Strategy 3: Invest in face-to-face public deliberation
Recommendation 13 in the Knight Commission’s Informing Communities report 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 Commission report, they turn mere information into public judgment and public will. I am 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” (Gastil & Levine, 2005, p. 81).
I would recommend investment in face-to-face deliberation, even though online forums (and hybrids of online and face-to-face media) have promise. Minnesota E-Democracy (http://forums.e-democracy.org), Front Porch Forum in Burlington, Vermont (http://frontporchforum.com), and other community-based online forums do seem to build social capital and civic capacity while promoting discussion of public issues. As the National League of Cities notes, online forums can “engage technologically savvy young people” and include “busy parents or elderly residents who might not be able to attend community meetings in person” (National League of Cities, 2011). But the successful online forums in the United States have not been deliberations. A deliberation yields formal input on policy or makes binding decisions. When deliberations have been conducted online and open to all, they have frequently yielded disastrous results. Some have been deliberately flooded by people with shared policy objectives or disrupted by activists who simply want to embarrass the organizers. For example, the White House Open Government Forum on Transparency was established to collect formal input but was all but hijacked by proponents of legalizing marijuana (Trudeau, 2009).
I acknowledge that some examples of “e-consultations” from overseas have been successful (see, for example, Peters & Abud, 2009), but I believe that online forums are vulnerable to deliberate manipulation that could easily become routine if governments began to use them widely. In the United States, the most successful online deliberations have been limited to randomly selected participants who statistically represent the public as a whole. Because invitations are random, organized groups cannot flood these discussions with their own members (Lazer, Neblo, Esterling, & Goldschmidt, 2009). But it is problematic in a democracy to limit participation to a chosen few.
Fortunately, many offline deliberations have been successful (Gastil & Levine, 2005). The inconvenience of attending seems to discourage disruptive behavior, and the disclosure of real names and faces encourages civility. As the Informing Communities report notes, “As powerful as the Internet is for facilitating human connection, face-to-face contact remains the foundation of community building.”
The following case studies of New Orleans, Louisiana; Bridgeport, Connecticut; and Hampton, Virginia are three examples of successful community problem solving built around public engagement and deliberation.
New Orleans, Louisiana. After Hurricane Katrina, questions of how and where to rebuild became extraordinarily contentious and divisive by race and class. The city was deluged with “civic engagement” in the form of voluntary and charitable contributions, but there was no coherent or legitimate plan for how to allocate scarce resources from the government, businesses, and civil society. Mayor C. Ray Nagin, the New Orleans City Council, and the New Orleans City Planning Commission launched the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP) process to create such a framework. Built into the process were three Community Congresses that engaged 4,000 citizens, including dispersed residents of New Orleans who were living in more than 16 other cities nationwide. AmericaSpeaks, a national nonprofit that developed the 21st Century Town Meeting format for large, public deliberations, organized two out of the three congresses. At the end of the process, 92 percent of participants agreed that the plan they had helped to create should go forward. In June 2007, the New Orleans City Council and the Louisiana Recovery Authority approved the $14.5 billion plan.
Bridgeport, Connecticut. This old port and manufacturing city of 139,000 people was an economic basket case in the 1980s. The schools were so troubled that 274 teachers were arrested during a strike in 1978. The town was hard hit by the loss of manufacturing jobs, rising crime, and the flight of middle-class residents to the suburbs. The city filed for bankruptcy in 1991. The next mayor was sentenced to nine years in federal prison for corruption.
Bridgeport is now doing much better, to the point that its school system was one of five finalists for the national Broad Prize for Urban Education in both 2006 and 2007. Deliberation played a central role in Bridgeport’s renaissance.
In 1996, a local nonprofit group called the Bridgeport Public Education Fund (BPEF, http://bpef.org) contacted organizers who specialize in convening diverse citizens to discuss issues, without promoting an ideology or a particular diagnosis. No one knows how many forums and discussions took place in Bridgeport, or how many citizens participated, because the 40 official “Community Conversations” were widely imitated in the city. But it is clear that at least hundreds of citizens participated, that many individuals moved from one public conversation to another, and that some developed advanced skills for organizing and facilitating such conversations. A community summit convened in 2006—fully 10 years after the initial discussion—drew 500 people. The mayor, the superintendent, the city council, and the board of education had agreed in advance to support the plan that participants developed (Friedman, Kadlec & Birnback, 2007; Fagotto & Fung, 2009).
So far, I have described talk, but the civic engagement process in Bridgeport involves work as well. For example, each school has a leadership team that includes parents, neighborhood residents, and students along with professional educators. The team has power over school budgets and strategic plans (Zarlengo & Betz, 2002). The professionals in leadership team meetings and other public forums take what they learn back into their daily work. People who are employed by other institutions, such as businesses and religious congregations, also take direction from the public discussions. Meanwhile, citizens are inspired to act as volunteers. The school district has a large supply of adult mentors, many of them participate in forums and discussions. In turn, their hands-on service provides information and insights that enrich community conversations and improve decisions.
Bridgeport’s citizens have shown that they are capable of making tough choices: for instance, shifting limited resources from teen after-school programs to programs for younger children. There is much more collaboration today among businesses, non-profits, and government agencies. Everyone feels that they share responsibility; problems are not left to the school system and its officials. The school superintendent said, “I’ve never seen anything like this. The community stakeholders at the table were adamant about this. They said, ‘We’re up front with you. The school district can’t do it by itself. We own it too’” (Friedman, et al, 2007).
Hampton, Virginia. This is another blue-collar port city of about 145,000 people. Like Bridgeport, Hampton has struggled with deindustrialization, although Hampton benefits from military and NASA facilities within the city.
When Hampton decided to create a new strategic plan for youth and families in the early 1990s, the city started by enlisting more than 5,000 citizens in discussions that led to a citywide meeting and then the adoption of a formal plan. “Youth, parents, community groups, businesses, and youth workers and advocates…met separately for months, with extensive outreach and skilled facilitation” (Sirianni & Schor, 1999).
The planning process ultimately created an influential Hampton Youth Commission (http://hampton.gov/youth) whose 24 commissioners are adolescents, and a new city office to work with them. The Youth Commission sits on top of a pyramid of civic opportunities for young people. There are also community service programs that involve most of the city’s youth: empowered principals’ advisory groups in each school, a special youth advisory group for the school superintendent, paid adolescent planners in the planning department, and youth police advisory councils whom the police chief contacts whenever a violent incident involves teenagers. Young people are encouraged to climb the pyramid from service projects toward the citywide commission, gaining skills and knowledge along the way. The system for youth engagement won Hampton the Innovation in Government Award from Harvard University in 2007.
Engagement is not limited to young residents. When Hampton’s leaders decided that race relations and racial equity were significant concerns in their southern community—almost equally divided between whites and African Americans—they convened at least 250 citizens in small, mixed-race groups called Study Circles. The participants decided that there was a need to build better skills for working together across racial lines, so they created and began to teach a set of courses—collectively known as “Diversity College”—that trains local citizens to be speakers, board members, and organizers of discussions (Potapchuk, Carlson & Kennedy, 2005).
Hampton’s neighborhood planning process has broadened from determining the zoning map to addressing complex social issues. Planning groups include residents as well as city officials, and each may take more than a year to develop a comprehensive plan. Like the young people who helped write the youth sections of the City Plan, the residents who develop neighborhood plans emphasize their own assets and capabilities rather than their needs. There is an “attitude of ‘what the neighborhood can do with support from the city’ rather than ‘what the city should do with the neighborhood watching and waiting for it to happen’” (Potapchuk, et al, 2005).
Hampton has thoroughly reinvented its government and civic culture so that thousands of people are directly involved in city planning, educational policy, police work, and economic development. Residents and officials use a whole range of practical techniques for engaging citizens—from “youth philanthropy” (the Youth Commission makes $40,000 in small grants each year for youth-led projects) to “charrettes” (intensive, hands-on, architectural planning sessions that yield actual designs for buildings and sites). The prevailing culture of the city is deliberative; people truly listen, share ideas, and develop consensus, despite differences of interest and ideology. Young people hold positions of responsibility and leadership. Youth have made believers out of initially suspicious police officers, planners, and school administrators. These officials testify that the policies proposed by youth and other citizens are better than alternatives floated by their colleagues alone. The outcomes are impressive, as well. For example, the students in the school system now perform well on standardized tests.
I would draw the conclusion that is also implicit in the title of Carmen Sirianni’s recent book, Investing in Democracy: you cannot 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. To yield sustainable results, a summit should be embedded in a deeper and more lasting deliberative infrastructure. Hampton’s system, for example, depended on an initial federal grant and then consistent in-kind and cash investments from the city. In order to make real-world deliberations work, several conditions must be met:
1. 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. Several national non-profits have reputations for playing that role: Everyday Democracy, Public Conversations Project, the Center for Deliberative Polling, the Jefferson Center, the National Issues Forum Institute, and AmericaSpeaks, among others. At this time, there is no independent way of assessing their quality and reliability. A formal process of assessing and certifying deliberation-organizers may be valuable.
2. People must be able to convene in spaces that are safe, comfortable, dignified, and regarded as neutral ground. If large community summits are contemplated, there must be physical spaces capacious and affordable enough in every community to accommodate an AmericaSpeaks 21st Century Town Meeting or its equivalent. Because the construction of entirely new spaces for public meetings seems overly expensive and ambitious, a more practical strategy would be to expand proposals to serve other functions. For instance, new convention centers should be built so that they can handle public meetings as well as regular conventions.
3. There must be some reason for participants to believe that powerful institutions will listen to the results of their discussions. It may take a formal agreement among power centers, or even a law that requires public engagement, to give other participants hope that they can effect change. 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.
4. 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.
If all four preconditions are met, we should see measurable increases across whole communities (not just among the participants themselves) in civic knowledge, trust in other citizens, and civic action such as voting, volunteering, and advocacy.