Making participation more deliberative, and deliberation more participatory

Jefferson Center
Mar 29, 2018 · 6 min read

5 takeaways from the Innovations in Participatory Democracy Conference

A few weeks ago, we attended the Innovations in Participatory Democracy Conference in Phoenix, Arizona. The conference, which we were excited to support as both participants and presenters, brought together community leaders, government officials and staff, practitioners, researchers, funders, youth leaders, and technologists to explore innovations in government participation.

We led a workshop on Citizens Juries, Assemblies, & Sortition, and participated in a panel on the similarities and differences across participatory budgeting, Citizen Juries, and citizen assemblies. While we were there, we saw democracy in action at Central High School, where students are part of a current Participatory Budgeting Project initiative.

At the conference it was clear the opportunities for participatory democracy are expanding. Participatory democracy is made up of two key parts: participatory principles, which often invite the public to share their thoughts and opinions, and deliberative approaches, which typically convene a smaller group of individuals to learn about an issue and create plans for action or policy recommendations. While these two unique approaches are sometimes thought of as opposing forces, we saw how people around the world are using both to make democracy more impactful and inclusive. There’s no longer one clear set of principles for the “right” way to participate in democracy, and it’s incredible to be part of this movement.

We wanted to share a few exciting outlooks for democracy that we took away from the conference:

1. Collaboration with governments will grow and change

At the conference, we shared the example of our Rural Climate Dialogue program in Winona County, where residents created recommendations for their community to adapt to climate change and extreme weather. Since the dialogue, the City of Winona has adopted an energy plan with goals to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. They’ve also invested in community education initiatives on energy efficiency and water savings. Urging policy changes while supporting long-term behavior changes, like we’re doing in Winona County, will help governments, their partners, and citizens sustain the results of engagement efforts.

2. It’s time to focus on the opportunities to combine participatory and deliberative approaches

We’ve been testing out this combined approach in a few different projects. Through Your Vote Ohio and Informed Citizen Akron, we used deliberative events to ask citizens in Ohio what they needed from their local news organizations. Their input set the stage for Your Voice Ohio, a project that explores community engagement approaches to help newsrooms across the state listen and respond to their audiences. With the deliberation recommendations as a guiding force, we host open community events, invite people to share their stories online and through social media, and are rolling out Hearken as a platform where local residents can ask reporters questions about the addiction crisis. By combining these forces we’re making democracy more accessible to everyone.

3. The entry to engagement is different in every community

Administrators are now considering how they can adapt these participatory practices to the everyday culture of these schools, like inviting students to share their thoughts on changes such as scheduling and course offerings. Because the initial opportunity to participate was simple and manageable for both the students and the administration, they’ve laid the foundation for future collaboration and growth. Plus, young people got to use real voting machines in the process, which was a great opportunity to experience how voting and live democracy actually work. We’re excited to see how this can expand to other schools and communities.

4. Success means equipping others

  1. Select a topic
  2. Host a Citizens Jury (or other deliberative event)
  3. Generate a report
  4. Hope someone reads it and utilizes the recommendations.

But, we can do so much more. We can combine thick and thin engagement techniques to give people the resources to continue projects after engagement organizations and professionals leave the community. At the Jefferson Center, we are implementing this approach with our dialogue-to-action model. First, we co-define: we build relationships with stakeholders and community members to gain a deeper understanding of the issue at hand. Next, we co-design: working with project partners, we develop and implement an engagement process to unleash creative ideas which also provides participants with the expertise, tools, and time they need to develop solutions. Finally, we co-create: our partners use the public input to advance local actions, reform practices and processes, and guide policy development and decision-making.

5. We can frame impact differently to support broader results

For instance, Participatory Budgeting Projects don’t just enable people to direct public money to community priorities. Throughout the process, community organizations and networks are strengthened, as groups work together to focus on their shared needs. After the discussion ends, these groups may form new organizations and partnerships and continue positive and constructive engagement. All of the PB award winners at the conference, Cyndi Tercero-Sandoval (Phoenix Union High School District), Sonya Reynolds (Participatory Budgeting NYC), and Cecilia Salinas (Participatory Budgeting Chicago in the 49th Ward) represent this investment in long-term impact.

Looking forward

This article was co-written by Kyle Bozentko and Camille Morse Nicholson.

Jefferson Center

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Designing the future of democracy by unleashing creative citizen-driven ideas. Find us @ jefferson-center.org & @jeffersonctr