Deliberative Democracy Movement

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Tom Atlee, an overview of the Deliberative Democracy Movement:

"While researching a chapter on citizen consensus councils for my upcoming book on co-intelligence, I stumbled on signs of an emerging, widespread movement for "deliberative democracy" that I had not previously known about. What I discovered was that for at least thirty years ordinary citizens have been formally convened in diverse groups all over the world to reflect on social problems and public policies and come to conclusions designed to inform the opinions and actions of institutions, officials and the public at large. This is happening in many places right now.

In other words, thousands of people have, for decades, been doing citizen councils of the sort I've been writing about. I've not known about most of them, and most of them haven't known about each other. Nor have they realized that they are collectively laying groundwork for a wisdom culture. Although people in these far-flung, decentralized, leaderful networks are just beginning to see themselves as a movement, their very substantial activities have been spreading and evolving in tandem and worldwide for quite some time. In particular:

1) Hundreds of deliberative forums have been held, involving tens of thousands -- if not hundreds of thousands -- of people. Activities are burgeoning in both "developed" and "developing" nations. Here are four examples, just to give you a taste: Poor Indian farmers held a deliberative council investigating approaches to economic development -- and decided they wanted to continue their subsistence farming. Some Britons passed official judgment on whether their local HMO should offer chiropractic services. Australian suburbanites deliberated on what to do about pollution and erosion associated with rainwater that was wrecking their beaches. And eighteen down-home Americans became expert enough in a few days to tell Twin Cities municipal authorities how to deal with the area's solid waste disposal. (Naturally, they wanted more sustainable practices.) In every case, ordinary people reviewed the facts and came up with common-sense solutions.

2) Scores of different deliberative models are being used, and this movement is bubbling with creative experimentation. I was particularly amazed at the widespread use of "citizens' juries" -- a form similar to the Danish technology panels I've written about -- which were used in all the above-mentioned cases. A citizens' jury consists of ten to twenty people chosen so that their collective diversity reflects the diversity of their community or country. These typical citizens study an issue -- anything from housing to environmental threats to democratic reform -- and grill experts on its details and its social impact. Then they craft findings and recommendations which they deliver to authorities, and to the public through the media. In the U.S., Citizens' Juries® are standardized and run very conscientiously by the Jefferson Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In England, they are wildly diverse, regularly generating powerful lessons in how to run (and not run!) such activities. The British have, for example, done a number of citizens' juries where the convening agencies had to agree to follow their juries' recommendations or hold a press conference to explain why they weren't going to follow them!

And here's some remarkable evidence that suggests citizens' deliberation like this is an idea whose time has come: This form was independently invented by three people -- one in Germany and another in the U.S. in the early 1970's, and the third in Denmark in the mid-1980's -- who knew nothing about each other's work! So these creative people join hundreds of other simultaneous discoverors on record, like Newton and Leibnitz inventing calculus -- and Russell and Darwin independently formulating the "natural selection" theory of evolution. Simultaneous discoveries like these suggest that each such innovation is a significant part of humanity's cultural evolution for the era in which it occurs. State-of-the-art citizen deliberative councils are an innovation for our time, brought into being by the conditions we face and the new resources and knowlege at our disposal.

3) Dozens of brilliant investigators and academics are describing, researching and critiquing a wide range of citizen deliberations (for examples, see my mailing of Nov 30 "fascinating articles on deliberative democracy"). They're asking excellent questions about the functioning of these groups and their role in the world. In particular, more and more practitioners, activists and academics are looking at how to increase the power of citizen deliberative bodies so that they actually impact official policy and the behavior of communities and countries. They are setting the stage for the generation of community wisdom to affect how our cultures actually operate.

I could tell you more about all this, but I should keep this short. I want to focus on what this means for my work and for your ability to make a difference in the world.

Needless to say, these discoveries have influenced the co-intelligence book I'm working on. But more importantly, they are going to shape the work of the Co-Intelligence Institute for years to come. Not only do I expect to write another book and create a website about deliberative democracy and citizen councils, but I believe the Co-Intelligence Institute has significant gifts to offer to facilitate the emergence of this movement as a transformational force in the world. The co-intelligence perspective and past research offer insights that could help resolve many of the questions being asked, and could help bring together diverse innovators to craft the next steps in the movement's evolution.

I'm excited. This could make a profound difference. I'm sure you know of dozens, if not hundreds of great ideas that could help create a sustainable, just and wise culture. You and I both know how few of those ideas have made it into mainstream public dialogue -- to say nothing of influencing national policies and widespread cultural practice. It is a real tragedy. In most countries, hardly any issue of any importance is being handled with anything remotely resembling wisdom, or even common sense.

I believe that deliberative democracy of the sort I'm talking about here can get positive alternatives seriously considered and actually USED by our cultures. Experience suggests that the facilitated dialogue of ordinary people can free up a "common sense wisdom" that naturally recognizes healthy options and realigns collective values away from the unjust and addictive materialism and violence that afflict most of our cultures. Promoting, institutionalizing and EMPOWERING that kind of effective dialogue is what the deliberative democracy movement is all about. So our efforts -- yours and mine -- to promote and empower that movement can help every other issue be handled well, so that future generations can have a world that's safe, wise and joyful at last.

Think about it. There's no public issue -- environmental problems, the concentration of wealth, war and peace, human welfare, technology development, you name it -- that would not benefit tremendously by the empowerment of citizen-based wisdom. That's real leverage here for positive change."