Monday, October 8, 2007

Is the Nonprofit Sector Becoming Obsessed with Credentials?

I recently received an email announcing a forum about the difficulty young people are having in pursuing public service jobs because of the debt they incur in college, as well as the high cost of living in many cities that necessitates high salaries. As a result, young people have no choice but to favor earning some bucks over “doing good.”

Good topic, but the invitation was enveloped in some rhetoric suggesting that the most troubling thing about this trend wasn’t just the lack of incentives for young people to pursue public service jobs but that it’s keeping the “the best and the brightest” from doing so.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but from where I sit, it seems as if the “best and brightest” are pretty much becoming the only ones able to pursue public service careers. And what’s wrong with wanting those folks in our ranks?

Nothing---if we're using “best and brightest” to connote people with exceptional skills, intelligence, passion, and tenacity. But it seems that increasingly, the phrase is being used as a code for credentials, educational pedigree, social capital, and financial connections.

And I've experienced some of this myself as a former program officer with an older foundation. Not surprisingly, most of the young people who had entrée to its coffers were the those who've had access to an Ivy League (or equivalent) education; parents who paid their rent so they could get (or did get) the "good" internships; and/or friends or family members who were political figures, academics at other Ivy League schools, famous media people, and others comprising what David Brooks would call the ruling class.

More disconcerting was that they tended be viewed by adults as "the best and the brightest," which had less to do with the merit or experience of these young people and more with the connections and capital of their parents or others with the influence to propel these folks over other the heads of other worthy (and less entitled) candidates who were equally (and sometimes more) qualified.

Yes, older and more established institutions are more likely to adhere to a white-gloved tradition. But is the latter trickling out to less-established nonprofits and to the sector, overall? Are we becoming just as obsessed as the larger culture on the famous, the connected, and the rich? Nonprofit conferences and events showcase individuals whose bios, full of elite credentials, are proudly proclaimed. Young people held up as the best examples of nonprofit leadership are often those who’ve had access to financial, social and educational connections. At a recent conference, one brave soul stood up and asked whether there were any national service initiatives that had been launched by "anyone not from Harvard, Yale or Princeton." Of course there are, but they're sometimes overlooked because they lack the cachet that an Ivy League rubric immediately bestows.

So what's wrong with this? Nothing, if one believes that educational pedigree, credentials and social capital are inherently superior to experience, hard work, skills, tenacity, and one’s own “gumption,” as a young friend of mine called his own rise to success in the nonprofit sector (and who had little credentials of which to speak, he noted happily). But how much is "gumption" valued? When it comes down to a choice between my friend and a recent Harvard graduate whose parents are Stanford professors, New York Times reporters, or former White House staff members, whom do you think is going to get first dibs on the job... the grant... or the opportunity?

That's a thorny issue that hasn't been discussed much in nonprofit forums because it runs right up against the values that many in that sector say they hold dear. And it makes people understandably uncomfortable, especially those in nonprofit leadership positions whose rise to prominence may have had less to do with merit than with their pedigree or personal connections.

So what do we do about it? We can start by recognizing that a cultural obsession with last names, pedigree, and/or social capital doesn’t have to be one that we embrace, but rather, challenge. We can hire people on the basis of their experiences and skills, rather than on who their parents are or where they went to school. In the midst of all the accolades being bestowed on our leaders, we can ask, “what have they actually done to deserve these?” And, perhaps most importantly, we can ask what obstacles, if any, has this person endured or overcome and how has that made them a stronger, smarter, and/or ethical person?

As Booker T. Washington once wrote, "Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome." Perhaps that's the criteria we should think about using for "the best and brightest" in the nonprofit sector.
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Citizen-Centered Work is the New Civic Core, Says New National Report

The citizen-centered concept has been rightfully bemoaned as somewhat elusive, naunced, and difficult to convey in two-second sound bites. (But, not everything can be.... It's like pornography; we know it when we see it.) Thus, it's been relatively difficult to measure or even include in studies about civic engagement, at least in rigorous ways.

Happily, that's changed, thanks to the National Conference on Citizenship, which included several new questions that get at the concept in its annual survey, America's Civic Health Index. This year, in addition to documenting the degree to which people vote, volunteer, and keep up with the news, the Index asked whether and how people are working in their communities to learn about public issues and then, together, address them--a component of civic engagement that's been relatively overlooked in scholarly studies.

And guess what? There are approximately 36 million of these folks out there, according to the study, who comprise what the Index calls a "new civic core":

We find that although most Americans are not deeply involved in civic, community, or political affairs, there is a group of about 15 percent—roughly 36 million people—who participate in impressive ways and stand out as civic leaders. They are well informed, attend public meetings, work together on community problems, are leaders in clubs and associations, attend religious services, vote and volunteer. An overlapping group of about 24 percent of the American population uses online technology quite heavily for civic purposes. These active, well-informed citizens are fairly diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and political ideology. We want to draw attention to the millions of civic leaders because they deserve recognition and support—and it may be possible to increase their numbers.

So what can be done to add to their ranks? A first step, writes Ron Fournier, in an Associated Press story about the findings, is pushing elected officials, the two parties, and those running for office to stop giving this group of Americans "short shrift" and start incorporating what they're doing into "citizen-centered" public policies and programs that encourage these efforts. And candidates and policyamkers should talk more about this work publicly. What better way to encourage more people to "get involved" than to show how it's happening in communities all across this country? And to emphasize that it's getting results, not only in improving the places where people live and work but in creating more vibrant civic cultures where participation becomes part and parcel of everyday life?

It's not hard to imagine that they'll have a receptive audience, since most people "crave a greater sense of community," and are "ready to ask to do something for the common good," according to the report. And, to top it off, there's a new generation of young Americans, ages 18-25, who are showing signs of being as civic-minded as the "so-called Greatest Generation," Fournier notes.

Auspicious news, indeed, but democracy shouldn't be the responsibility of only 15 percent of the our population. Getting to 100 percent should be the goal, but it can only start with more attention to and support for the 36 million people who are leading the way. Let's hope it happens soon. Read the rest of the post

What is this Thing Called Transparency Anyway?

In a call for ideas from the folks at Tactical Philanthropy regarding how to help foundations more transparent and accountable, I sent the posting below ("Can Philanthropy be Citizen-Centered?" -- scroll down) as something that might be considered. Two lines were pulled from my post:

Essentially, foundations need to start exploring new ways to develop stronger partnerships between the professionals that staff foundations and “real people” on the ground living in real communities. And that means going beyond simply hiring consultants to interview those people for “input” that usually gets fed back to the foundation experts who ultimately decide what they’re going to do. It means working with people to figure out how foundations can best to address the issues they say are important to them and their communities.

Sean Stannard-Stockton, the host, responded:

I think that for foundations that want to try this approach, it might lead to exciting results. But I also want to be clear about my continual urging for a broader philanthropic conversation and more foundation transparency. I do not think that foundations should be required to be transparent. The concept of private foundations having a right to “privacy” is not something I disagree with at all. I think that foundations should be free to pursue whatever course of action they desire and that they should not be obligated to take any direction from the public. This distinction is why I talk about transparency as an issue of philanthropic effectiveness, not public accountability.... I think that we will find that transparency is good for foundations, good for nonprofits and good for the public. But at the end of the day, I think that the transparency decision is completely up to each individual foundation. This is why I make the distinction between "public accountability" transparency and "philanthropic effectiveness" transparency. I'm interested in the second type.

This is an interesting delineation, and one I've heard before. And it's certainly a legitimate one, given that most foundations are private institutions. But I’m not convinced the larger public would view it as entirely acceptable, given that they're not getting much feedback about what's actually done with the millions foundations dole out and how "effective" they are. Yes, there seem to be lots of evaluation reports floating around, but how many of these are actually conducted by third parties that sample beneficiaries randomly and over time? The latter are the three most important questions to ask of any evaluation, according to William Cotter, former president of Colby College, Oak Foundation, and the Africa-America Institute, in a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy article.

In lieu of more formal regulatory or accountability structures (is there really such a thing as "self-regulation"?), perhaps foundations might consider alternative steps toward public accountability, beginning with involving the latter more in their decision-making processes. Will doing so enhance institutions' effectiveness? Other institutions are slowly realizing that it may--not only in their ability to address specific issues but also in increasing people's interest and involvement in their larger community and the institutions that support it. While the jury may still be out as to whether public involvement in foundations' work is cost-beneficial in terms of concrete outcomes, perhaps the most valuable "outcome" of such efforts may simply be increasing the levels of civic engagement in communities that are starved for it. Read the rest of the post

Does the Public Deserve a Voice in Philanthropy?

Those of you who have been following this blog know that a favorite topic is whether or not philanthropy can follow in the footsteps of other institutions—such as schools and local legislatures—that are understanding that to be successful, they need to have the involvement of “real people” in their efforts.

Last month, there was an opportunity to explore that issue, thanks to a story in the Chronicle of Philanthropy about foundations using online voting as a way in which to involve the public in grantamking decisions. The story was good, but I wanted to pose a question that I thought was missed in the piece, specifically, whether foundations have a responsibility to the public from which they derive significant tax benefit. Do they owe the public a voice in the decisions these institutions make?

So, I wrote a letter to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, raising these questions, which elicited some interesting feedback. But I think it's time for a much larger forum in which to air these important questions.

Why? Because these significant and thorny issues are rarely discussed publicly and when they are, it’s usually under the aegis of accountability, transparency or other issues that may be related to, but not necessarily synonymous with, whether foundation have a public responsibility to do all these things. When public participation is the focus, it’s usually framed either as a “nice thing to do” (on one side) or “something that should be required” (on the other) with little exploration as to what may lie in between or beyond.

There is even less discussion about whether public participation should be seen as a tactic (one of many) that philanthropic institutions can or should use to achieve their goals or whether public involvement is an ethos or value that could or should be embedded more deeply across the philanthropic community. If so, how can philanthropy move toward that goal?

Given increasing animosity between grant seekers and grant makers — and a parallel increase in the amount of suspicion bubbling up in the public domain about what foundations do and how — perhaps it’s time for the philanthropic community to throw open the doors and explore these questions more fully and substantively. Specifically,

- Why should private institutions be compelled to involve the public in their efforts? What incentive is there--and should there be an incentive?

- What is the value of public participation to philanthropic institutions? Does it enhance their effectiveness or impact? If so, how? If not, why not? And does there need to be evidence of it having an impact or is it something that should be done because it reflects the value or mission most institutions have on serving the public good?

- What is the role of private philanthropy in the public domain? What is the role of the public in relation to private philanthropy?

- Is there a middle ground between involving the public in philanthropic processes as one of many tactics institutions use to achieve their goals or something that could or should be embedded as an ethos or value across institutions?

- What are some of the many ways in which philanthropic institutions can involve the public in their processes?

Add your questions to the list. And your ideas about how to get them on the agenda!

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Social Networking Sites Aren't for Civic Engagement....Or Are They?

A recent New York Times op-ed sparked some controversy by suggesting that attempts by adults to use Facebook and similar social networking sites to nudge young people toward civic and political pursuits were misguided. Why? Because Facebook, Alice Mathias writes in "The Fakebook Generation," is a form of entertainment and shouldn't be taken seriously. And contrary to popular belief, she adds, these kinds of sites aren't necessarily about building networks as much as they are about escaping to another reality--one that's user-generated.

Some have suggested another reason these attempts may fail: Adults who use social networking venues to encourage more youth volunteering or other civic activities, well-intentioned as they are, may have forgotten what it's like to be young. And when you're interacting everyday with extremely civic-minded people, both young and old, it's easy to forget that not everyone's as engrossed in "doing good" as are those who've made it their life's work. The reality is that most people just aren't as into it. And others may not want something that they see as enjoyable and fun turned into something that's "good for them." Further, they may see those of us preaching about civic engagement as prissy "do-gooders"--the kind of kids, as one friend recently commented, "who were running for Student Council president or analyzing election returns in the womb." You know, the "nerds" who grew up and continued to do what they did in high school. And who wants to be a nerd? (Yet another painful example of how high school does permeate the rest of life--unfortunately).

This isn't easy to hear because it diminishes the dedication and passion of those working to promote and increase civic engagement as something that's tangential or irrelevant. But it's important to turn the tables once in awhile and see these efforts as others may seem them--and in ways that may not sit comfortably with our own images of ourselves. Otherwise, we risk becoming smug and self-righteous in admonishing people to "get involved." After all, if we're being seen as a "bunch of nerdy do-gooders" who've forgotten what it's like to be young, can we expect anyone but the younger version of ourselves--a very small percentage of the population--to
participate? Something to keep in mind when talking about, doing, and encouraging civic engagement more broadly.

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And Youth Shall Lead Us....

For a long time, some of us have been trying to figure out why there's been so much attention on getting young people to vote and much less on acknowledging that today's political system isn't really quite conducive to encouraging such participation. So, shouldn't we be harnessing people's frustration toward changing that system? Isn't that what true democracy's all about?

Happily, there's at least one group that's made this the focus:, a national "all-partisan" organization dedicated to youth civic engagement. Unlike some organizations that view young people as constituents for specific causes or agendas, provides the support for and encourages young people to weigh in on whatever issue or area they decide is important, decide what they want to do about it, and then do it in the ways they decide are most appropriate for them.

In short, they focus on the democratic process. And that focus comes through loud and clear in their just-issued Democracy 2.0 Declaration. (Read the full statement here.) Already turning some heads (including grey ones), the Declaration announces that "Democracy is an unfinished project [and that] it’s time we upgrade." Indeed. And who should lead this upgrade? Young people, of course. "We, the Millennial Generation, are uniquely positioned to call attention to today’s issues and shape the future based on the great legacy we have inherited. Our founding fathers intended for every generation to build, indeed to innovate, on the American experience. We realize that as young people we are expected to be the leaders of tomorrow, but we understand that as citizens we are called to be the leaders of today."

This isn't the usual manifesto issued every few weeks by yet another group of DC-based experts or insiders. It's what results when thousands of young people pool their energy, creatitivty and optimism toward creating a greater good--one that transcends the usual partisan or political siloes, issue agendas, and/or parties. And by using an online wiki process that gave a rather large group of young people the chance to weigh in with their ideas, sent a message that they walk the talk of the deliberative democratic process they'd like to see enacted in every state in the country.

See if it brings you to tears as it did for some of the people involved in writing it. And then rally young people you know to apply to attend's Party for the Presidency on December 29-31 in Hollywood--the "Mardi Gras" of youth politics that will convene young people from every Congressional district to create a plan to make real the the vision outlined in the Declaration.
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'Ssup With Minnesota?

Recently, the Minneapolis-St Paul Metro Area was declared the "number 1 metro area" for volunteering in the U.S., with 40.5 percent of residents--that's nearly half --volunteering annually, compared to a national average rate of 28.1 percent. The metro area also topped the rankings for retention of volunteers, with 77.3 percent of people returning to volunteer for the same organization or cause in multiple years. And Minnesota was third in the statewide volunteer rankings with 40.4 percent of people volunteering (Utah and Nebraska topped the list).

So is there something in the water up there--or do they know something the rest of us don't?
According to Volunteering in America: 2007 City Trends and Rankings, there are four key drivers of volunteering: community attachment; commuting times; high school graduation levels and poverty; and the prevalence of nonprofits and their capacity to retain volunteers from year to year.

While the first three drivers do favor Minnesota, the importance of the numerous vibrant nonprofits and civic organizations that exist in this rather cold climate (maybe people need to huddle together to stay warm?) can't be understated. The Minnesota Council of Nonprofits has long been one of the country's most dynamic nonprofit associations, representing and giving voice to thousands of nonprofits, their members and their constituencies. Minnesota is also home to one of the country's best resources on citizen-centered civic engagement: The Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and the Center for Democracy and Citizenship. Under the leadership of Harry Boyte, a seminal thinker and doer on these issues, the institutions have become nationally-recognized leaders in developing and assessing effective strategies for citizenship.

A particularly innovative and recent initiative, for example, is the CDC's new “Warrior to Citizen” campaign, which is matching Iraq war veterans' skills with local community needs. And in true citizen-centered form, St. Paul's mayor, Chris Coleman, continually talks about the need for "neighborhood learning" and the importance of a sense of "place" in the community--a message that is bolstered by a strong Youth Commission through which teens from different neighborhoods in the city work to engage their peers on issues of concern to the larger community.

So, should we all move there?
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Does Community Matter in Education?

Nick Longo’s recently-released book, Why Community Matters, is an important contribution to the dialogue about the relationship between citizenship and education. Longo, currently the director of the Harry T. Wilkes Institute at Miami University, argues that it’s not enough to teach about citizenship in schools; we must “rethink where education takes place,”and reimagine the relationship between community and schooling so that the school becomes the center of the community, and in turn the community becomes central to the school.

In making this argument, Longo turns to several great educational practitioners of the late 19th and early 20th century: John Dewey, a leading advocate for education reform; Jane Addams, founder of Hull House; and Myles Horton, founder of Highlander Folk School. Longo points out that these practitioners weren’t working in isolation as they developed and implemented their ideas---they were in dialogue with one another, and their ideas in turn influenced a nascent movement of community-centered education.

One area in which that influence has taken root a century later is in the West Side of St.Paul, Minnesota. Through two interrelated initiatives, the Neighborhood Learning Community and the Jane Addams School for Democracy, the principles of community education are playing out in powerful ways. As Longo says, “the ghosts of the past, from places like Hull House and Highlander, are alive in contemporary efforts, like those of the Neighborhood Learning Community.”
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Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Guest Column: Democracy is a Shared Global Project--Not an Export

by Matt Leighinger, Executive Director, Deliberative Democracy Consortium

“Democracy is a gift from the industrialized countries of the Global North to the lesser-developed nations of the Global South.”

This seems to be one of the key assumptions behind the foreign policies of the United States and many other Northern countries, despite that in most of these places, voter turnout and other traditional measures of democratic participation continue to fall. Undeterred, the North keeps trying to give, export, or dictate by force a particular, outdated form of democracy in other parts of the world.

Countries of the Global South are starting to question the “gift assumption” more and more, pointing not only to the attitudes of Northern citizens, but to the new accomplishments and – in some cases – the longstanding democratic traditions of Southern nations. Scholars and democracy activists are studying and promoting the work of ward committees in South Africa, citizen-driven land use planning exercises in India, participatory budgeting in Brazil, and “co-production” by citizens and government in the construction of water systems in the Philippines.

At the same time, the rapid growth of civic experimentation in the North is causing many leaders in those countries to reconsider the changing state of their own democracies. All over the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe, local, state, and federal leaders are organizing projects that involve citizens in more meaningful ways. These efforts are still a drop in the bucket when compared to more traditional forms of politics, but they illustrate and embody a larger shift in the relationship between citizens and government. A broader definition of democracy is emerging, one that that emphasizes the capacity of citizens as problem-solvers and decision-makers, not just voters and volunteers.

Local leaders have been dealing with these shifts in the citizen-government relationship for a while; now federal governments are starting to address them. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has announced a major new commitment to citizen engagement; in the U.S., a similar initiative by the Centers for Disease Control has received far less attention, but is no less meaningful.

It's time we recognized that the continuing development of democracy is a shared global project. Democracy is not something that has been perfected in the North, and bestowed upon (or rejected by) countries in the Global South. Instead, its continuing evolution is affected by unique local and regional factors, by universal conditions and principles, and by constant innovation and experimentation.

The Southern countries have much to learn from their Northern counterparts, but they also have much to teach. Their struggles, successes, and failures can provide lessons for democracy-builders everywhere. As John Gaventa, the chair of Oxfam Great Britain, has put it, the rising democracies of the South can help us understand how to revitalize the “diminished democracies” of the North.

Therefore, the nurturing and improvement of democracy will benefit most from a comparative, collaborative approach, rather than an exportation model. Different countries, regions, and the Global North and South need maximum opportunities to learn from each other and support one another. No one nation has figured out how citizens can govern themselves fairly, efficiently, and powerfully; we need to rethink how every nation can play a meaningful role in this shared global challenge.

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Monday, August 6, 2007

New Study Says that Diversity May Hurt Civic Life

A recent Boston Globe story announced a rather shocking assertion: That diversity may actually hurt, rather than help, to increase civic engagement. Perhaps even more startling is that the data comes from none other than the "guru of civic engagement,” Robert Putnam.

The results of this new study emanate from a survey Putnam conducted among residents in 41 U.S. communities. Residents were asked how much they trusted their neighbors and those of four categories used by the U.S. Census (black, white, Asian, Hispanic). They were also asked about their civic attitudes and practices. “What emerged,” writes the Globe, is a “bleak picture of civic desolation, affecting everything from political engagement to the state of social ties.” Specifically, the study found that the greater the diversity in a community, the less people vote, volunteer, give to charity, and work on community projects. They also tend to trust each other less than those living in more homogenous settings.

In short? Higher diversity equals lower social capital.

Putnam suggests that people who live in diverse settings may be more likely to “hunker down, i.e., pull in like a turtle.” As the BG piece points out, this is bound to make those who champion diversity as a necessary and healthy part of democracy, education, and civic life rather uncomfortable. Yet, others argue that the study results are important to “put out there” because they highlight the challenges of an increasingly diverse culture. Social identity, Putnam argues, can and will change over time, with “social divisions” giving way to more encompassing identities” that “create a new, more capacious sense of ‘we,’” he writes.

And while more diversity may hinder strong social ties and capital, other research indicates that it may be an asset for driving productivity and innovation. Scott Page, a University of Michigan political scientist and author of Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, has found that in high-skill workplaces, different ways of thinking among people from different cultures can push new ways of doing things. “Diverse teams tend to be more productive,” he asserts. As the Globe puts it, “those in more diverse communities may do more bowling alone, but the creative tensions unleashed by those differences in the workplace may vault those same places to the cutting edge of the economy and of creative culture.”

Page calls it the “diversity paradox.” According to the Globe, he thinks that the contrasting positive and negative effects of diversity can coexist in communities, but “there’s got to be a limit.” If civic engagement falls off too far, he says, it’s easy to imagine the positive effects of diversity beginning to wane as well. “That’s what’s unsettling about [Putnam’s] findings,” Page says.
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Can Philanthropy Be Citizen-Centered: Part 2: The Chronicle of Philanthropy Piece on Foundations Using “On Line Voting”

A just-released story by the Chronicle of Philanthropy attempts to shed light on what appears to be a trend among foundations (and a few nonprofits such as NetSquared) to invite the public to vote online as to which groups should get their grant dollars. Several institutions are highlighted, among them, The Case, Knight, and Robert Wood Johnson Foundations.

Overall, the piece is fairly balanced and thorough. But it got me thinking that here was another missed opportunity to address a larger issue, specifically: What responsibility do foundations have to a public from whom they derive significant tax benefit? Do they owe the public a voice in the decisions these institutions make? Instead, the piece focused primarily on one of the many tactics some foundations are using to invite more public involvement in their decisions--in this case online voting-- which should be viewed as a means to a greater end, not an end unto itself.

There are legitimate critiques of online voting, of course, not the least of which is that it can become a “free-for-all” or that the most sexy projects will be selected, rather than those that may be the most effective. That's why it will always be important to have intermediaries and, yes, experts involved in these kinds of processes. And, to be sure, there's a strong argument to be made that private foundations have every right to decide what to do with their money, especially in the case of living donors.

But given the increasing and palpable animosity between grantseekers and grantmakers—and a parallel increase in the amount of suspicion bubbling up in the public domain about what foundations do and how—perhaps it’s time for foundations to be a bit less defensive and start considering, at the very least, that the nonprofits and individuals they support might actually have something more to offer than proposals and reports.

Essentially, foundations need to start exploring new ways to develop stronger partnerships between the professionals that staff foundations and “real people” on the ground living in real communities. And that means going beyond simply hiring consultants to interview those people for “input” that usually gets fed back to the foundation experts who ultimately decide what they’re going to do. It means working with people to figure out how foundations can best to address the issues they say are important to them and their communities.

Asking people to vote on grant award dollars is a step in this direction--but it's only one step.
Another might be asking people in communities to work in partnership with foundations to develop decision-making criteria and grant application/program guidelines that spell out how these institutions will make their funding decisions and using what criteria. Unlike some foundations that define transparency as publishing an annual report, grantseekers have long known that real transparency is when funders are straight about the decisionmaking criteria they’re using and why. Foundations can also ask the public to engage in their priorty-setting when they do their periodic assessments, hold occasional meetings for the public, and bring in practitioners and outsiders to brief foundation staff on a regular basis.

These kinds of things, admittedly, won't be easy for institutions that have historically and traditionally been shrouded in secrecy. Particularly difficult will be giving control to a large group of people with little or no experience in professional philanthropy which is, to be sure, a risk. But is it worth it? You bet. Even it fails, it’s at least an attempt to help nudge the philanthropic community toward a mindset that considers ways in which they might be more responsive, real, and respectful to the public it purports to serve.

That's a real stretch from the way in which many grantseekers now view philanthropic insitutions, whose practices often raise hackles among nonprofits. And one comment in the COP piece tends to underscore that perhaps those sentiments have some merit, specifically, the notion that somehow letting the public in the doors of the hallowed walls of philanthropic institutions will "endanger" or "take the edge off philanthropy." One foundation executive emailed me after reading this, saying that it made him/her "laugh out loud" since "the entire realm of foundation philanthropy could be summarized as ‘a soft, safe center.’ “ That sentiment, we can safely say, is shared by thousands of others working in the nonprofit sector, even though few are wiling to say it publicly.

It's also important to question the notion that somehow this attempt to engage the public is will digress into a popularity contest. Let's face it, though. Hasn't philanthropy, generally speaking, always been a “popularity contest”? As a former fundraiser, the first rule we all learned was “getting money is less about the work and more about whom you know.” Yes, there are certainly many cases in which funds have been provided to groups doing exceptional work and have been assessed on the basis of that work. But those tend to be in the minority, if the laments among scores of nonprofit colleagues I’ve heard during the past 25 years are any indication. As Pablo Eisenberg and others have rightly pointed out, the foundation world is hardly a bastion of ardent risk-takers, as evidenced by their general reluctance to support anything that smacks of advocacy or controversy.

In any case, let's hope that this piece stirs things up a bit and incites more discussion—not only about “online voting” or the tactics of participatory philanthropy—but how we can be more effective in increasing and engaging the public in the processes so many of their tax dollars suport.

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The Experts Vs. The Rest of Us: New Book Makes the Case for Deliberative Democracy

Several years ago, I was interviewed for a job at a rather prominent institution by the president who spent several minutes ticking off the names and credentials of the experts s/he had planned to commission as consultants who would advise program staff on all facets of their activities. When I asked whether "real people" -- you know, the ones who are affected by the programs that this institution implemented--would be involved in advising the organization on similar matters, s/he paused for several seconds. Finally, s/he replied: "Well, we'll invite them to our conferences."

This is the kind of attitude that Alison Kadlec, a senior research associate at Public Agenda, addresses in her new book, Dewey's Critical Pragmatism, an examination of John Dewey's writings on pragmatism and a rallying cry for soundly-constructed public engagement programs that fulfill Dewey's vision of "democracy as a way of life." That way of life, Kadlec argues, is not solely the purview of the experts, pundits, and pontificators who deem "the people" as congenitally unfit for effective deliberation. She also takes on "radical democratic theorists" who criticize deliberative democracy practitioners as being blind or ill-prepared to address existing power relationships that they claim are reinforced in the deliberative process.

These "power oriented critics," she asserts, "do not enough and too much when it comes to assessing the meaning of and conditions for genuine deliberation. On the one hand, they operate with an unnecessarily cramped notion of deliberation and on the other, they rely on a counterproductively totalizing and static view of power."

That's laying down the gauntlet, indeed--and it's time that gauntlet was taken up by those who say they care about community organizing, deliberation, and public work. Is community organizing different from deliberative practice and if so, how? Is deliberative practice and public work a part of community organizing or vice versa? To date, however, I haven't seen much public space dedicated to exploring these issues, which bear considerable attention if we're to move foward. A previous post, "The Power Equation in Citizen-Centered Work," generated nary a comment, but it's time to change that. What could be done to facilitate these kinds of discussions? We sure could use them.

In the meantime, you can find out more information about the book at
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Sunday, July 22, 2007

CNN: Missing the Point

I live for the day when we have presidential candidate forums that feature thoughtful discussion, rather than tiresome “debates” (the Latin derivative of that word is “to beat down” and that’s what we get in the current format). You know, events that aren’t scripted by the candidates’ hacks or the celebrity newsreaders at the networks. The ones that ask tough questions or call candidates on being unresponsive when they lapse into their stump speeches rather than offer thoughtful answers.

Dream on, you say! Ok, but don’t call me—or the millions of other Americans, especially young people who are particularly savvy at boring through the spin that passes as discourse—“cynical” or “disengaged” when we tune out.

But what would happen if real people were able to engage directly with candidates in a conversation? And if they were able to do so unscripted and unfettered by “rules”? And (gasp!) they were allowed to follow up if candidates didn’t respond to the question. Who wouldn’t tune into see what could be TV’s hottest and most interesting reality show—especially if it’s live?

A step, admittedly a baby one, has been taken by CNN toward that vision by asking people to make videos of questions they want to ask the candidates and then send ‘em in to the network. Working in partnership with You Tube, CNN claims the effort gives the public the chance to ask the candidates questions “directly.” But how direct is it when CNN’ still gets final say on whose videos appear? And where’s the interaction between asker and respondent?

Evidently, CNN, is like lots of others who think that because they “use technology,” they’re promoting cutting-edge democracy. Uh-uh. What makes technology democratic isn’t the technology. Technology is merely the vehicle for a larger process that invites open and free communication among all those engaged in the discussion—sans traditional institutional mediators and filters. If that’s not democracy, I don’t know what is.

Alas, most politicos don’t get that and continue to view technology as just another platform to push out their messages to a public they assume has no opinion (none that they want to hear, anyway). According to Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of TechPresident, a bipartisan group blog that tracks online campaigns, in a recent Washington Post piece, “The problem with the format is it's not fully embracing the culture of how the Internet determines what's of value….Look at Wikipedia. The 'wisdom of the crowd,' as it's known, is not only a technological phenomenon, it's a cultural phenomenon."

Too bad CNN doesn’t seem to understand that—yet. On the bright side, at least they’re doing something relevant, which is more than we can say for their compatriots at the other networks. Still, don’t be surprised if the ratings for this latest extravaganza aren’t the chart-toppers CNN may be anticipating. The wisdom of crowds suggests that most folks, especially young people, will see through this as nothing more than old wine in new bottles and continue to look to alternative sources for their news—the ones that care more about democratic participation than ratings. We can only hope that might change things down the road.
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Whither Organizations?

Citizen-centered approaches underscore the importance of individuals, but does that mean that organizations are becoming less important in civic and political life? If so, why? Allison Fine, author of Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age, believes that technology helps to “break down the walls of institutions” in ways that promote more collaboration and reciprocity among diverse groups of individuals and groups. It also provides the grease for more rapid and efficient social problem-solving. “When you have the ability, even as a single individual to see a problem like an oil spill on a lake and can tell thousands of people about it instantly," Fine says, "you can mobilize more people faster and more effectively.” As a result, the role of organizations shifts from agenda-setting leaders to supporters or diffusers of information and resources across wider networks. The thousands of people who left their offices and schools in early 2006 to participate in immigration marches, Fine points out, were fueled less by formal organizations and more by the buzz created among peers using cell phones, text messaging, and blogs.

Recently, launched a new international initiative that underscores the increasing power individuals can have by simply flicking their keypads. The brainchild of founder Ami Dar, Imagine! is a worldwide effort to “create a global network of people who want to build a better world.” To get there, Dar says, “we need to reach out, connect, and plug in.” Imagine! then gives people a range of ways to do just that, including attending or hosting start-up meetings in their neighborhoods, schools or workplaces during the week of April 23-29. So far, thousands of people from scores of countries around the globe have committed to holding meetings.

So, where do organizations fit into that?

Some believe that thinking that “it’s all about individuals” is naïve and unfeasible. As one critic said in response to an email blast regarding Idealist’s initiative, “This assumes that people will sign up and things will just naturally sprout up and happen.” Based on her own experience in attempting something similar, she said that “it isn’t going to happen without some kind of more formal or structured organization behind it or, at the very least, involved in some way.”

I decided to ask someone with deep experience in working with communities what she thought about this question. Martha McCoy, director of the Study Circles Resource Center didn’t disappoint, offering this thoughtful response:

“If the equation is formulated as individuals instead of institutions, then we run the risk of losing the possibility of individuals engaging with institutions-–and of losing the possibility of institutions engaging with individuals who provide them with accountability--and in ways that support the public good.” To do that requires opportunities for people to get together and talk about things first, which can lay the groundwork for more participation and effective action.

But dialogue isn't a magic bullet for such partnerships. McCoy’s found that while, indeed, such exchanges can and do often result in “new energy, new participation, new relationships, and even some problem-solving,” it often isn’t enough. “Time and again, we’ve heard formal and informal leaders express the need for more intentional organizing that will lead to the creation of diverse public spaces and we know that this won't happen without intentionality, due to historical patterns of residential segregation, varying senses of civic efficacy, and longstanding barriers to participation." McCoy said that dialogue also leads to a desire among participants to create meaningful links to institutions (via people working at all levels in schools, police departments, municipal governments, social service agencies, etc.) that can open avenues for institutional and policy change. And there's also a desire then to link people’s engagement with public work aimed at creating change-– including institutional and policy change.

Indeed, it’s a refrain I’ve also heard, especially among community organizers (see last month’s blog, “The Power Equation in CC’d Work”). McCoy says to address meaningfully the complex social and political issues that advocates care about, the avenues for participation need to be clearly linked to opportunities to take collective action and create more responsive and citizen-centered institutions, policies and governance. “This requires a kind of community organizing, but not the usual 'either/or' top-down, elite-driven approach or bottom-up strategy, but the give-and-take of side-by-side organizing that would be greatly enhanced by the kind of network and platform that groups like Idealist are providing. I think of it as the needed formation of democratic capital that draws on--but that goes beyond--the formation of social capital.”

In short, it’s institutions and people working together but as somewhat more equal partners than has been the case previously. Traditionally, institutions have tended to leave out the public (think public schools, foundations, government, public agencies) in their decision-making processes. The public, in turn, has drifted away from institutions, thinking either that they have nothing to offer the experts and professionals that dominate institutional ranks or that they, as individuals, can and should do it themselves.

McCoy thinks it would be helpful for groups like to think about how their networking platforms could tie into and enhance the other democratic dialogue-to-action efforts happening on the ground, are generating energy and change. “Ultimately, platforms like Idealist’s could be critical to linking community efforts with each other, and to providing a critical piece of an infrastructure for a more citizen-driven democracy. In fact, this is something the folks at the Deliberative Democracy Consortium have been talking about.”

Some additional thoughts on this issue appeared last year in the Kettering Review (Spring 2006). Ernie Cortes of the Industrial Areas Foundation, in “Toward a Democratic Culture,” echoes McCoy by contending that it’s going to be up to citizens to start rebuilding institutions in ways that encourage broader deliberation among diverse groups of people and organizations in communities and, ultimately, help undergird action. In the same issue, Editor Noelle McAfee, agreed: “For democratic communities to work, there need to be longstanding public institutions through which people can come together, institutions that are not shy about standing up for what citizens are coming to, nor of building relationships with officials. These institutions could convene public deliberations and serve as venues for public action, convening with officials, and even advocating for the public wills.”

Now the challenge is figuring out how to do it.
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Monday, June 18, 2007

Can Philanthropy be Citizen-Centered?

It may seem a contradiction in terms, given the very thick veil of secrecy that has long surrounded philanthropic institutions—and the lack of incentive to lift that veil—but let’s explore it anyway. As some have argued vociferously, philanthropy has become a cadre of elites whose decisions are rarely, if ever, made with the involvement of real people in real communities—other than using consultants to interview people for input as part of expert-driven and written reports that recommend what funders should do...

An anecdote illustrates how entrenched this view is. At a meeting of several foundation officials a few years ago, the issue of “accountability” emerged (one of many buzzwords—along with “evaluation,” “logic models,” “theory of change” and “strategic planning”—that are the focus of much pontificating but are rarely demonstrated through actual practice and results).

Much back-slapping ensued, with participants their commitment to transparency, demonstrated through their willingness to produce annual reports and host web sites. But I had a question. Is that really transparency when the information that grantseekers and the public really want is how the funder makes decisions. What criteria do they use? Whose opinion matters most?

I was met with stony silence. Then an uproar ensued.

“We don’t have to tell people that,” one foundation president said. “We’re private!” Another averred that “we don’t have to be accountable; we do good work.” Still another said that “opening this up to the public would prohibit us from being efficient.”

Is it true that foundations have no responsibility to be more transparent than they are to the public? What’s the incentive to do so? What responsibility do they have, actually, to the public?

Determined to find answers to these questions, the Case Foundation has launched a new pilot grantmaking program that tests whether it’s possible for a private foundation to involve real citizens in all phases of this program—from developing guidelines to it to vetting applications to making grant decisions. Read the recent New York Times story about it and stay tuned for ongoing progress reports.

In the meantime, let us know if you’ve heard about other funders who have tried to involve “real people” on their boards, in their grantmaking decision-making or in activities that go beyond attending meetings or responding to interviews. We’re interested.
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Are Legislators Finally Getting It About Working With Citizens?

A friend of who lives in a mid-sized town in Massachusetts was concerned that the sidewalks in her neighborhood were becoming so full of potholes that her kids couldn’t ride their bikes on them anymore. With a group of equally concerned neighbors, she marched down to City Hall to meet with her City Council member. “We want to help you do something about this situation,” she said to the member. The member kindly thanked her for her offer and said: “But that’s our job. Why are you here?”...

A true story that’s hardly unique. It underscores that even when there are citizens willing to step up and “get engaged,” they may meet with downright hostility when they try to access legislators who seem to have forgotten that they’re supposed to be listening to and working with a public they’ve sworn to serve.

So says Matt Leighninger in his new book, The Next Form of Democracy: How Expert Rule is Giving Way to Shared Governance…and Why Politics Will Never Be the Same.

According to Leighninger, legislators may finally be getting it that they aren’t going to have much success if they continue to ignore citizens’ desire to help solve problems that are increasingly difficult to solve without some new and fresh ideas. And who better than to provide these ideas than the real people who face these issues everyday? In short, legislators, especially at the local level, are realizing that to be successful, they not only need public buy-in, they need public weigh -in.

That realization is the result of a convergence of two trends. The first is citizens’ frustration with their legislatures. The second is legislators’ frustration with the constant bashing many of them get from citizens, as well as a lack of public trust overall in what they do or say.

The auspicious outcome is that some legislators are now going beyond seeing citizens as mere constituents or asking them for “input” about legislative decisions. Instead, they’re working in partnership with citizens to craft and pass legislation and policies that respond to what people say they need. And both citizens and legislators are doing it through public deliberation—civic spaces that convene cross-sections of communities to talk, hear different ideas, explore options, make decisions, and take action on issues that will benefit the common good.

This isn’t some Kum-bay-yah picnic party. It’s real democracy at work and Leighninger provides a surfeit of examples of it in the book.

Take Eugene, Oregon, where City Council members confronted with an $8 million budget shortfall sent “budget worksheets” to every household in the city to get peoples’ input as to how they should allocate funds. Residents brought the worksheets to community workshops and told the city what they would do and why. The city took that information and developed three options that they presented to residents for another set of deliberations. The result was a brand new citizen-crafted new budget that emerged from a process that was so successful, it’s being considered for replication in the state capital.

Do you have others? Post them here.
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Friday, June 15, 2007

The Flattening of Politics Through Technology

I’ve long believed that the incessant focus on “getting people to vote” is a bit short-sighted and ignores the fact that, today, there are little real incentives for people to vote, let along participate in other political processes that are equally important to our democracy. As Bob Herbert wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed, the system’s broken...

Today, there is little substance in campaigns, with spin passing for political discourse, much of which is driven by poll-obsessed consultants who balk at the hint of candidates having an original thought and expressing it. Even when there are political “debates,” the questions lobbed at candidates are usually those that have been vetted by party leaders and then posed by celebrity journalists, rather than by citizens. Campaigns are also dominated by big money and there’s a real dearth of interesting and inspiring candidates, due to ballot access requirements that keep third-party and independent candidates—those are, arguably, more interesting—off the ballots. The United States, in fact, has some of the most stringent ballot access requirements of any democracy in the world. Add to that antiquated redistricting rules and a Byzantine maze of electoral rules and regulations across every state, and you’ve created a real disincentive for people to “get involved” in politics.

But the answer isn’t to walk away. It’s to change it.

Auspiciously, that’s what some are trying to do, and they’re using technology to do it, which may be leading to the flattening of politics. Take the Vote Different video—the “most famous video of the election cycle thus far,” according to the Globalist. Although Hillary was bashed (literally) in the spot, which was produced by a self-proclaimed Obama fan, the overarching message was powerful: It’s time for real people to take back campaigns from the media pundits, pollsters, consultants, party fundraisers who’ve bollixed up the process. And it’s helped spread the word about a relatively new concept—citizen-generated content—to nearly 3 million people who’ve viewed the spot on YouTube.

So is this the wave of the future or just a fluke? The 600-plus participants who converged on New York City to attend the Personal Democracy Forum’s recent conference argue that technology is changing politics, like it or not, so we all better get used to it and see it as an opportunity to transform our democracy in ways that encourage, rather than limit, participation. This was PDF’s fourth conference, which brought together the country’s leading technologists, campaign organizers, politicos, bloggers, activists and journalists high-level conversations about the new tools, sites and practices that are transforming elections and government. In an array of tight and compelling presentations, speakers warned that politicians and others who aren’t getting it about technology will soon find themselves left in the dust—maybe not during this election cycle but certainly, the next one.

They also underscored how technology is pushing out the traditional media as the arbiters of what gets discussed regarding political campaigns through social networks and user-created media through which information flows from the bottom-up, rather than top-down. This is particularly true among young people, said danah boyd. In one of the most interesting presentations, boyd called on politicians to start understanding that, to young people, digital spaces are just as important as physical spaces and is where they tend to live their lives. To that end, she said, politicians need to start “giving digital handshakes on virtual receiving lines” by logging on once in awhile and participating interactively with young people, rather than just putting up a website and pushing out “messages” to them.

Politicians, boyd noted, aren’t doing this yet. Yes, they’re rushing to Facebook to put up a profile, but they’re still using these sites as platforms and “broadcast media like TV,” rather than interactive, civic spaces whose hallmark is interactivity and reciprocity. “Simply having a profile on MySpace,” she warns, “does not convince the under-30s to vote for you.” What will is making time to “shake hands” with young people digitally the same way politicians make time to shake hands with voters in public forums.
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Does Citizen-Centered Work Have to be Nonpartisan?

Of all the critiques of Citizens at the Center, the charge that it is “yet another ideological attempt to promote a liberal (or conservative) agenda.” Yes, both have been levied at the concept, which, in practice, is neither, ironically, proving the adage that people will see what they want to see, despite a cigar sometimes being just a cigar...

One of those discussions took place in Washington, D.C. this past December with a group of citizen-centered practitioners and scholars. Part of the group strongly believed that nonpartisanship is essential to deliberative processes if the goal is to create civic cultures built on mutual respect. That can only happen, one person said, “when a diverse group of people feel that their views – all views – are ‘heard’ and valued.” This does not preclude, he added, people having strong political views or engaging in more targeted efforts based on similar political interests or views, but to ensure that this kind of engagement is sustained and supported, “communities must first start from an equal platform to get everyone’s input and see where there are areas of mutual agreement.” Having pre-determined agendas is “antithetical to the deliberative process.”

Others disagreed, saying that what appears to be the approach’s “deep neutrality” may turn off would-be supporters. There was also concern that some may view the approach as not taking seriously enough the political, ethnic, racial, economic, and other differences that tend to divide people, especially during discussions between traditionally disenfranchised and privileged constituencies. Moreover, if people are expected to “take action together,” this implies a sense of efficacy or power that some groups of people do not have or to which they lack access.

Still others argued that citizen-centered work shouldn’t be synonymous with civility or consensus, stressing that deliberation implies ultimately making decisions. The emphasis is on the process through which communities get to those decisions, especially whether it’s done collectively with all people’s input or whether some are left out or not valued. As Peter Levine, one of the participants, noted: “People’s discussions and work should be open-ended, but when we ask why citizens have been sidelined and what to do about it, their answers reflect their political view. That’s fine; there are many valid flavors of civic renewal. Nothing could be more useful than a competition or debate among political parties and candidates who vied to put ‘citizens back at the center.’” Will Friedman, another participant, added that “this work should not be viewed as a replacement for partisanship but as a complement to it. It’s about having voices in the mix that may all be partisan but there are more of them and from a broader swath of groups.”

What do you think?
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Issues: Catalyst for or Results of Citizen-Centered Work?

Some research has shown that people, especially young people, are more inclined to be civically engaged when they become interested in a specific issue or cause. I know that was certainly true in my case.

This has raised questions about whether citizen-centered processes, which are deliberately cast as more open-ended or as public meetings that do not have a narrow or pre-determined issue focus, will be effective in inciting more civic engagement. As one colleague who’s a staunch believer in the power of issues as catalysts for longer-term engagement put it: “Who wants to come to a public discussion in which you have no idea what’s going to be discussed?”...

Well, maybe some of us would. In fact, I know many people who are tired of complex issues or problems being labeled in ways that immediately shuts off discussion or exploration. Think of abortion. Most Americans are decidedly moderate on this issue; yet, most public forums about it tend to be defined as either “pro-choice” or “pro-life.” Where do those who lie somewhere in between go to talk about the issue in ways that respect what they have to say?

Not to mention that there are always a swath of people who are just genetically wired to be interested in issues or causes. And there’s always a group of folks who want to volunteer. But are there spaces for the rest of the community who may not be interested in specific issues but who may want to weigh in on the larger health or well-being of their neighborhoods?

So, there are interesting questions about the role of specific issues in citizen-centered processes. Do issue-specific efforts among a smaller set of players who are interested in them lead to the likelihood that the larger communities in which these issues play out are more connected and interested in working together—across ideological differences—for the larger common good? What happens after the issues is resolved, won or lost?
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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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