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 fourth of a five-part sub-series augmenting the themes introduced in Democracy Rising 11. Views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the individual contributor(s) only.

Democracy Rising 15

Getting Started with Dialogue and Deliberation, Part 4

You can’t switch on your light if you don’t plug it in.

Energy flows through networked systems, and if you aren’t connected you are limited in what you can do. And even if you are connected, a break or constraint in the broader network will affect how that energy reaches you.

The same is true for civic energy. If you aren’t plugged into the system that is responsible for change, little change will occur.[1] When thinking about deliberative dialogues, recognize that you are working with a set of networked systems that includes the “civic wetlands”; local, state, and federal governments; and different forms of media.[2] To influence policy you need effective connections between the relevant systems. So to capture the full potential of deliberative dialogue, you need to think about what connections are needed for efficient energy flow—and in particular how to get a better flow of civic energy into the channels that bring about change.

Let’s look at how this might work:

Connecting Conversations

Conversations within closed groups or systems fail to inform each other and lead to disconnected and polarized exchanges. When you are intentional about connecting how information flows within or between different networks, you can both build and channel civic energy.

In Part 2 of this sub-series I invited readers to map both their relationships and their information networks. Information sharing networks can be informal (conversations among neighbors and on social media), or formal (published reports and public meetings), or in between (newspapers, radio, television).

You can build connections between these networks by intentionally and consistently sharing information, raising questions, and inviting feedback. All of these help to make community conversations more robust. When your social media post links to a relevant news article, you are connecting conversations. When you share what you have been hearing with your civic group, or take information from that group back to your neighbors, you are connecting conversations. When you start a blog, and link its posts with community or personal social media, you are connecting conversations. All of these actions can also help make information networks more resilient in filtering out the sound information from the distortions, and misinformation.

There is often a considerable disconnect between the conversations happening in the “wetlands” and those that are occurring in the halls of power. Connections help here as well. When newspapers review statements by public leaders and related posts on social media, they are connecting conversations and informing both audiences. Organizational newsletters from neighborhood associations or other entities can help with this as well. I used to read one very successful transit memo, distributed on my commuter train, that had a section for complaints, questions, and clips of “conversations overheard,” alongside official columns that explained policy, outlined future plans, updated commuters on projects under way, and otherwise demonstrated that the “shouts and murmurs” highlighted in the conversations column were being heard. This served as a very effective link between the conversations among commuters and the conversations happening at the transit authority. When put out, available copies of this memo quickly ran short.

A failure to link “wetlands” conversations to those in the policy arenas often is a contributing factor in stalled progress toward change. Although there are many regulatory requirements for public engagement which are intended to connect the community and policy makers in conversation, these requirements often aren’t implemented in a way that brings the two together. When policy makers draw primarily from their own conversations about what matters or is needed before reaching out to the community, they often frame issues in ways that fail to draw the public’s interest—and then wonder why the public does not engage. This type of disconnect often leads to distrust of the policy makers within the community, and to lost opportunities to build public support.[3] A “naming and framing” exercise or QFT® session (like those discussed in Part 3 of this sub-series) could provide the needed link to ensure that both the community and policy makers agree about what needs to be discussed.

Conversely, when protestors demand change but don’t inform themselves on the rules that are in place or on the specifics of policies that are under discussion, they miss the opportunity to request or support specific changes that could further their interests. An example of this is the consumer advocates, discussed in Part 1, who refused to engage in negotiations unless all of their demands were met.

As a citizen working with others or through a neighborhood association or community organization, you can work to harvest concerns from various community conversations and then invite elected officials to discuss concerns, current policies, and potential changes that would advance a set of shared values. If you have harvested these concerns through a set of inclusive and deliberative dialogues, that invitation may well be accepted. The dialogue with the elected leaders could be followed by a request for periodic reports on data that all agree is relevant, coupled with public meetings when the reports are released. If agreed to, this would create a set of connections that ensure ongoing conversations. And you don’t need to rely on the policy makers to provide the data you need—you can work with nonprofits, educational institutions, or other interest groups, or use freedom of information or similar requests to gather data. Then you can issue your own report and invite policy makers back to the table. Note that this kind of sequenced set of dialogues builds over time and requires advance planning and preparation, patience and perseverance. All of these contribute to sustainable progress.

Let’s look at how this might work in practice, referring back to the Parents for Public Schools chapter discussed in Part 2.

During its first year the chapter worked hard to forge connections with the PTAs, teachers’ associations, and other groups interested in public education. It also regularly held dialogues with parents in the community. In the second year it created a letter writing group that pushed back against negative commentary on public schools appearing in local media and also designated public school parents who would be available to comment for articles or appear on local radio or cable shows. Over several years it built a reputation as an organization that was knowledgeable, thoughtful, and supportive of the public schools. It opened channels of communication with the superintendent of schools and hosted candidate forums for school board elections, getting to know many of those who were ultimately elected.

Then, through its various networks, the chapter learned that the district was making presentations to parents of kindergarteners about to enter school about the advantages of all-day kindergarten and encouraging them to contact the board to show support. Conversations with the superintendent confirmed that he wanted to eliminate all half-day kindergartens (for “budgetary reasons”) but hadn’t really gone public about it because there was an upcoming bond issue that many parents of older kids hoped would lead to new classroom space, limiting the need for temporary “portable” classroom structures then in use at many schools. He wanted to avoid conflict because any new classrooms built would likely be used by the expanded kindergarten classrooms and not to retire the portable classrooms. The PPS chapter began gathering its own independent research on all-day kindergarten and discussing the issues with parents.

Within weeks, a group of parents favoring all-day kindergarten “for working parents” started to lobby board members, and an opposing group that wanted to maintain the half-day kindergarten has also formed and talked with the media. The assistant superintendent who had been making the presentations on all-day kindergarten told the media that “this is what working families need,” “research favors all day kindergarten,” and that any parents who objected were “out of touch, privileged, and focused only on their own kids.” All of this was reported by the local newspaper, packaged as a “parents v. parents” narrative. The parents who wanted a half-day kindergarten option, and many of those who wanted to see temporary classrooms eliminated, were highly connected within the community; they were also furious, and began talking about starting their own lobbying group.

The PPS chapter quickly took a number of actions to “connect conversations” and mitigate the brewing conflict. Its leaders visited the editor of the newspaper and shared their view that the coverage was distorted and not helpful to the community. They also share the chapter’s independent research with the paper. The editor agreed to publish some op-eds written by chapter members. The chapter also held some parent-to-parent dialogues and determined that the group that had attended the kindergarten briefings was unaware of the issue with temporary classrooms and that parents across both groups thought it was good for families to have choices. Parents who preferred half-day kindergarten had a number of reasons for that preference, including medical limitations that would prevent their children from attending all day. The parent-to-parent dialogues also revealed that although the half-day kindergarten advocates preferred that option to be at their local school, they were also open to attending other schools if the option wasn’t made available at all schools. Members of the chapter shared this information with their networks of friends and neighbors, using a narrative stressing that all parents care about their children and choices are good. And they talked with the PTA leadership and groups representing children with special needs about the issue. Overall the PPS chapter found widespread support both for a general move toward more all-day kindergarten classrooms and for maintaining a half-day option at some schools, available to any parent in the district.

The chapter’s board members then visited individually with members of the school board and the superintendent. They emphasized that (1) the “working parents v. privileged parents” message that had been used by the assistant superintendent was divisive and detrimental to public support for education generally, and was not leading to good policy or ways of making policy; (2) the broader research done by the chapter suggested options including the potential for half-day kindergarten at various schools and all day at others would benefit parents, children, and the district; and (3) the district’s credibility was at risk—which was a threat to public approval of the upcoming bond issue. The superintendent embraced the idea of half-day kindergarten at only some schools.

When the board met to discuss the kindergarten issue, many parents attended. The superintendent presented a proposal to expand all-day kindergarten while also maintaining the half-day option at some schools and apologized for how the outreach on the issue had been conducted. Board members made various speeches about how they valued all parents and children, wanted to reduce conflict. They too apologized for the outreach approach. A motion to move to full-day kindergarten, with three schools offering half-day and transfers allowed as needed, was unanimously approved. Parents chatted amicably with board members and each other as the meeting ended. The newspaper ran a short article about new choices for parents.[4]

By knitting together a range of conversations and refocusing them all on community needs, the PPS chapter in this example was able to defuse what could have been a very polarizing, emotional, and damaging conflict within the community, and develop a policy option that met many different needs. Its extensive set of community connections not only provided an early alert that a potentially destructive conflict was brewing, those connections also helped it to defuse and manage that conflict in a productive way.

Linking Processes

Connecting several different kinds of dialogue processes can help to engage others and build momentum for change.[5] It is very discouraging for people to come together and then leave a meeting wondering, “Now what”? or “Did that even matter”? This is especially true when the discussion at the meeting is challenging. A failure to “send forth” the participants—that is, highly motivated to direct their energy to the next process or to some concrete action—lessens participants’ willingness to engage in future processes and increases their tendency to devalue new information or ideas that were shared at the meeting. Sending forth participants minimizes these negative effects.[6] So when you are hosting you want to have a clear plan on how to end any dialogue process (and individual meeting within that process) and connect participants’ energy and ideas to the next step. And as you start up the next process you should review how the input from the previous process was, or will be, used to inform the upcoming conversation.[7] This reassures participants that their work was, and will be, worthwhile.

You should also inquire about connections whenever you are invited to or participate in a “public engagement process” that is intended to inform a related policy making process, such as a decision by a school board, city council, or other governing entity.[8] Here you can ask questions and make suggestions that improve the connection to the related process.  You can ask, for instance, How are the ideas generated in the engagement dialogue being captured? How will they be reported? Who will see that report? What further opportunities will there be for public involvement?

Why does this matter? Imagine that your city council is considering how to invest funds to reinvigorate the economy and requests that staff schedule some meetings for community input. The staff plans to assemble a set of recommendations to the city council after hosting community sessions and talking to the chamber of commerce and other stakeholders. Consider the following two approaches that might be used in this scenario:

In Approach 1, the staff holds the meetings and notes the number of people showing up. It later releases its recommendations, and notes that the community meetings were held, that the chamber of commerce and others were consulted, and that there is strong support for the recommendations being made. The chamber enthusiastically endorses the recommendations. Community reservations about several of the recommendations, including the effect on certain neighborhoods, are not presented to the city council with the staff recommendations. Ordinary citizens who attended and shared their thoughts feel ignored. Several opine on social media that the fix was in all along.

In Approach 2, a respected community member asks the staff what information will accompany its recommendations. The staff is open to suggestions. The community member suggests that any recommendations be accompanied by a report that outlines the process used, the number of people participating in each of the different process segments, the neighborhood(s) in which they live, and the issues and options considered, and that it further identifies both the key thoughts and concerns raised (positive or negative), as well as the data and rationales supporting the final recommendations. Staff agrees, some citizens volunteer to help them, and that report is attached when the staff submits its recommendations. Council members review and address concerns raised as they discuss the recommendations.

Which approach is most likely to inform the city council? Which is most likely to assure citizens that they have been heard? In Approach 2 the community member might also have asked that the draft report and recommendations be posted for a period of further public comment, or that another public meeting be scheduled for questions and input after the staff recommendations are released and before the related Council meeting. Both the more detailed report and the review process make for more resilient and informed policy making.

Overall, the pattern for a strong link between processes, whether in passing on information, a recommendation, or a final decision, is as follows: “This what we think/recommended/decided; how we developed this information/reached this recommendation/made this decision; and why.” And if that kind of link is missing, you can ask that one be forged. If you don’t ask, it probably won’t happen.

Connecting Systems

There are many different systems that intersect and interact within a community:  political systems, economic systems, educational systems, justice systems, information systems, and of course the civic wetlands. These interactions have a structure—a way in which the parts relate to each other, by design, chance, or evolution over time.[9] That might mean that certain parts don’t interact effectively or well. How might you use deliberative dialogue to more intentionally connect different systems in your environment?

Most communities worry about their young people, although in many the approach to helping youths is fragmented, with families, schools, courts, police, and other organizations each struggling with their individual piece of the puzzle. And politicians can and do weaponize the concepts of “dangerous youth” or “failure to help youth” to reach their political bases or undermine other systems working on the issue..

But how might it look if you could bring together education systems, political systems, and economic systems to build a supportive environment for youth, and actually involve the youth in the conversation? Consider the following scenario:

The local paper has for years been hosting a periodic business roundtable and reporting on the discussions. After a discussion focused on skills needed by local employers, the paper expands the roundtable to include local educators. Soon, with the help of the town’s many service clubs (Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, etc.), the conversation expands as presentations are made and new dialogues are scheduled. A working group of people from business, education, the nonprofit sector, and eventually the police and political leadership begins to regularly meet and discuss how to help youth and the community be successful. Over time this results in an agreement that formalizes the network of stakeholders that has developed and provides for regular meetings. The businesses agree to fund a position that will gather and report on data identified by the group as necessary for tracking needs and progress. This data is presented not only to the city council but also through the service clubs. The club members further disseminate information and concerns through their many connections in the community. In elections citizens now want to know which candidates support this effort and are working to help youth. Local students petition the city council to form an advisory youth council and this is approved. As more data is gathered and more voices are heard, youth mental health support emerges as a key area of focus. A proposal for a “youth mental health tax” that will fund support services for children and youth age 19 and under is discussed, developed, and presented for a vote; it easily passes. This new stream of revenue, along with support from a local university, funds a center that matches families with mental health resources, and allows for grants to be made to other programs and organizations who are helping youth. Young people themselves are invited to participate in annual discussions on needs, resources, and next steps. The data that is regularly collected and reported out to the community helps to ensure accountability and sustain the support for youth and youth programs.[10]

Could you use more or better connections in your community? Deliberative dialogue can be a powerful tool for building those.[11]

As Tom Prugh noted in Democracy Rising 2:

Republican forms of government cede most power to elected representatives, allowing the citizenry to exercise only remote, periodic, and blunt forms of control over them via elections. This can work well, even for a long time—but long periods without direct engagement by the people themselves almost guarantees that the system will be co-opted by officials and the special-interest cohorts that inevitably surround them. Deliberative democracy is the most responsive and responsible form of governance, because it is ongoing and intimate and because it requires and supports ordinary people in engaging with and taking responsibility for the character of their communities and how they are run.[12]

And as noted in Part 1 of this “Getting Started” sub-series, even as an ordinary citizen you can begin engaging and facilitating change by starting with dialogue right where you are, and building from there.

[1] In Democracy Rising 8 Susan Clark asked, “How many of us have teamed with neighbors, committed hours of heartfelt effort to a project, only to realize bitterly that our ideas would be ignored by leaders?” As she then pointed out, without a connection to power, simply gathering and deliberating with people rarely leads to policy changes.

[2] This resource from the Resilience.org resource page is a useful tool for thinking about systems:  https://wayfinder.earth/the-wayfinder-guide/building-a-coalition-for-change/initial-system-exploration/.

[3] Good examples of this disconnect can be found in the report  Don’t Count Us Out  that was prepared for Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation.

[4] The scenario described in the above paragraphs reflects, in simplified and condensed form, real events.

[5] Another example of how sequenced dialogues might work can be found in “Deciding on Dialogue Options,” first published in the Missouri Municipal Review.

[6] One advantage to starting with naming and framing or exploratory dialogues, rather than prematurely pressing to push solutions, is that you can show engagement and progress that may attract additional participants and resources.

[7] You can also provide options then for linking the dialogue outcomes and learning into conversations in the wetlands. And it is a good practice to make the notes or a summary available to all participants following the process so you can let them know you will be doing that as well. In this manner you can encourage further involvement and build trust in your work. Trust helps encourage participants to return and also attracts other people. The Facilitation Analytics e-book “Understanding the Facilitation Cycle” provides further guidance on how to “send forth.”

[8] At the outset it is also a good idea to let participants know what you will do with the ideas generated in the process.

[9] Some useful resources can be found at  https://www.democracybeyondelections.org/#about.

[10] This scenario also reflects, although simplified and condensed, real events. Community-wide networks can support real change, including an increase in taxes to support that change.

[11] This set of guidelines can help you plan.

[12] As Susan Clark observed, also in Democracy Rising 8,

“Leaders should be transparent, and community members should be informed, about where the decision-making power is in any engagement process. The dashboard on our cars gives us feedback on our vehicle’s various power metrics—like how fast we’re going and how much fuel we have. Likewise, it would be helpful if every decision-making process came with its own ‘power gauge.’ Who decides? The power gauge might depict the needle pointing to the left end of the gauge to show that leaders hold all the decision-making power; in the middle, leaders and the public will decide together; and when the needle is pointing to the right, the public will make the final call.”

Teaser photo credit: By Constitution_Pg1of4_AC.jpg: Constitutional Conventionderivative work: Bluszczokrzew (talk) – Constitution_Pg1of4_AC.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11078481