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What We’ve Learned from Citizen Discussion

IF discussion reports resulting from sanctuary discussion projects have been the “raw material” for dozens of organized citizen discussions over the last several years. The basic idea is that it is helpful for citizen discussions to have “starting points”, particularly starting points that other citizens developed through many months of deliberation based on a process that assures exploration of a range of approaches.

IF Fellows have undertaken many of these citizen discussions as part of their duties and frequently discuss what lessons have been learned from those discussions. Faculty participants from our prior Summer Institute have also undertaken a number of citizen discussions using IF project reports. Pete Shively has coordinated the collection of summaries from these discussion experiences and has “de-briefed” both the citizen discussion facilitator and the project report editor concerning citizen impressions of the possibilities and report presentation issues.

Citizen response to discussions has been overwhelmingly favorable in the sense that participants enjoy the opportunity to engage in this type of discussion and appreciate the framework and facilitation that IF provides. Even where participants take issue with particular possibilities and understandings behind them, there is a sense that the discussions raise important perspectives that deserve consideration in any democratic process.

The result of this interactivity is that our reports evolve, incorporate new insights, and are periodically reformatted based on our experiences. We have added a step to our project process where the project facilitator takes the possibilities from sanctuary discussion through a preliminary citizen discussion as an editorial step before formal publication of the report. Some of the more general insights we have received have to do with greater clarity of language, more concrete examples of possible policies and consequences, and more accessible presentation styles. Among additional feedback elements we are considering are the following:

  • Completion of more sanctuary project reports to provide a greater variety of topics for citizen discussion.
  • Tailored or customized reports to meet the various levels that citizens are able to engage the material and, perhaps, meet specific deliberative needs of groups and communities.
  • Encouragement of citizen discussants to take more ownership of the possibilities and reframe them in ways that are helpful to their discussions and permit them to “act” on them in ways that we take seriously in report development.
  • Addition of online discussion capability in a variety of formats and with wider participation.
  • Establishment of ongoing “discussion clubs” that would build on the deliberative skills acquired in IF discussions.
  • Recruit citizen discussants to serve on project panels, to train as citizen discussion facilitators and conduct discussions themselves, and to possibly manage sanctuary projects of their own.
  • Further development of assessment tools that will give us a better sense of the impact of discussion and the ways in which we can improve our materials and cultivate better discussion habits.

I am currently managing a citizen discussion project in Wisconsin that has trained eight citizen facilitators in IF process and has engaged them as independent contractors to conduct citizen discussions of IF reports. We are using this experiment to further test our materials and our process. About half of these facilitators currently have discussions underway. We hope to apply the lessons of the Wisconsin project to other regional clusters of citizen discussion projects. We are also considering whether to have some of these local citizen discussion facilitators take on sanctuary projects on entirely new projects.

We will be talking about some of these developments at the 2009 Summer Institute. You will have an opportunity to get a sense of how these discussions flow and the types of techniques we use to help citizens engage conceptual material. It’s not too early to consider how a citizen discussion might fit in your future plans. Could you create a forum to “test” possibilities that you might develop in the classroom? Might you be able to supervise a graduate assistant in running a discussion series? Would you have students willing and able to lead citizen discussions on IF possibilities or ones developed in the classroom?

Dennis