Friday, June 15, 2007

The Power Equation in Citizen-Centered Work

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with a group of community organizers to talk about the citizen-centered concept. A rich conversation ensued but what stood out was the concern some organizers had about where the concept of power fits in public deliberation and problem-solving. Echoing a common critique, they said that public deliberation can seem elitist because it tends to attract the kind of people who are already interested in talking about these issues in a very intellectual way, namely “white, educated, and already-engaged people.” Others agreed that to get disenfranchised populations to these meetings requires much more than putting up a sign in the grocery store. “Lots of work is needed to get the people we work with to be interested in larger public deliberation,” they said, and “it starts with engaging them around issues that affect mostly them and their own communities--like discrimination--rather than larger issues that may cut across other groups."

Inattention to the above, they added, inevitably results in "the same people who already have power being those who are going to be more inclined to participate in public deliberation," perpetuating the problem such work is trying to solve......

Is this true and if so, what can we do about it? Alison Kadlec and Will Friedman of Public Agenda recently decided to tackle those tough questions in a thoughtful article that appeared in the Journal of Public Deliberation. Specifically, they respond to the characterization of public deliberation as a process that disregards the presence of structural inequalities and entrenched notions of power that can undermine the development of meaningfully inclusive deliberative forums. Instead, they argue that public deliberation work, if done right, can actually be enhanced when practitioners and participants acknowledge power imbalances and structural inequities.

They recommend three areas in which greater awareness of these issues can serve as a driver for more inclusive, meaningful and egalitarian public work: control, design, and change. First, awareness of power issues should lead to the development of deliberative processes that are not controlled by any “single entity with a stake in the substantive outcome of the deliberation will be the main designer or guarantor of the process.” They recommend two possible interlocutors: nonpartisan intermediary organizations or multi-partisan deliberative leadership coalitions (a variety of groups with cross-cutting agendas joining together to check provide checks and balances to one another).

Second, these processes need to be carefully designed. Who will be recruited to participate and how, for example? How will the process be facilitated and structured? What are the goals of the process? To deliberate and hear other perspectives? Or to decide on action to address a specific issue?

How issues will be framed is another key consideration, delineating between “framing for deliberation” (an open process) versus the more traditional “framing to persuade” (defining an issue in ways that attempts to encourage people to do “what I want them to do”). The latter has been the more prevalent practice, which Kadlec and Friedman believe precludes opportunities for people with diverse views on issues to have those views heard on a level playing field.

That doesn’t mean, however, that deliberation should necessarily lead to consensus among participants but rather, confluence. The authors define this as a “gathering together at a juncture [such as a] common problem around with alternative views may be voiced…and that encourages participants to reach across boundaries to explore multiple perspectives by focusing together on the examination of an issue from as many vantage points as possible.” This problem-oriented approach “seeks ongoing input…from a range of possible stakeholders in a process that clarifies serious differences as well as potential common ground, and suggests ways of moving ahead on an issue that are, if provisional, nevertheless practical and dynamic.”

Finally, practitioners should be clear about whether they are seeking a change in the substance and tone of civic discourse (civic capacity-building through open inquiry, discussion, and exploration of options) or whether they are seeking change toward a specific action or event (civic problem-solving). They argue that both are important. While achieving public policy change can affect the lives of many people across communities, there is also value in having civic spaces in which people feel they are able to voice their concerns, hear others’ points of view, and gain a sense of civic efficacy. It can also be a forum through which to bring professionals, experts, legislators and others with more traditional power together with grassroots citizens to share decision-making about larger community issues and direction.

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