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An Occasional–and Provocative–Paper

To date, I’ve held back in posting any of my own, all too unique “Perspectives” on this site, so today I venture into new and hopefully not entirely dangerous waters.

While it doesn’t slice bread or otherwise provide all the answers, and bearing the not inconsiderable risk of appearing too enthusiastic about any particular structure, I am nonetheless recommending a recent occasional paper, “Beginning with the End in Mind,” by Martín Carcasson from Colorado State University.  This paper was published last year by Public Agenda’s “Center for Advances in Public Engagement,” and you can download a pdf copy of this relatively brief (14-page) paper from Public Agenda’s website and the following link

As my colleagues know all too well, I have often struggled in my deliberative education to articulate—both for myself and for others—an “elevator speech” that would place our more “front end” educational and engagement discussion efforts within the larger field of dialogue, discussion, and deliberation.  I’ve wanted—and sometimes irascibly argued for—better ways to “connect the dots.”  To be fair, most all of my colleagues have devised and repeatedly offered various iterations that seem to work fine for them.  The problem, in part, is not only that I’m a slow learner, it is also that I’ve been searching for an overall framework that fit with my own unique and largely inept efforts to explain our work to others.

Professor Carcasson’s paper doesn’t solve my learning disabilities, or my too-often rambling and incoherent speech patterns, or peel apples.  But it does provide one more overall framework—and the rhetoric around it—that I find greatly helpful in “situating” our work and seeing how it might connect to other and different deliberative and dialogic efforts.  In a few pages, I think he does a more than decent job of both surveying the field and summarizing its challenges, tensions, and conflicts.  In his interactive listing of goals, he also provides a useful structure for understanding one possible temporal or sequential order for different goals:  that is, first, second and third-order goals.

A quick explanatory note:  don’t necessarily be put off by the paper’s sub-title referring to “goal driven” deliberative practice or assume that the paper is only about deliberative approaches that are primarily instrumental or focused on solving specific and current problems.  To the contrary, Carcasson’s effort seems to be to show how different public discussion and deliberation efforts serve a range of other and broader goals—like “issue learning”, nurturing democratic attitudes and skills, engagement, as well as improved “community problem-solving.”

Here are few excerpts that I found especially resonant or provocative or even confounding for our own approach:

  • “…we should not discount the importance of the initial goals of improving democratic skills/attitudes and fostering understanding of the issues. … [such] first-order goals should be considered mere side effects on the way to action, but are critical in their own right…  … ‘The goal of a meeting may be build networks of citizens, to develop new ideas, to teach people skills and knowledge, to change attitudes, but not to influence government.’”
  • “Whereas deliberation inherently leads to many of the goals, different goals nonetheless likely require different strategies—the processes that particularly spark issue learning are distinct from those that positively impact democratic attitudes and so on. …”
  • “Too often, practitioners focus primarily on a deliberative technique and discount what comes before and after utilizing that technique …  One key implication … is that deliberative organizations must have the capacity for more than moderating or facilitating meetings but also be able to serve as, or otherwise have access to, policy analysts, conveners and reporters, among others.”
  • “…despite the fact that ‘issue learning’ is situated here as the initial goal, it could very well be one of the most important goals, and deliberative organizations could easily focus solely on this goal and make significant positive impacts on their communities.”
  • “A tension, however, has developed between the framing of ‘national’ issues and their relevance to local communities.  NIF [National Issues Forum] books, for example, may be particularly useful for local deliberative organizations to utilize to address first-order goals but, depending on the issue, they may not be situated well for second-order goals.  … I thus emphasize again the importance of appropriate selection and communication of goals.”
  • “Democracy can certainly be positively impacted by improved democratic attitudes across many levels of engagement.  So while perhaps the primary target audience may be ‘ordinary citizens,’—particularly those that are disengaged and apathetic—improving the attitudes of politically engaged community leaders, active civil society members, elected officials, policy experts, and bureaucrats may be just as critical and would likely require different strategies.”
  • One particular goal of our field must be to incorporate deliberation into curricula at various levels so that students develop these skills as early as possible and learn to consider community problems through a deliberative lens and not just through the typical adversarial perspectives.”
  • “I would argue that we need deliberative practitioners that keep deliberation at the center of their work and focus utmost on serving as impartial resources to support collaborative action across broad based perspectives, not just on sparking specific community action. …[Specific] action [on a single issue] is not the ultimate goal of deliberative practice; the ultimate goal is increasing the community’s [overall] capacity to solve problems. [emphasis added].  Individual projects and issues are means to that end.”