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Democracy Rising 29: Wicked Problems, Wise Communities, Part 1

September 5, 2023

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. Views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the individual contributor(s) only.

Preface

At this point in the ongoing democratic experiments in the United States and around the world, two things have become exceedingly clear: democracy requires high-quality communication, and we do not get close to the necessary quality naturally. We must be able to have tough conversations that recognize and engage the inherent tensions and tradeoffs of difficult issues, and we must get beyond the unfortunate limitations of human nature that work against those sorts of conversations. Developing research in brain science and social psychology, as well as a growing understanding of how the Internet, political parties, and the media exacerbate many of our worst impulses, have helped us understand better the crippling polarization and hyper -partisanship that is undermining our political conversations and further eroding already precarious trust in key institutions:  the free press, civic culture, legislative bodies, experts, and fellow citizens.[1] How do we rethink democracy based on this developing knowledge?

I believe that our best shot at reinvigorating democracy is to focus on our cities and counties. This argument is motivated both by pessimism about our national democracy—the adversarial and expensive two-party system is, unfortunately, significantly engrained and clearly brings out the worst in us, constantly undermining the conversations that need to occur and rewarding those we should avoid—as well as substantial optimism about the potential of local democracy, based both on research and experience.  This post, the first of three,  will explain why the quality of communication is so essential to democratic functioning and lay out the ideal of healthy deliberative conversation. The second post will explore the reasons that most of our political conversations are so problematic and counterproductive, summarizing the relevant psychological research and explaining how our national system triggers the worst in us. The third post will make a case for why cities and counties are well situated to become exemplars of the kind of democratic engagement we need and lay out some steps they can take to build that capacity.

The Conversations We Need

Many of the problems our democracies face are “wicked,” a coinage introduced over 50 years ago that is even more relevant today. Wicked problems are best understood as problems primarily defined by competing underlying values or tensions that cannot be resolved by science (especially given the increasing distrust of science). They have no clear solutions, because actions that support some values tend to work against others. Consider, for example, the inherent tensions among key American values such as freedom, equality, justice, and security, as well as the tensions among alternative definitions and applications of each value on its own. Those who adopt a wicked problems mindset tend to see most problems through a lens that foregrounds the underlying values and the natural tensions among them.

Addressing wicked problems calls for difficult conversations centered on the quintessential civic question of “what should we do?” (with an emphasis on the “we”). High-quality deliberative engagement requires a broad and inclusive range of stakeholders who work to identify the underlying values clearly, work through the tough choices, and ultimately strive for public judgment regarding collaborative actions.[2] Such conversations may result in prioritizing certain values, seeking a productive balance among them or, ideally, finding innovative ways to transcend the tensions and create win-wins.

Because of the inherent tensions among the many values we hold dear and our inability to solve these dilemmas, the most we can ask for is a robust, ongoing conversation that helps communities manage the tensions as best they can. Such an ongoing conversation would involve a constant process of identifying underlying values and tensions and putting them on the table to work through them, often making tweaks and shifts as conditions change and certain values are found to be over- or underemphasized. Overall, deliberative engagement represents a process of inquiry and learning that harkens back to John Dewey’s argument that democracy is “primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.”[3] This process is also connected to the work of systems scientist Peter Senge, who argued that the quality of organizations is often a direct function of the quality of the ongoing conversation they support.[4] Organizations, like communities, cannot simply focus on solving individual technical problems one by one, particularly because such problem-solving often works by narrowing the discussion to specific values and avoiding the tensions. Solutions to one problem often simply lead to new problems. Senge believed that organizations must therefore function as learning organizations by being open to new information and constantly communicating within themselves and adapting. We should look at our communities similarly: as learning communities that are constantly in process. And since the quality of the ongoing conversation is so essential, communities must invest in building capacity to support that conversation.

So what does a robust deliberative system require? Three critical factors are support from leadership, high-quality interactions, and high-quality information management. When community leaders adopt a wicked-problems mindset and work in more of a deliberative capacity, they can make a huge impact on the overall political culture, shifting it from adversarial toward collaborative. By “leaders,” I mean both governmental leaders—executives, elected officials, and bureaucrats—and community leaders from the private and civic sectors.

Generally, deliberative leaders must see at least part of their role as elevating the conversation rather than simply having a strong opinion and working to convince people of and mobilize them around their point of view.[5]  Such “systems leaders,” as Senge terms them,[6] help bring and sustain a critical sense of nuance to tough issues. When they adopt such a mindset, they are also more likely to recognize the importance of necessary infrastructure and skillsets to support the ongoing conversation.

The second and third factors focus on the fact that high-quality conversations about tough issues often need help. Deliberative facilitators work to address two typical deficiencies in such conversations: the quality of the interactions, and how information and decision making are managed. Communications scholar John Gastil captured these concerns in terms of the social and analytical processes embedded within deliberative discussions.[7] The social processes include who is speaking and whether people are listening to and understanding each other, treating each other with respect, and considering each other’s ideas and experiences. The analytical processes involve the information base, how people engage with facts and values and consider alternatives, and ultimately what decisions are made and how.

Deliberative conversations have been occurring for years in organizations and local communities, and in most cases they do rely on impartial or third-party organizers, process designers, and/or facilitators. One essential attribute is what I’ve termed “principled impartiality”[8]—a concept that points to the necessary but rare ingredient of people or organizations who are passionate about the community, passionate about democracy and its commitments to equality and inclusion, and passionate about high-quality information and properly utilized expertise, but who nonetheless primarily choose to take impartial, process-focused roles in the community.

These people and organizations help frame issues in more nuanced ways, work to involve a broad range of voices (particularly those that have historically been excluded or marginalized), support high-quality engagement processes, and, ultimately, help inspire and support collaborative actions to address community issues better. They focus, in other words, on elevating the conversation rather than winning the argument. The more key people and organizations there are in a community that do this, the stronger the community conversation will be.

At the most concrete level of actual political discussions, facilitators are often vital precisely because these conversations are difficult and, in many ways, unnatural. Our brains are simply not wired for wicked problems (see DR4). Deliberative processes are thus designed to avoid typical pitfalls of engagement and accentuate the potential for positive interaction. Deliberative engagement relies on ground rules, high-quality issue framings and processes, and active facilitation to guide groups through these social and analytical tasks. As people involved with facilitation will attest, groups typically do not perform these functions well on their own.

The third factor, high-quality information management, has become increasingly critical in recent years. One of the most problematic aspects of our hyper-partisanship is its inherent assault on information, a phenomenon the RAND Corporation captured well in its 2018 report, Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life. But when we shift from adversarial to collaborative processes—a key goal of deliberative engagement—we also tend to manage information much better. Collaborative groups seek out high-quality information to help them make decisions. While they recognize that information is never quite clear enough to make any tough decision self-evident, they know that tough conversations become less tough, and decision-making processes clearly improve, when supported by high-quality information.

Because wicked problems are inherently value laden, no technical solutions are to be discovered and applied and we cannot simply defer to experts to decide for us. That said, high-quality information, used well, can certainly help. Finding productive ways to incorporate experts and high-quality information into political discussions is difficult but essential work that, unfortunately, the Internet has made exceedingly more problematic. Deliberative practitioners often work to develop the reputation and skills to serve as honest brokers of information so they may play the critical role of managing these tensions well.

When these components are in place, our political conversations look very different. They do not merely involve elites engaging each other in adversarial contexts, at times either seeking “input” from constituents or working to mobilize them to their point of view. Public engagement shifts to a learning process, an ongoing collaborative conversation focused on what sort of community people want to build together.

This may seem an ideal picture:  overly optimistic if not Pollyanna-ish. The goal of a deliberative community is an ideal—we are working toward a “more perfect” union, recognizing we will never reach perfection. It remains, nonetheless, an ideal worth striving for. The closer communities come to this ideal, the stronger they will be. The important move here is redefining the ideal and inspiring communities and their institutions to experiment in pursuing it.

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This post and the two to follow in this sub-series are adapted from Martín Carcasson, “Imagining the Robust Deliberative City: Elevating the Conversations We Need to Support Democracy,” first published by Public Agenda in October 2019.

[1] Lee Rainie, Scott Keeter, and Andrew Perrin, Trust and Distrust in America, Pew Research Center, July 2019; https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/07/22/trust-and-distrust-in-america/.

[2] See Daniel Yankelovich and Will Friedman, Toward Wiser Public Judgment (Nashville, Vanderbilt University Press, 2010); and Martín Carcasson and Leah Sprain, “Beyond Problem Solving: Re-conceptualizing the Work of Public Deliberation as Deliberative Inquiry,” Communication Theory 26 (2016), pp. 41–63.

[3] John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New York: Free Press, 1916), 87.

[4] Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (New York: Crown, 2006).

[5] Indeed, I would argue that perhaps the most significantly negative aspect of the U.S. national system is that the office of the president is always occupied by a partisan, the leader of one of our two adversarial political parties. This almost guarantees a low-quality national discussion. Even if the president attempted to work as a facilitative leader, the opposing party would still likely respond in an adversarial manner.

[6] Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, and John Kania, “The Dawn of System Leadership,” Stanford Social Innovation Review (Winter 2015); https://ssir.org/pdf/Winter_2015_The Dawn_of_System_Leadership.pdf.

[7] John Gastil, Political Communication and Deliberation (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008).

[8] Martín Carcasson, “The Case for Principled Impartiality in a Hyper-Partisan World,” National Civic Review 110.4 (Winter 2022); https://www.nationalcivicleague.org/ncr-article/the-case-for-principled-impartiality-in-a-hyper-partisan-world/.

Martín Carcasson

Martín Carcasson, Ph.D., is a professor in the Communication Studies department of Colorado State University and the founder and director of the CSU Center for Public Deliberation (CPD). His research focuses on helping local communities address wicked problems more productively through improved public communication, community problem solving, and collaborative decision-making. The CPD is a practical, applied extension of his work and functions as an impartial resource dedicated to enhancing local democracy in northern Colorado.

Tags: building resilient communities, deliberative democracy