NCOC Featured Discussion

Democracy in Motion: Evaluating the Practice and Impact of Deliberative Civic Engagement

An Interview with Matt Leighninger

December 18, 2012
Matt Leighninger is the Executive Director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium (DDC), an alliance of the major organizations and leading scholars working in the field of deliberation and public engagement.

Matt was one of a group of editors to work on
Democracy in Motion – the first comprehensive attempt to assess the practice and impact of deliberative civic engagement, addressing the big questions facing the field. NCoC Communications Fellow Alice Murphy interviewed Matt on his latest contribution to the civic sphere.

Alice Murphy:
What inspired the production of Democracy in Motion: Evaluating the Practice and Impact of Deliberative Civic Engagement?

Matt Leighninger: People who research or practice civic engagement have been coming up against some of the same big questions, again and again – How does this work change citizens? How does it lead to action? How does engagement online differ from face-to-face? And so on. At a DDC meeting a few years ago, we decided to take on these questions in a book, by having researchers, practitioners, and students all share in the writing and reviewing. We came up with some answers we expected, some we didn’t, and lots of new and better questions.

Alice: Who is your target audience, and what are 1-2 key lessons, resources or findings you hope they will take away?

Matt: We think this book will be helpful for all kinds of people who have a stake in engagement – not just the practitioners and researchers, but public officials, administrators, funders, and others. I hope that people take away the conclusion that if you look at the many kinds of engagement work, happening all over the world, on a wide array of issues, you will find more similarities than differences. The same basic tactics seem to work. The same basic challenges always emerge. We know how to engage people in temporary processes at the local level that help communities make decisions and solve problems. We know much less about how to sustain that work so that it becomes embedded in the ways that governments and communities operate.

Alice: In your section, “Mapping Deliberative Civic Engagement,” you draw attention to one of the criticisms of the civic sphere: we depend on the “fuzzy language” (i.e. deliberative democracy, public engagement, and citizen participation) to the point where we sometimes fail to see parallels between our own work and efforts carried out under different labels. What is deliberative democracy and how does it relate to the language we already know and use?

Matt: I think of deliberative democracy as something that happens whenever large, diverse numbers of people have a chance to learn more about an issue, share why they care about it, consider a range of views or policy options, and decide together how to take action. It requires some organizing and some structure – but mainly a lot of hard work. Other people call this public engagement, or participation, or any one of a bunch of other ‘civic synonyms.’ It is possible to define each one more precisely, but I’m not sure that gets us anywhere. None of these labels is very compelling. What seems more compelling to me is how the work they describe is part of this dramatic, foundational shift in how democracy is working.

Alice: Is deliberative democracy a purely local phenomenon or can we expect to see it in state and federal government? If so, what are the potential challenges?

Matt: People answer this in many different ways – and as a field, we’ve tried many different things that haven’t worked. I think we have to build from the ground up: we need to create and connect civic infrastructure that gives people regular, meaningful opportunities to solve problems and build community in settings that are convenient and important to them, like neighborhoods, schools, and online. This may seem like a long, arduous process, but I don’t think it will be – many of these citizen spaces already exist (and in the case of online spaces, more are popping up all the time). Much of our civic infrastructure just needs to be uncovered, renovated, and/or connected to other spaces and opportunities for citizens.

Alice: Democracy in Motion: Evaluating the Practice and Impact of Deliberative Civic Engagement addresses the big questions of deliberative civic engagement by using theory, research, and practice from around the world. How does deliberative democracy differ across international and cultural borders? Does a country or community need to be in a certain stage of democracy in order to take advantage of deliberative civic engagement practices?

Matt: The most democratically innovative countries in the world right now are Brazil and India – places that we haven’t traditionally thought of as ‘advanced’ democracies. The spread of deliberative engagement is causing us to rethink our assumptions about how democracies develop. Places where government is still treated as the main public problem-solver – Western Europe, Canada, and Australia – may be at a disadvantage because this notion leaves less room for citizens to be problem-solvers. Countries which are open-minded about the legal framework for participation, like those in the Global South, seem better able to try structural reforms that support engagement.

Alice: What are the necessary pre-requisites for deliberative democracy to be introduced? What makes it successful?

Matt: I think deliberative democracy is successful when organizers:
Recruit large, diverse numbers of people;
Deploy facilitators (usually trained volunteers) who help the participants follow good small-group process methods;
Encourage and support action at a range of levels, from big policy recommendations to individual volunteerism;
Lay out a range of views and options as fairly as they can, including ideas they don’t personally agree with;
Incorporate both face-to-face methods and online tools.
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By Vivien Twyford at 5:18 PM on Dec 25th, 2012
Thanks Matt and Alice for a useful conversation about fundamental issues facing those engaged in engagement! That includes those who need to understand their issues and dilemmas from broader perspectives than their own, those who advise them about how to engage, and those who become engaged because they want to make a difference. I agree with Matt's list of the actions that are more likely to produce a successful process. However in my view the most important pre-requisite to successful deliberative democracy is a decision-maker mindset that genuinely appreciates the value of diversity and wants to work directly with stakeholders and communities to share with them and learn from them what matters and use the collective knowledge and skill to make wiser and more enduring decisions.
By Robert Cavalier at 3:30 PM on Feb 5th, 2013
We agree with the strategies listed above and commented on by Vivien .... good examples of those deliberative practices can be found on the website for Pittsburgh's Program for Deliberative Democracy (i.e., the four events listed in Citizen Forums). Each one is a good case study in itself.

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