Empowering Public Wisdom: Chapter 6

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

CHAPTER 6: Citizen Deliberative Councils: Their Character, Variety, and History

Without deliberation we don’t get public wisdom. Even in an individual, wisdom does not come from experience or teachings alone. Individuals must reflect on their experiences and what others have told them; notice connections, consequences, and contradictions; and must test what they believe against challenges in their minds, in conversations, and, above all, in life in order to derive sound, beneficial knowledge over time.

In a citizen deliberative council the experience being considered is the diverse experience of its members, and the teachings are the diverse facts and lessons provided by various experts. It is precisely the diversity of these things that enables them to support the emergence of wisdom. Instead of wisdom deriving from making sense of varied moments over time in one person’s life, it derives from making sense of the diversity of life experiences and lessons in a mixed group and the diversity of information and perspectives gleaned from fair full-spectrum briefings and diverse expert witnesses. Instead of this being mulled over in the lone mind of an individual, it is mulled over in the minds of a dozen or a hundred people in respectful, creative conversation. Whatever coherent understanding emerges from that process has broader applicability and benefit because of the diversity of knowledge and experience from which it was drawn, and the fact that that diversity was not suppressed but instead honored and used creatively.

The popular “wisdom of crowds” idea—that the aggregated responses of many independent people generates better answers than any one of them would, or even than experts would—is sometimes useful for crowdsourced estimates and predictions. But it does not generate true wisdom as described in this book. That requires high-quality 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.”
Deliberation 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 longterm success and broad benefit? Full information, critical thinking, reflection, creativity, emotion, vision, stories, and dynamic interaction all play important roles in this.

How do we generate public wisdom with, by, and for a whole population?

Citizen 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.

The primary quality that makes them different from other democratic forms that claim to represent We the People—that is, 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 interactive citizenship on behalf of that society. They call forth, embody, and ultimately promote the latent public wisdom of the whole population.

There are many varieties of citizen deliberative council— which will be described later in this chapter—but they all share one purpose and eight characteristics. The 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 thoroughly learn about a public concern or issue, carefully think about it, and productively talk it over with each other.

The eight characteristics shared by every current formof citizen deliberative council are as follows:

•    It is an organized face-to-face assembly.

•     It is made up of twelve to two hundred citizens selected randomly (and usually demographically) so that their collective diversity fairly reflects the profile 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. And I use the word “citizen” here to mean simply an inhabitant of a community, although others may legitimately use it to mean “an officially recognized member of a country” or “a politically involved member of a community” such as a registered voter.)

•    It is convened temporarily, for a specified time, usually a few days or weeks of actual meetings, sometimes distributed over several weeks or months.

•    Its members deliberate as peers, setting aside any other roles or statuses 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, including the general state and aspirations of the community.

•    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 them.

•    Its deliberations are informed by inclusive, balanced briefing materials and, usually, interviews with, testimony from, and/or conversations with diverse experts, advocates, and other stakeholders involved with the matter under consideration.

•    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.

Ideally, the report stimulates further community dialogue, some of which may be purposefully convened and/ or reported on as part of the overall process.

Citizen deliberative councils in most current forms have no permanent or official power except the power of legitimacy and (hopefully) widely publicized commonsense solutions to compelling public problems. This book considers ways to expand their influence.

Although few people realize it, hundreds of these groups of ordinary citizens have been formally convened all over the world during 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 taste:

•    In India, poor farmers held a deliberative council investigating approaches to economic development. They decided they wanted to continue and improve their self-reliant food and farming and to control their communities’ resources.

•    In Great Britain, sixteen randomly selected citizens who were convened to deliberate about plant biotechnology studied the issue and cross-examined opposing experts in a public forum. They came to consensus about the benefits, risks, harmful marketing practices, and need for regulation of biotech companies and biotech development.

•    In Australia, suburbanites deliberated on what to do about pollution and erosion associated with rainwater that was wrecking their beaches. They created a program of low-cost, low-tech, readily doable all-sector interventions addressing the problem at its many local sources with participatory local action.

•    In America, eighteen ordinary citizens became expert enough in a few days to tell Twin Cities municipal authorities how to deal with the area’s solid waste disposal. They wanted more sustainable practices. In every case, ordinary people reviewed the facts and came up with common-sense solutions. The idea that we could empower such groups to have a positive impact on our major public problems and crises offers possibilities for a positive future to replace the dire prospects and heartbreaking visions currently rampant in our struggling society.

Citizen Deliberative Councils Contrasted with Two Similar Approaches

Deliberative Polling® and 21st Century Town Meetings® are two fashionable deliberative processes that bear some resemblance to citizen deliberative councils and have their own place in efforts to build empowered public wisdom. A brief comparison provides useful insight about them and where they fit.

A Deliberative Poll convenes two hundred to six hundred randomly selected people who have been surveyed about a public issue and then further informed on the issue through balanced briefing materials. They gather for a weekend in which they question competing experts about the issue. They are then resurveyed and the results are compared. The results often show significant shifts in individual views. Since a primary purpose of the exercise is public education, the briefing materials are publicly available and their deliberations often receive television coverage. A primary difference between Deliberative Polls and citizen deliberative councils is that the former does not seek to create a coherent public policy recommendation, but rather to inform and demonstrate shifts in public opinion. Although its large size, brief meeting time, highly choreographed process, and lack of mandate for a coherent outcome reduce its ability to generate public wisdom, it is often a great introduction to deliberation. Participants tend to leave the event excited about what transpired, public officials are often impressed, and the viewing public finds the process fascinating and informative.
While 21st Century Town Meetings are open to anyone, they are organized with demographically targeted recruitment. They convene five hundred to five thousand people for one to two days of public deliberation at facilitated tables of ten to twelve participants who earlier received briefing materials. Each table has a “scribe” with a computer through which the table wirelessly reports its collective responses to preset questions at scheduled intervals. A “theme team” condenses the responses into summary statements, which are then projected on giant screens viewable by all participants, who vote on them through wireless keypads (which are also used for demographic and other straw polls during the event). These huge public events tend to attract considerable media coverage as well as attention from officials, who, along with the participants, receive a printed report at the event’s conclusion. Similarly to the Deliberative Poll, the immense size of 21st Century Town Meetings, the usually preestablished choices they offer, the choreographed scheduling of deliberative activity (necessary to keep all the tables on the same page), the boxing of participant ideas into votable bullet points, and the often rushed process (with twenty to thirty minutes for ten people to have an equal say on a complex aspect of the issue and report the results) reduce its ability to generate true public wisdom. But these events, too, often evoke widespread excitement by most participants and viewers.

The smaller size and usually longer duration of citizen deliberative councils provide an opportunity to delve into issues in greater depth with outside experts and stakeholders as well as with each other. This deeper deliberation supports their mission of producing well-considered, coherent recommendations that contain a significant measure of public wisdom. However, they usually lack the media visibility and broad impact of Deliberative Polls and 21st Century Town Meetings.
I see Deliberative Polls and 21st Century Town Meetings as valuable resources (a) to introduce many citizens and public officials to the value and vitality of citizen deliberation; (b) to show citizens that their voices can be heard and matter; and (c) ultimately to help large numbers of people engage with a public issue, both before a citizen deliberative council is held and/or after it, reviewing its conclusions.

 The History and Variety of Citizen Deliberative Councils

Citizen deliberative councils were first pioneered by the late German innovator Peter Dienel, who created Planning Cells, or Planungszellen, in January 1971. Planning Cells involve several separate twenty-five-member, jury-like “cells” all simultaneously considering the same issue in different geographic regions. 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.

In April 1971 the most widely used form of citizen deliberative council, the Citizens Jury, was created. Citizens Juries involve twelve to twenty-four citizens, chosen by random stratified sampling (which involves demographic selection from a large random pool of citizens), interviewing experts and deliberating for three to five days. The form was conceived by American political scientist Ned Crosby 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 Elisabeth, the latter born a week apart in 1963!)

In 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 thirty-two Citizens Juries. The integrity of the Citizens Jury process is integral to its design, including transparency, on-going evaluations, and final reports written by the participants. Reports on all Jefferson Center Citizens Juries and a complete manual on conducting this form of citizen deliberation are available free on the Jefferson Center website,

The Citizens Jury model was picked up by the British think tank, Institute for Public Policy Research, leading to its widespread use in Britain. The British, German, and American efforts subsequently spread around the world.
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 it has inspired many creative applications and versions.

More 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 eighteen randomly selected citizens who study an assigned issue and then take testimony from experts in an open public hearing. The group, with the help of a facilitator, then comes to a consensus and releases its report at a press conference. Since the mid-1980s, occasional Consensus Conferences have been convened by an office of the Danish parliament to review controversial technological issues being considered for legislation. In addition to the Danes’ official Consensus Conferences, a couple dozen have been held unofficially elsewhere in the world.

The 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, coauthor of the classic Getting to Yes, and two colleagues.

Despite the fact that they’d never really listened to the viewpoints and experiences of others so unlike themselves, despite 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 television (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. Unfortunately, Maclean’s never repeated this pioneering exercise in citizen engagement.

In the early 1980s, 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?”—channeling participants’ thinking toward solving the problem without privileging any particular solution, just recording them all 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 his or her concern, asks what the conflicted person would do about it. This aspect of Dynamic Facilitation—translating conflict into concerns—composts antagonism into creativity.

As 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 cocreatively 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 possible solutions 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! comes—usually around something no one of them had 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.”

This approach—which has mainly been 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 nonlinear, following the group’s energy rather than any predetermined course or agenda—and it is extremely powerful.

The 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, or anything else. 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 “People’s Verdict” effort, about which Rough was unaware.) In a Wisdom Council process a new Wisdom Council is convened every three to twelve months. Given their simplicity and their ability to catalyze a spirit of We the People, Wisdom Councils will be given special strategic attention in chapter 10.
Since 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.

Over 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 at the beginning, usually as witnesses or resource people (as in a Citizens Jury), and at the end they receive and comment on the CIC’s results. 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 the CIC’s initial findings, instead of being the end of the process, went to to the experts and officials to craft a new proposal, which would then be 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. One other possible variation that might be quite productive—if the experts and partisans were willing to stick it out and the facilitation were strong—would be to have them fully included in the entire choice-creating conversation.

Another new form of citizen deliberative council is the Citizens’ Assembly. Perhaps the largest and most empowered CDC so far was the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform held in British Columbia, Canada, in 2004. This panel of
160 citizens (one man and one woman randomly selected from each legislative district, plus two First Nations members) was convened to study and make recommendations on electoral reform. They met every other weekend for ten months—hearing expert testimony, holding fifty public forums, examining 1,603 written submissions from the public, and deliberating—generating creative recommendations which were then submitted to British Columbia’s voters as a referendum.

The legislation that established this British Columbian Citizens’ Assembly specified that if their recommendations were approved by 60% of the voters, they would become law. Since the 2005 vote in favor was only 57.7%—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 other locations. It has also helped highlight another key aspect of citizen deliberative councils: engaging the public at large with the process and its results.

Discrepancies 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 on the same issue 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 being generated by a deliberative mini-public. That involvement would ideally take place before, during, and after the actual citizen deliberative council’s deliberations.

There have been experiments with “televote” audiences, large groups of citizens who watch citizen deliberations on television 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 openparticipation public deliberations and debates carried on online before or during the face-to-face ones occurring in the citizen deliberative councils, with some crossovers between the two conversations. In an Australian initiative, members of the larger random pool from which the citizen deliberators were selected were invited to participate in online collaborative work to create the deliberators’ agenda. Nowadays, 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 or to engage the public with their council’s concluding recommendations. You will find more thoughts about public engagement in chapter 8.

Given their potential to generate public wisdom, how should citizen deliberative councils be used in our public life?

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