I was fortunate enough to be part of a fascinating conversation yesterday that pushed deeply into how things get done in communities. At the heart of this conversation and many similar ones in recent years is what I consider to be a false dichotomy between talking carefully and thoroughly about problems, and taking decisive action to solve those tension-ridden problems. Don’t worry…I’m not going to give you the full play-by-play of this rich conversation, but it brought even more focus for me on the challenges we face in public decision-making in the 21st century. Today I’m more convinced than ever…our problems are so inter-connected and ethically-complex that we need to apply every tool available to find a way forward that is mutually beneficial for all stakeholders and is sustainable.
When will we figure out that we really do need each other to make the best public decisions? I know this perspective flies in the face of our popular culture…and particularly our 24/7 news media orthodoxy…but no one who’s observant at all can make the case that we’re doing a good job as a society in public conversations and decision-making. Politics isn’t a spectator sport with easily identifiable teams or cheerleaders or fans or scorekeepers. In our most complex and divisive public choices, we need to see each other as stakeholders with equal standing…contributing whatever we can to an energized and respect-filled decision process.
We need deliberative conversation and focused advocacy. These two approaches complement and strengthen each other. These efforts should be seen as essential components of applied community critical-thinking. Concerning many of our most tension-ridden problems, however, these two efforts are seen to be opposites…like ‘water and oil’ as it’s been characterized in some presentations. It’s my view that advocacy in these issues cannot be effective without a public knowledge as its foundation that can only come through careful and deliberative conversations that include all stakeholders. It’s my view too that community conversations on these issues without an intention to solve problems in a sustainable way are nice but pretty much irrelevant. Careful conversation and effective advocacy are the ‘yin and yang’ of public politics.
But here’s the problem…we’re still operating from the ‘water and oil’ model. We need advocacy groups that are inviting and welcoming of deliberative conversation practitioners…and we need some of these deliberative folks to join in the efforts of advocacy groups to contribute the public knowledge that will make their advocacy more effective. We need deliberative groups to actively seek local advocacy practitioners as learning partners….and we need some of these advocacy folks to join in a variety of deliberative efforts that uncover new public knowledge on an on-going basis. The current ‘water and oil’ model is frustrating both efforts…it’s time to change our view of public decision-making to see one public ‘toolbox’ with many tools.
And then here’s my biased perspective…there’s not enough careful, deliberative work going on in communities. Advocacy groups are sending requests for money and support in the mail and on the internet in abundance…and they seem to have many adherents. Careful conversations about the issues, however, are not happening enough to help people choose which groups to support…nor are they happening enough to provide the foundational public knowledge that can make advocacy truly effective in a sustainable way.
Here are a few links for those who may want to participate in more deliberative efforts. Check them out and visit them often…there is much to learn, and a lot at stake. If nothing else, you can use some of these perspectives and methods in your everyday conversations on public issues. Mostly though, learn what you need to be active and effective in public problem-solving.