August 7, 2012, EVOLVER EDITIONS will publish Empowering Public Wisdom: A Practical
Vision of Citizen-Led Politics. Author Tom Atlee has decided to release two chapters
of the book as a work-in-progress and invites reader feedback, in keeping with the
book's ultimate goal: the generation of true wisdom through the voices and ideas
of people from all walks of life.
Our existing form of republican democracy is clearly unable to deal with twenty-first-century
challenges. We need more wisdom in our public policies, our public budgets, and
our public conversations — and we need it soon. This book, Empowering Public Wisdom,
suggests that it is both vital and possible to generate authentic collective wisdom
through the conversations of ordinary citizens.
wisdom" results when the public — as a whole or in randomly selected "mini-publics" — engages
in learning about, reflecting on, and discussing public affairs in ways that take
into account what needs to be taken into account to decide what will produce long
term, inclusive benefits.
chapters being posted on Reality Sandwich describe that kind of randomly selected
mini-public — the various forms of temporary, well-informed "citizen deliberative
councils." They tell us about the hundreds of these councils that have been
held around the world and how they have been used. They tell us about new forms
of councils that could be developed and new ways they could be used-including organizing
them at grassroots levels and through using the Internet.
councils provide a way to readily and affordably generate a legitimate, authentic,
coherent, and wise voice of "we, the people" — a voice for "the general
welfare" that is not currently present in our political discourse. It moves
us beyond partisanship to a place of collective responsibility for our shared destiny.
It reclaims the idea of "we, the people" as a coherent political force
that integrates the diversity of the whole citizenry rather than a catchphrase used
by one more special-interest group that attempts to speak for "the people" but doesn't
really embrace our full range of perspectives and needs.
chapters in the book discuss (a) the role of power-especially how to balance power
in a democracy and move from power-over to power-with; (b) the need to rein in corporate
and financial domination of elections and government; (c) the strengths and limitations
of both representative and direct democracy; (d) the polarization of our current
political life and strategies to creatively move beyond it without dishonorable
compromises and deals; (e) dozens of high quality conversational processes for mass
public participation; and (f) how the power of public wisdom might actually be institutionalized
in our government.
is a radically new way to think about democracy. It embraces diversity, engages
participation, and addresses conflicts and ignorance in profoundly different ways
than we are used to hearing in bars, on talk shows, in public hearings, and within
the halls of government. This is not a kind of direct democracy, where everyone
votes on everything. Its bottom line is not just "participation" or "winning"
but wisdom. Empowering Public Wisdom offers practical approaches for achieving exactly
* * *
Councils and Their Many Uses
deliberation we don't get public wisdom. The popular "wisdom of crowds"
idea — that the aggregated responses of many independent people generates better answers
than any one of them, or even experts — is sometimes useful for crowd-sourced estimates
and predictions. But it does not generate real wisdom as described in this book.
That takes deliberative conversation among diverse people.
My definition of deliberation in this work is thorough, thoughtful consideration of how to best address
an issue or situation, covering a wide range of information, perspectives and potential
consequences of diverse approaches.
can be done in any number of ways, from extensive rigorous reflection to dynamic,
creative interaction. The key feature in relation to public wisdom is the thoroughness
of the process: does it help participants take into account what needs to be considered
for long term success and broad benefit? Full information, critical thinking, reflection,
creativity, emotion, vision, stories, and dynamic interaction all play important
roles in this.
So how do we do this with, by and for a whole population?
deliberative councils have a unique and pivotal role to play in bringing public
wisdom into the formal functioning of politics and governance. As noted in the previous
chapter, these temporary councils of citizens are designed to reflect the diversity
of the population, so when they are convened to deliberate on public concerns and
provide guidance for officials and the public, they have a special legitimacy — the
legitimacy of We the People, the rightful source of guidance and power in a democracy.
primary quality that makes them different from other democratic forms that claim
to represent We the People — i.e., elected representatives, populist partisan groups,
public forums open to whoever shows up, and public opinion polls — is the fact that
citizen deliberative councils are a true microcosm of the whole society and they
are undertaking a near-ideal act of citizenship on behalf of that society. They
call forth, embody, and ultimately promote the public wisdom of the whole population.
are many varieties of citizen deliberative council — which will be described later
in this chapter — but they all share one purpose and eight characteristics.
purpose of a citizen deliberative council is to inform officials and the public
of what the people as a whole would really want if they were to learn about a public
concern or issue, carefully think about it and productively talk it over with each
eight characteristics shared by every current form of citizen deliberative council
It is an organized face-to-face assembly.
It is made up of 12?200 people selected randomly (and usually demographically) so
that their collective diversity fairly reflects the diversity of the larger community
from which they were drawn. (In this context, "community" means any coherent
civic population, whether a block, a citizens' organization, a city, a province,
a country, or any other such public grouping.)
It is convened temporarily, for a specified time, usually a few days to a week of
actual meetings, sometimes distributed over several weeks. (A rare version goes
for many months of meetings every other weekend.)
Its members deliberate as peer citizens, setting aside any other role or status
they may have for the brief duration of their deliberations, after which they return
to their previous lives in their community.
It has an explicit mandate to address a specific public situation, issue, concern,
budget, group of proposals or candidates, or other public matter.
It uses forms of dialogue and deliberation, usually facilitated, that enable its
diverse members to really hear each other, to expand and deepen their understanding
of the issues involved and to engage together to identify the best ways their community
might address those issues.
When it is addressing a specific issue, budget, or public policy, its deliberations
feature inclusive balanced briefing materials and, usually, interviews with, testimony
from, and/or conversations with diverse experts, advocates, and other stakeholders
involved with that issue.
At its conclusion, it releases its findings and recommendations to its convening
authority, concerned officials, the media, the electorate, and/or the larger community
from which its members came — and then it disbands.
further community dialogue is stimulated by the report and this is sometimes organized
as part of the overall process.
deliberative councils in most current forms have no permanent or official power
except the power of legitimacy and (hopefully) widely publicized common sense solutions
to compelling public problems.
few people realize it, hundreds of these groups of ordinary citizens have been formally
convened all over the world for the last forty years. All together they have involved
tens of thousands of people in both developed and developing nations. They are happening
in many places right now. Here are four examples covered in my book The Tao of Democracy, just to give you a
Poor Indian farmers held a deliberative council investigating approaches to economic
development and decided they wanted to continue their subsistence farming.
Some Britons passed official judgment on whether their local HMO should offer chiropractic
Australian suburbanites deliberated on what to do about pollution and erosion associated
with rainwater that was wrecking their beaches.
every case, ordinary people reviewed the facts and came up with common-sense solutions.
The idea that we could empower them to have real positive impact on our major public
problems and crises opens up whole new possibilities for a positive future to replace
the dire prospects and heartbreaking visions currently rampant in our struggling
The history and variety of citizen deliberative councils
deliberative councils were first pioneered by the late German innovator Peter Dienel,
who created planning cells or Planungzellen in 1969 or 1970. Planning cells involve
several separate 25-member jury-like "cells" all simultaneously considering
the same issue. The conclusions of the diverse cells are collected, compared and
then compiled into one "citizen report" by the organizers. Once the participants
approve the report, it is presented to the sponsor, the media and other interested
parties. The first planning cells were held in 1971 in Germany and a few dozen more
have been held since.
few years later, the most widely used form of citizen deliberative council, the
Citizens Jury, was created. Citizens Juries involve 12-24 citizens chosen by random
stratified sampling (which involves demographic selection from a random pool of
citizens) interviewing experts and deliberating for 3-5 days. The form was conceived
by American political scientist Ned Crosby in 1971 as part of an academic inquiry
about how a community might determine its most ethical solutions to moral dilemmas.
(Crosby and Dienel were unaware of each other's work until 1985, when they met and
soon discovered that they both spoke German and English and both had mothers and
daughters named Elizabeth, the latter born a week apart in 1963!)
1974 Crosby and several civic leaders founded the Jefferson Center in Minneapolis,
Minnesota to research and develop the Citizens Jury process (along with another
process called "Extended Policy Discussion" which was designed to clarify
disagreements between experts on public policy matters in a way that would be useful
for legislators). The first Citizens Jury on an issue was in 1974 and the first
to examine candidates for office was in 1976. In 1984 a Citizens Jury was conducted
for the first time with government sponsorship. As of this writing, the Jefferson
Center has organized 32 Citizens Juries. Reports on these and a complete manual
on conducting Citizens Juries are available on the Jefferson Center website www.jefferson-center.org.
citizens jury model was picked up by English activists who carried it around the
world (the capitalized version is for Jefferson Center-approved Citizens Juries,
while the lower-case version is for variants). Many other people have since used
this method. In its many variations, the citizens jury is the most widely used and
thoroughly tested and reviewed model of citizen deliberative council in the world,
and has inspired many creative applications and visions.
than a decade after Crosby and Dienel's innovations, another form of citizen deliberative
council was instituted in Denmark. This model, called consensus conferences, consists
of about 18 randomly selected citizens who study their assigned issue and then take
testimony from experts in an open public hearing, after which they are facilitated
to a consensus before they release their report at a press conference. Since the
mid-80s, occasional consensus conferences have been convened by an official office
of the Danish parliament to review controversial technological issues being considered
for legislation. In addition to the Danes' official consensus conferences, a couple
of dozen have been unofficially held elsewhere in the world.
next major development came from a surprising source. One weekend in June 1991 Maclean's magazine — Canada's glossy newsweekly — convened
a dozen Canadians in a resort north of Toronto. These folks had been scientifically
chosen so that, together, they represented all the major sectors of public opinion
and demographics in their deeply divided country. Despite their firmly held and
often opposing beliefs, each of these people was interested in dialogue with people
whose views differed from theirs. That dialogue was facilitated by "the guru
of conflict resolution," Harvard University law professor Roger Fisher, co-author
of the classic Getting to Yes, and two
the fact that they'd never really listened to the viewpoints and experiences of
others so unlike themselves and the tremendous time pressure (they had three days
to develop a consensus vision for Canada), and despite being continuously watched
by a camera crew from Canadian TV (who recorded the event for a special hour-long
public affairs program), these ordinary citizens succeeded in their mission. Their
effort was extensively covered by Maclean's in their special "People's Verdict"
issue — a fact so significant that it will be discussed in more detail in the next
chapter. Strangely, the process they used was never used again.
the early 1990s consultant Jim Rough developed a powerfully creative form of problem
solving and conflict resolution he called Dynamic Facilitation. At the beginning
of the process, participants address their thoughts and feelings to the facilitator,
who "reflects" them back in ways that ensure each speaker feels fully
heard, including recording their contributions on chart pads labeled "problem
statements", "possible solutions", "concerns" and "data".
When anyone complains about something, the facilitator asks (after reflecting the
complaint), "What do you think should be done about that?" or "If
you were in charge, what would you do about it?" — always channeling participants'
thinking towards solving the problem without privileging any particular solution,
just recording them on the "possible solutions" chart pad. If someone
starts to argue with or invalidate what another participant has said, the facilitator
asks, with real curiosity, "What's your concern?" — and, after reflecting
and recording their concern, asks what the conflicted person would do about it.
This aspect of Dynamic Facilitation — translating conflict into concerns — composts
antagonism into creativity.
all the ideas and emotions participants brought with them into the session are well
heard and recorded, the group becomes increasingly aware of the full complexity
their diverse views add up to. At the same time — since they feel heard and have witnessed
others being well heard — they are more open than when they walked in. Increasingly
the group's attention moves from arguing and asserting to thinking co-creatively
about the "mess" — the full complexity of the situation — they have generated
together. They're thinking, "Oh my, how are WE going to solve this?" and
they start to generate new solution ideas and new angles on the problem. As this
spirit comes to dominate the discussion, the group begins to make breakthroughs
until a big collective "ah-ha!" often comes — usually around something no
one of them thought before they came in the room. There is no "decision",
as such, but more of a shared perception of what's needed, a "co-sensing."
approach — which was mainly used in corporations, nonprofits, and public institutions — engenders
a quality of conversation Rough calls choice-creating. Although Rough doesn't consider
choice-creating to be deliberation, I believe it fits the definition at the beginning
of this chapter — albeit in a far more dynamic way than other forms of deliberation.
As you may gather from the description above, his process is deeply creative and
non-linear, following the group's energy rather than any pre-determined course or
agenda-and it is extremely powerful.
choice-creating conversations about public issues that Rough witnessed in his Dynamic
Facilitation trainings inspired his 1993 innovation of the Wisdom Council process.
In a Wisdom Council, one or two dozen citizens chosen through pure random selection
come together for a few days with no agenda. Their job is to reflect on how their
community is doing, including its needs and dreams. They may identify issues, solutions,
questions, new directions, whatever. They come up with a consensus statement — a sort
of citizens' "state of the union" address — which they deliver to the community
in a public meeting. (Note that the political logic of the Wisdom Council, if not
the exact process, is remarkably similar to the Maclean's magazine effort, about
which Rough was unaware.) In a Wisdom Council process a new Wisdom Council is convened
every 3-12 months. Given its simplicity and its ability to catalyze a spirit of
"We the People", Wisdom Councils will be given special strategic attention
in Chapter 9.
Wisdom Councils are not designed to deal with an assigned issue, some dynamic facilitators
wondered if Dynamic Facilitation could be used in an issue-oriented process like
a citizens jury. At first Rough balked because, in his view, the randomly selected
members of a Wisdom Council were essentially We the People, and you don't tell We
the People what to talk about; they decide for themselves.
the years, however, he and leading colleagues, notably Rosa Zubizarreta (who collaborated
with me on The Tao of Democracy), began
developing a powerful form of citizen deliberative council they called a Creative
Insight Council (CIC). In this, one or two dozen randomly selected citizens are
convened to explore a situation or proposal in a dynamically facilitated choice-creating
conversation. Experts, stakeholders and partisans on the issue are also included,
usually as witnesses or resource people (as in a Citizens Jury) at the beginning,
but also receiving and commenting on the CICs results at the end. (One variation
that might be quite productive — if the experts and partisans are willing to stick
it out and the facilitation is strong — is to have them fully included in the entire
choice-creating conversation.) The process is designed to generate new and potentially
better ways to address the situation, not necessarily to work out detailed proposals.
While still under development and tried only a few times, CICs are one of the most
promising innovations in the field. I think they would be especially valuable if,
instead of the CIC's initial findings being the end of the process, their findings
went to the experts and officials to craft a new proposal which was then returned
to the reconvened CIC for consideration in a choice-creating conversation-back and
forth in an iterative manner until something solid evolved that really worked well
for all concerned.
new and perhaps the largest and most empowered form of citizen deliberative council
so far held was the British Columbia (Canada) Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform.
This panel of 160 citizens (one man and one woman randomly selected from each legislative
district, plus two Aboriginal members) was convened in 2004 to study and make recommendations
on electoral reform. They met every other weekend for ten months — hearing expert
testimony, holding 50 public forums, examining 1603 written submissions from the
public, and deliberating-generating creative recommendations which they then submitted
to BC's voters as a referendum.
legislation that established the BC Citizens Assembly specified that if their recommendations
were approved by 60 percent of the voters they would become law. Since the 2005
vote in favor was only 57.7 percent — albeit with majorities in 77 of the 79 districts — the
measure failed. A second referendum in 2009 also failed to pass. But the Citizens
Assembly process has generated much interest worldwide and been replicated in several
between the public wisdom as represented by the recommendations of a citizen deliberative
council and the public will as represented by votes and public opinion polls raise
important questions. Among other things, they highlight the need for journalists,
activists, and other storytellers and political players to engage the entire public
with the public wisdom generated by deliberative mini-publics. They
also highlight the potential of engaging "televote" audiences, large groups
of citizens who watch citizen deliberations on TV or online and periodically engage
with the citizen deliberators by phone or online, providing feedback during the
deliberative process. Since the public owns the airwaves at the local level and
broadcasters must serve the public interest, communities can and should work with
them to present citizen deliberations on issues vital to the community. Another
variation involves open-participation public deliberations and debates carried on
online at the same time as the face-to-face ones occurring in the citizen deliberative
councils, with some crossovers between the two conversations. The official participants
in citizen deliberative councils could also use blogs, chats, tweets, live conference
calls or other technologies to engage citizen observers as ad hoc participants.
How citizen deliberative councils could and should be
is now well demonstrated that with this method ordinary citizens have a remarkable
capacity to grapple with complex problems and come up with useful recommendations
that serve the common good, thus realizing the elusive dream of democracy more fully
than ever before.
most citizen deliberative councils have only been convened as isolated events or
sophisticated focus groups by organizations or agencies seeking input from the public.
Only rarely — as in the British Columbia and Denmark examples above — are they given
any real power in the political process. And only rarely do practitioners, activists,
or political theoreticians and visionaries explore the many diverse facets of our
public lives to which these citizen panels could be applied. (The one remarkable
exception is communication professor John Gastil's By Popular Demand, from which a number of the ideas below were taken.)
purpose of this section is to show how valuable citizen deliberative councils could
be and why it is worth promoting and empowering them. Once we see the wide applicability
of this approach to generating public wisdom — an applicability almost as broad as
the familiar democratic practice of voting — the larger vision of empowered public
wisdom and its potential for salvaging our democracy and our world become more compellingly
deliberative councils (CDCs) could and should play many roles to help us take into
account what needs to be taken into account in our public decision-making. Here
are some examples:
- Providing periodic citizen-based "state of the union" declarations
embodied by Wisdom Councils and the Maclean's initiative, microcosms of the public
can consider how things are going in their community or country and articulate the
frustrations, concerns, and hopes of the population on a regular basis. They can
instigate a "time out" for a community to reflect on where it is and where
it is headed, and to creatively tease out new directions and options. Such councils
would tend to have more or less open-ended conversations. If the randomly selected
participants were given tasks to do in such councils, they would tend to involve
the exploration of values, visions and scenarios more than studying facts and existing
proposals. No experts would be needed except for the citizens themselves — who are,
after all, experts in their own experience. They can recommend solutions, new directions,
or the use of other CDCs to tackle specific public affairs. They embody the unconstrained
voice of "We the People" and provide an evocative mirror for the whole
population, rather than the highly politicized annual "state of the union"
declarations of elected presidents, governors, mayors, etc. Their regular use builds
a strong sense of We the People identity in the population.
studying balanced briefings and cross-examining a diverse spectrum of experts, randomly
selected CDC members could provide voters and decision-makers with informed guidance
about an issue, grounded in the core values of their community. Legitimate issue-oriented
CDCs could be convened by legislatures, citizen petitions, prior CDCs or by other
means established by law or popular acclaim, when and as needed. They could address
issues broadly, identifying new possibilities-or they could choose from a given
set of options (in which case critical attention must be given to how those options
are chosen and by whom). Annual CDCs could be convened in specified issue areas — economic
policy, the environment, education, defense, welfare, etc. — to provide an ongoing
sense of the best "general interest" thinking in each of these areas.
Such annual issue dialogues could be set up such that the CDCs conferred with hundreds
of their fellow citizens in the random "jury pools" from which they were
selected, in televised or online forums viewable by anyone-a process that would
be very educational for everyone, especially if the citizenry was engaged in other
forms of grassroots dialogue and deliberation around these issues as part of the
same participatory effort.
The randomly selected members of a CDC could interview both
advocates and opponents of specific ballot measures, and then share with their fellow
voters (through official voter pamphlets, the Web and the media) their conclusions
about the facts of the matter and their best judgment about the merits of those
initiatives or referenda. Such a Citizen Initiative Review (CIR) could be put in
place by a ballot initiative or by legislation establishing a governmental or non-governmental
office to convene CDCs in a timely way to review all — or certain kinds of — qualified
initiatives. This would significantly reduce both the special interest manipulation
and the mass thoughtlessness that has recently beset the initiative process, thus
cleaning up and revitalizing what should be one of our best tools for popular empowerment.
(A CIR was officially established in Oregon in 2011. It will be covered further
in Chapter 10.)
- Creating proposed ballot initiatives to deal with identified issues.
is one thing for a CDC to review initiatives created by a special interest group
or legislature. It is quite something else for a CDC to generate initiatives that
can then be placed on the ballot, as was done by the BC Citizens Assembly on Electoral
Reform. An initiative-creating CDC would draft one or more versions of an initiative
to address a particular issue and interview partisans for their critiques and recommendations
until they decided what would be best. Then they would have lawyers or legislators
on hand to legally wordsmith the initiative into a form that could be voted on and,
if approved, passed directly into law. In a political system more fully guided by
public wisdom, a Wisdom Council might identify and prioritize an issue on behalf
of the community and recommend that a Citizens Jury or other CDC be convened to
make recommendations on it. The Citizens Jury might sketch out policy guidelines
they thought would best address the issue. Then an initiative-creating CDC could
craft the initiative and submit it for a popular vote. In subsequent promotion of
that ballot initiative, advocates could point out that it wasn't created by a partisan
interest group, but by a group of randomly selected ordinary citizens convened to
look into the issue, who became informed about it and used common sense to figure
out how it should be handled. Perhaps even better would be to hold several CDCs
like this and, if their recommendations differed, to hold a CIR (perhaps made up
of members from the preceding CDCs) to recommend which one (or some integration
of them) should be put on the ballot. There is precedent for this: In ancient Athens,
a deliberative Council of 500 — whose members were chosen by lot-set the agenda for
the community's Assembly where everyone voted on the proposals the Council put before
- Ensuring sober public evaluation of controversial legislation.
could be passed stating that if a city council, state assembly or national legislature
is preparing controversial legislation — indicated by a certain large number of people
petitioning to suspend the legislation pending review by a CDC — then that legislation
is immediately suspended. A group of (say) 50 citizens might then be drawn from
a regular jury pool and given 24 hours to hear arguments from both advocates and
opponents of the legislation and to decide by majority (or supermajority) vote whether
to lift or sustain the suspension. If they decide to lift the suspension, then the
legislators could proceed with their vote. However, if the initial jury sustains
the suspension, then a full CDC must be convened to study the legislation in detail
and cross-examine expert advocates and opponents. After the CDC's findings are broadly
publicized, the legislature can then proceed with its vote under the watchful eyes
of their now-well-informed constituents.
- Reviewing candidates for elected public office.
have seen three interrelated approaches recommended for reviewing candidates — issue-centered,
qualification-centered and interview-centered — each of which are described here.
evaluation would involve a CDC evaluating candidates' positions on key issues (perhaps
compared to positions favored by prior CDCs on those issues, such as by the "annual
issue dialogues" mentioned above, or by the CDCs evaluating key pieces of legislation
as described below). For example, four issue-centered CDCs could be convened before
a particular election to evaluate each candidate in depth on the economy, the environment,
security and education. These CDCs would review the candidates' records and interview
the candidates directly, along with their supporters and their detractors.
CDCs would ask experts and the candidates themselves what criteria should be used
to evaluate candidates for the particular position they seek to win. Once the CDC
chooses its criteria from that advice, it would have the candidates discuss their
own and each others' qualifications in terms of those criteria. Partisan and non-partisan
experts could also testify on candidates' qualifications.
interviews would usually be part of all candidate-evaluation CDCs, interview-centered
CDCs would more deeply engage with the candidates, not limiting themselves to positions
and qualifications, but reaching into the candidates' character, responsiveness
to the public, management style, and even undefinable "gut feelings."
Having each candidate face various challengers or challenging scenarios for several
hours in the unscripted presence of a randomly selected citizen panel could be very
all cases the evaluations of the CDC would be made available to the voters through
the media, the Web and official voters pamphlets.
intriguing variant for legislative races proposed by John Gastil envisions a CDC
convened to pick what the people feel are the ten most important bills proposed
or voted on since the last election. Legislative candidates would be required to
state their views on each of these pieces of legislation. (The voting records of
incumbents would already be available on bills that were passed or defeated.) Then
full CDCs would review each piece of legislation in the same manner that they might
review a ballot measure. If a supermajority (67 percent or more) of their members
supported or opposed a piece of legislation, their judgment would be recorded as
"the people's preference." The percentage of times a candidate's record
or position aligned with this "people's preference" would be published
in the media, on the Web and in voters' pamphlets, along with the CDCs' and candidates'
explanations of their views.
These ratings would be much like the ratings
published by partisan organizations like the National Rifle Association or the Sierra
Club to approve or disapprove of Representatives and Senators, except that the CDC
ratings would be from a nonpartisan "general interest" perspective rather
than from a particular special interest perspective. The CDCs' rating (say, 20 percent — or
90 percent — agreement with "the people's preference") would not tell voters
how to vote, but would provide a useful "rule of thumb" to add to the
guidelines most of them use — such as party affiliation, last name, gender, interest
group recommendations, etc. A further (and controversial) option would be to list
the candidates and their "people's preference" ratings right on the ballot
in descending order.
- Reviewing government budgets.
review of a government budget would require several CDCs. The first CDC could review
the budget proposed by the chief executive (mayor, governor, president). Another
could review the version provided by the legislative budget committee as it completed
its work. Other CDCs could review the budgets of past years, or the budgets proposed
by various interest groups, to suggest more general citizen guidelines for budgeting,
or to review the effectiveness of past budgeting efforts.
when citizens are allowed to deliberate in an informed way about budgetary matters,
they tend to choose higher taxes to cover services they believe necessary for a
healthy community or country, rather than cutting taxes to have more money for themselves.
This fact could have a profound impact on budgetary crises at all levels of government,
if there is a citizens' movement to empower informed citizen deliberations like
CDCs to evaluate budget proposals and publicize their public judgment to counter
special-interest manipulation of poorly informed public opinion and votes.
that this approach is different from the increasingly popular Participatory Budget
approach used in hundreds of cities worldwide. A mass-participation Participatory
Budget program is not a randomly selected CDC, but the two could be used productively
- Reviewing government or corporate performance.
the same model of hearing testimony from all sides of an issue, a CDC could hear
defenders and critics of the performance of a public official, public agency, or
corporation. This would be a particularly useful tool in touchy areas such as periodic
citizen review of corporate charters or of police behavior or treatment of whistleblowers
that were not in the judicial system. Systems could be set up whereby a certain
level of public petition would automatically trigger a CDC to investigate. In all
cases, such a system of highly informed and impartial answerability could greatly
increase the quality and responsiveness of all forms of power exercised over our
broad citizenry could, if it chose, ensure that its general interests were well
and dependably articulated through the use of randomly selected citizen deliberative
councils. The quality of deliberation involved could — especially on hot priority
issues — replace or shape public opinion polls as an indicator of the public will
and the general welfare. Their randomness and brief existence could make them at
least as resistant to manipulation as trial juries. Well-monitored facilitation
and information could help them produce sophisticated, common sense results. Their
rootedness in community values could counter-balance the growing greed, power-hunger,
partisanship and shortsightedness rampant in both public and private sector decision-making.
are so flexible they can evaluate issues, proposals, legislation, candidates, public
officials, and the general state of the community. In each case, the kind and quality
of information and perspectives supplied by a CDC is unique-and uniquely valuable.
in this vision is the realization that nowhere else do we have a trustworthy source
of publicly accessible public judgment and public wisdom arising from high quality
investigation by and dialogue among significantly diverse ordinary citizens deliberating
together away from the shallow, one-sided PR manipulations of special interests.
issues, candidates or proposals most excite our passion, they must pass through
the decision-making processes that are built into our systems of politics and government.
It behooves us to ask: Are these systems set up to make sensible decisions on behalf
of the long-term common good? If not, we have CDCs as a tool to inject public wisdom
and popular will into that decision-making. We can give that collective wisdom and
will as much power as we choose.
reforms should start at local or state levels (e.g., evaluating local issues and
mayoral or gubernatorial candidates) before they are pushed at national levels (e.g.,
evaluating national issues and presidential or Congressional candidates). However,
public servants at any level (including the national) could always convene CDCs
to advise them or their agencies-or to influence their fellow public servants, other
institutions (like corporations) or the public at large towards more wisely democratic
policies and behaviors.
all these details about citizen deliberative councils is a larger purpose: To bring
about the urgently needed next step in the evolution of democracy, itself. It is
desirable and likely that regular use of CDCs can help transform "We the People"
from a patriotic myth to a highly conscious and intelligently coherent political
force. It can help bring real vitality to this ultimate democratic authority — the
people — that is currently fragmented, entranced and unable to act clearly and consistently
on its own behalf.
revolution in decision-making that citizen deliberative councils offer us is of
comparable magnitude to the revolution in decision-making created centuries ago
by the idea of majority vote. It can be applied virtually anywhere, and it could
make all the difference in the world.
Image by Hamed Saber, courtesy of Creative Commons license.