Thursday, August 31, 2006


Findings about Deliberation

For 25 years, the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio, USA, has been studying public deliberation. Over the past ten years, a score of studies, conducted with a variety of research methods, found that public deliberation makes a difference. Here are some of the highlights:

• Those who take part in deliberations come from every part of society.

• Virtually everyone is capable of deliberating about important public issues. Educational level, for example, is not a barrier.

• Participants reconsider their own opinions and judgments.

• People consider the views of others and develop a greater understanding of those viewpoints.

• Participants approach issues more realistically and are willing to consider costs, consequences, and trade-offs.

• People define their self-interests more broadly.

• Deliberation leads many to feel a greater sense of confidence in what they can do politically. That is, people become more inclined to see themselves as political actors capable of making a difference.

• Participants become more interested in political and social issues.

• Deliberation in a community enhances communication among groups.

Monday, August 28, 2006


Make an "Informed Decision"

Thanks to former Springfield-Greene County Library District board member Teresa Bledsoe for letting me know about this great online resource. Called "The Informed Decision," this website offers online resources related to the hottest topics of discussion in Springfield and Greene County.

Current topics with links to resources on each topic include: eminent domain, red light cameras, prohibition of pit bull dogs and minors in bars.

Is an online resource like "The Informed Decision" useful?

Simarily, many of the public issue forum discussion guides are available online. These guides provide unbiased pro and con information on various issues. My experience with hosting forums has found that few people actually read the guides. However, if they would it would enhance deliberation and help groups better understand issues and the common ground that exists.

The same might be said about "The Informed Decision" website. Great resources and a great tool, but will anyone bother to read it?

Sunday, August 27, 2006


Three perspectives on how to fix democracy

While there is no widespread agreement on how this rekindling can be done, “Democracy’s Challenge” provides a framework for a discussion of the possibilities. It presents three perspectives on the problem, each of which suggests a somewhat different course of action:

The first perspective, “Democratic Values: Rebuilding democracy’s moral foundation,” suggests that as a nation, we have become self-indulgent and self absorbed, inclined to accept neither hard choices nor sacrifice. The emphasis on individual rights and personal freedom has undermined democracy. In recent decades, the moral curriculum has been neglected; this is a key element in our public troubles.

The second perspective, “Web of Connections: Reinventing Citizenship,” says democracy requires the ability to work together on common concerns that most people learn in clubs, church groups and local associations. The public square is emptying because many Americans aren’t making the civic connections that form the habits and sharpen the skills of citizenship.

The third perspective, “By the People: Bringing the Public Back into Politics,” says government is no longer “of, by and for the people.” Governance is something politicians do, not something that involves citizens. In a democratic nation where the people are supposed to be sovereign, citizens have lost control of the government. The political system has to be fixed so citizens once again have a central place in it.

To download free materials for conducting an issue forum or group study using “Democracy’s Challenge,” visit

Thursday, August 24, 2006


Do we argue just for the sake of disagreeing?

In her essay "The Problem of Moral Disagreement and the Necessity of Democratic Politics," Noelle McAfee warns about political disagreements that run so deep that there is no need to argue. She asks if that is where American democracy is going. If so, deliberation can help.

Deliberative democracy can only get off the ground if there is something uncertain and contested that we as a community need to decide but also only if there are limits to uncertainty and contestedness. It also only gets off the ground if we are included to take part.
I've conducted over 30 public issue forums. They have varied in size and success but one thing remains constant: people attend forums because they are worried about what is happening regarding a certain topic.

A forum on Social Security attracted retirees. A forum on fireworks attracted 60 people from one community. What about forums on revitalizing democracy. So far, attendees seem to want an answer that can be given in 30 minutes.

The fact is, deliberation can be a real success when people with real concerns about their community come to the table ready and willing to participate. McAfee happens to agree.

Moreover, only a small portion of deliberation follows the course of rational argument and the give and take of reasons. For the most part it proceeds with people explaining how they came to have the views they have and what their experiences are that shaped their sense of the world. In the course of these conversations, participants change their views of other's views. They enlarge their understanding of problems and begin to appreciate the complexity of how issues affect other members of the community. Sometimes, instead of reaching agreement, participants leave saying that they are more uncertain than ever.

The salient feature of these deliberations is not a search for agreement; rather it is a sensitivity to others. Afterall, politics is about relationships.

What do you think?

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Why is Voter Turnout Higher in Polk & Webster County?

What is going on in Polk and Webster County?

Voter turnout in both counties far exceeded neighboring counties during the August primary.

In Greene County, we had about 15% turnout for the primary election in August 2006, which also included a countywide sales tax increase.

This bit of news comes from Dave Berry at the Bolivar Herald Free-Press:
Last week I called attention to the civility of Polk County elections and campaign ads when compared to those in other counties. Well, I need to back up and give Webster County its due for the effectiveness of its election robustness.

They do spend a lot more for campaigns there, and it's difficult to argue with their results. The Aug. 8 voter turnout in Webster County was nearly 40 percent of registered voters, compared to a little more than 23 percent here.

It does pay to advertise.

* * * * *

A 40-percent turnout is outstanding among current American voting standards. However, there are those who will say we should be ashamed to see that as a good result.

Frankly, I'm not ashamed. I'll gladly rejoice over 40 well-informed voters out of a group of 100 registered voters making decisions on leadership and tax issues.

Our better interest as citizens is in better hands even if only 20 percent show up, as long it's the right 20 percent.

And by that I don't mean you have to agree with my positions in order to be among the "right" 20 percent. I don't mind voters of the opposite ilk, as long as they go to the polls knowing - before they get there - what and/or who is on the ballot.

Could it be that negative advertising is driving voters away from the polls? Is there something special going on in Bolivar when it comes to public issues? No doubt, Bolivar is a healthy community with a fine newspaper. Perhaps communication is the key? Of course, with a university there perhaps having an educated population is part of the answer?

What do you think? Why the high numbers in Polk County? What can be done to see an increase in other counties? The answers are all part of revitalizing democracy.

Monday, August 21, 2006


Sounding retreat on democracy

While most Americans are still proud of living in a country that is governed by and for the people, many of them are no longer sure that Abraham Lincoln’s vision of a democracy has withstood the test of time.

They have become increasingly dissatisfied with the democratic process and increasingly disillusioned with politicians who appear disinterested in what they have to say.

Too many Americans today have retreated from the public places, meetings, and associations at which they traditionally met to say what they thought and do what needed to be done to improve their communities and their nation.

To download free materials for conducting an issue forum or group study using “Democracy’s Challenge,” visit

This forum study guide is about what citizens can do. It suggests that citizens themselves can and should provide the motivating power that will rekindle the vibrant relationship a democracy demands between the government and its people.

Is Democracy Dying?

Is Democracy Dying? I posed that question to and got back 12,100,000 responses with the same phrase. Folks are using this phrase in blogs, news stories, research papers -- everywhere. Red states, blue states, right, left and in the middle, all types of Americans seem concerned about the future of American democracy.

Research shows many Americans are turning away from public life, becoming spectators rather than participants in democracy. Increasingly, people say they are frustrated with politics and the seemingly insurmountable partisan divide.

Those involved in National Issues Forums (NIF) are committed to changing this trend by bringing people’s voices back into politics by involving citizens in deliberation and decision-making on local, national and global issues.

Most NIF issue books focus on a specific public issue. People learn about deliberation and think about democracy as they work through issues that are important to them.

This year, NIF is presenting an issue book entitled, "Democracy's Challenge: Reclaiming the Public's Role," which tackles the obstacles and issues people face in a democracy that appears to have nudged its citizens onto the sidelines.

The forum on democracy encourages citizens to think about what they can do to strengthen the relationship a democracy demands between the government and its people.

To download free materials for conducting an issue forum or group study using “Democracy’s Challenge,” visit

Thursday, August 17, 2006


What is there for a citizen to do?

Matthew Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg, in their book "Downsizing Democracy," write that "contemporary elites have found that they need not engage in the arduous task of building popular constituencies. Public interest groups and environmental groups have large mailing lists but few active members; civil rights groups field more attorneys than protestors; and national political parties activate a familiar few rather than risk mobilizing anonymous millions."

According to Crenson and Ginsberg, the outcome is that we have become "a nation of emphatically private citizens -- customers and clients who find it difficult to express coherent common interests."

One side of the deliberation about democracy says we Americans have entered into an age of politics that no longer needs a public. In fact, some say being a citizen has become a role with little substance. What is left for a citizen to do? What is the answer?

Keith Melville, a senior faculty member at the Fielding Graduate University, says "to revive public life, we need to devise new ways -- or revive old ways -- for citizens to join together around common concerns to regain a sense of colletive agency."

Many say we have become a nation of private citizens. What can be done?

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


Do we expect too little from citizens?

"DEMOCRACY’S CHALLENGE: Reclaiming the Public's Role" is the current public issue forum dealing with the issue of democracy. The booklet and materials placed online are great and can be used to foster group deliberations.

Here is one thought from that issue book worth pondering. Keith Melville writes about the central question to democracy that is discussed in the book, "Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined its Citizens and Privatized its Public." He writes, "it is one of the most practical questions you could ask about democratic governance. What, exactly, are citizens expected to do? Beyong voting and paying taxes, what is their public role and what are their responsiblities? It is not that most people today are disinclined to act in the public interest but rather that they are no longer asked to do much."

So what do you think? Do we expect too little from our citizens?

What is Deliberation and Have You Done It?

The National Issues Forums (NIF) is a network of organizations joined by a common desire to discuss critical issues. Local issue forums offer the space to deliberate about public issues. Deliberation, rather than debate, lets us talk about concerns, weigh drawbacks and tradeoffs, and find a shared sense of direction before making decisions. This is a skill that is disappearing from American democracy and the community suffers as a result. Forums (which take about 2-hours) are is designed to help citizens examine the issues that surround a topic, become more informed about the larger issues that impact a topic and also learn how to participate locally to address the issue. Have you participated in a forum before? What was the result?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Just the Facts About Public Issue Forums

There are three main Public Issue Forum topics this blog will focus on. Various content from the forums will be shared and readers will be able to deliberate online.

Most importantly, each of these forums have online moderator's guides, questionaires and other material available online (for free) that can be used to host large or small group forums or discussions.

You can learn more about these forum topics, and download the available material, online at

DEMOCRACY’S CHALLENGE: Reclaiming the Public's Role
Most of us have become spectators instead of participants in the political process. What has gone wrong, and what should we do about it?

Everything you need to host your own forum or study circle on this topic.

A discussion guide for a public issues forum entitled, "Should We Ban Fireworks?" is available online. You can also read notes from previous forums on this same topic.

As this blog develops it will include Q&As and public issue forum content.

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