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Connecting IF’s Public Discussions with the Larger Democratic Conversation*

In my last entry I described citizen discussion reports as a way to connect sanctuary discussion and public discussion.  Here I want to suggest several possible ways in which public discussion of our reports might be connected to broader democratic discussion.

Public Discussion of IF Reports as a Means of Promoting and Enhancing Democratic Discussion

IF’s public discussions are intended to promote and enhance democratic discussion among citizens more generally.

Public discussions of IF reports achieve the goal of promoting public discussion to the degree that they:

  • lead more citizens to get involved in democratic discussion than would otherwise have been involved and/or
  • encourage already active citizens to become more involved in the discussion and/or
  • have effects which induce other citizens to get involved (see the concluding section, below).

Public discussions of IF reports achieve the goal of enhancing public discussion to the degree that they:

  • encouraging the public to take notice of a newly emerging area of concern and/or
  • suggesting new ways of thinking about an existing area of concern and/or
  • suggesting new conceptual possibilities for addressing an area of concern and/or
  • encouraging the public to consider additional possible practical consequences or well-known consequences in a different way.

Magnifying the Impact of IF’s Public Discussions

It is in their nature as a species of democratic discussion that public discussions vary a great deal, even with respect to the same report.  And the relationship these public discussions bear to other democratic discussions is simply unpredictable, at least in its particulars.  All that can be said with any degree of certainty is that public discussions are not likely to displace other forms of democratic discussion.  On the contrary, public discussions can—under the right circumstances and with the right kind of guidance—promote and enhance democratic discussion more generally.

The impact of particular public discussions of IF’s reports will depend on innumerable factors, many of which will be beyond the control of those who conduct them.  Still, it is worth considering how to make the most of their ability to promote and enhance democratic discussion.  This section describes two generally and potentially complementary possibilities for magnifying the impact of public discussion.  Varying circumstances may present other possibilities.

Self-contained and self-sufficient public discussions. This approach may be useful in situations in which a single public discussion event or short series of public discussions alone may be sufficient to transform democratic discussion in a significant way.  For example, a group of state legislators might be looking for a way of thinking about an area of concern and be ready to carry their discussions on after participating in a public discussion of a staff work report.  However, such situations are likely to be as rare as they are difficult to identify.

Ripples in a pond. A much broader approach follows from viewing public discussions like a stone thrown into the middle of a pond, with discussion rippling outward to other individuals and groups in the broader democratic public.  When this happens, all of the effects listed earlier will be magnified and the goal of promoting discussion will be furthered in the process.  This effect cannot be guaranteed, but it can be encouraged during public discussions by selecting (or convening) groups that:

  • have a known capacity or at least clear potential for organizing and conducting public discussions
  • are known for promoting—or at least being open to—democratic discussion
  • either have a broad-based membership or access to a broader public
  • have active supporters
  • communicate actively with other groups
  • are willing to generate and pass along feedback from discussion participants.

No group is likely to fit this profile in all particulars.  Some will be strong on some points, weaker on others.  As a practical matter, this argues for pursing a well-considered mix of public discussion events.

 

* For an earlier, slightly expanded, version of this essay, see essay S-3 at: https://www.interactivityfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Public-Discussion-paper.pdf