NOW SERVING Psychedelic Culture

Empowered Public Wisdom Rising from the Grassroots

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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


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:

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

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.

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:

How will issues-for-deliberation be

How will these issues be framed?

How will deliberative mini-publics be

What sorts of deliberative process
should be used?

How will issue information and
expertise be provided for deliberators?

How will the deliberators make their
final decisions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Lobbying and mobilization.
Here is where online phenomena like bloggers,,, 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, 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
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.,
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

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

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.

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