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Op-Ed by Peter Muhlberger for the Dallas Morning News    

America faces serious and intractable problems. These include the Iraq War, climate change, unsustainable budget deficits, a health care system in crisis, global competition for jobs, and dependence on foreign energy. The public blames political leaders for deadlock on these issues, but leaders cannot tackle issues that require real sacrifices when the public is as divided or uncertain as they are on these issues.

Across the globe, public leaders are finding new ways to involve the public to address difficult problems. This past weekend, presidential contender John Edwards, expanding on Ross Perot before him, announced a program of government reform that includes a Citizen Congress. This would be a Congress of one million citizens, connected by modern technologies, to be held every two years. Results of these citizen discussions would provide a potent new public input into government. Properly implemented, a Citizen Congress could help remedy deep problems facing the country currently.

Today, special interest groups and lobbyists take advantage of and foster uncertainty in the public. We can look back to the Health Care Plan in 1994—a time in which the public believed something needed to be done to fix the nation’s health care system. Special interest groups manipulated the system, misinformed the public, and prevented any kind of action. That led to the growing health care crisis today. A national consensus would give leaders the mandate they need to act.

The public is aware of the efforts of special interests and its own weak impact on policy. This has led to a crisis of confidence in democratic institutions. In a March 2007 Pew survey, only a third of Americans said that they believe government “cares about what people like me think.” Only a quarter of respondents to a 2007 CBS / NYTimes poll think they can trust the federal government to do what is right ‘just about always’ or ‘most of the time.’

To address intractable problems and public distrust, a new kind of political process is needed. The public must become more engaged in addressing key issues. Around the world, a new model of engagement—citizen deliberation—is being tried. In the current political system, an often underinformed and overmanipulated public opinion is measured via opinion polls. In citizen deliberation, opinions are not measured until citizens have had a chance to consider balanced information on an issue and to discuss the issue among themselves. Edward’s Citizen Congress is such a deliberation effort.

In a citizen deliberation project I conducted in Pittsburgh, PA participants showed a remarkable ability to come to consensus on a difficult and long-standing problem. The city has experienced long-term population decline. As a result, a third of the seats in public schools throughout the city were empty. The School Board has tried for 15 years to close some schools in order to save the city millions of dollars it badly needs. But residents, who did not want their neighborhood schools closed, banded together to reopen closed schools.

The citizen deliberation project brought together 568 representative Pittsburgh residents to learn about and discuss the school closings issue. The deliberation shifted opinions from 36% in favor of closings to 69% in favor . After public hearings regarding these findings, the School Board closed 15 schools.

In Texas, a Deliberative Poll of citizens regarding energy issues stimulated utilities to pursue wind power, to the great benefit of the state. In a Brazilian city, a participatory budget process involved the public in budget decisions. The effort was so successful, under difficult budget constraints, that the World Bank has promoted it as a model. California this summer brought together 3500 citizens to discuss and provide crucial public input on the health care plans being considered by state government. Public discussion and consultation is becoming a regular part of Parliamentary processes in Britain. The Canadian province of British Columbia convened a citizen jury to advise on changes to the province’s constitution.

These worldwide efforts have in common the use of citizen deliberation—providing balanced information to the public, giving people a chance to discuss the issues, and then determining their opinions. Research suggests that such deliberative processes have highly positive effects on participants. They become much better informed on the issues. Their opinions typically shift strongly in the direction of expert opinion and away from their narrow self-interest. Participants become more politically active, feel more politically efficacious, and are more likely to embrace their identity as a citizen.

National discussions in a Citizen Congress will foster consensus and encourage people to focus on solutions for the common good. Rather than just talking with their neighbors, citizens respond to the opinions and views of people from across the country. Together, they seek to identify the common priorities, not of a city or a state, but of the American public as a whole. This is the kind of reasoning that will be essential to addressing the intractable issues facing the nation.

Peter Muhlberger
Assistant Research Professor of Political Science, Texas Tech University

[email protected]

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