Update on America?s Role in the World Deliberations
In January 2003, MacNeil/Lehrer Productions (MLP) held a national dialogue, with 344 randomly selected citizens from across the country, on America's role in the world. (More information on the National Issues Convention is available at www.by-the-people.org). The gathering demonstrated the power of informed public deliberation to spur serious reflection on complex policy choices. To extend and sustain this conversation, By the People held follow-up conversations in January 2004 in cities around the country, in partnership with local public television stations, community foundations, newspapers, universities, and civic organizations. A second phase, scheduled for October 2004, will extend the conversation to thirty communities.
The initial round of conversations took place on January 24, 2004, at the start of the presidential election year. By the People Citizen Deliberations brought 1000 citizens together, in their own communities, to explore the foreign policy choices confronting the nation and to articulate the values and beliefs underlying different options. The two topics explored were America's role and interest in global security (in the context of nation-building in Iraq) and global economics (in the context of the debate about free trade). In October 2004, just before the election, the conversation will be expanded to include an additional 20 communities. MLP will produce national broadcasts in January and October.
The goals of the initiative include: to engage a diverse group of citizens (1000 in January, 3000 in October) in informed discussion about the challenges currently facing our country; to develop a sustainable mechanism for and local commitment to regular, ongoing civic problem-solving in 30 communities; and to spark a more reflective and informed national debate about foreign policy (at the beginning and towards the end of the presidential election year) through local and national coverage of these dialogues.
The Citizen Deliberation is a new and distinctive kind of public consultation that seeks to help citizens answer two basic questions:
- Why should I care?
- Who cares what I think?
People from all walks of life are able to meet on common ground and talk about the most pressing challenges of the day. Their views are heard and registered both locally and nationally. The Deliberation gives citizens a chance to participate in the conversation about this country's future and the future of the world, and to hold leaders accountable to explain their decisions to an informed, engaged, and vocal electorate.
The metropolitan areas that participated in the January deliberations included Seattle, Pittsburgh, Rochester, Baton Rouge, Kansas City, Green Bay Wisconsin, Sarasota County Florida, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and San Diego. A rural deliberation was held in Nebraska. Criteria for selection included the presence of a proactive public television station committed to serving as a catalyst for civic dialogue in its community and local stakeholders who can promote the event and involve the wider community in similar informed and reflective discussions about significant policy questions.
Each local Citizen Deliberation included: (1) the gathering of a representative sample of citizens from the local station's community; (2) identical video and print background briefing material used in each local community; (3) small group discussions about America in the World; and (4) an opinion survey questionnaire answered by participants at the conclusion of the event. By the People provided a template for the discussions, basic background materials and the survey questionnaire, and organized national coverage of the process. Though the bulk of the survey questions were the same in each community, PBS stations and/or local newspapers were invited to add local issues to their particular questionnaire. At the end of the Deliberation, participants registered their views on a survey. The results of the survey -- and a comparison with the participants' pre-deliberation views and with the views of a local control group -- will be made available to local and national press.
The Citizen Deliberations were an opportunity to engage not only the participants but also the wider community in dialogue about America's role in the world. Citizen Deliberations created a high visibility vehicle to spark local interest in the issues and in civic dialogue. Community groups will be able to respond to this interest through distribution of the surveys and the background briefing materials to their membership and by sponsoring concurrent, parallel discussions.
Dan Werner, President, MacNeil/Lehrer Productions
Coordinator of the Citizen Deliberations Project, Yale Institution for Social and Policy Studies