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May 12, 2010

creating informed communities (part 3)

This is the third of five strategies proposed to achieve the goals of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities. See Monday's post for an overview.

Strategy 3: Invest in Face-to-Face Public Deliberation

Today I focus on a particular recommendation in the Knight report, number 13, which is: "Empower all citizens to participate actively in community self-governance, including local 'community summits' to address community affairs and pursue common goals."

Face-to-face discussions of community issues have been found to produce good policies and the political will to support these policies, to educate the participants, and to enhance solidarity and social networks. In the terms of the Knight Report, they turn mere information into public judgment and public will. I'm still moved by the Australian participant in a planning meeting who said, "I just can't believe we did it; we finally achieved what we set out to do. It's the most important thing I've ever done in my whole life, I suppose" (quoted in Gastil and Levine 2005, p. 81).

I agree with the Report: "As powerful as the Internet is for facilitating human connection, face-to-face contact remains the foundation of community building." The whole array of online communications contribute to civil society, but dedicated online deliberative spaces--despite some potential for improvement--have been basically disappointing so far. The open ones are subject to pathologies that you don't often see in the physical world. For example, the White House open government forum on transparency was almost hijacked by proponents of legalizing marijuana (PDF, p. 9). In a face-to-face setting, especially in a discrete physical community, it would be very difficult to swarm a public session in that way.

In order to make real-world deliberations work, several conditions must be met. There must be some kind of organizer or convening organization that is trusted as neutral and fair and that has the skills and resources to pull off a genuine public deliberation. People have to be able to convene in spaces that are safe, comfortable, dignified, and regarded as neutral ground.

There must be some reason for participants to believe that powerful institutions will listen to the results of their discussions. They may be hopeful because of a formal agreement by the powers that be, or even a law that requires public engagement. Or they may simply believe that their numbers will be large enough--and their commitment intense enough--that authorities will be unable to ignore them.

There must be recruitment and training programs: not just brief orientations before a session, but more intensive efforts to build skills and commitments. Ideally, moments of discussion will be embedded in ongoing civic work (volunteering, participation in associations, and the day jobs of paid professionals), so that participants can draw on their work experience and take direction and inspiration from the discussions. There must be pathways for adolescents and other newcomers to enter the deliberations.

We have examples:

I would draw the conclusion that is also implicit in the title of Carmen Sirianni's recent book, Investing in Democracy. You can't get "community summits" and other forms of excellent engagement on the cheap. They take a long-term effort and resources that are normally a mixture of money, policies, and people's volunteered or paid time.

May 12, 2010 3:40 PM | category: deliberation | Comments



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