership roles. Productive public decision-making leads to more just, sustainable community solutions.
As these discussions make clear, people know in their guts what scholars now back up with research: A) When done wrong, public engagement can be hell; and B) there is a better way.
It’s been 50-plus years since the conventional “public hearing” format has been the go-to public engagement tool, often mandated by law in the United States. And over the decades, researchers have discovered that “public hearings” are frequently neither—that is, there’s usually a poor representative sample of the “public,” and there’s very little “hearing” going on. Rather than helping the best ideas win, what becomes entrenched is the battle itself. But a growing cadre of scholars and practitioners have developed better engagement tools. And a key element is high-quality deliberation.
What is deliberation? It’s not a debate, not a negotiation, and certainly not the shouting matches that too often characterize the public sphere. Deliberative democracy and related fields such as dialogue and deliberation include a growing and evolving variety of techniques. A deliberative “how-to” looks less like a single, fixed recipe and more like a collection of inspiring practices from across cultures, but key elements apply in most cases:
- Community deliberation processes invite all residents—not just leaders or experts—to engage on issues of local concern. With a well-planned process (trained facilitators can help), participants explore well-researched information to learn about an issue; share their experiences and consider diverse viewpoints and values; generate new options and weigh trade-offs; and—this is critical—they make decisions.
- A well-run deliberative process is designed so that everyone gets a chance to speak and fully understand each other. Exploring a wide variety of ideas and experiences is encouraged, and ground rules are enforced to ensure that everyone is treated with respect.
Doesn’t all this take forever? Some Resilience readers may feel that in today’s moment of profound injustice and extraordinary global fragility, we don’t have time for this kind of “slow democracy”—we need to fight. Many supporters of deliberation wouldn’t disagree that adversarial politics and advocacy are sometimes necessary—but they’re not always the fastest or most effective path to durable change.
One of the reasons that conventional and adversarial processes are often ineffective is the amazing, and often frustrating, human brain. In one well-known neuroimaging study, researchers wired up voters to explore what exactly happens inside our brains when we receive new information, especially when the new information doesn’t fit our worldview. A group of self-described Republicans and Democrats was subjected to unflattering information about their own party’s candidates. According to their MRIs, when subjects were confronted with information that contradicted their biases, their brains actually under-processed the information. The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for conscious reasoning, hardly even fired. Instead, the emotional circuits of their brains lit up. Essentially, participants’ brains used emotion to ignore information that they didn’t like to hear but couldn’t discount intellectually.
Evolutionarily, there’s a reason that our brains work this way. Polarization is effective for building group cohesion. But it’s terrible for processing information or finding solutions.
And that’s what makes deliberation so crucial at this moment. Many of today’s hot topics—addressing poverty, grappling with immigration, tackling water shortages—are so resistant to resolution that they’re what policy analysts have dubbed “wicked problems.” Science can’t give us a simple “one-right-answer,” partly because of competing identities and underlying values.
The world is full of polarities—two crucial, interdependent but contradictory variables that must coexist. It’s not easy but we manage them every day: parents must be firm but flexible; a good boss is both grounded and visionary; organizations must embrace continuity and change. In my home state of Vermont, we’ve somehow functioned under the paradoxical motto “Freedom and Unity” since 1788.
Issues become “wicked” when we’re managing multiple polarities at once. When town planners have to consider one group’s justifiable interest in open space and wildlife, another’s interest in economic vitality, and another’s in affordable housing, there is no single solution that will please everyone.
Rather than thinking about “solving” wicked problems, we need to think about managing them—naming the competing values, authentically exploring trade-offs, and doing the hard work together to find the best balance in each case.
Colorado State University Professor Martín Carcasson explains that most problem-solving models focus either on expertise or on activism. But wicked problems are inherently different. They don’t respond to technical solutions, nor do they respond to advocacy. What they do respond to is slow, trusting, face-to-face communication. As Carcasson has noted, solutions begin when we recognize that with wicked problems, it’s the problem that’s wicked, not the people. And that’s where deliberation can help.
The residents of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, have learned from experience the value of deliberation. A seacoast city of about 20,000 people, Portsmouth has adopted an inclusive deliberation model created by Everyday Democracy to address their most divisive issues. Over the years, a group of volunteers called Portsmouth Listens has emerged to offer neutral facilitation, create balanced study guides, and convene residents on local issues. Their small-group process has been employed on such issues as school relocation/renovation, race relations, affordable housing, environmental sustainability, and two Master Plan updates involving thousands of people.
When Portsmouth identifies a problem that needs focused attention, the process begins with community organizing to ensure inclusive and diverse participation. Residents are then broken into smaller groups for a dialogue process, spending at least one or two meetings listening to each other’s experience on the topic. Sharing stories as neighbors and building trust is a critical preface to the next step, which is the face-to-face deliberation.
Residents don’t need specialized knowledge to take part—every resident has valuable lived experience to offer—and inclusion is further strengthened because residents have come to trust that they won’t be asked to give a speech or endure shouting matches. The small groups base their discussions on balanced research and may supplement them with field trips and presentations from experts. Rather than a binary framing that pits neighbor against neighbor, the deliberative process uses open questions that help identify underlying values unique to Portsmouth. In long-term planning, the framing question was “How can we make Portsmouth the best place for everyone?” A controversial school redistricting process inquired, “What issues should the redistricting committee consider in balancing the enrollments of the school?”
Importantly, city government embraces the Portsmouth Listens system. When participants report their findings to leaders, they can see how they are put to use. Having a link to decision-making power is enormously important to successful deliberation.
Portsmouth Listens proved its worth when a controversial school re-districting question that had plagued the city for over a decade was resolved through a six-month deliberative process. Ironically, “slow democracy” is usually the fastest way to deal with polarized problems.
With the help of both local leaders and active residents, deliberative democracy can become part of every community. Here are a few tips to consider as you begin:
- Design the process to support the outcome. Consider finding an experienced facilitator to help create the process that’s right for your situation—ideally one who has experience with a wide range of techniques.
- Be trustworthy. It is valuable to have a diverse planning committee representing a wide range of perspectives (see previous post on Inclusion). However, the person or people leading the deliberation itself must be seen as objective, with no stake in the outcome. It can be helpful to find a facilitator from out of town.
- Plan ahead. You will need time to format an appropriate process, ensure participants hear about it, research and create balanced informational support materials, and set up a welcoming in-person and/or online space.
- Good information is critical. Create well researched, objective background materials, made widely available in advance. This could involve surveys to identify underlying community values, and early informational meetings featuring a range of experts. If the situation is too polarized to allow participants to agree on baseline information, it is probably a sign that more dialogue is needed before deliberative decision-making can proceed.
- Build community capacity. Every public engagement process is an opportunity to coach interested residents in dialogue and deliberation skills. Your facilitator could lead a training, guide residents in leading small-group discussions, and leave your community with a team to help lead future community discussions.
- Decide how to decide. You may choose majority rule, consensus, or some other model, but make sure everyone is clear from the beginning on how the final decision will be moved forward.
- Use ground rules. Ask participants to agree to ground rules. You may present the group with suggested ground rules or have them generate them together. Here’s a sampling of ground rules often used by groups:
- Share the floor—everyone participates, no one dominates
- Listen carefully to others, and remain open to ideas
- Only one person talks at a time
- Avoid personal attacks on people—focus on the issue
- It’s okay to disagree, but do so respectfully
- Connect to power. Show the connection between your deliberative process and real-world change. Ideally, get leaders’ commitment to honor and, to the degree possible, implement your deliberative outcomes. (In a future post, I’ll discuss the critical consideration of power.)
- Offer alternatives. Be aware that deliberative processes can privilege certain skills and cultures. If possible, pair your efforts with other events that can help the whole community shine. For instance, a hallmark of Community Heart and Soul engagement initiatives is storytelling, where residents are encouraged to share their personal experiences and values in an informal, welcoming manner.
Scholars are finding that deliberation makes participants more open to new information, helps us recognize connections, decreases our cynicism, and leads to a virtuous upward spiral of continued engagement and community resilience. Put more poetically, E.F. Schumacher noted in his 1973 book Small is Beautiful,
“Divergent problems … force us to strain ourselves to a level above ourselves; they demand, and thus provoke the supply of, forces from a higher level, thus bringing love, beauty, goodness and truth into our lives.”
People are yearning for authentic engagement. Although deliberation is hard work, it leads to much-needed rewards.
 For instance, see Tina Nabatchi and Matt Leighninger, Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy. 2015: Jossey-Bass.
 See the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation website for information on dialogue and deliberation practices: https://ncdd.org
 Communications scholar John Gastil offers a comprehensive description of high-quality deliberative process in Political Communication and Deliberation (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2008).
 Drew Westen and his colleagues’ study, which has been widely replicated, was published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 18, no. 11 (2006): 1947-58: http://birc.jaredjustus.com/assets/publications/Westen,%20Kilts%202006%20J%20Cognit%20Neurosci.pdf. A popularized summary appeared in Science Daily, “Emory Study Lights Up the Political Brain, at https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/01/060131092225.htm.
 See Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Random House, 2012). Follow Haidt’s ongoing work on bridging moral divisions at https://www.civilpolitics.org .
 See Brian Emerson and Kelly Lewis, Navigating Polarities: Using Both/And Thinking to Lead Transformation (Washington, D.C.: Paradoxical Press, 2019).
 For a helpful overview to help match tools to your needs, see the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation’s “Engagement Streams Network”: https://ncdd.org/rc/item/2142/
 For an overview on facilitation skills including a sample list of ground rules, see the University of Kansas Community Toolbox, https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/leadership/group-facilitation/facilitation-skills/main
 E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (London: Sphere Books, 1973), p. 95. I updated Schumacher’s references of “man” and “himself” to “us” and “ourselves.”
Teaser photo credit: Tom Cat King, Wikimedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Community_meeting.jpg