by Chris Karpowitz and Chad Raphael

Why should anyone who does not attend a deliberative forum trust that it was run fairly and that its conclusions are sound? Sure, we know from ample research and our own experiences that practitioners of public deliberation are committed to discovering an authentic public voice and wise solutions to social problems. But even in a world with many more opportunities for deliberation, the vast majority of citizens will not attend any given forum. Those who do not attend cannot directly experience the benefits of deliberation, and they may not fully understand what such forums add to the political discourse or how much credence they should give to what happens there. How do practitioners communicate effectively and ethically to decision makers, stakeholders, journalists, and community members who do not participate in our forums? This is the challenge of publicity.

It is a challenge the field needs to confront squarely. Most civic forums are recent arrivals on the political scene and so their authority and legitimacy are less widely accepted than established kinds of public consultation and decision making, such as polls, hearings, and elections. If the unique kind of civic voice that emerges from dialogue and deliberation is to influence other parts of the political system, we need to find better ways to express and amplify that voice. It is primarily through publicity that policy makers and the public can assess forums’ legitimacy and decide whether to accept their conclusions. In that sense, effective publicity can be the glue that binds deliberative forums to the wider structure of political decision making. And, like other professional and civic movements, the field of dialogue and deliberation needs to distinguish ethical and unethical practice, separating the many forums that genuinely seek the public’s voice from the few that aim to ventriloquize citizens with the opinions of sponsors or organizers.

In our view, the goal should be the practice of deliberative publicity, which ought to be distinct from political public relations, on the one hand, or sensationalistic forms of journalism, on the other. The key is to adapt the principles of good deliberation used within forums to how we communicate with others outside the forum. For example, an important question is whether the publicity exhibits respect for deliberators’ arguments, expressing their conclusions clearly and explaining coherently how their positions were supported by underlying reasons, evidence, and norms. In addition, does publicity present the opposing views that participants considered and treat them respectfully? Does it practice transparency by revealing who sponsored and organized the forum, and their organizational missions? Effective publicity will also share ample details about the design of the forum, its intended influence and audience, how it was evaluated, and whether participants were asked to ensure the fidelity of the publicity to their own experience of the discussion.

As a way of highlighting these important questions, we composed a “deliberative publicity checklist” (seen below) that could serve to remind both scholars and practitioners of important elements of deliberative publicity. The checklist provides guidance about the kind of information that will be needed for those who did not attend the forum to understand its purposes, the processes of deliberation, and the policies that deliberators ultimately endorsed. In our recent book, we elaborate on each element of legitimate deliberative publicity and we explore other possibilities for improving lines of communication between civic forums and other institutions of public decision-making.

We also took a first step toward understanding how civic forums currently practice publicity by examining how well the final reports of a diverse sample of forums met the criteria in our checklist. The sample included large and small forums of long and short duration, well-funded and shoestring efforts, a variety of designs (National Issues Forums, consensus conferences, etc.), diverse organizers (academics, governments, and NGOs), multiple decision rules (voting, polling, consensus), and different levels influence and governance (national, state, and local). While our principles are intended to inform publicity at each stage of a forum, we studied final reports because organizers have direct control over such materials, unlike the content of news media stories, these reports are typically the fullest summary of what happened at a forum, and it is likely that policy makers pay greatest attention to these documents.

None of the forums we analyzed met every criterion in our checklist, and in that sense, our analysis shows considerable room for improvement. Some reports did not clearly express participants’ conclusions, but more reports failed to explain why deliberators supported some policy steps and rejected others. That should be surprising to people who value civic reasoning. Many reports omitted important details about how the forum was conducted, such as who organized and funded it, how issues were framed for participants, decision-making rules, and whether participants thought the process was fair. That should give pause to people who are aware of the potential influence of forum designs on participants’ views. Very few reports shared evaluation data or information about whether the participants approved of how their arguments and experience were presented publicly. That should concern anyone who knows that we need to dispel suspicions, especially among interested stakeholders, that forum organizers stack the deck in favor of our own views.

However, almost every report practiced some element of publicity well, and we found many innovative and promising practices that deserve to be emulated in the future. This suggests that those who value deliberation are fully capable of practicing effective deliberative publicity. Indeed, the spotty coverage we found is in part a result of the absence of common standards and practices for publicity. Given this fact, we are calling for a conversation about the challenge of publicity and renewed focus on sharing best practices among scholars and organizers of deliberative civic forums. We hope the publicity checklist can be a way of beginning this conversation.

Importantly, a commitment to effective publicity does not necessarily require us to write endless public reports that are too daunting for anyone to read. We found no relationship between length and comprehensiveness of reports. In fact, one of the better examples of publicity around today is the Oregon Citizens Initiative Review Commission statements, published in the state’s official voter pamphlet, in which citizen panels advise the public on whether to support proposed ballot measures. These statements fulfill almost every item on our checklist in 250 words or less.

By the way, we did not spare ourselves the scrutiny we turned on others’ publicity. A report of a forum on municipal broadband that one of us conducted and the other evaluated several years before our study scored well on summarizing participants’ recommendations and reasons, but neglected to report even a shred of the evidence that influenced their views. Nostra culpa.

Undoubtedly, we all have more to learn about how to practice deliberative publicity.

How can we build on good examples, like Oregon’s Citizen Initiative Review Commission, to improve publicity by forums that do not have as powerful a means for communicating their work to the public as a voter guide and as straightforward a link to the electoral system? Those of us who are committed to a more deliberative political system would benefit from assembling and discussing promising practices for reporting each phase of our work, establishing common standards such as those in our publicity checklist, and devoting more resources to communicating the public’s voice in ways that other democratic institutions can hear and heed.

Christopher F. Karpowitz is co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy and associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University. Chad Raphael is professor of communication at Santa Clara University. They are authors of Deliberation, Democracy, and Civic Forums: Improving Equality and Publicity (Cambridge University Press).