Posts Tagged ‘democracy’
Here are a few more observations I took away from NCDD 2010 Portland: The Cascadia Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation last weekend. You can read my earlier post about this excellent event here.
Gov2.0 meets D&D
There seems a be a convergence underway between the open government or “Gov 2.0″ movement and the dialogue and deliberation (or D&D) community. The Gov 2.0 crowd is largely focused on opening up government datasets in the interest of transparency and civic innovation. It’s largely driven by government techies and open-source geeks keen on exposing data to the public so that citizens can create apps that improve, augment, or streamline government services and make government more responsive and accountable. For example, see efforts like Open311, Portland’s CivicApps project, the Vancouver Open Data Catalogue, the Open Gov West conferences, and Code for America.
Meanwhile, the D&D community has long focused on spreading better offline face-to-face interaction, through innovative social “technologies” like the World Cafe, Open Space, Future Search, Wisdom Councils, Study Circles, and Conversation Cafes. These are all structured dialogue or deliberation processes that are designed to better harness the collective intelligence of groups — for better learning, discovery, planning, and decision-making. And maybe it’s a generational thing (most D&D practitioners are not Net Natives), but until recently I’ve always sensed a general distrust of online communication technologies and strong preference for offline dialogue among most of my friends in the D&D community.
There are, of course, some notable exceptions that have long embraced technology, like AmericaSpeaks, MetroQuest, and the many online forums run by E-Democracy.org. Governments experimenting with online public consultation is not new. And there is a significant community of online facilitators that has been steadily growing for over a decade. But recent advances in deliberative software and the exponential growth of social media has changed the game, seeding the ground for much wider adoption of online public engagement strategies.
At the NCDD conference, I was excited to see a surge of interest in experimentation with new technologies for online outreach and citizen engagement, especially among government officials. I believe this is driven by several factors:
- Growth of Social Media: As citizens get used to interacting with businesses and nonprofits through social utilities like Facebook and Twitter, they’re expecting to be able to interact with government officials and institutions via the same channels. Institutions are adopting enterprise social networking and collaboration tools internally, too. It only makes sense that those institutions would begin to engage the public via similar tools.
- Eroding Trust in Government: Public trust and confidence in government is at record lows. Conventional methods of public engagement — public hearings, surveys, citizen advisory panels, public notices in newspapers — are boring and ineffective, and may well spur more apathy than engagement. As state and local government budgets grow leaner by the day, officials are desperate for new approaches that could help them do more with less.
- Gov 2.0: The open gov meme is spreading fast by word-of-mouth in government circles. Public officials are seeing successful experiments with open data and the range of new technologies for collaboration and civic dialogue that are emerging. And many of them are eager to get in the game.
- Deliberative Software: Recent advances in online dialogue and deliberation technologies mean governments have more and better tools to choose from in crafting their public engagement strategies.
The Importance of Inclusion
The need for fostering “equitable dialogue” was a strong undercurrent at the conference. In the World Cafe dialogue on Friday evening, one participant asked, “Is public engagement considered a leisure activity? For whom?” To which another replied that, unfortunately, Maslow was right — the people who would benefit most from getting more engaged are also the most likely to consider civic activities leisure, especially when they are struggling to feed their families. Several participants pointed out that the crowd at the conference was overwhelmingly white and over 40. One of the facilitators kicked himself publicly when he realized that, despite holding the conference at a university, no notices were posted on campus inviting students to attend.
It was also pointed out that we need to be careful not to let our fascination with new technologies blind us to their shortcomings. The digital divide is still very real. That means we need to pay attention to accessibility, and keep legacy modes of engagement in place — i.e. face-to-face hearings and community meetings, phone surveys, etc. — so that nobody is left out. Because for democracy to truly work, everybody needs a seat at the table.
As I write this, I’m rocketing down the rails on the Amtrak from Portland to Seattle, headed home after the Cascadia Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation. This inspiring confab was the last of 5 regional gatherings held around the country this fall by the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD), a nonprofit that promotes the use of innovative social processes for better discovery, learning, and decision-making, in settings from neighborhood groups to corporate boardrooms, nonprofits to universities to legislative bodies. It was hosted by Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement and Concordia University.
The theme of the conference was “public engagement” — which was broken down into three broad topics:
- Quality Public Engagement: What is quality public engagement and how do we educate others about it so it becomes broadly adopted?
- Online Engagement: How can online technology enhance public engagement?
- Collaborations that Work: How can we strengthen connections between public administrators, engagement practitioners and the public?
Kudos to NCDD’s Sandy Heierbacher and the entire organizing team (especially crack facilitators Walt Roberts and Tod Sloan) for putting together a fantastic event that left me enlightened and inspired. It was the perfect antidote to the toxic partisanship of the recent election season.
A Few Highlights
My head is still spinning from the rich stew of ideas, models, processes and projects presented at the event, to say nothing of the amazing people. Herewith, a few highlights:
1. The People
The best thing about this gathering was the people. (I love hanging out with facilitators and social process geeks.) The attendees, about 180 in all, consisted of a mix of professional facilitators, academics, community organizers, techies, consultants, corporate and philanthropic leaders, and government officials. It was great to spend time with old friends and co-conspirators like Joseph McCormick, Susan Partnow, Howard Silverman, John Spady, Peggy Holman, Jim Rough, and one of my personal heroes, Tom Atlee. To finally meet folks long I’ve admired, like DeAnna Martin and Sandy Heierbacher. And to make tons of new connections with inspiring people who are in the trenches daily endeavoring to make democracy work.
2. The Process
Most conferences (and I attend a lot) are sorely lacking in one respect: interactivity. They don’t build in enough opportunities for dialogue — between audience and presenters, or, more importantly, between participants. The old, didactic model of experts at the front of the room dropping knowledge on the audience followed by a short Q&A period misses so many opportunities for participants to interact in creative, generative ways that spark new connections, deepen the conversation and harness the wisdom of everyone in the room. This conference, by contrast, was beautifully designed and facilitated for maximum dialogue potential.
The conference kicked off on Friday evening with a World Cafe dialogue, facilitated by Walt Roberts, on the state of public engagement. About 50 of us spent two hours shuffling from table to table every 15-20 minutes as we moved through a series of questions about the state of public engagement and ways to improve it. Between each round, we passed the mic around the room as people shared insights that had come up at their tables, and a team of graphic facilitators recorded our thoughts with markers on large paper murals with images and keywords culled from the report-backs. This was a great way to quickly meet a bunch of new people, generate a wide range of ideas and insights, and set a conversational, collaborative tone for the rest of the conference.
The main event took place Saturday from 9-5, with all 180 participants in attendance. The morning consisted of three plenary presentations of innovative dialogue-driven public engagement projects from Washington and Oregon (more on the projects below). After each presentation, rather than going straight to Q&A, the audience members turned to each other in groups of four to discuss what we had just heard. The mic was then passed around for people to share their observations and insights, or ask questions of the presenters.
The afternoon breakout sessions were organized using Open Space, a self-organizing process where anyone in the room can offer a session on any topic. Some two dozen sessions were offered — ranging from brainstorming sessions on upcoming public engagement projects to technology demos, conversations on race, gender, and privilege to envisioning a sustainable future for suburbs. John Spady and I presented together a demonstration of the web platform my company, Zanby, built for the Countywide Community Forums (more on that below).
After the breakouts we reconvened for a final wrap-up session where, again, the mic was passed around the room so that anyone could offer insights or reflections. In keeping with the goal of maximizing interaction, the last thing facilitator Walt Roberts did before closing was to invite everyone to look around the room and find someone you’ve been meaning to connect with but haven’t yet had the chance.
I wish conference planners everywhere would take a few pages from NCDD’s book and design many more opportunities for dialogue and interactivity into their events.
3. The Projects
The three projects featured in the morning plenaries were all noteworthy.
- City of Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI): Several ONI staff presented about the variety of ways the city is institutionalizing public involvement in decision-making processes throughout the city government. Afifa Ahmed-Shafi, ONI’s Public Involvement Best Practices Coordinator, described the Public Involvement Principles [PDF] adopted last August by the city council. According to the ONI website, “[The] principles include partnership, early involvement, building relationships and community capacity, inclusiveness and equity, good quality process design and implementation, transparency, and accountability.” The city council also adopted a requirement that every measure submitted at council be accompanied by a “public involvement report” documenting how citizens were consulted in developing the proposal. ONI is currently conducting a baseline assessment of public involvement across all city offices, and is looking at other experiments such as participatory budgeting.
- Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review: Established by the Oregon legislature in 2008, this reform institutionalized a citizen jury-style process for evaluating the pros and cons of statewide ballot measures. “24 Oregon voters are selected at random, and then demographically balanced to fairly represent a cross-section of the entire state electorate. This panel participates in balanced hearings where campaign advocates and policy experts present the arguments and facts about the measure.” After several days of testimony, the panelists decide how they would vote on the measures and write pro and con statements. The statements and vote totals are included in the official state voter’s guide.
- Countywide Community Forums (CCF): [Full Disclosure: CCF is a Zanby client.] In 2007 Dick Spady, founder of Dick’s Drive-In Restaurants, proposed a ballot initiative to establish a periodic public consultation process for King County government. After supporters gathered 80,000 signatures the county council adopted the measure before it had a chance to go to a public vote. Since then, every 4-6 months, the County Executive or the CCF board picks a topic and declares a new forum round. Past topics have included public safety, customer service, and county budget priorities. For a period of 4-6 weeks, the public (anyone who lives or works in King County) is invited to become registered “citizen councilors” and host or attend a meeting in their neighborhood where they watch a brief overview video about the topic, discuss the issues, and take an opinion survey. Alternatively, citizen councilors can watch the video, discuss, and take the survey entirely online at the CCF website. The website, which is powered by Zanby’s online community platform, also features a map and calendar of face-to-face meetings, as well as online groups for staff and volunteers to collaborate and manage the program. When a forum round is over, the survey responses are tabulated and presented in a report to the County Auditor, County Council, and the public. The most recent forum round, which took place earlier this fall, focused on “county budget priorities” and resulted in 766 surveys submitted.
I also learned about several other cool initiatives at the conference:
- Marine Map – A web-based decision support tool for multi-stakeholder marine spatial planning, developed by EcoTrust. With some cool GIS technology, participants in a live workshop setting or online can draw a circle on a map to propose a protected area and get an immediate analysis of the impacts on habitat, fish populations, and economic impacts on nearby ports and fishing fleets. Check out this video.
- A Pattern Language for Social Process (no link) – A physical card deck being developed by a woman named Tree that is meant to aide with creative problem-solving in community and organizational settings. I’m still trying to get my hands on a copy of the deck.
- Ideas4Oregon – After this idea-generation contest drew 542 submissions for creative ways to address social problems, the Meyer Memorial Trust, Oregon’s largest community foundation, is working on plans to build a platform for better connecting the state’s social sector.
- Family Support Network – Has a newly redesigned website that helps community activists to map assets (such as skills or equipment) at the neighborhood level and trains “community weavers” who help neighbors match needs and assets in times of crisis, increasing community resilience.
In my next post, I’ll share some further observations on the ideas and issues that came up in the discussions at the Portland conference.
Last weekend at the Journalism that Matters-Pacific Northwest conference, Bart Preecs proposed an intriguing new business model for funding coverage of the Washington State legislature. He pointed out that issue advertising — those is the only ad category that is growing right now. Last August, BusinessWeek blogger Jon Fine wrote:
For the foreseeable future, and for that matter probably forever, we are in a world where major legislative battles will be accompanied by major ad campaigns… Through mid-August, $436 million had been spent on issue-related ads this year.
That roiling font of cash is awfully enticing, especially in a down economy where the job category of “professional journalist” is beginning to look almost as anachronistic as “typesetter” or “bootblack.” According to Bart, $52 million was spent in 2009 on lobbying the Washington State government. Just one percent of that could fund a decent online journalistic operation, adding several full-time reporters to the state capitol press corps. To capture that revenue, Bart proposed creating a web-based directory listing all of the organizations that spend that money. Each directory page would include info about an organization and a summary of its legislative priorities and positions. It would also include links to other organizations opposing its positions on those issues. As in the Yellow Pages, the listed organizations could pay a premium to sponsor a large section of the page, which could include their own written statements on the issues, perhaps with links to their position papers, or banner or video ads about their positions.
I have a couple of concerns about this business model:
1. I’m not sure it’s viable. What is the incentive for a lobby group to spend money on a premium listing, especially on a directory page that includes links to their opponents, when they can already get their messages out unfiltered via existing TV, radio, print and online ad buys? Organizations like the Washington Hospital Association or the Washington Association of Realtors are generally more interested in drawing public attention to the issues as they frame them and often shy away from attention to themselves. That’s why there are so many “astroturf” (fake grassroots) front groups. This raises questions about who the intended users of this directory would be. The general public, or political insiders? For the general public, such a directory would be a great resource, bringing more transparency to the murky sausage-making that happens in Olympia. But those advertisers aren’t promoting transparency with their dollars. They’re trying to sway legislators’ votes, which too often means clouding the issues by rallying public opinion around hot buttons like “big government,” “cap-and-tax,” and “socialism!” If, however, the site is targeted at political insiders, maybe a subscription model, or a freemium service would be better.
2. Increasing reliance on issue-ad dollars to fund political journalism may be bad for political journalism (and for democracy). Lobby groups are boosting their ad spending for a reason. It gives them a platform to deliver their messages directly to the public, unfiltered by journalistic scrutiny. The vast (and growing) majority of that money is coming from well-heeled interests often pushing messages that are very harmful to the public and the planet. Consider, for example, the barrage of ads last year against Obama’s healthcare reform proposal, or the Employee Free Choice Act, or the campaigns greenwashing nuclear power, so-called “clean coal,” and companies like Exxon and BP.
Such ads make this progressive’s skin crawl. And the FCC can’t regulate them for truth the way the FDA regulates health claims or the FTC polices truth-in-advertising for consumer products. I fear that creating more real-estate for such messages will outweigh the public good from the journalism those ads help to underwrite.
I realize it may not sound like it, but I’m a staunch advocate of free speech, an actual card-carrying member of the ACLU. And I’m not naive enough to think I can just wish those ads away.
What we need is to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine for broadcast media. For online media like the lobbying directory Bart proposes, we need a code of ethics and some new practices around truth-in-advertising. I’d suggest:
- All advertising must be clearly marked as paid-for by the sponsor, for obvious reasons; and
- User comments should be enabled on all political ads. User comments would allow advertisers’ claims to be challenged in the same forum where they appear, and would engage the audience actively in the discussion/debate on the issues. Some online ad networks, including Federated Media, have tested ads that enable user comments. I would personally be impressed with advertisers who are willing to engage in a conversation with their audience in this way. But I have doubts about it’s attractiveness to most of the big money advertisers, which brings us right back to square one.
I commend Bart’s initiative. We are all desperately seeking new business models to fund the political journalism that is so vital to a functioning democracy, and drinking from the firehose of issue ad dollars is tempting. But unless we can come up with effective ways to safeguard against unethical ads and promote greater transparency, we may be making a fool’s bargain.