Friday, October 06, 2006


Another view on democracy from an editor

We will get back to Approach Two after learning more about a forum in Iowa on this same topic.

An article by Carol Hunter about a National Issues Forum (NIF) held at the Des Moines Central Library in Des Moines, Iowa, was published at on July 30, 2006. The article describes a public deliberative forum that was held earlier in July using the NIF issue discussion guide Democracy's Challenge: Reclaiming the Public's Role. About 60 people participated in the forum that was convened by Iowa Partners in Learning.

Here is what Carol Hunter had to say ...

Hunter: Increase citizen involvement by fostering thoughtful dialogue

A sunny Saturday morning two weekends ago beckoned young and old alike to come outside to play.

Yet about 60 Iowans volunteered to spend their time in a meeting room inside the Des Moines Central Library, lured by a higher purpose: reinvigorating our democracy.

The event was a forum conducted by Iowa Partners in Learning, a member of the National Issues Forums Institute's network. Participants discussed the proposition that frustration with gridlock and partisanship have prompted many Americans to tune out on public life. That trend is seen in everything from low voter participation to lack of interest in running for school boards or city councils.

The format followed by National Issues Forums is to give participants reading material that lays out an issue in an even-handed, nonpartisan way and outlines multiple ways to approach it. At the Des Moines forum, participants discussed three broad approaches to reclaiming the public's role in democracy: rebuilding democracy's moral foundation; re-forming the web of citizen connections in clubs, religious groups and local associations; and increasing the public's role versus powerful special interests by measures such as campaign-finance reform. Specific steps were recommended to further each approach. Groups of eight to 10 people discussed the merits and drawbacks of each.

The rub came with the specifics. In discussing the approach emphasizing democracy's moral foundation, participants in the group I observed balked at a recommendation to tighten divorce laws. But several liked a recommendation to integrate character education into school curriculums. Others, however, were skeptical: "Not sure common values can be agreed upon," one participant wrote afterward.

Too often at public gatherings today, elected representatives and members of the public alike seem mostly interested in speaking their minds, and much less interested in listening as others speak theirs. Framing the discussion around varied approaches forces participants to think through the strengths and weaknesses of alternatives.

"People came in with some very passionate ideas," said participant David Johns, coordinator for the humanities curriculum at Des Moines schools. But the process of working through the three approaches "helps people focus their position."

Making progress on complex issues is "about meeting people halfway sometimes," he said, or perhaps about starting with agreement on "a subset of ideas." Participants in his group approached the day's issue from varied perspectives, but found common ground in believing that people should seek out different perspectives in different media.

Johns is exploring the idea of using the National Issues Forums format in high school courses such as social studies. Teachers could collaborate to research and write up varied approaches to issues important to students, such as the minimum wage, teen driving restrictions or the draft, and then guide students through discussing them.

There's a possibility the format could make its way into class discussions at Drake University, too. Part of Drake's mission statement is to prepare students for "responsible global citizenship."

Participant Lon Larson, a Drake pharmacy professor who teaches courses in health policy, found that conferring on three sometimes overlapping approaches, each with potentially beneficial elements, "leads to a much more nuanced discussion. It can be an excellent way to get at the complexities of the issues."

He foresees the potential for faculty to use the format in efforts to help students become more engaged citizens.

It's a concept worth considering by school boards, city councils and other bodies, too. Participants clearly thought their voices weren't being heard, even on the local level. Several participants complained that their congressman's "listening sessions" have turned into speeches about what he's doing, and the public's comments seem to go nowhere. And they believe school board members, councilmen and legislators have their minds made up before getting constituents' input at public hearings.

Why not foster thoughtful public discussion of thorny issues such as city budget priorities or property-tax reform before motions are drawn up or bills drafted? Our communities and our democracy would be stronger for it.

So if everyone loves the concept, why are more groups not doing it? In five years I've never gotten a newspaper interested in sponsoring a forum but I suspect that may have more to do with shrinking staffs than anything else. What do you think?
"responsible global citizenship"

First one must learn and live by strong personal morals where ever one lives and then is prepared to live successful any where in the world!
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