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Embedding Deliberation in Community Life

The extended network that promotes citizen discussion places a high value on ways to make discussion ongoing and self-sustaining. This matter of the “stickiness” of citizen discussion is referred to as “embeddedness” in deliberative circles. It is a ten dollar word for the ninety-nine cent concept of staying power and ongoing usefulness.

The concern over the staying power of citizen discussion methods is not just a matter of worry about short attention spans. It flows from recognition that deep discussion is often a flash-in-the-pan event. As citizens we will often rise to the occasion and deal with a pressing crisis or focus on an issue that society’s major institutions have blessed with the spotlight. But most of us recognize that this reactive and media-driven approach leaves much to be desired and comes up short on many complicated issues that require longer-term thinking.

The broad deliberative community has been working on many helpful ideas about how to cultivate better civic habits that offer staying power. At IF we have also been trying to learn directly from public (or “citizen”) discussions of policy possibilities about what opens citizens up to the idea of ongoing discussion of significant concerns. We have the experience of nearly fifty citizen discussion series all across the US in the last three years. We hear varied comments from the participants in these series, but the response is overwhelmingly positive to the core idea of more discussion about the possible choices facing society. When I ask participants what is needed to give discussions staying power, they mainly offer responses in the following areas:

  • We need to expect and demand that our grassroots organizations use workable deliberative practices – we just can’t wait for “officials” to show up and tell us how it’s done.
  • We need to expect and demand that discussion focus on real issues that impact the quality of life—we want to plug into dialogue on energy, transportation, and land use.
  • We need to expect and demand that we (and our community leaders) get better at doing these things through practice—we need tools and training to grow our own discussion leaders.

Almost everyone I’ve talked to after one of these IF discussion series has felt the quality of public engagement could be improved, enriching it, making it more relevant, and, hopefully producing more insights that might lead to better decisions. And even where better outcomes are hard to track, they expect better understanding among those with differing views. In these polarized times many thought that alone was reason to press for more and better discussion.

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