The growth of democratic governance has been a grassroots phenomenon, but most of these efforts to mobilize citizens have been initiated by traditional kinds of leaders. The promise of the Democracy Helpline, a project of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and its Partners, is to enable a broader array of people to make use of these powerful democratic strategies and principles.
The Democracy Helpline will be an unprecedented resource that people will be able to access by phone or on the Internet. Community stories will be the essence of the Helpline: the most valuable way to inspire and prepare new organizers is to give them narratives of existing projects that give them inspiration and useful lessons.
The backbone of the Helpline will be a database of these kinds of narratives, along with deliberation-related publications and resource organizations gathered from all over the world. The Beta version of the Helpline is now up and running at http://helpline.deliberative-democracy.net.
On the Democracy Helpline section of the DDC web-site, users will encounter a ten-question tutorial that helps them think through the specifics of their citizen involvement projects. Using the answers to these diagnostic questions, the site would then offer a set of publications, organizations, and program examples that matched their needs and interests.
The Democracy Helpline will also have a more traditional side: a telephone number that connects callers with a knowledgeable resource person, the Helpline Manager. The Helpline Manager will use the same kinds of diagnostic questions to probe the interests and needs of the caller. This initial conversation, coupled with continued use of the online database, might be enough to meet the needs of some callers. For those with more complicated questions, the Helpline Manager would summarize the situation in a report to the DDC's director and members of the Democratic Governance workgroup, who would evaluate the request and respond within a set number of days.
Most efforts to mobilize citizens for dialogue and deliberation on public issues have been initiated by local leaders, including public officials, community organizers, educators, planners, human rights commissioners, and nonprofit directors. The Helpline will be useful to them, but it might achieve its greatest impact by assisting a second set of truly grassroots leaders, such as youth leaders, neighborhood association presidents, block captains, CDC employees, and other active citizens. The Helpline will be a valuable resource for established professionals in larger cities, but it will represent an unprecedented opportunity for new leaders in urban neighborhoods and small towns.
Some examples of how the Helpline will work:
- A neighborhood organizer who wants to know how to mobilize residents around crime and trash pickup concerns will be presented with how-to ideas and stories of what happened when neighborhoods in Yonkers, New York, and Delray Beach, Florida addressed these issues. By phone or online, the Helpline will also produce the contact information for people working on those efforts, organizations that offer relevant services, and evaluations and articles on those and other similar projects.
- A high school student interested in working with her peers on intergroup tension will find about the way that youth leaders initiated school-based projects in Silver Spring, Maryland, and launched a community-wide effort in Kuna, Idaho.
- A city planner who indicates a desire to work with residents in low-income neighborhoods will be presented with case studies like the Neighbors Building Neighborhoods process in Rochester, New York, and the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative in San Jose, California.
- A parent who wants to help other parents work more constructively with the school their children attend will learn about examples from school districts in Kansas City, Kansas and Inglewood, California.
- A federal official who shows an interest in involving citizens in complex science-based policy questions would be given examples like the Danish Technology Boards, the engagement efforts of the Centers for Disease Control on pandemic influenza, and the work of the National Nanotechnology Initiative.
NeighborWorks America has contributed a small start-up grant to the development of the Helpline. NeighborWorks sees the Helpline as a vital source of technical assistance to the thousands of grassroots leaders who attend the NW Training Institutes. The Hewlett Foundation has also supported the Helpline through its core grant to the DDC. With assistance from Information Renaissance, we have created a rudimentary prototype of the "front end" of the Helpline; in order to fully develop the online resource and to add the by-phone side of the operation, we are seeking additional funds of roughly $300,000 over three years.
The Helpline has also attracted support from a number of other national associations. Several DDC Partners -- including the National League of Cities, League of Women Voters, and National School Public Relations Association -- have committed to featuring the Democracy Helpline link on their web-sites, and promoting the Helpline through their other internal communication vehicles, such as newsletters, e-mail bulletins, and conferences. Representatives from each will serve on the Democratic Governance workgroup, which will oversee the Helpline. The list of partnering organizations will grow; we have just begun enlisting national networks and associations in this effort.