The way we talk about what we do significantly shapes how we do it and who might like to partner with us. So…if we hope to invite and welcome others into our deliberative practice in public engagement, we may need to open the door with some newly-defined terms and norms. These new usages don’t devalue the current understandings, but can add value to our practice as we diversify the tools we have available. I see some benefits in talking about our deliberative work as moving from ‘personal interest to public impact.’ I’ll share some brief thoughts on this view of our work, and plan to convene some deliberative conversations around these understandings very soon.
It’s best in many things to start with the end in mind. The goal in our deliberative practice has seemed at times to be a bit of a moving target…specific in some ways and unspecific in others. Participants in our conversations, however, tend to think in more practical and tangible terms. So…let’s start with impact, because this term means something actually changes as a result of careful and comprehensive deliberation. Most people logically expect deliberative work to lead to make a difference in some noticeable way…in personal and public terms.
We deliberate on public dilemmas…so, our most important deliberative outcome is public impact. Although it can be understood in many ways, it focuses on big-picture and long-term, positive adaptations everyone can live with. Political, economic and environmental changes in our country and around the world require creative and timely responses. Ultimately…the most concrete impact we can envision is that our democratic republic would continue to survive with its foundational tenets intact in order to serve the needs of all Americans and to be a responsible global partner.
Most people also hope for a positive personal impact when they deliberate on public problems. We depend on our public connections to produce a healthy context for ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ These hopes and expectations are seldom explicitly expressed, but always present in our conversations. I believe our deliberative outcomes can inspire more follow-through if we focus on the dynamic connection between personal impact and public impact as we conclude our conversations.
But…how is an impact created in practical terms? In the real-world, things move because a force has been effectively applied. In our deliberative work, adaptation to changing public needs happens when a variety of resources are effectively applied…they are invested in a future outcome that everyone values. Investment focuses on the application of resources in personal and public terms with the hope and expectation that the return will yield a higher, long-term value. Resources are ‘spent’ on short-term needs, and this will always be important too in our conversations. But…changes in public patterns and trends can only happen with the wise and deliberative investment of resources.
Participation is the key to effective public investment…participation that is wide, deep and consistent. Just like in personal wealth management, our public portfolio should be widely diversified at all levels. While some people can contribute more resources than others, everyone can contribute something…not just once or once in a while, but regularly and often. Here is where our deliberative practice can add uniquely and immeasurably: examining the benefits, costs, consequences, tensions and trade-offs of various investment strategies to ‘build great communities…together.’
The range of resources available for personal investment is vast, and it’s seldom examined in the midst of our deliberative practice. Of course, a large part of our personal resources are applied directly toward our own personal impact…but almost all citizens recognize the need to invest in the public connections. In our deliberative practice, we can and should address the reality of what personal resources are available…and what are not. When money and credit seem plentiful, it’s easier to look for solutions to our public dilemmas in terms of dollars. This, however, is no longer the case (if it ever really was), so part of our deliberative conversations should examine what our realistic resources are…and whether the political will exists to tap available resources.
Wherever we live, we have an interest in how well our personal, political, economic, social, organizational, environmental and cultural connections function. It’s become natural in the past few years to talk about ‘stakeholders,’ people and organizations with an issue they hold valuable that is undecided or unresolved. And…this uncertainty is enough that it’s in their informed, self-interest to pay close attention to whatever the issue might be. These interest motivations can be intensely personal or widely public. Because we live in the families we have and we live where we do, we each have a unique set of interests that change through time.
Our public interest is not really an optional part of life…it is an intricate web of inter-connected people and organizations. These multi-leveled connections define the context of our lives…and many parts of our lives are affected by the decisions of others. Here also we can see one of the powerful reasons to strengthen and refine our deliberative practice: examining who affects what at various levels of community life in order to understand complex, cause-and-effect relationships. When it comes to public problem-solving, one size definitely doesn’t fit all…choosing the right solution for a specific problem may require just one action at just one level of community, or it might require many coordinated actions at all levels.
Then…last but certainly not least…personal interest is the prime-mover, bringing people into conversations about public issues with a sense of urgency and commitment. Basically, everyone has an ‘opinion’ on public issues…but only those who feel they have some personal motivations for solving public problems will participate in our deliberative projects. We need this understanding in order to more effectively invite and welcome participants into our community conversations. We need to remove the barriers to participation for those who have a deeply personal interest in an issue. And…we need to integrate this understanding into our deliberative methods to better see a public dilemma through the lens’ of our neighbor’s experiences, frustrations, hopes and dreams. More and more, I’m feeling the best way to open one of our deliberative conversations on any topic is with this question: ‘Very briefly, what is your personal interest in solving this public problem?’
The way we talk about what we do is important. Personal…public…interest…investment…impact. A few new opportunities in our deliberative practice appear to be available, if we use these words and ideas…shown in more detail in the matrix attached above. They may be able to help us refine some of our deliberative methods in issue framing, with a more interactive moderation style, and in creating an easily scalable and clear deliberative outcome. Our role in our deliberative work then can be seen this way: helping our neighbors move from personal interest to public impact in the issues they find to be most perplexing and uncomfortable.