So persuasive is the power of the institutions we have created that they shape not only our preferences, but actually our sense of possibilities. --Ivan Illich
On May 8-10, 2002, I attended the conference hosted by AmericaSpeaks on Taking Democracy to Scale. The goal of the conference was to take deliberative dialogue, using all advanced technologies, to the national scale. Assembled at the conference was a diverse group of theoreticians, foundations, government officials, and practitioners to offer insight into how this might be achieved.
AmericaSpeaks is a non-profit organization that is designed to make the best use of innovative mechanisms that will allow citizens to reconnect to their representative institutions and have an impact on how policy is shaped.
There were four questions that drove the conference:
- What is the current state of knowledge and research in the field of deliberative democracy at the national level?
- What are the opportunities for synergy and integration of face-to-face and online practices?
- What are opportunities and challenges to institutionalizing deliberative democracy on a national scale?
- What are areas for experimentation and research that require investment to advance the field?
Work sessions began at 8:30 in the morning and lasted until 10:30 p.m. with breaks for lunch and dinner. The goal was to end with a product in which a national institution would be formed to facilitate deliberation and deliberative activities. There was a debate whether this should be an institution that is connected directly with the national government by way of statutory authority or whether it should be a free-standing institution.
The decision was reached that this would be an entity that was free standing, with connections to local, regional, state, and international organizations, both governmental and non-governmental. The organization would model itself on a hub and spokes concept, the national institution acting as a hub and all these connections would be the spokes.
“[Taking Democracy to Scale] was a who's who of individuals and organizations doing work on deliberative democracy...and it was timely.”
The hub would do a number of different things:
- Act as a clearinghouse for best practices in the field of face-to-face deliberation
- Lobby and litigate
- Convene conferences, among other things, that would bring together all those doing work in the field of deliberative democracy.
I was part of a working group that worked on research and development for the Center. It was up to our group to lay the groundwork on how to proceed in the future (this would continue to be an on-going exercise). What our R&D group would be responsible for was:
- Identifying best practices and methodologies of deliberation and deliberative practices
- Development of assessment tools that can be applied across different types of deliberative practices
- Beginnings of a matrix that would pit appropriate methodologies to the type of issue being addressed and some form of an evaluative framework to assess success or failure.
This conference was important for Kettering for at least two reasons. First, this was a who's who of individuals and organizations doing work on deliberative democracy. If Kettering had not been present there would have been a glaring gap in the meeting. I was able to, on a number of occasions, add to the collective wisdom of the discussion by imparting what Kettering has learned from its work on deliberation, whether it be issues forums or public journalism. Second, I was able to come away with a tremendous amount of information on issues that Kettering knows less about, such as online deliberation.
This conference was timely in that I was brought up to speed prior to our upcoming May Dayton Days discussion on E-Democracy. At the conference were a number of folks doing very interesting things with using technology to enhance the deliberative experience.
A brief review of those folks are:
AmericaSpeaks > In 1997 and 1998, Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director, led a citizen discussion around the topic of Social Security in which tens of thousands of citizens in 25 states discussed the future of social security. The forums were town meetings in which 150-750 citizens were assembled in a large room, gathered around tables that seated between 10-12, and supported by the latest in information technology, to deliberate over the issue of social security. What this demonstrated, according to Lukensmeyer, was that first it is possible to engage large numbers of citizens on complex and important public policy issues and second that citizens will commit the time and energy to learn the facts about an issue and develop a shared agreement that reflects their best judgement for future action.
Beth Simone Noveck (Bodies Electric and Yale Information Society Project) > Dr. Noveck, who is the CEO and co-founder of Bodies Electric, the developer of the software program Unchat, is also a fellow at Yale Law School. She will be at the Foundation on Friday, May 17 to discuss the Unchat program. The Information Society Project (cleverly given the acronym ISP) is designed to promote democratic values using information technology, to create a new social theory for the information age, and to study the role of law and legal regulation in a technology-driven world.
Group Jazz > Group Jazz in an organization that supports the work of groups, both face-to-face and online by bringing together the best tools, technologies, media, and people to produce positive group experiences. They provide an online meeting space that is largely asynchronous to allow individuals to access the conference site at their own space. They also allow for synchronous meeting space complete with virtual Òbreak roomsÓ to meet other participants independent of the conferenceÑit is designed much like the coffee and cookie breaks at issues forums. Currently their "openworld" forum brings together US and Russian citizens.
e-thepeople.org > e-thepeople is a public forum for democratic and deliberative discussion. In addition to having a "citizen driven townhall," e-thepeople has partnered with Study Circles and Weblab to host an E-Panel on Democratic Renewal in mid-June. Currently e-thepeople.org has teamed with IssuesPA.net to have an electronic discussion of the 2002 Pennsylvania Gubernatorial race. It will sponsor an eDebate in which participants get to structure what issues they find to be important In addition to participant netizens, also participating will be policy experts, journalists, policymakers, and the candidates.