What a week! As the story in the mayor’s office unfolds like a Greek tragedy, citizens may feel that it’s just one more brick in the wall of uncivil behavior by politicians, another reason to tune out.

And, yet, something else happened in San Diego last week. At a session at the Scripps Ranch library, citizens heard a new perspective on our problems: adversarial “politics-as-usual” doesn’t work and expert-provided research alone doesn’t work. These techniques aren’t sufficient to address the growing diversity and perspectives of our population or the complexity of common problems.

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Invited by local, good governance groups, a key practitioner in the deliberative dialogue movement, Martin Carcasson of the Center for Public Deliberation at Colorado State University spoke on “What Kind of Talk Does Democracy Need?”

Carcasson strongly advocated for a new approach to politics: a process he called deliberative democracy, in which citizens (not just experts or politicians) are deeply involved in public decision-making and problem-solving. The process requires listening to one another in order to think critically about the options before us. And it requires consideration of the underlying tensions and tough choices inherent in most public issues. For example, as you weigh the elements of the Constitution (which include freedom, equality, justice, security and fairness), which do you value most? If it is equality, do you not value freedom? If it is freedom, do you not value security?

Many of our problems are not simple; they often touch on multiple, legitimate values, which point reasonable people in conflicting directions. Deliberative processes focus on uncovering those choices to help citizens work though such difficult decisions. Often, the outcome may simply be the clear identification of opposing values underlying public problems and a chance for individuals to refine their opinions.

Public problems require engagement and coordination from the entire community, not simply “the government.” But wait; don’t we elect representatives to convey our ideas, to represent us?  Unfortunately, our adversarial political system has gotten out of whack and we’re finding our participation is needed more fully. Government alone cannot solve some of the issues. Broad collaborative efforts are needed to transcend political partisanship.

But this requires productive coordination. Adversarial political processes too often take advantage of and intensify the flaws of human nature: selective listening and the impulse to prefer a simple “good versus evil.” Too many of the current political processes involve people talking to or past each other rather than with each other. Deliberation requires true diversity of thought and it needs the whole community. This places a heavy burden on how we come together, addressing inequalities of power, going beyond the usual players and attracting all the voices that have not historically been heard.

It will not be business as usual. Our roles as taxpayers, consumers, constituents or voters would expand to be engaged as problem-solvers, working with others on community problems. It calls for significant effort.

Government’s role in such deliberative democracy is to create spaces for citizens’ interaction, convening broad audiences and developing our deliberative capacity.  Locally, we need to rethink our public relations model of interaction with citizens and move toward a model focused on public participation.  Carcasson’s view is that local academia is the logical choice for such a marketplace of ideas, with the creation of democracy hubs. We agree.

How will we do this?

The process of deliberation requires a safe place for citizens to come together, with fair information to help structure the conversation, and skilled facilitators to guide the discussion. But this is rare in our polarized political culture. We need to develop “passionately impartial” resources, based on democracy and the values it entails such as freedom, equality, inclusion, transparency, trust and mutual respect.    The skilled facilitators must strive toward impartiality on the topics under discussion, lest participants dismiss the process as biased and partisan. Developing that capacity in our community is where we can begin.

Whether citizens engage in reporting potholes or collaborate openly to make our community better, signs are that people want to be engaged in solutions and change the status quo. We can move toward a more deliberative democracy, right here in our community. Good governance groups such as Restoring Respect at the University of San Diego, the Malin Burnham Center for Civic Engagement, the League of Women Voters and others are joining together to build the capacity and deploy the process of deliberative dialogues and extend deliberative democracy in our area.

The idea of “deliberative democracy” is admittedly idealistic. It expects a lot from citizens and our community. It is based on a vision that democracy will never be fully maintained for an extended time but temporary, uncovering common ground and coming to a reasoned public judgment for broad collaborative actions. This may have been what we elected our representatives to do. What we are coming to see is that they need our help.

Martha Cox and Mary Thompson are co-chairs of the Civil Discourse Group of the League of Women Voters North County San Diego.

The commentary has been lightly edited for style, grammar and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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