Empowered Public Wisdom Rising from the Grassroots

On 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. Read the first installment here.


Although we can generate public wisdom with the proven processes I've described so far, most of them are expensive and laborious to organize. The adoption of public wisdom processes would go much further and faster if they were designed to require less effort and money (for professional services, travel and accommodations for participants, etc.). So I've wondered: How can we generate public wisdom right at the grassroots, with people creating that capacity in their communities whenever they want to? Can we get at least 80% of the quality of a professionally organized face-to-face citizen deliberative council with far less expense and effort -- perhaps with smart use of the Internet?

There's also the question of empowerment. We can already generate public wisdom, but it usually has little power to shape public affairs. Even the deliberations in the Citizen Initiative Review and the National Initiative involve judging proposals from interest groups rather than generating wise public interest proposals themselves. How do we set things up so that the deliberative public is the empowered source of wise public policy?

Finally, there is the prospect of enhancing the wisdom-generating capacity of citizen deliberative councils by using crowdsourcing dynamics to help deliberators take into account more of the facts, arguments and options that should be taken into account for broad, long-term benefit. How can we use the broad public to inform and enlighten the mini-publics convened to deliberate on behalf of the common good?

Is there some form of enhanced, empowered wise democracy we could start creating right now at the grassroots? It would probably require some serious development funding up front to make it potent and self-organizing, but if it were designed well, it would not require much to keep it going. Like many popular online knowledge creation and social networking sites, good design would allow it to function well with minimal management. But developing and launching it would require some pretty intense collaboration among activists, funders, process experts, programmers and Web designers. This is especially true because it needs to be made as potent and resilient as possible before being broadly released, so that it can show up and spread rapidly before efforts to stop or co-opt it can get rolling.

So that's the challenge explored in this chapter:

To envision and create an inexpensive, self-organizing, self-replicating and viral deliberative system usable by any community, state, province, country or other population

a. to find its collective judgment or wisdom about any public situation or issue -- in other words, to generate an informed, trustworthy, inclusive voice and will of We the People -- and

b. to implement that informed public wisdom and will through direct individual and community action and/or pressure on existing institutions and power-holders and/or future institutions designed for such implementation.

To achieve this we will need to combine the wisdom-generating power of high quality face-to-face dialogue and deliberation with the distributed intelligence and networking power of the Internet and social media, and to tap the collective-intelligence resources of educational institutions, libraries, community groups and other parts of society, as needed, to serve the above purpose.

If you understand this chapter and have resources and passion to bring its vision into reality I would love to hear from you. I view the creation of this online public wisdom-generating capacity to be the highest leverage idea in this book. If we succeeded in building it well, it could transform our political world within months.

Among the system functions for which we need design solutions are:

1.              How will issues-for-deliberation be chosen?

2.              How will these issues be framed?

3.              How will deliberative mini-publics be selected?

4.              What sorts of deliberative process should be used?

5.              How will issue information and expertise be provided for deliberators?

6.              How will the deliberators make their final decisions?

7.              How can the results of these deliberations impact public policy and public life?

8. What sources of organizing energy and structure could support this?


One approach

The following is one direction we could go. It is biased by my own familiarity with face-to-face dialogue and deliberation and my newness to the potentials of Web-and software-based social technologies, and the trends and opportunities available in the educational sector. So I offer this vision primarily as a stimulus -- to provoke not only appreciations and critiques, but alternative/additional approaches and possibilities, as well. Above all, I want to call forth an evolving community of change agents interested in pursuing these questions further both online and in multi-day face-to-face conversations. This effort will need research and development funding to move ahead with whatever emerges from those conversations.

A. Choosing the issues -- Let us imagine some system whereby issues can be raised, discussed and prioritized. This may include an online forum where anyone can post an issue and vote on the importance of issues other people have posted. It may come from MeetUp-inspired networks of living room dialogues who submit issue ideas and suggested priorities into some software that aggregates them all. There should also be a way to engage experts who are monitoring emerging issues (such as technological developments or obscure repercussions of current events) about which the public has little awareness, but which could have a profound effect on their lives, and to include such issues in the emerging roster of priorities for deliberation.

B. Issue framing -- In contrast with framing an issue for debate -- using metaphors, images and stories that bias people towards your side -- framing an issue for deliberation involves developing impartial (or multiple-viewpoint) briefing materials which fairly explain at least the mainstream perspectives and proposals on that issue. We want to give deliberators an understanding of the nature of the controversy without limiting their options. A good framing provides extensive information and guidance to help deliberators explore the values underlying various positions and the consequences and tradeoffs implied by each choice. Ideally a deliberator can see how a reasonable person could support each of the different approaches. Usually there are 3-5 alternatives presented -- since providing only two options would invite polarization and more than five could seem overwhelming. However, a good framing often invites participants to move beyond the mainstream perspectives -- to co-create their own alternatives that integrate the best of the various perspectives or which step totally outside the limitations implicit in all the given perspectives.

Some organizations create briefing booklets and framings for current issues, which can be used by grassroots deliberation groups. But the system we design should also be able to generate its own framings, as needed. One source might be undergraduate or graduate students who do issue framings as projects or theses. Graduate theses tend to end up hidden away on a shelf somewhere. Framing significant social issues would allow them to actually make a difference with their research. There also may be a way for diverse nonprofit interest groups or experts to co-create framings in a moderated collaborative online workspace or wiki.

In traditional citizen deliberative councils, an oversight group is usually gathered together, made up of 5-10 partisan experts from across the political spectrum on the issue, who together ensure that the materials presented to deliberators are impartial. The work of such oversight groups could be woven into an ongoing process of framing issues for deliberation.

Systems for choosing, framing and deliberating issues should be set up to allow citizens to address local, county, state/provincial and national issues and allow some interactivity among the levels. For example, different counties could share work on waste disposal issues, and many state-level issue-framings about education could be aggregated for addressing educational policy at the national level.

"Deliberapedia" -- described at the end of this chapter -- is a vision of a crowdsourced wiki database of issue framings which could weave together any and all of these resources -- as well as the considerable energies of competing advocates in the debate about each issue -into an informational commons of significant value to every citizen and group in the country, whether or not they are part of the initiative I'm promoting here.

C. Selection of the deliberative mini-public -- One of the most potent advantages of the citizen deliberative councils described earlier is that they have rigorous ways of choosing participants to collectively represent the diversity of the community and be resistant to outside manipulation. This gives them a potential legitimacy that is similar to, but more refined than, the selection of juries, which also seeks to convene a cross-section of the community. However, in citizen deliberative councils, the selection usually involves establishing a pool of randomly selected citizens (from voter rolls, drivers licenses, phone listings or other broad sampling of citizens) from which people can be selected with demographics that reflect their community's demographics (a "stratified sampling"), usually by phone interviews and/or mailed surveys. This is done separately for each council convened. This level of rigor is one of the major expenses of convening such citizen councils, so we need alternatives.

So let us imagine that in any local community where our new-style deliberative network is going to be established, organizers recruit at least 600­­-1000 people (or 10% of the community, whichever is less) into a pool of citizens who agree to be on call for deliberative service to the community. They turn in their individual demographic information (which would be secure, only visible to themselves and the algorithm that helps build the pool and select the deliberative mini-publics). Then, when an issue comes up for deliberation, the algorithm selects 4-10 groups of 5-10 deliberators who collectively represent the diverse demographics of the community. When they are done with their deliberation, they go back into the pool, awaiting another random selection. Any initial investment in organizing them is ameliorated by the fact that the same pool can be reused in different combinations for different deliberations. The size and diversity of the pool would need to be consciously assembled, monitored and maintained, often by recruiting specific demographics from groups and organizations that attract such people.

D. Deliberative process -- Most citizen deliberative councils involve 12­-24 deliberators meeting in concentrated dialogue over 2-8 days (distributed over one to ten weeks, depending on the method) facilitated by professional facilitators. Since our system probably cannot match the deliberative quality of this arrangement, we can seek to augment it in various ways using the distributed intelligence potential of the Web. We would, however, have the actual deliberative groups engage in face-to-face dialogue at some point, if not repeatedly.

By having several groups of 5­-10 people (somewhat like Study Circles or Planning Cells) deliberating simultaneously on the same issue (often face to face, but each group relatively independent of the others), we can compare outcomes from the various groups. Similarity of outcomes would be powerful evidence that the will of We the People is fairly clear. However, where the outcomes from different groups differ significantly, we can use that diversity to enrich the deliberations by mixing and matching people from the different groups to seek higher common ground. This can be done in the spirit of World Cafe, with people moving to different groups in some pre-ordained or random order, where they would continue their deliberations. After several rounds of such shifting, if a coherent outcome has not appeared (e.g., on a collective wiki page), members of all the groups could meet together for a day-long plenary deliberation, using the best facilitation available. Dynamic Facilitation would be ideal for this.

Volunteer facilitators/moderators for small-group deliberations can be readily trained by keeping the guidelines simple. Basic facilitation manuals are available online and conference call trainings and support -- as well as live workshops -- can be made part of the system. It may even be useful to organize the volunteer facilitators in support groups locally that meet regularly to share experiences and pointers. Many cities have professional facilitators who could help with this, contactable through their professional networks or grassroots networks like the Occupy Together movement. The basics for simple grassroots facilitation capacity is already readily available and experimentation will help us improve facilitation and process techniques for this (r)evolutionary purpose, as well as improving local grassroots facilitation training.

Some citizen deliberative councils simplify decision-making by telling deliberators to choose among (or rate) pre-ordained options, departing from these only where they have broad agreement to do so. While this can reduce the collective intelligence of the outcome, it may be appropriate where fixed alternatives are built-in (such as the evaluation of a ballot initiative) or where available facilitators are not up to the challenge of evoking co-creativity out of diversity and conflict.

Finally, there is the question of using online dialogue or collaboration spaces (e.g., wikis), either to help the several deliberative groups collaborate (when appropriate) or to allow participation by or commentary from the larger community, at various stages of the process. People familiar with public uses of such online resources can help suggest fruitful lines of experimentation in this realm.

One intriguing model known in its proprietary form as Synanim, involves a group of 6-10 anonymous members each of whom writes an unsigned 1-2 page proposal about the issue in question. Then they each read all 6-10 papers and choose one to revise in light of what all the others said, with no discussion. They then read each others' papers again. This process iterates through several rounds, naturally narrowing down to a consensus or 2-3 alternative proposals that can be discussed or subject to further iterations, perhaps with a clarifying question or broader participation.

E. Information sources and expertise -- Among the educational characteristics of traditional citizen deliberative councils are these:

As noted above in the discussion of "framing", organizers convene an oversight committee of politically diverse experts to oversee the information provided to the citizen panel, including which expert witnesses they interview -- although some methods enable the citizen deliberators to have a say in -- or choose -- the experts they interview. Members of the oversight committee can demand inclusion of specific information they favor, but cannot preclude anyone else's information. To the extent they collectively ensure representation of a full spectrum of (at least mainstream) viewpoints, they deflect criticism that the process is biased. This is an important factor in collective intelligence (which learns from and integrates diverse views), perceived fairness and democratic legitimacy (the willingness of ordinary citizens and officials to respect the outcomes of the process).

Another characteristic -- an odd one, from this perspective -- is that most traditional citizen deliberative councils seldom use the Internet and are often weak in including creative perspectives and options that have been developed outside the mainstream discourse on the issue. We would definitely change that in this grassroots system.

Finally, traditional citizen deliberative councils provide a unique opportunity for citizens to actually interview and cross-examine experts on the issue they're deliberating. This is a hallmark of the process, and vital to providing the citizens with clarity about the issue. However, providing stipends and travel costs to expert witnesses can be a major expense.

So three questions come to mind:

1. How do we achieve adequately balanced oversight in a grassroots online process?

2. In addition to the issue-framing systems explored above, how do we utilize the unprecedented information-gathering capacities of the Web to inform deliberators -- even beyond mainstream perspectives?

3. How do we use modern technology to reduce the cost of access to expertise?


Some approaches for each of these:


1. Regarding the first question, organizers could contact advocacy groups on different sides of the issue, asking who they would consider legitimate experts to oversee such a process. If there were a national or international movement around this -- a concerted effort to generate an inclusive People's Voice -- lists of willing experts on various sides of various issues could be developed (centrally or through the efforts of diverse local groups) and made available online. Cooperating academic institutions may also be willing to provide overseers. Explicit approval of an expert by a known partisan advocacy group legitimizes that expert as a representative of a particular part of the spectrum of opinion on that issue -a useful fact when trying to present a balanced group of experts.

2. One way we might harness the Web for citizen deliberative activities is to divide deliberative councils working on an issue into teams to see which team can come up with the most interesting information and/or options from the Web within a specified time. This would require Web literacy or the assistance of neutral Web search assistants whose purpose would be to enable a group to pursue its Web searching function, following its own interests and sensibilities. This Web searching could go on before, during or after other aspects of the group's deliberations. Research would help understand which approach is best. It may be that after they have explored the pros and cons of mainstream proposals, they will be informed enough to understand and evaluate other options. They can then get expert critiques of those new options, back and forth, until they are satisfied they understand the best solutions available.

3. Audio and video teleconferencing and conference calls, as well as email and instant messaging, offer intriguing possibilities for interviewing experts. There need to be ways for diverse experts to hear each other, as well as for the citizen deliberators to hear them. Especially in cross-examination, body language can be an important factor in judging the information being provided, so video or face-to-face interaction is desirable. We'll need to research what is lost and gained through expert consultations that aren't face-to-face. Obviously, if local experts are willing to show up at a face-to-face gathering for free, effort should be made to gather all the deliberators together to efficiently engage with those experts, even if the deliberators deliberate in their separate groups afterwards.

F. Decision-making -- During the research phase of all this, we will want to see how close we can get to consensus, while recognizing the limitations of our design for that (dispersed groups with non-expert facilitation). Probably it is most useful to have different levels of agreement being expressed simultaneously on different aspects of the findings and recommendations. For example, the findings could announce (a) what there was full agreement on; (b) what received 85% agreement; (c) what received 67% agreement; (d) what received mere majority agreement; and (e) any coherent minority statements (like the minority opinions issued by US Supreme Court justices alongside the majority opinions). Given the not-so-robust nature of our process, it is probably best to only strongly advocate for those decisions that are supported by at least a super-majority (two-thirds or more) of the deliberators -- and leave the rest to the adversarial partisan battle, rather than claiming it as a legitimate "people's voice".

It may also be useful to include the larger community (city, state or country -- or just the community of those actively participating in this new type of politics) in evaluating outcomes from the deliberative process. If several policy options are presented which are supported by, say, at least 40% of the deliberative participants, perhaps these options could be submitted to a vote by the larger community.

In general, the fewer participants and the weaker the process (in design and facilitation), the higher the level of agreement we will need to achieve in order to generate a sense of legitimacy. Most juries, who only have twelve people, can be viewed as a legitimate expression of the community because they come to full consensus. With thousands of people and little deliberation -- as in a poll or local election -- 51% is considered adequate to represent the opinionated "will of the people".

Since in the current proposal we are dealing with 20-100 citizens and medium-quality deliberation, somewhere between three-quarters majority and full consensus might pass as a true voice of the people -- if these people are adequately diverse and the process is demonstrably unbiased. Again, the public's view of all this is subject to research -- important research, since we don't just want to go through the motions. We want to generate a deliberative voice of the people that the vast majority of the population will recognize as such, so that it can then be legitimately empowered with their support.

G. Creating impact -- There are many ways to create impact, among them these:

1. Dialogue. Promote more conversations on the topic -- as explored in the Chapter 9 -- with forums in which community members can talk about the deliberators' findings and recommendations as well as hearing the deliberators' personal stories from the experience. In addition to online forums, face-to-face modes like World Cafés, Open Space conferences, and Study Circles help ripple the results out into the community, especially if they are seeded with participants from the original deliberation. A community World Café could be kicked off with the deliberators sharing their experience. Alternatively, a public forum could be held in which relevant public officials join the deliberators for a dialogue in "fishbowl" style (see Appendix I), viewable by the public. Citizen deliberators would explain how they came to their conclusions and the public officials would describe how they see the issue, to the enlightenment of everyone involved, including the viewing public.

2. Media. The more, and more varied, media coverage of any public deliberation, the better. This includes press releases, media coverage of public events where the participants report their findings and recommendations, media coverage of the "human interest" aspect of the changes participants went through during the process, letters to the editor, talk shows, etc. -- as well as online publicity and commentary such as blogs and websites. For an example of truly remarkable mainstream media coverage of a citizen deliberative council, see the story about Maclean's magazine in Chapter 7.

3. Lobbying and mobilization. Here is where online phenomena like bloggers, MoveOn.org, MeetUp.com, various crowdsourced funding sites, and so on can be used to empower the public to ensure its collective wisdom is heeded. These could provide innovative ways to spread the word; to craft messages and media; to fundraise; to mobilize demonstrations or community engagement in recommended community projects; to lobby; and to engage people in face-to-face assemblies on behalf of solutions recommended by duly convened citizen deliberations. This need not be a matter of developing new technologies so much as using state-of-the-art activist organizing and networking technologies on behalf of "the whole" rather than merely to push a partisan agenda. That is a critical shift that would change everything.

An emerging and ambitious online resource, the Interactive Voter Choice System (IVCS at reinventdemocracy.net), is being designed to enable citizens to organize around policy options they agree with, regardless of what party or ideology they favor. This would be incredibly valuable to empower the voice of public wisdom, if it were designed to include and feature that voice. While I'm doubtful about IVCS's power and resilience in its current form, I consider its visionary scope and use of social networking to be a breakthrough. In order to fulfill its mission, however, I believe it would have to be far more sticky and viral than it is. We would need considerable support for -- and participation in -- research and development to enable that, either through the existing platform or through a new one based on a similar vision.

4. Involvement of politicians and other leaders. Many politicians and public officials can be influenced by what the public -- particularly an informed, inclusively deliberative, active public -- say and want. One approach is to allow them to view deliberations, participate in them, show up as expert witnesses and/or engage in public forums as described in (G1) above. Their involvement can even be as low-key as the public official having a private hour-long interview with several of the citizen deliberators, just to get a feel for how the educated public thinks about the issue involved. Another way is to actively solicit the prior support and/or sponsorship of public officials for such citizen deliberations. They can sign a Politicians Pledge (e.g., co-intelligence.org/PoliticiansPledge.html) to take seriously the results of any duly convened citizen deliberation. Several public-participation-oriented politicians (especially if they are politically diverse) can sponsor certain citizen deliberations. Their engagement -- or lack of it -- can be made into a campaign issue to motivate politicians to get more involved in -- and advocating -- citizen deliberations that generate legitimate public wisdom. Similarly, other community leaders can be usefully involved, especially if they represent a broad spectrum of normally adversarial views and/or have extensive networks which may be impacted or activated through the involvement of their leaders.

5. Cultural embeddedness. This kind of ongoing deliberative process can, over time, become the legitimate, wise voice of the people if, and only if, the majority of citizens come to expect and respect its work. Given good, supportable, regularly carried out process, a culture of deliberation will grow such that people await the results eagerly, and don't finally make up their own minds about an issue until they have heard the voice of the people (which is not directive, but informative in a unique, useful and potent way). This sense of expectation can be nurtured by carrying out the initial participant selections (and other steps of the process) transparently and with fanfare to engage the community and communicate that something significant is going to result. However, this should probably not be done too much until there's a good track record of success with whatever system we develop.

6. Institutionalization. Ultimately, when the process is well developed, proven and broadly known, it may be embedded in local, state and national political and government institutions (unless, of course, it has grown to supersede them), as described in Chapter 6. All this, however, is in the future. Chances are, this effort will evolve in unpredictable ways, some of which may make institutionalization irrelevant.

H. Organizing energy and structure -- The initial organizing energy needs to come from a small group dedicated to realizing this possibility. Something this complex and embedded in a dynamic system like American politics and technical developments cannot simply be planned out ahead of time and then the plan done. It must be done in a participatory and flexible, responsive manner, and those involved -- especially funders -- must realize the necessity of this. When a good beta design is worked out, it can be spread by bloggers, seeded by dedicated teams (for example, as was done by Beyond War in the 1980s, when about a dozen families moved to swing states and catalyzed self-replicating living-room presentations demonstrating that war was obsolete, a meme that thereby spread rapidly), or spread through collaborating organizations (as has been done by National Issues Forums since the early 1970s, providing materials and training for deliberation, and promoting those resources and their resulting successes to community groups, churches and temples, NGOs, educational institutions and receptive public officials). When deliberations are held, chances are good that some of the deliberators will be interested in helping spread the excitement and power they experienced, as long as they get some support in doing so.

An alternative political party that shares the goal of listening to and empowering inclusive, informed public wisdom may also be interested -- or be formed to focus on that. A "People's Voice Party" (for example) could be dedicated to advocating for whatever policies come out of citizen deliberative councils and other well-organized citizen deliberations that met its standards. It would take no positions on issues except where public wisdom processes had clearly articulated what the public wanted, through deliberative dialogue and super-majority agreement or consensus. Other than that, its only position would be to empower the people's voice -- both through widespread high-quality public dialogue and deliberation (and the high-quality information and technical infrastructure to support it) and the institutionalization of official ad hoc or periodic citizen deliberative councils of various sorts, explicitly empowered to influence official decision-making.



As noted earlier, framing an issue for deliberation means providing balanced information that helps deliberators take into account the range of views on their issue and the trade-offs connected to whatever choices they might make. Traditionally, it involves condensing a lot of information about that issue into 3-5 approaches for addressing the issue -- representing as broadly as possible the full public debate -- with the arguments and evidence for and against each approach. Sometimes issue framings also include information about who supports and opposes each option, and a profile of the values that it represents and appeals to.

Most citizen deliberations are framed by professionals who produce "issue books", videos and other briefing materials, many of which are available at low or no cost, but are quite expensive to put together in the first place. Framing for broad self-organized grassroots deliberations, in contrast, would be crowdsourced, using the fact that advocates for various solutions to a public problem have already developed arguments for their solution and against their opponents' solutions. Our challenge is to create a context where opponents in the fight over an issue end up participating in co-creating a wiki that channels their information into a coherent frame that clarifies that issue for everyone else. Most of the partisans involved would not participate out of their civic-mindedness but because they wanted their viewpoint to be well represented in this public document. This is the idea behind "Deliberapedia".

The Deliberapedia vision is inspired by Debatepedia, a leading debate society's online forum to collectively work up and share arguments pro and con various propositions, creating a database that can be used by debaters everywhere. Deliberapedia would be a massive, readily searchable, rapidly expanding and developing wiki database of organized arguments for and against all sorts of policy solutions to all sorts of public issues.

Deliberapedia would provide a powerful -- perhaps even necessary -- foundation for a self-organizing grassroots citizen-based deliberative system capable of generating empowered public wisdom with minimal ongoing cost. It would also constitute one of the greatest contributions we could make to democracy even if the rest of the deliberative system for which it was designed is never developed.


Note from the author: The final version of Empowering Public Wisdom will include an appendix showing one way in which Deliberapedia could function, including a special network of grassroots groups focusing on issues they've chosen, as well as a chapter on the creation of official legislature of ordinary citizens, who could both contribute to and use Deliberapedia.


Image by Muffet, courtesy of Creative Commons license.