Empowering Public Wisdom: Chapter 8



The following is the eigth installment of 
Empowering Public Wisdom: A Practical Vision of Citizen-Led Politics, available from EVOLVER EDITIONS/North Atlantic Books. You can visit the Empowering Public Wisdom homepage here.

Chapter 8: Public Empowerment, Public Engagement, and the Role of Journalism

It’s one thing to be able to generate public wisdom in all the ways described so far. It is another thing to have that wisdom actually impact society, especially influencing public policy. So how do we use citizen deliberative councils strategically to empower public wisdom? What can we do to make such councils part of our usual political process? Here are a few ideas:

Convene processes like Wisdom Councils to evoke the public’s awareness of their collective wisdom and power as We the People. This can be done by official proclamation or legislation—or unofficially, simply by grassroots initiative, with no permission from anybody. The Wisdom Council process, which has been undertaken in a number of communities in North America and Europe, establishes a presence for an inclusive, unconstrained, publicly wise “people’s voice” in a community every three to twelve months. This ongoing process creates a dynamic tension between what that voice says and the statements and actions of other political players—from public officials to corporations to activists to politically inactive citizens. Over time, this tension draws the population into greater political involvement and pressures all political players into greater alignment with the public good. See chapter 10.

Organize public campaigns to demand that public wisdom processes be given official or unofficial advisory roles in government decision making. For example, Denmark’s parliament occasionally convenes Consensus Conferences to gain the public’s informed advice on controversial technical issues. Such an advisory role does not interfere with the prerogatives and powers of public officials, but it does create a context that influences their behavior. We can also solicit pledges from politicians stating that they will take seriously the recommendations from a properly convened citizen deliberative council—that is, they will either do what it says or publicly explain why they can’t or won’t. An example of such a pledge can be found at www.co-intelligence.org/PoliticiansPledge.html.

Convene public wisdom processes to advise voters on issues and/or candidates—and actively publicize their recommendations. Oregon’s official Citizens’ Initiative Review process uses a citizen deliberative council to review ballot initiatives and referenda on behalf of the voters. It is privately run and financed, but the process is transparent and the results are officially printed in voter information pamphlets. Similarly, the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform developed proposals that were submitted to the voters. A number of unofficial citizen deliberations have had an impact on elections, including a Citizens Jury convened by the Jefferson Center that interviewed candidates for governor of Minnesota and for U.S. senator in Pennsylvania. (The IRS threatened the Jefferson Center with loss of nonprofit tax status if they convened more Citizens Juries on candidates, so they didn’t.) As noted in the previous chapter, citizen deliberative councils have been proposed for institutionalized evaluation of all legislation and candidates. And a citizen deliberative council process is included in the national ballot initiative proposal described in chapter 11.


Create a lobbying network or political party specifically dedicated to pushing the policy recommendations generated through public wisdom processes. This has not yet happened, but there are precursors showing up in some parts of the transpartisan movement, bringing people from the Left and the Right together and then promoting what they come up with. See chapter 9.

Create nonpartisan political organizing websites that help citizens find others who share their passion on specific policy options. Help people build alliances and lobbying capacity and generate political power both inside and outside traditional political parties. Then use that system to mobilize and lobby around policy options recommended by public wisdom processes. See chapter 12.

Convene public wisdom processes and promote their findings to advocacy groups who already favor the policies the wisdom process recommends. The advocacy groups could then brag that a group of randomly selected ordinary citizens who carefully considered all aspects of the issue ended up supporting the advocacy groups’ position. This might be even more powerful than advocacy groups’ current practice of quoting favorable public opinion polls. In doing so, the advocacy groups would champion the public’s wise recommendations while simultaneously (intentionally or not) promoting public awareness of the process that generated those recommendations.

Build an alliance of issue-oriented groups who have concluded that their pet issues won’t get far without changing the decision-making machinery that decides policy on all issues. They would use part of their resources to support empowered public wisdom initiatives like those in this list.

Create internet-based systems that enable grassroots activists to affordably self-organize public wisdom processes on whatever issues they or their community are working on, whenever they need to or want to. In this way public wisdom processes could become familiar and powerful through widespread use. This option is still visionary, but the capacity to realize it is beginning to emerge. See chapter 12.

Promote the establishment of a fourth branch of government that functions through the deliberations of randomly selected citizen panels. This fourth branch would have power comparable to that of the other three branches, including the power to make laws and approve or disapprove the laws and regulations created by the other branches. This has not been done in modern times, but a number of detailed proposals exist. See chapter 13.

There are undoubtedly other approaches. The point here is that we can use the fact that hundreds of citizen councils have already generated public wisdom to transform the dysfunctional, manipulated, toxic, and quasi-democratic decision-making processes that exist at all levels of society. The ideas above demonstrate numerous ways we can give public wisdom processes real power in our political system. The sooner we do it, the better our chances of making it through the coming political and economic storms and being on track for a far better world than we have right now.

Journalists and Other Storytellers

This cannot, of course, be done without considerable public awareness and engagement—before, during, and after initiatives like these are undertaken. Key to such engagement is the inspired involvement of activists, philanthropists, social networkers, and the many storytellers of our society.

I want to focus here on the storytellers: writers, musicians, moviemakers, artists, actors, media pundits, public-relations people, politicians, and teachers. The most important storytellers of all, I believe—at least for this purpose—are journalists. I’m referring not just to professional mainstream journalists but to bloggers and anyone else who tells public stories about public actions, processes, and issues in our communities, states, and nation. All these folks have major roles to play in birthing, sustaining, and promoting empowered public wisdom.

The success of this probably requires a major partnership between, on the one hand, the organizers and facilitators of public wisdom–generating conversations and, on the other hand, journalists and other storytellers. By promoting public wisdom–generating conversations among diverse people, this collaboration could enable communities to cocreate their own stories of what is happening to them now and how they are going to shape their future.

The journalists’ role would be vital at every stage.

Ideally, thanks to journalists, everyone in a community would know about any public wisdom–generating conversation before, during, and after it happened. They would know why it was happening and what it was about. They would know who was participating—perhaps they would even attend an event at which future participants were selected with some fanfare. They would have been invited to preparatory and follow-up public conversations—such as World Cafés, Conversation Cafés, study circles, Open Space conferences, and online forums. They would know what the experience was like for participants in all these events because those participants would be interviewed by the media. They would know the results and have forums in which to say what they thought about it all.

They would know if and how the recommendations were followed, who was involved, and what the successes and failures were.

This is an expanded version of the traditional journalistic role of empowering democratic citizens with information. Public wisdom–generating processes are extremely empowering to citizens and whole communities. The stories of participants make great human-interest features. The events themselves are dramatic, because heat is generated when we have diverse, ordinary people coming together to discuss hot issues. News outlets love conflict. But deliberative conflict is different from the usual conflicts that preoccupy the mainstream news media. Hot conflicts that evolve into creative solutions are very different from hot conflicts that are chronic, suppressed, or violent. Journalists can show citizens what a profound difference working together can make in our politics. This is not because they are biased but simply because they objectively report instances where people actually work well together on important national and community issues.

We have a supreme example of this type of reporting in the previously mentioned “People’s Verdict” experiment done by Maclean’s.


Maclean’s devoted forty pages to describing their remarkable initiative in their July 1, 1991, issue. (Imagine Time magazine devoting forty pages of a single issue to anything!) PDFs of the full coverage are available online at www.co-intelligence.org/S-Canadaadvrsariesdream.html. I see those forty pages as a journalistic breakthrough of tremendous importance. They devoted half a page to each of the dozen citizen panelists, including a picture, so that readers could pick whom they identified with and whom they thought was an “enemy.” They then provided twelve pages covering the actual conversation—a day-by-day, hour-by-hour, blow-by-blow account of the conflicts and the ultimate healing and collaboration—including pictures of every step of the way, from arms folded in opposition to former antagonists hugging. Other articles in the issue described the process of participant selection, the facilitation method used, and background about the issues that were discussed. The group’s final agreement was printed on pages colored like old parchment, with the signatures of all the deliberators at the bottom of the last page, like those of John Hancock and other Founding Fathers at the bottom of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

Robert Marshall, Maclean’s assistant managing editor, noted that past efforts—a parliamentary committee, a governmental consultative initiative, and a Can$27 million Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future—had all failed to create real dialogue among citizens about constructive solutions, even though those efforts involved four hundred thousand Canadians in focus groups, phone calls, and mail-in reporting. “The experience of the Maclean’s forum indicates that if a national dialogue ever does take place, it would be an extremely productive process.”

What followed the publication of the Maclean’s “People’s Verdict” issue and the hour-long CTV documentary was month after month of exactly that—spontaneous national dialogue and forums across Canada organized by schools, churches, and many other groups. Citizens had energy to actually heal the country and confront the country’s issues together. But then the prime minister was “hammered” in a few of the forums and accused the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation of fixing questions to make him look bad. He became a critic of the process, suspecting impure political motives by the process’s advocates. In the end, political agendas and personalities held sway, maintained their business-as-usual patterns, and the country as a whole returned to politics as usual.

Notice the several varieties of public participation we see here. We see the wisdom-generating archetypal participation of diverse voices in the mini-public convened through wise selection of typical participants. We see an often transformational vicarious participation of the broad public witnessing the deliberations among people they identify with and people they see as opponents unfolding in the mass media. And we see the direct mass participation in spontaneous and organized dialogues around the country. Another form of participation not present in the Maclean’s case, but present in other initiatives, might be called crowdsourced participation, in which hundreds or thousands of individuals offer their input, usually online.

In the midst of this appreciation, I want to focus for a moment on the biggest thing that was missing from the Maclean’s initiative: iteration. Imagine what would have happened in Canada if Maclean’s had done this same exercise again the following year. And the next year. And the next. Imagine that it had also reported on all the subsequent conversations, conflicts, citizen engagements, and activism that came out of those exercises. Talk about a catalyst! Nothing in such a repetitive exercise would violate objectivity or principled news reporting. But it would be a profound expansion of journalism’s primary function of promoting an informed citizenry and responsible, answerable leadership in an engaged democracy.

Versions of this could be done in any community, as well as at state and national levels. All it would take is journalists stepping into this new story of a more potent role for democratic journalism.

Citizen deliberations can produce excellent results— real public wisdom. But most of the public, if they have not been through those deliberations, can remain oblivious to that wisdom, or even can be swayed by well-financed public relations attacks into opposing it. Here again, the role of journalists and other storytellers—including public interest public relations professionals—is essential. They can help the public understand what went into the formation of that wisdom (as was done by Maclean’s) and can help increase general public respect for and attention to well-designed and accomplished citizen deliberations.

Now let’s turn to the political environment within which these possibilities exist—and some visionary proposals that could be pursued to launch empowered public wisdom nationally in a big way. Every one of them could be catalyzed and reported on by journalists.