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What’s the Point of IF’s Public Discussions?*

To answer the question directly, the primary objective of public discussion is to promote democratic discussion of policy concerns as a way of contributing to citizens’ individual and social choices and, through them, to useful public policy making.  This objective comprises two goals that tend to be mutually reinforcing: (1) stimulating (or promoting) democratic discussion; and (2) enhancing democratic discussion.  These goals are understood in much more practical terms and as part of a broader and more flexible view of “democracy” than is typical of either academic defenses of democratic discussion (or “deliberation”) or of groups advocating “democratic participation.”

 How Interactivity Foundation Understands “Democratic Discussion”

 Interactivity Foundation (IF) is concerned with promoting democratic discussion of public policy concerns by members of the public, i.e. citizens (actual or potential).  For IF, then, a democratic discussion is thus one in which “democratic citizens” are both the “subject” and “object” of the discussion.  Citizens carry out the discussion; citizens’ policy concerns are also what the discussion is about.

We believe that democratic discussion shouldn’t be limited to what are typically thought of “public” places (like town meetings or legislatures) or conventional formats (like hearings or debates).

As for the content of democratic discussion, while it is true that it sometimes rightfully addresses urgent crises, pressing problems, and actual choices, it is no less true that democratic discussion tends to be freer and richer if it deals with broader and less immediate concerns and involves the exploration, development, and testing of contrasting conceptual possibilities.

Stimulating Democratic discussion

Democratic discussion has been stimulated when there is more of it than before.  Getting more citizens involved in democratic discussion is one way to accomplish this.  Another is to broaden or deepen the involvement of those who are already engaged in democratic discussion.

We consider these worthy aims because:

  • more democratic discussion means greater citizen involvement—one measure of the health of a democracy
  • more democratic discussion means more useful input for citizens’ current and future choices
  • involving more citizens or deepening the involvement of those already participating is also likely to enhance democratic discussion, as thinkers from Thucydides and Aristotle on have observed.

Enhancing Democratic Discussion 

Democratic discussion can be enhanced in a variety of ways, not just one or two, as is usually implied by those who endorse it.  In general, democratic discussion has been enhanced any time it does more to:

  • transcend narrow self-interest (whether of individuals, groups, or segments of society)
  • encourage citizens to truly speak their minds
  • incorporate foresight, anticipating social concerns rather than responding to “crises”
  • exhibit breadth
  • incorporate empirical knowledge
  • incorporate theoretical knowledge
  • incorporate practical as well as instrumental thinking, i.e. deal with the “what” and “why” of policy as well as the “how” and “when.”

The goal of enhancing democratic discussion is served by improving any one of these features.  Democratic discussion of policy concerns is enhanced to an even greater extent if more than one of these features can be improved at the same time.

Although there may be other ways of pursuing this goal, IF’s experience with public discussions is increasingly showing that engaging the public in discussions of contrasting conceptual possibilities for democratic policy governance is a particularly effective way of enhancing democratic discussion.  The reasons for this success await further analysis, but we hypothesize that discussing contrasting conceptual possibilities is so effective in yielding the outcomes listed previously because it:

  • discourages partisanship (while encouraging serious discussion)
  • encourages the exploration, development, and testing of contrasting conceptual possibilities
  • expands citizens’ choices by broadening their awareness of alternative approaches to addressing a given public policy area of concern
  • helps citizens clarify the choices they must make as individuals, and members of groups and society as a whole.

Stimulating and Enhancing Democratic Discussion as (Usually) Mutually Reinforcing Goals

Stimulating democratic discussion is useful in its own right.  But as already noted, increasing the “quantity” of discussion tends to lead to an increase in its “quality” as well.

Enhanced democratic discussion likewise stands on its own as a useful goal. But it, too, tends to support the complementary goal of stimulating democratic discussion because it further motivates those who participate in it, as IF’s accumulating experiences with sanctuary discussion clearly shows.  Successful democratic discussion can also encourage those who observe it to get involved.

Still, in some circumstances, increasing the “quantity” of democratic discussion can threaten the “quality” of democratic discussion.   Having too many participants can diminish the level of interactivity between them or make it difficult to maintain a useful focus.  Such conflicts may occasionally become impossible to resolve.  If and when they do, a choice must be made.  On the one hand, as long as some minimum level of quality if preserved, democratic discussion will be valuable.  On the other hand, a better mix of quality and quantity might be had elsewhere.  And because there will almost always be alternative possibilities for democratic discussion, choosing where, with whom, and for how long to conduct democratic discussions will always be a matter of ongoing judgment. 

Stimulating and Enhancing Democratic DiscussionContrasts with Academic Theories and Advocacy Groups

 Democratic discussion has been the focus of academic interest since ancient times.  But beginning about a generation ago, scholarly interest exploded, especially within the fields of political science and political theory.  The literature on democratic discussion (or “democratic deliberation,” the term preferred in academic circles) is immense and growing rapidly.   Despite the undeniable breadth and variety of positions in this literature, however, most of them diverge in important ways from the objective being described here.  Unlike the goals set forth in academic theories of democratic deliberation, IF’s goals of stimulating and enhancing pubic discussion:

  • are grounded far less in philosophical speculation about the value of democratic discussion than in observation—both of actual democratic discussion and of IF’s own work, including our experience with more than 200 public discussions 
  • are carefully connected to a well-worked out and tested view of how public discussion can actually work—i.e., through the exploratory and developmental discussion of
    • an area of concern
    • contrasting conceptual possibilities
    • possible practical consequences
  • do not entail viewing a particular discussion venue or format as always the best place or only way that democratic discussion can take place but rather are consistent with the view that democratic discussion can be adapted on a case-by-case basis to the actual discussion possibilities that might exist at different times and in different places.

Many groups are also interested in promoting citizen participation.  Some are explicitly interested in promoting citizen “dialogue,” “discourse,” or “deliberation.”  Despite the family resemblance these approaches bear to public discussion as described here, however, there remain important differences between how these groups conceive of their objectives and the objectives of stimulating and enhancing public discussion as IF conceives of them.

The goal of stimulating democratic discussion largely converges with that of groups whose aim is promoting some form of real discussion, exchange, or deliberation.  At the same time, it is important to clearly distinguish “public discussion” from “debate,” “advocacy,” “problem solving,” “mediation,” “deliberation aimed at decision making” and the like.  Not all public “talk” involves a real exchange of ideas, much less an exploration of possibilities.  Some groups are satisfied anytime they can “get people talking.”  But as noted earlier, it is important to acknowledge that the goal of stimulating democratic discussion—getting people talking—can run counter to the goal of enhancing democratic discussion.

The goal of enhancing democratic discussion diverges from that of most other groups in one or all of the following ways:

  • Although advocacy groups tend to be somewhat more catholic than their academic counterparts in their view of democratic discussion, like scholars they, too, tend to focus on one discursive venue or format.  Others focus on one or another policy concern.  But IF is “agnostic” about where and how democratic discussion can or should occur and quite “ecumenical” about the kinds of policy concerns citizens can or should discuss.  As already noted, there is a wide variety of forums and forms that may enhance democratic discussion, and virtually any policy concern is worthy of democratic discussion—as long as citizens choose to discuss it.
  • Advocacy groups are typically unconcerned with the actual process and outcome of democratic discussion; if democratic discussion is “reasonable” in some general sense, it is assumed to be a good thing and to have produced good results.  By contrast—and the contrast is significant—the process of public discussion explicitly involves engaging citizens in the exploration, development, and testing of contrasting conceptual possibilities.  In addition, IF assesses the outcomes of its public discussion by reference to the specific features listed in A(3) as well as others.  (We intend to devote an upcoming book to a discussion of the results of our analysis of the first 200+ discussions.  It will describe whether and to what extent our discussions have really “succeeded” or “failed”—and will explain how and why.)

IF pursues its objectives by publishing discussion Reports as well as conducting discussions.  We encourage you to help us pursue our objectives by downloading Reports from this website.  Better yet, contact us and join in a discussion!

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