Now that I’ve finished posting about the “Framing Challenge,” it’s time to move on to the “Systems Challenge.”
Most recent experiments in dialogue and deliberation have been temporary and somewhat isolated programs that lead to few long-term changes in the way people and institutions interact. For the “Systems Challenge,” we explored how we can make public engagement values and practices integral to government, schools, and other systems, so our methods of involving people, solving problems, and making decisions happen more naturally and efficiently.
At the conference, we focused most on institutionalizing public engagement in governance—an area often referred to by scholars (perhaps a bit awkwardly) as “embeddedness.” According to Fung and Fagotto (2009),
Embeddedness is a habit of deliberation among citizens. When that habit is embedded in a community’s political institutions and social practices, people frequently make public decisions and take collective actions though processes that involve discussion, reasoning, and citizen participation rather than through the exercise of authority, expertise, status, political weight, or other such forms of power. (p. 3)
Five themes emerged in discussions about this challenge area…
1. Share ownership of programs and structures widely
Public problems cannot be solved by government alone. Community assets like volunteers, businesses, churches, schools and nonprofit organizations must be tapped to address most complex problems. According to Systems Challenge co-leader Matt Leighninger (pictured), one problem with some of the existing systems for public involvement is that they were established purely as government entities, like the neighborhood council systems created during the “War on Poverty” in the 1960s and 70s.
“Starting in the early 1970s, local governments in places like Portland, Oregon, Dayton, Ohio, and Saint Paul, Minnesota created neighborhood council systems as a way of engaging residents in public decision-making and problem-solving” (Leighninger, The Promise and Challenge of Neighborhood Democracy: Lessons from the intersection of government and community,2009). Because they were designed as miniature versions of city councils, they have had to deal with many of the same dysfunctions and problems as government—but with less resources and authority with which to work.
Leighninger asserts that our focus should not be on making government bigger, but on creating structures and processes that are jointly owned by whole communities. In his draft report on a Democratic Governance at the Neighborhood Level meeting held in November 2008, one of four main conclusions drawn from the meeting is that “this work has to be jointly ‘owned’ and directed.” Meeting participants seemed to agree that in communities where public engagement is embedded in governance, “a broad array of neighborhood and community organizations and leaders, along with public officials and employees” all have some significant degree of ownership and authority within the system.
That said, the importance of involvement and buy-in of political leaders cannot be overemphasized. In their paper Sustaining Public Engagement, Fung and Fagotto (2009) identify “political authority” as one of three conditions necessary for public engagement principles and processes to become embedded in government systems. Although nonprofits and civic entrepreneurs often initiate public engagement efforts, they are more likely to impact policy and endure over time if local politicians and decision-makers also support them. Hawaii State Senator Les Ihara (an NCDD 2008 attendee) is an example of a public official who has tirelessly promoted National Issues Forums and other deliberative initiatives with legislators for years.
2. Build on and learn from what’s already in place
Note from Sandy:
This is my sixth blog post featuring content of an article published in the latest edition of the International Journal of Public Participation (IJP2), titled Taking our Work to the Next Level: Addressing Challenges Facing the Dialogue and Deliberation Community. The article outlines our learnings in two of the five challenges we focused on at the 2008 NCDD conference in Austin: the “Systems Challenge” (How can we make D&D values and practices integral to government, schools, and other systems?) and the The “Framing Challenge” (How can we talk about and present D&D work in more accessible ways?). You can download the full article from the IJP2 site.