Some areas for research and development
We need research that continually improves our ability to generate a coherent, informed, inclusive, trustworthy, legitimate, and wise voice of the whole society. Various deliberative methodologies (and various partisan groups) claim to provide or speak with the legitimate voice of the people. Such claims are often dubious, sometimes inspiring, but never verified with anything remotely as rigorous as the research that demonstrates the efficacy of scientific polling—that is, if you survey a thousand people with a particular survey approach, then you will get the same results (within a small margin of error) if you survey a different thousand people with the same approach. To truly transform politics, we need to establish how to generate a deliberative, coherent, and demonstrably legitimate voice of the whole society.
Serious research on the subject would require courageous, determined, possibility-oriented efforts and considerable funding. Below are five possible areas of research into “empowered public wisdom.” They cover information, legitimacy, expense, wisdom, and public engagement.
Rigorous methods have been developed to provide citizen deliberators with balanced briefing materials. These include making sure that three to five competing perspectives are fairly presented—a process often overseen by a mixed-partisan advisory council. However, no briefing can ever be complete, and additional checks on bias are desirable. One intriguing possibility is that after one round of briefings and expert interviews, deliberators split up into research teams to search the Web for information and alternative solutions beyond their briefing materials, and compare the results. They could then call on old or new experts to answer questions about what they found. What would be the costs, benefits, and shortcomings of such a process? Are there better procedures for bringing information into a deliberation beyond what’s provided by prepared briefing materials and expert witnesses?
Check the similarities and differences among multiple independent citizen deliberative councils (CDCs). Random selection, balanced briefing materials, and high-quality group process give CDCs good claim to being a fair voice of a whole society or community. However, little research has been done to see if comparable CDCs come up with comparable results. For example, three Citizens Juries could be convened simultaneously and separately on the same issue. If they came up with fairly similar results (as has been demonstrated with research on public opinion polls ), their claim to full legitimacy would have more weight. If they came up with different outcomes, experiments could test new designs, searching for ways to generate reliably similar outcomes without manipulating the content of the conversations. How can we find and demonstrate a way to produce a legitimate deliberative voice of a whole community or society?
Check public agreement with CDCs. Survey the recommendations of citizen deliberations on equal footing with mainstream proposals regarding the same issue, to measure the level of agreement between the public and the CDC. If the deliberative recommendations prove unpopular with the public, focus group research could clarify what caused the discrepancy, and experiments could be designed to narrow that discrepancy, possibly including public engagement modes described below.
Expand “the whole” from just citizens to include stakeholders. Stakeholders are people with interests, information, functions, or power related to an issue. Most issues involve some persistent conflict among stakeholders with competing interests. A leading approach to dealing with issues is to convene a full spectrum of stakeholders in problem-solving or conflict-resolution conversations to find solutions that satisfy them all. Though this approach is radically different from citizen deliberative councils (which usually involve stakeholders only as witnesses), it is a fully valid way of cutting the pie of “those concerned” or “the whole community” —as long as it includes "ordinary citizens" among the identified stakeholders in public issues. Obviously wisdom and legitimacy may both be served by doing both citizen- and stakeholder-based deliberations. Some research is needed to learn about the similarities and differences between the results of these two approaches. One research approach would be to convene three Citizens Juries—as envisioned above—and three stakeholder dialogues (using the same stakeholder process), all on the same subject, but independently. Compare the results for similarities, differences, and other lessons. If the results are quite different, mix and match the participants into three to six new independent groups, each of which has a few members from all the previous groups—and then see if they come up with comparable results. The Creative Insight Council process may be ideal for this final step.
Most CDCs cost tens of thousands of dollars to complete. This is small compared to the savings that would often be possible through implementing their broadly supported, sensible policy recommendations, especially on budgetary matters. But it is an obstacle to their rapid acceptance and use. Research could be done to see if 80 percent cost savings could be achieved with no more than a 20 percent reduction in quality—for example, by using
- volunteer pools from which deliberators could be randomly and/or demographically selected;
- asynchronous onine deliberations
- sophisticated conference technologies (like Maestro and videoconferencing);
- crowdsourced briefing materials, e.g., a Deliberapedia wiki where opposing issue advocates together frame their shared issue for deliberation; and
- online interviewing of experts via videoconferencing or even email.
Another approach might be to use a gradient of increasingly expensive methods - opinion polling, deliberative polling, online deliberations and face-to-face CDCs - and use the cheaper methods for less important issues, saving the more expensive approaches for the most important issues (as proposed by international pollster Steven Kull). This approach would benefit from research comparing the policy recommendations resulting from all four approaches on the same issue, to see how well they can substitute for each other. How can we reduce the costs of citizen deliberation with minimal loss of quality using the Internet? Can the development of more accessible participatory forms of quality citizen deliberation enable grassroots, self-organized capacity for collective intelligence in the political sphere?
Not only are there diverse kinds of intelligence, but different people are differently endowed with each kind. Cognitive differences and limitations can undermine or enhance productive deliberation. What has been found that deals well with this, transmuting these differences into cocreative gifts? What other developments are possible to enhance this capacity?
Wisdom can be defined as insight that takes into account what needs to be taken into account for long-term, broadly beneficial outcomes. There are multiple sources for public wisdom . Some sources involve simply the humanity and diversity of the deliberators in quality conversations. Ordinary citizens bring common sense perspectives arising from their community values and their daily lives and aspirations. But their limited information and parochial perspectives may constrain the wisdom they can generate together. So we need to seek other sources: outside experts, materials, or processes, which can provide deliberators with broader information and perspective. Experts can enlighten deliberators about the social, spiritual, moral, and scientific aspects of an issue. However, they can also bias, overwhelm or mystify ordinary citizens. We need elegant combinations of these sources of wisdom to produce “public wisdom” to guide public policy to serve our communities well. How can we enhance the wisdom of CDCs by including not only issue experts, but religious leaders, ethics experts, systems thinkers, and other specialists, materials, or exercises that introduce big-picture, long-term considerations—especially without raising church-state issues, introducing unreasonable bias, or requiring lengthy lessons in abstract concepts?
Even if a group of dozens of randomly selected citizens develop wise policies, the public may not understand how that citizen council came up with those recommendations, resulting in lack of public support for their “public wisdom.” Furthermore, the public may have useful information, insight, or solutions that could inform a CDC. How can we engage broader public involvement before, during, and after a CDC, such that the public contributes to, understands, agrees with, and benefits from the public wisdom generated by the CDC?
Possible approaches include:
- online forums where citizens can present, rate, and deliberate on policy options;
- real-time engagement between CDC members and members of the public through chats, instant messaging, conference calls, etc.;
- public hearings and channels for submitting white papers to the CDC;
- online and phone voting on emerging CDC recommendations;
- in-person public dialogues like World Cafés and Conversation Cafés in which all citizens are invited to discuss the issues and CDC recommendations;
- in-person activities like Open Space conferences and Study Circles that engage the community in learning about and acting on the results of the CDC;
- thorough media reporting on the participants, conversations, and outcomes of citizen councils, allowing vicarious public experience of the deliberative process;
- large one-day media events involving thousands of people in deliberations that include the results of the CDC. Although such mega-events can seldom match the deliberative quality of multiday events involving a few dozen randomly selected participants, they can powerfully serve public engagement needs.