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Corporations Cannot Govern    

Corporations and governments have very different goals and motivations. Over the past few decades, these natural differences have become increasingly blurred in the eyes of politicians and the public…and some very disturbing consequences of this trend can now be seen. It’s time to drop the illusion that business strategies will work in effective public governance. In addition, I believe it’s time to drop the illusion that corporate skill is the panacea for our public policy dilemmas. Corporations do what they do very well…but we don’t have to believe they can do everything well to appreciate them as an integral part of our national and global society. Our public discussions need to address this hard truth: corporations cannot govern…and governments that act like corporations will fail.

  • Corporations serve a specific group of shareholders exclusively…governments serve all their residents equally
  • Corporations measure success in numbers…governments measure success in the quality of life in their communities
  • Corporations succeed through competition…governments succeed by balancing the needs of their diverse stakeholders
  • Corporations seek to defer or minimize risk…governments assume risk for their most vulnerable people
  • Corporations have CEOs and management staff with authority to make autonomous policy decisions…governments have checks and balances for policy decisions
  • Corporations can shift their multi-national operations to maximize profits…governments focus on a specific place and population in good times and in bad times

A business model does not translate well into public policy. And…CEOs rarely have the skill set for public office. Business strategies look at the world through a completely different lens than do public policy strategies. They aren’t inferior or evil…they just see the world in a unique and different way. So…why we can’t let business be business…and let public policy be public policy? When we confuse these roles in society, some very dangerous errors can happen…not because people intend to make mistakes, but because they are not prepared to make the best decisions for the common good. (more…)

Will powerful conversations solve state and local budget crises?    

What would happen if professional organizers and facilitators of dialogue and deliberation decisively and publicly demonstrated their capacity to help cities and states solve their biggest problem — collapsing budgets — and then broadly promoted that fact?

What’s the crisis?  States, cities and towns across the United States are collapsing under mountains of debt.  The mortgage crisis crashed property taxes, the primary source of revenue for cities.  Cities are cutting off services from education to police to road repair. Comparable crises are hitting state governments, some of whom are selling off public properties, utilities and service institutions, resulting in a major privatization of the commons.  Some states and cities are contemplating bankruptcy, thereby scaring off bond investors.  See these articles for fascinating and troubling information on all this.

Advocates and practitioners of processes like Study Circles, Future Search, Dynamic Facilitation, Open Space Technology, and many other approaches have proclaimed the power of whole-system conversations, citizen engagement and stakeholder dialogues to solve the problems of communities.  Shouldn’t the power of such conversations be seriously considered by every legislature and administration? Shouldn’t the dialogue-and-deliberation approach be in the news as much as problematic solutions like staff layoffs, union-busting, bankruptcy, and increasing elementary school classroom size to 60 students?

The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, the International Association for Public Participation, the International Association of Facilitators, and the many networks of practitioners would clearly benefit from greater demand for powerful facilitated conversations. Clearly, the budget crisis is an opportunity of epic proportions.  But how might it be engaged? (more…)

Participatory Budgeting Practices, Places, Games and Resources    

Re-posted by Tom Atlee from

Recently I’ve seen a swirl of information (mostly on the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation listserv) about participatory budgeting. Below, you’ll find a sampling of this info, in relatively raw form. I do not know enough to sort it all out, but it looks really fascinating.

Most of this material is about online public budgeting exercises, but some of it also describes the kind of face-to-face, seriously empowered mass-participatory civic budgeting processes developed in Brazil which have spread widely in the last decade or so. (more…)

Wonderful new videos from the Bertelsmann Foundation    

A few days ago, the Bertelsmann Stiftung (Bertelsmann Foundation in the U.S.) added a bunch of new videos to its YouTube channel.  They really are must-see videos for people in our field; they’re very well-made videos (about 4 minutes long each) that feature the finalists in the 2011 Reinhard Mohn Prize.  I can see the videos being used in the classroom, in workshops, as part of presentations to local government, and so much more.

I just added them to my dialogue & deliberation playlists on YouTube, where you can find hundreds of D&D-related videos.

With the 2011 Reinhard Mohn Prize, the Bertelsmann Stiftung wants to bring new momentum to the debate on how democratic systems can be made “future ready” by helping them respond to current and future challenges. As many of you know, the 7 finalists of the Mohn Prize (to be awarded this spring) emerged from an international search to identify innovative, exemplary approaches to strengthening democracy through citizen engagement.

Check out the videos for these finalists:

Stepping Up    

It’s an historic day for Egypt and for the world. But…when Egypt’s President Mubarak ‘stepped down’…we have to wonder who will be ‘stepping up.’ Of course, we’re hoping to see all segments of the Egyptian population to ‘step up’ equally, but this is not likely. It’s not likely, because many will not have equal choice to ‘step up’…and it’s not likely, because many will not see it’s their responsibility to ‘step up.’ There is a great uncertainty today, even in the midst of jubilant celebrations. In Egypt…as in our own troubled political environment…it’s uncertain if more everyday citizens will ‘step up’ as active participants to make our political culture more responsive, more inclusive and more resilient…so, in the end, it is also sustainable. Today…we can all celebrate in these fresh opportunities for the Egyptian people. Tomorrow…it’ll be time to ‘step up’ as participatory government moves from being a dream to being a reality.

These next remarks emerge from the confluence of thoughts about the events of the day, and my two previous blog entries. When a leader ‘steps down’…when a government topples…when government services are ended…a vacuum is created. Others must then continue to ‘step up’ until that vacuum is filled to the point of at least a temporary equilibrium. History is made up of many inter-connected stories of vacuums and equilibriums in power and politics. Unfortunately, most of these stories are dominated by those who already have great power…so a bad situation is replaced by another bad situation. But…in some of these stories, a few unsuspecting people emerge with new ideas that inspire many others…and a momentum of choice leads to a new equilibrium with some completely new structures. When change is afoot…and the best possible outcome is desired…it’s time to have open minds in many conversations at many different levels of society. (more…)

The ‘Right-size’ of Government    

All government programs have a basis in human need and community sustainability. From deep within us, the better part of our humanity calls us to care about our neighbors’ well-being so the social fabric that sustains us and enriches us does not tear irreparably. Through years of dilemmas and solutions, an evolving governmental layering has institutionalized our systemic concerns into departments and agencies with huge responsibilities and budgets. It was inevitable that one day we would have to take a closer look at our values and priorities, concerning the reach and depth of governmental obligations. But now…massive budget cuts at all levels of government are making some really gut-wrenching choices essential. Human needs don’t go away just because a government program is cut. Some human problems demand public solutions.

The empathy and compassion of people is astounding! When a family member or neighbor is suffering, ordinary people find the strength, courage and resources to help. As a pastor, I’ve seen amazing acts of kindness and heroic sacrifices for others who find themselves in difficult times. When I was working with natural disaster survivors, I was impressed by their concern and generosity for their neighbors…many times recognizing that the other family’s needs were more critical than their own. Here is the basis for government programs…everyday people do care. Communities have been meeting the human needs of their neighbors for longer than history books can report. (more…)

Democratic Principles    

We’re face-to-face again with our love-hate relationship with democratic principles. While politicians, pundits and everyday citizens love to extol the value of participatory governance in the United States and around the world, our foreign policy has focused on American ‘interests’ rather than democratic principles. It’s not surprising this week that Egyptian President Mubarak’s administration is under siege…after decades of democratic neglect and dictatorial power. If Tunisia is followed by Egypt in governmental disruption, the old 60s-era ‘domino theory’ of successive governmental takeovers will be a reality…not to Communism as feared then, but to a wide variety of interest groups including Islamic opportunists. It’s too late to be ahead of this trend, friends…but it’s not too late to understand our own values more clearly, so we can reshape our foreign policy in the future…if we actually believe in the democratic principles we espouse.

Everything you read in a blog is over-simplified to a point…but I believe this dilemma between democratic principles and American interests boils down to long-term versus short-term goals. It would be nice to find consistent policy options that serve both long-term and short-term needs, but it’s obviously not as easy as we might hope. Let’s face it…it’s sad and self-defeating, but, in American politics as in American business, short-term needs almost always win over long-term goals. We put up with petty despots in many countries to serve our immediate needs…and never quite get around to balancing off the needs of their people. American interests, of course, are urgent and important…and they take precedence over the long-term needs and human rights of people in other countries. When you’re still the ‘big dog’ in the world…with more economic, military and political power than any other nation…your priorities are the highest! But…in this equation, democratic principles suffer…deeply and often. (more…)

The Citizens’ Toolbox: What’s in Yours?    

NCDD is a proud sponsor of The Citizens’ Toolbox: What’s In Yours? — a conference aimed at connecting students with those engaged in a broad and varied set of experiments and projects in Dialogue and Deliberation and other tenets of civic and democratic life. Join us March 16-19 at Miami University of Ohio in Oxford, Ohio, as we all ask what’s in our own toolboxes, and open those up for each other to explore and engage.

Join us in this opportunity to share and gain skills related to:

  • Dialogue and Deliberation;
  • Campus and Community;
  • Action Plans and Problem Solving, and
  • Practical Application of Skills.

The conference is aimed at connecting students to professionals, academics, and everyday citizens who are eager to gain new tools, build on the ones we have, and use these tools for action. Find out more at

Call for Proposals: We are accepting proposals for poster sessions, workshops, and learning exchanges until Friday, February 4th (honorariums may be available for you!). Learn more and submit yours today!

Early Bird specials- Don’t Delay!
We are offering Early Bird pricing for all conference participants that register before February 11th. Learn more at register at

Ideas for improving the IAP2 certificate program?    

Another thing I’ve been invited to do in Sydney is to attend the 2-day IAP2 Summit 2011, which is focused on improving IAP2′s certificate program in public participation.  About 18 of us will be exploring these questions on February 6th and 7th:

What would a world-class certificate program look like? What will make it the best in the world? What will make it unique to IAP2?

I’d love to hear from some NCDDers who have gone through the certificate program about what worked really well about the training, and what do you think should have been different?

And for those of you who aren’t familiar with the certificate program or haven’t participated yet, I’d love to hear what types of specific content, skills, etc. you feel are the most valuable to cover in a training on engaging the public in policy-making.

Also, who are the very best trainers you have ever worked with?  We’ll be discussing who can/should be approached to develop materials based on their expertise and capacity to deliver.

Other “summitteers” are Lyn Carson, Moira Deslandes, Jan Elliott, Michelle Feenan, Teresa Forest, John Gastil, Janette Hartz-Karp, David Kahane, Lars Kluver, Matt Leighninger, Rodolfo Lewanski, Ron Lubensky, Stephani Roy McCallum, Doug Sarno, Vivien Twyford, Mark Warren, and Kimbra White–so it’s quite the impressive group!

Creative Deliberation    

Hello.  New NCDD blogger Tom Atlee here.  I’m founder of and research director for the Co-Intelligence Institute, interested in how high quality D&D can be used to catalyze a wiser democracy and more conscious evolution of humanity’s cultures, social systems, and technologies.  I’ve been collecting, promoting, critiquing and weaving together dozens of diverse processes for two decades, and I’m very interested in their underlying dynamics and mutual synergies.  I live in a co-op house in Eugene Oregon.  I’m happy to share my thoughts about all this with you and I look forward to your comments.

Creative Deliberation

Many (most?) citizen deliberative methods take deliberators through some version of the following steps:

  1. Review briefing materials that summarize arguments for and against the 3-5 main options being discussed in the public debate on the subject, hopefully covering 80-90 percent of the spectrum of opinion.  (Sometimes — as in a Citizen Initiative Review — the deliberators simply evaluate whether or not an existing proposal should be supported.)
  2. Hear expert testimony, get expert answers to questions, and/or cross-examine diverse experts. (Some methods skip some or all of this step.)
  3. Deliberate in the group, weighing the merits and trade-offs of the presented options.  See how much of a consensus can be achieved and, if not, report out the distribution of opinion in the group.

This general approach tends to restrict the considered options to what is already being talked about in mainstream discourse, rather than invoking the creativity of the deliberators to come up with something better than the mainstream options.  In contrast, other methods like brainstorming or Dynamic Facilitation may focus on creativity, but may not take the time to adequately deliberate on the feasibility and potential problems or consequences of what the participants create.  In between these are various half-way approaches such as allowing or encouraging deliberators to mix-and-match aspects of various options to see if they can improve on the mainstream presented options.  Or sometimes deliberators simply revolt and say they want something that isn’t one of the choices they’ve been given.

It seems that a process that is both open and creative and also rigorously deliberative would offer higher quality results than any of the above.  I would love to hear about any citizen deliberative approaches already out there that attempt to do that.  Just to invite imaginative dialogue, I offer the following model as a possible approach.  It would definitely be a multi-day deliberation (involving preferably a random cross-section microcosm of the population), along the lines of citizens juries, consensus conferences, or citizen assemblies, but with some added creative bells and whistles…

  1. Review briefing materials that summarize arguments for and against the 3-5 main options being discussed in the public debate on the subject, hopefully covering 80-90 percent of the spectrum of opinion.
  2. Get diverse expert answers to questions and cross-examine those experts.
  3. Deliberate in the group, weighing the merits and trade-offs of the main options and seeing if there’s consensus on any one of them or a recombination of them, and specifically inviting any other approach that might have more benefits and fewer trade-offs.
  4. Split into web-surfing teams for a couple of hours to see what other hot information or options are available on the web.  (Perhaps make it a challenge: Who can find the best stuff?!!)  Come back together to share what was found.
  5. Repeat deliberation as in (3) but including the new information and options found.  Note any new questions or potential favored options that show up or which the group, itself, wants to create.  Include Dynamic Facilitation here if the conversational energy is hot, to help it move toward an emergent breakthrough.
  6. Consult (perhaps by phone) with experts who can answer any new questions and/or provide input on the feasibility or likely consequences of any new options the group is considering recommending.
  7. Repeat steps 5 &  6 until agreement is reached or a clear set of majority/minority recommendations solidifies.  Whichever happens, articulate clear rationale for the recommendations presented.

Do you have any thoughts on this approach, or on other approaches that combine full-spectrum information, high levels of creativity AND rigorous deliberation among diverse perspectives and options?

Where Everybody Knows Your Name    

The TV show, Cheers, ran for eleven seasons during the 80s and early 90s with a tagline that made everyone feel good…‘where everybody knows your name.’ A group of unlikely friends went through some good times and some bad times while making us laugh…and these characters became part of our lives, because we knew their names too! Like most really successful TV shows, it captured some important components of society…so the public could inspect and appreciate them in a user-friendly format. In Cheers, the characters discussed all sorts of issues while they laughed, argued and joked together. They became a cohesive and effective community with and for each other. When we seek to accomplish the goal to ‘build a great community…together,’ we need to make sure our community is compact and clearly identified enough to be something like Cheers…a place ‘where everybody knows your name.’

Unfortunately, our country is moving more and more toward being a society of anonymous faces. It seems we know more people just a bit and fewer people really well…thanks to our tech gadgets. This may not seem to be important, but I believe our capacity to work together in community problem-solving is compromised significantly by this shift. Many times, we regard people we don’t know with suspicion and even some fear, especially when they don’t look like us, or speak our language, or worship in our religious tradition. So…it’s probably not a good thing that we’re increasing our ‘Facebook time’ and decreasing our personal ‘face time.’

So…how did we get into this increasingly isolated lifestyle? And…how can we make some changes in our culture to make local, face-to-face conversations more attractive and available, particularly to young people who have little experience in this form of communication?  I’m not just being nostalgic in these questions…our public problems are so complex and inter-connected that they simply cannot be understood or solved without in-depth, personal conversations. Deep and sustainable solutions to these problems can be found…but not quickly, nor easily, nor in isolation. And…the quality of our connections will determine our willingness to do the work required. Healthy, effective and fulfilling connections will, however, require some soul-searching…and some humility. (more…)

Comments Sought on Final Draft of AA1000 Stakeholder Engagement Standard    

Cross-posted from Beth Offenbacker’s PublicDecisions blog

Many folks have been following the development of the AA1000 Stakeholder Engagement Standard over these last few years.  The final draft of this international standard for stakeholder engagement has been released for review and comment at

According to the project website, the goal of the revision was to move the standard away from being mostly “a CSR process and [to] make it more strategically relevant for engagements across businesses, governments and other organisations. The new AA1000SES needs to provide a mechanism for engagement that can be robust at the global level but flexible enough for local application, that looks beyond process to outcomes and impact evaluation. There is also a need to better link the numerous sustainability initiatives and their understanding of quality stakeholder engagement.”

Comments and feedback are encouraged via email at

Opportunity for NCDDers to help shape No Labels’ activities    

An appeal to NCDD colleagues, from leadership at NCDD and the Public Conversations Project:

As some of you will have noticed, No Labels has been the subject of lively discussion on the NCDD listserv in recent weeks.  This month-old effort has Democratic, Republican and Independent leadership and aims to counter what it calls ‘hyper-partisanship” in national, particularly Congressional, politics. The founders’ consistent message has been that they are not about issues but about shifting the “attitudes and behaviors” of elected leaders towards civility and cooperative problem-solving.

No Labels has started rolling out a media strategy and is encouraging concerned citizens of all political stripes to come together to organize in every Congressional district and act together to hold their leaders accountable for civil conduct and for working across labels to find solutions to critical issues.

Beyond using the meet-up technology, there was not much up-front thinking about what kind of local grass roots organizing would best model the initiative’s values. This is not surprising. The No Labels folks are political professionals. Observing this weakness/ gap, some NCDD members have been exploring how members of our field might bring our expertise to bear to enhance the community mobilization piece of this rapidly developing and potentially constructive political movement.

Laura Chasin and Mary Jacksteit of the Public Conversations Project (PCP) have been in regular contact with No Labels about how to enhance the public involvement resources being made available to citizen organizers. They have met with receptiveness – for example, to the meet-up site ground rules and other tips were quickly added due to their recommendations (see

There are various worthwhile, parallel efforts that have been shared within the NCDD community. NoLabels is one with a national reach that may provide the chance to introduce group process principles that make a constructive difference. Especially after the shootings in Arizona, more Americans may be looking for places to go to talk about their distress with the political culture and because of its media outreach, NoLabels groups may provide one important place. Our field has something powerful to contribute.

PCP is prepared to maintain contact with the No Labels leadership and to serve as a conduit for feedback and suggestions from NCDD members who organize or participate in no Labels events. Below is information about how to find out what these events are (this week the first local meet-ups are taking place), and ideas for bipartisan viewing parties for the President’s State of the Union speech on January 25. These “unity watch parties” are NoLabels’ most recent push. (more…)

RFQ for help creating public engagement policy    

I was contacted today by Sonam Shah of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (based in San Francisco, CA), who wanted to share an RFQ with NCDDers.  I think some of you will be very interested in this opportunity to help create a comprehensive district-wide policy and plan for public engagement.

Importantly, one of the qualifications they’re seeking is “experience developing and drafting Public Engagement Policies and Plans for public agencies with multi-county jurisdictions and regulatory authority.” This 9-month project (estimated for March through October) is budgeted for up to and may not exceed $200,000. Qualifications are due January 21.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District requests a statement of qualifications from qualified entities to assist in the creation of a district-wide Public Engagement Policy and Plan aimed at laying out guidance and tools for engaging stakeholders in District actions. The Air District intends to develop a Public Engagement Policy and a Public Engagement Plan to help provide the agency with consistency when working with the public.  The RFQ can be found at the following link: (Note: ashx files can be opened in Adobe Reader.)

They’re looking forward to your response.  For more information on the BAAQMD’s open RFP/RFQs, visit

Hope for the Next Generations    

Our young people need some public engagement tools for the really tough decisions that face them. Today I was completing a survey about the future challenges of our children and youth…completing a colleague’s deliberative survey, because she’d already completed mine. My wife and I are very blessed to have six amazing grandchildren — and as I completed the survey about their future, I was picturing them 20 years from now, having to face some hugely complex and troubling public problems. How will they be able to meet those challenges with more wisdom than we seem to be able to find today? How will they commit the time needed for important community conversations when we’re unwilling to do so today? I have hope for our next generations of citizens…because I have confidence that our children and grandchildren will learn to be like us in some ways…and not like us in other ways.

We have an awesome opportunity — and responsibility. Those of us who have developed our skills in dialogue and deliberation have some very powerful tools in public engagement. And, these skills can be developed even further through a greater willingness to learn with and from each other as colleagues in a ‘Deliberative Practice.’ How do we effectively pass them along to the next generations? How do we involve them in the refinement of these tools…so they can translate these tools into the next generations’ culture? We have two critically important tasks in the early 21st century…to develop and to apply our skills in public engagement to the best of our abilities in our nation and in our local communities…AND, to gently mentor younger generations into this lifestyle of public participation. (more…)

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