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Citizen Deliberative Councils

CHAPTER 14 from The Tao of Democracy by Tom Atlee




Democracy works poorly when individuals hold preferences and make judgments in isolation from one another.





The deliberative sense of the community should govern.





Deliberation is a specific form of dialogue. Dialogue, as we have seen earlier, can include any conversation in which people are exploring together what World Café cofounder Juanita Brown calls "questions that matter." I call those explorations "deliberative" when they are intended to produce decisions, policies, recommendations or collective action – or at least, greater understanding upon which decisions, recommendations, or actions could be based. Deliberation involves a careful consideration of an issue, ideally weighing the full range of facts, factors, perspectives, options and consequences related to it, and often creating new options in the process. 




     Of course, we need more than decisions and recommendations to become wise as a democratic, collectively intelligent culture. We need open-ended explorations, too – explorations that take us deeper into what matters to us. We need dialogues whose purpose is simply to create deeper understanding, or deeper relationships among the participants, or deeper connections to the realms of spirit and heart. We need ongoing, varied conversations that deepen our humanity and engagement with the world and with life. Such a  larger culture of dialogue – which we will explore in Chapter 17 – creates a rich context in which citizen deliberation can be powerfully effective.




     The citizen deliberations that I explore in this book are conversations that address the "well-being of the whole" – public concerns or the general welfare of communities or societies. Citizen deliberation involves people holding diverse perspectives talking together about public issues in a way that they can all be heard and that their views can contribute to a deeper shared understanding. Often a facilitator, mediator, or "designated listener" is a  essential element in helping this to happen, especially in highly polarized situations. Sometimes a well-designed structure that everyone has agreed to can serve as the "facilitator."




     Although some people believe that computer dialogues are as effective as face-to-face encounters, my sense is that wise public engagement with public issues requires at least some significant measure of face- to-face communication. This opinion arises from a belief that creative deliberation involves more than the cognitive content of communication. There is more going on than just "the exchange of ideas and information." Considering the full dimensions of a public issue requires engagement with the full humanity of "the Other" – engagement which I believe is possible only in the presence of one another. That said, I believe that such face-to-face dialogue can and should be powerfully augmented by information and communication technologies, a subject I will explore further in Chapter 16.




Evoking the people’s wisdom




In the last two chapters, we read stories about citizen deliberations in Canada, India, Australia and England. There are significant differences among these various efforts, but they also share important characteristics. In particular, they are all set up to use a small group conversation to promote a higher level of deliberation throughout society. I have chosen to call small deliberative groups that are intended to have a broad deliberative effect on a whole community or society "citizen deliberative councils." To my knowledge, this category has not been previously identified. Within the category of "citizen deliberative councils" I am including not only citizens’ juries, consensus conferences, and planning cells, but a number of other experiments, like the Canadian gathering, that meet a certain set of criteria I shall describe below. I have created this category to help us think about these models, understand them better, and creatively apply them, because I believe they have a unique and pivotal role to play in the future of democracy.




     Within the larger category of  "citizen deliberative councils," I want to draw your attention to two major distinctions. The first distinction involves the purpose of the council. The second involves how it arrives at its conclusions.




     Some councils, like the Maclean’s experiment, are designed to clarify an overall vision or direction for the community or society. Other councils, like the Australian citizens’ jury on stormwater and the English consensus conference on bioengineering, are designed to address some specific social or environmental problem. In the former, which we could call visionary citizen deliberative councils, participants may be more focused on generating shared understanding among one another and becoming creative together. In the latter, which we could call issue-oriented citizen deliberative councils, participants may be more focused on gathering and understanding information from briefing materials and experts, so they are all informed enough to sort out what should be done about the issue they are working on.




     Councils also differ in how they make their decisions. Some approaches, such as the Canadian experiment in Chapter 12, are specifically designed to facilitate a consensus outcome. As noted earlier, I sometimes call these citizen consensus councils. Various approaches to consensus will be explored in Chapter 18.




     Other citizen council models – such as citizens’ juries – have not been designed with a consensus decision in mind, but instead ultimately rely on various forms of voting. Yet their design does encourage the development of a certain level of learning or shift in perspective in most or all of the participants, as they come to a greater appreciation for the complexity of the situation in their considered search for "the common good."




Characteristics of a
citizen deliberative council




Now let us look more closely at what all citizen deliberative councils have in common. I am defining citizen deliberative councils as having seven characteristics. I derived these characteristics from observing the similarities among a variety of models that all seemed to share a common purpose: to inform officials and the public of what "the public interest" might be, if a diverse group of ordinary people were given some time to really think about the issue and consider a variety of perspectives.




     Over the years, I noticed that each of these activities had these seven features:




  1. It is a real council .The council is an organized face-to-face assembly. It is not an open-participation public forum, nor is it primarily electronic. 
  2. It is a fair cross-section. The council is made up of people selected such that their collective diversity fairly reflects the diversity of the larger community or population from which they were selected. The council usually (but not always) numbers between twelve and fifty people chosen by some form of random selection.
  3. It is very temporary. The council is convened for a limited number of days, usually a few days to a week of actual meetings, sometimes distributed over several weeks. 
  4. It is made up of peer citizens. The council ’s members deliberate as peer citizens, setting aside any other role or status they may have. Although sometimes chosen to bring particular viewpoints into the council’s deliberations, individual council members are not mandated to represent any particular stakeholder group
  5. It is to some extent official .The council has an explicit mandate to address public issues or the general concerns of its community. 
  6. It is deliberative and balanced .The council uses dialogue, usually facilitated, to help all its diverse members really hear one another, expand and deepen understanding of the issues, and engage together in seeking creative ways for their community to address the issues. Their explorations reach beyond multiple-choice framings (unless their mandate is to judge a set of fixed options already faced by the public, such as a field of candidates). When convened to address a specific issue, they have access to balanced information, often in the form of expert testimony
  7. It generates a specific product. At its conclusion, the council issues findings and/or recommendations to concerned officials and to the larger community from which its members came and to which they return. Usually there is an expectation that further community dialogue will be stimulated by the report, and sometimes this is organized as part of the overall process.




     Many forms of deliberation you may be familiar with – expert and blue ribbon panels, legislatures, and various meetings of officials – are similar to citizen deliberative councils in that they share characteristics 1, 5, and 7: they meet face-to-face, they address public issues, and they issue findings or recommendations. What distinguishes citizen deliberative councils from these other forms of deliberation are characteristic 2 – the selection of typically diverse citizens – and characteristics 4 and 6 – the high quality of their dialogue as peers.




     It is especially significant that the citizens on these deliberative councils are not selected because they have any status. Some may be important community decision-makers of some kind, but they are not on the council for that reason. Some members may be special interest stakeholders, and others may be homeless people. Some might have reputations as "players" of one sort or another, occupying some acknowledged position of power, privilege or expertise, while others may be janitors, students or store clerks. The point is that they are all citizens, members of the community, and each is assumed to have a unique and equally important perspective on the affairs of that community.




     The purpose of having a facilitator or mediator is to help ensure that each participant’s views are received with respect, and that everyone receives an equal opportunity to share their perspective. Differences in status can be problematic and need to be countered by the facilitator. What is central is that everyone has room to contribute a unique viewpoint and to participate in the collective effort to envision something better for their community.




     Most public meetings – especially public hearings, but even very commendable "roundtables" that nurture collaborative relationships across community boundaries – do not qualify as citizen deliberative councils because they normally involve only an airing of views. The purpose of a citizen deliberative council is to provide ample opportunity for deliberative dialogue among the diverse participants, so that each person can arrive at something that is more satisfying than his or her initial positions – a larger understanding that can be of use to the wider community.




     Sometimes the issue which citizen deliberative councils have been asked to explore may have been framed in terms of a limited set of narrowly defined proposals. In these situations, the public interest, as expressed by the council, may turn out to be "none of the above." Nonetheless, the council’s feedback can help clarify directions to explore for further options, and subsequent citizen deliberative councils can be convened based on a deeper and wider understanding of the issue at hand.




     The seven features I have described above comprise the similarities which define all the efforts I have grouped together as citizen deliberative councils. However, in defining this category we have only begun to understand the inner workings of these deliberative models and their social potential. How might we use these processes? What are the relative strengths of  their different forms? Should we explore new forms?




     How might we integrate citizen deliberative councils into our political process in ways that would make a significant difference?





     In fact, let us go all the way: What would happen if these citizen deliberative councils became a central feature of our political system? What if we used them not only to wrestle with specific issues, but also to provide the overall common sense needed to guide our communities and societies?




The Wisdom Council




Consultant Jim Rough, the innovator who developed Dynamic Facilitation, thinks such a use of these councils would have a profound and positive impact. He proposes an annual national "Wisdom Council" for the U.S. – established by Constitutional amendment – made up of two dozen citizens selected at random. This diverse group would be facilitated to a consensus about what We the People are concerned about and what we want. Rough’s brilliant innovation is described in his book Society’s Breakthrough!.




     Since these Wisdom Councils would involve creative dialogues instead of mere discussion and debate, their impact would extend beyond their final statements. Their regular occurrence would spread awareness of the value of high quality conversation. It is reasonable to expect that, as a result, more and more people would give such real dialogue a try. As Rough pointed out in a 1997 draft of Society’s Breakthrough!




The Wisdom Council sets up a new kind of conversation, one that is not a special interest battle. It is a conversation where people seek consensus on what is best for everyone. First, these are ordinary people like you and me, not representatives. They are free to say what is on their mind and to change their minds. The group does not have to agree or disagree with some predefined issue. They can seek the real, underlying issues and reach consensus on problem descriptions, as well as solutions. Second, a skilled facilitator can assure what I call a "choice-creating " conversation, one that is respectful of all views, and which encourages creativity. This new kind of political conversation will take place on the nation’s center stage, drawing attention away from the normal political and legal arguments. Schools, editorial pages, and back porch talking will continue the new dialogues, developing a more informed and involved public. In addition, over time, the conversation will build and articulate a national consensus.




     In fact, Wisdom Councils could be formed in any community, county or state. Rough’s Center for Wise Democratic Practices is encouraging their use wherever a coherent, visionary citizens’ voice is needed. At the time of this writing, there have been several Wisdom Council experiments in both corporations and communities. To find out the latest, check out




Where does the wisdom come from?




I have repeatedly suggested that citizen deliberative councils are capable of generating wisdom – specifically, a highly developed form of community common sense. Why is that so?




     As noted earlier, an important dimension of wisdom is perspective – the ability to see different aspects of a situation and how they fit together. The more different facets of a situation we can take into account, the more inclusive, appropriate, effective and benign – in other words, the wiser – our solutions and actions will be.




     This has intriguing implications for politics and governance. The fact that different people have different experiences and perspectives suddenly becomes a resource for developing wisdom – but only if those differences can be used creatively, instead of undermining each other, as is usually the case in adversarial political systems. That is where dialogue comes in, since it is "shared exploration towards greater understanding, connection and positive possibility." Through dialogue, the interactions among people’s differences can bring forth greater understanding, deeper relationships and more fruitful possibilities. Much of the power of deep dialogue comes from the way it connects people to their core commons and generates resonant intelligence (see Chapter 4).




     In addition, citizen deliberative councils do not just involve diversity, they involve a particular community’s diversity – so that the collective view of life seen through the eyes of the council is comparable to the collective view of life seen through the eyes of the community. I call this reflective diversity.




     As citizen deliberative councils engage in dialogue, they draw upon their differences to produce greater understanding. In the process, they tap into their shared humanity and creativity to generate options that make sense from all their diverse perspectives. These options reflect the community’s best "common sense," the shared sense of what is needed.




     And so it is by design that citizen deliberative councils generate wisdom. Such wisdom, while it may not be absolute or eternal, is highly relevant for that community at that particular time. Since it arises out of that community, it is readily usable by that community. And that is why we say it constitutes the wisdom or common sense of the whole community.




     In addition to these existing proposals and projects, there are a number of ways that we could experiment with the basic model of citizen deliberative councils, to generate even more wisdom to guide our communities and societies. For example, citizen deliberative councils could receive expert testimony from a wide variety of sources, including leaders of diverse spiritual traditions and ecumenical efforts. They might also call upon scientists grounded in the holistic "new paradigm" sciences, including ecology, complexity theory, cultural anthropology and consciousness studies, to help offer a broader perspective to the issues on which they are working. Facilitators could lead citizens in exploring possible futures and in processes that foster systems thinking. In addition, they could help participants honor and integrate all the diverse intelligences available within and among them, including emotions, rationality, and stories, in order to deepen into richer contact with the vast intelligences of nature and spirit.




     Much exploration and experimentation could and should be done in all these realms – as long as we always remember that we are seeking democratic wisdom, and so the ultimate arbiter must be the integrated diverse voice of the community itself. Expert wisdom is on tap for, not on top of, community wisdom.




Current efforts with regard to
citizen deliberative councils




Would it not make sense to institutionalize citizen deliberative councils – to set things up so that we can generate the wisdom of "We the People" when and where we need it in our political and governing systems?




     We could use common sense wisdom in:

  • articulating what "We the People" feel and want
  • developing inspiring visions for our communities and societies
  • creatively and effectively addressing specific social and environmental issues
  • evaluating our government and the candidates who want to work for us
  • monitoring how well the whole system is addressing our needs and responding to our dreams.




     There are many ways we could institutionalize citizen deliberative councils to perform those functions. And, there are a few current initiatives that are seeking to do just that.




     The first two functions listed above – articulating what "We the People" want and feel, and developing inspiring visions for our communities and societies – are particularly well suited to the Wisdom Council format.




     The other functions – addressing specific issues and evaluating and monitoring politicians and governmental systems – could be done by citizens’ juries, consensus conferences, planning cells and any other citizen deliberative councils that involve studying those issues and officials in detail.




     In his book By Popular Demand, John Gastil describes how different citizen panels could perform different functions. He envisions citizen panels rating how well politicians align with the public interest. Then he proposes that those ratings be printed on the ballot next to the candidates’ names. He also provides a way for citizen panels to evaluate ballot initiatives, to reduce the influence of special interests and big-budget advertising campaigns. Ned Crosby, the founder of Citizens’ Juries, is launching an effort to actually do this at the state level in the U.S. ( ). Also, a leading proposal for a national ballot initiative process, The National Initiative for Democracy ( ) includes a similar proposal for randomly selected citizen councils to evaluate ballot initiatives.




     It is also easy to imagine a Wisdom Council calling for a consensus conference to be convened around some specialized topic of concern to the members of the Wisdom Council.




     In short, there are many proposals and possibilities for placing citizen deliberative councils at various points in our democratic process to make democracy more wise and responsive to the public good. However, some people question whether we should even venture down that road. They wonder whether this whole approach can be considered participatory enough to be called "democratic."




The participation of the people




Citizen deliberative councils are small, compared to the population – usually only ten to fifty people in each one. The chance of being chosen to be part of one is relatively small. On the one hand, this would be a blessing, in the sense that most of us could go about our lives confident that "someone else "is doing good work on our behalf. On the other hand, lack of widespread involvement in important deliberations feels disengaged, even undemocratic. We need more participation in politics and governance, not less. In many cases, and for many reasons, more people should have significant involvement in the work of these councils.




     This is no small concern. However, we should recognize that all forms of active citizenship would probably increase dramatically if citizens clearly saw that ordinary people’s voices like their own actually counted. It is widely acknowledged that people do not get involved in politics because it does not seem to make much of a difference. The government continues to roll on, the politicians continue to do what they do, and most people do not feel they have much of an effective say in how it all unfolds. So demonstrating that ordinary people are having a profound effect on public policy would probably have a noticeable effect on public engagement. Furthermore, many citizen deliberative councils, such as the Australian one described earlier, explicitly prescribe more citizen involvement as part of their proposed solutions. None of this, however, excuses us from designing citizen deliberative councils to directly involve people in their activities.




     There are many ways to include people. Ned Crosby’s Healthy Democracy ( ) proposes including a large "televote audience" of 600 -- 1000 people in the deliberations. While a citizen deliberative council of two dozen people would be deliberating about some issue at a central location, the televote audience would be studying briefing materials about the same issue, either individually at home or in small study circles in their communities. At a particular time, the citizen deliberative council and the televote audience would be linked into a videoconference in which anyone in the televote audience could see and hear the council, and the council could talk to members of the audience by phone. The council would describe their deliberations and explain what sort of decision they were leaning toward. They would take questions and comments from the televote audience. Then the televote audience would do an instant vote indicating their preferences, and that information would be given to the council to inform their final deliberations. The teleconference could also be viewed by wider TV audiences (including on the Internet). Technology exists to allow those wider audiences to cast instant ballots on the issue, as well – even by phone. 




     Another approach is the Danish consensus conference which, as we saw, includes a day or two of open public hearings in a public auditorium, with legislators, activists, media and ordinary people in the audience. Then, after the consensus conference is done and their findings published, the sponsors often organize widespread public dialogues about those findings.




     Media coverage is vital. Maclean’s magazine arranged for significant media coverage of the Canadian People’s Verdict meeting, both in their own 
July 1, 1991
issue and on television. The Internet, call-in shows and live drama provide possibilities for more interactive engagement.




     Citizen deliberative councils draw together diverse viewpoints from the full landscape of public opinion, put them through a wisdom-generating process, and send the resulting wisdom back into the flow of public conversation. However, while citizen deliberative councils are at the center of my co-intelligent vision of a wise democracy, it is clear that they can only flourish within a larger "culture of dialogue. "The conversations that happen in citizen deliberative councils arise out of and feed back into the eternally flowing river of public conversation that wends its way through every nook and cranny of society. Conversations are not just a tool for change. They are the medium through which all of us together understand and create the realities we live in. The more high-quality conversation a culture supports, the more vibrantly co-creative it will be.




     There is a significant side effect of all this. The task of building a co-intelligent culture is different from many other kinds of social change and utopian vision because there is no arrival, not even in our dreams. The final result is a culture that can keep going, a sustainable, co-evolving culture that can learn from its experience and adapt and create in harmony with its circumstances. Such a culture will be always changing. It will never arrive at utopian "perfection," and none of us can predict how it will proceed.




     Of course, our culture is already changing, faster and faster. But from the perspective of co-intelligence, we want that change to be accompanied with, and consciously co-created by, people who are learning and visioning together as a whole – as whole communities, whole states, whole societies.

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