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April 03, 2005

Can Deliberative Democracy Fix the Viaduct?

I've been thinking about the Viaduct today.  It's a tough, complicated problem, and whatever answer we come up with, we'll have to live with it -- and pay for it -- for a long time.  I'm starting to think that this is one of those problems that is simply too important to leave to the "experts," the "advocates" or the "politicians."  And the only worse thing than that would be to put in on the balllot.

So what should we do?  I'm thinking that this might be the type of issue that could really benefit from "deliberative democracy."  As the aptly-named Deliberative Democracy Consortium defines it:

Deliberative democracy strengthens citizen voices in governance by including people of all races, classes, ages and geographies in deliberations that directly affect public decisions. As a result, citizens influence--and can see the result of their influence on--the policy and resource decisions that impact their daily lives and their future.

Deliberation is an approach to decision-making in which citizens consider relevant facts from multiple points of view, converse with one another to think critically about options before them and enlarge their perspectives, opinions, and understandings.

As I was browsing DDC's matrix of approaches to deliberative democracy in the U.S., two formats jumped out at me:

1) The "21st Century Town Meeting"

Large-scale forums (100 – 5,000) engage citizens in public decision making processes at the local, regional and national levels of governance. Dialogue is supported by trained facilitators, keypad polling, networked-laptop computers and (at times) interactive television.

Demographically representative groups of citizens are recruited through a variety of means, including grassroots organizing and the media. Major stakeholders are engaged in the process and a clear link to decision making is established from the start.

2) The "Deliberative Poll"

Dialogues (2-3 days) between a random sample of citizens, issue experts and public officials are televised to reframe an issue in terms that reflect the views of a representative, informed public.

Surveys before and after the dialogue measure the change in opinion that results from the deliberation. The resulting changes in opinion represent the conclusions the public would reach, if people had a good opportunity to become more informed and more engaged by the issues.

Participants spend a significant amount of time in small group conversations that “frame” their interactions with “experts” e.g. that’s where the questions emerge and much in the way of dialogue emerges, if not opinion change.

Whaddya think?  Is it so crazy that it just might work?  Or just a fat paycheck for hand-waving consultants?

Posted by Jon Stahl on April 3, 2005 at 10:06 PM in Policy | Permalink

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