No one wants to waste time, energy or enthusiasm. So…when it comes to inviting people to get engaged in a public conversation about one of our important issues, there is a normal and healthy skepticism. The problem we in the public engagement and deliberation community have is this: we haven’t prepared an answer to this most logical question. How can we know public engagement and deliberation works? This is one of our most troublesome barriers in gathering people for community conversations. Yes, public engagement works…but to see this you have to look in the right place.
This topic came up again during a workshop at the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, OH. “It’s difficult to document the effectiveness of deliberation.” As a result of a serendipity blending of learning events recently, my immediate response was…“I don’t believe it is difficult…you just need to look local, rather than national.” By the very nature of National Issues Forums (NIF), they’ve focused on thorny, systemic dilemmas that have consequences across the country. Data on deliberation on these issues then has been gathered without regard to locally unique conditions…after all, these topics most times were seen to require federal legislation for resolution to be found. But…local NIF practitioners soon found this deliberative methodology to be applicable in their own communities, counties and sometimes states. In these situations, NIF-style deliberation proved itself to be visibly effective.
Our workshop conversation then focused on the power of stories and case studies as we recalled the many instances of deliberative projects making a difference in numerous communities on a wide diversity of locally-critical topics. I shared briefly that we could tell four stories of effective public engagement just in our home county…Solano County. Then…when we considered all the cities and counties across the country…doing not only NIF-style conversations, but other modes of dialogue and deliberation…we seemed to be persuaded that plenty of stories would be available to make the case that public engagement really does work…if we seek the stories and make them easily accessible.
Well then…if many stories exist across the country, why is it still regarded as ‘difficult’ to document the effectiveness of deliberation? Here’s where a serendipity confluence of events, conversations and information comes into the picture. On October 29, I attended our Northern California gathering of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) in Cupertino. At this excellent event, all of the resource persons brought helpful reflections on the need for more public engagement in support of local governance…city and county. One of these resource persons…Terry Amsler…brought some reflections and experiences…but he also connected us with one of the most helpful websites I’ve come across in a long time.
Terry Amsler is Program Director in ‘Public Engagement and Collaborative Governance’ at the Institute for Local Government (ILG), the research and education affiliate of the California State Association of Counties and the League of California Cities. Their website has an abundance of helpful documents on many topics…but most importantly, it has stories!! When you follow the link below, you will see their ‘Public Engagement Topic Areas’…click on one of the topic areas…then scroll down to ‘California Stories…read more.’ Each of these topic areas has clearly presented stories about how cities and counties have utilized public engagement effectively. Story after story adds to a clearer and clearer recognition that public engagement indeed is highly effective.
Public engagement is effective. Stories can be presented clearly and concisely in persuading people to recognize that effectiveness. A website can be user-friendly enough to make these stories accessible. When I shared this website with our workshop group in Dayton, it was immediately obvious that this methodology could be adapted easily to make the case that public engagement using NIF deliberation is not only effective, but it is already widespread. Sure…nationally systemic dilemmas will continue to be a challenge in documenting deliberative effectiveness…but public engagement should not be questioned because of this difficulty. My opinion is that, when effective public engagement on the local consequences and action options of these systemic problems is pursued in local settings across the country, it will be clear to legislators even at the national level that they must take action too. What we all agreed on at our workshop was that our current technology can certainly help us ‘connect the dots’ in seeing the patterns of local actions from a wider perspective.
Ideological gridlock and campaign finance domination by corporations, unions and the ultra-rich has made ‘top-down’ problem-solving impossible…so, we need to apply a ‘bottom-up’ methodology to force state and federal elected officials to honor the public’s desire for real solutions. Public engagement is effective. We can trust it…mostly because we can make sure in local applications that there is transparency and inclusion in the process…and integrity in the application. Locally-based public engagement can create an organic and dynamic foundation for effective governance at all levels.