Upgrading the Way We Do Politics (one-pager)    

by Sandy Heierbacher

Town hall meetings being held on healthcare legislation across the country are exploding with emotion, frustration, and conflict.  Citizens are showing up in throngs to speak out about health care as well as dozens of other topics, but it seems the louder voices get, the less people are actually heard.

The meetings have become a vivid demonstration of what’s missing in American Democracy.

So how can officials hold better open meetings with their constituents?  Dozens of effective public engagement techniques have been developed to enable citizens to have authentic, civil, productive discussions at public meetings—even on highly contentious issues.  Techniques like National Issues Forums, Study Circles, 21st Century Town Meetings, Open Space Technology, and World Cafe, to name just a few.

When done well, these techniques create the space for real dialogue, so everyone who shows up can tell their story and share their perspective on the topic at hand.  Dialogue builds trust and enables people to be open to listening to perspectives that are very different from their own.  Deliberation is often key to public engagement work as well, enabling people to discuss the consequences, costs, and trade-offs of various policy options, and to work through the emotions and values inherent in tough public decisions.

Given a diverse group, good information, a structured format, and time, citizens can grapple with complicated issues and trade-offs across partisan and other divides.  Perhaps most importantly, the legislator hosting the meeting must genuinely be open to learning from what his or her constituents think should be done to address the issue at hand.

Here are some guidelines for our political leaders:

  • Provide balanced and detailed information about the issue at hand, and put a fairly-framed spectrum of possible policy choices on the table for attendees to discuss. Consider co-hosting with a legislator from the another party.
  • Use a facilitator. Take yourself out of front and center. Skilled facilitators are neutral and know how to translate conflict and anger into specific interests, needs and concerns—so what’s behind the emotion can actually be understood and addressed.
  • “Ground rules” or “agreements” establish a kind of golden rule for everyone present. With these agreements, participants are more likely to be heard and to hear each other.
  • Get different interests to talk to each other through a structured process. There are many ways to accomplish this. For example, organize participants into smaller groups to ensure each person gets the chance to speak and to make it unlikely that one person or interest group will dominate the meeting.
  • Diligently record what citizens say, and be clear about how you plan to use their input. Throughout the meeting, “reflect back” the concerns, values and desires you are hearing.

These ideas and others posted at www.thataway.org were developed by members of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD).

Though it may not seem like it when we watch clips from recent healthcare town halls, the truth is that people can come together to have a positive impact on national policy—not only in spite of our differences, but because working through those differences allows us to make better decisions. Citizens have higher expectations than ever for a government that is of, by and for the people, and it’s high time for an upgrade in the way we do politics.

Sandy Heierbacher is the co-founder and director of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD), a network of 1200 groups and professionals who bring together Americans of all stripes to discuss, decide and act together on today’s toughest issues. She recommends the following resources to those interested in engaging the public in healthcare in more meaningful and substantive ways.

NCDD Members Directory: www.thataway.org/ncddnet
Find a facilitator or convening organization in your region.  Or contact [email protected] for help finding someone.

NCDD’s Engagement Streams Framework: www.thataway.org/?page_id=1487
This free resource helps practitioners, community leaders and elected officials decide which public engagement methods are most appropriate for their circumstances and resources.

Core Principles for Public Engagement:  www.thataway.org/pep
These seven principles were developed collaboratively by leaders in citizen engagement, and have been endorsed by over 50 organizations.

Discussion Guides on Healthcare
– Coping with the Cost of Health Care: How Do We Pay for What We Need? (National Issues Forums): www.nifi.org/issue_books/
– Citizens Survival Kit on Health Care (Public Agenda): www.publicagenda.org/citizen/electionguides/healthcare

Millions of Voices: A Blueprint for Engaging the American Public in National Policy-Making: www.americaspeaks.org/_data/n_0001/resources/live/millions_of_voices_1104.pdf
Offers a plan for National Discussions that will engage more than one million Americans in substantive deliberations about public issues.

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