Bridging the Gap between Public Officials and the Public

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1 Bridging the Gap between Public Officials and the Public A REPORT OF THE DELIBERATIVE DEMOCRACY CONSORTIUM 2011 Tina Nabatchi Syracuse University Cynthia Farrar Yale University

2 This work is the result of a collaboration between the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and the Charles F. Kettering Foundation. Any interpretations and conclusions are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles F. Kettering Foundation, its staff, directors or officers. About the Authors Tina Nabatchi, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Public Administration and International Affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University. Her research focuses on citizen participation, collaborative governance, and conflict resolution. She has presented her work at numerous academic and practitioner conferences and has published widely in journals such as Public Administration Review, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, and The American Review of Public Administration. She is also the lead editor of Democracy in Motion: Assessing the Practice and Impact of Deliberative Civic Engagement (Oxford University Press, 2012). Dr. Nabatchi is also the co-founder and codirector of CNYSpeaks, a non-partisan effort of the Maxwell School to provide residents of the Central New York area with opportunities to have meaningful voice on the issues that affect them most. Cynthia Farrar, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow at Yale University's Institution for Social and Policy Studies. She pursues and studies strategies for energizing citizenship, particularly at the local level, and has adapted methods of deliberative democracy as tools for local and regional governance. Farrar has a special interest in the implications of ancient democracy for modern practice, and in using the media to engage ordinary citizens as full partners in American democracy. She worked with MacNeil/Lehrer Productions and public television stations around the country to orchestrate non-partisan conversations among randomly-invited citizens. In 2007, she founded Purple States TV, to give ordinary citizens a voice on the issues that affect them. She is the author of The Origins of Democratic Thinking (Cambridge University Press, 1988) and has published articles and essays on randomized field experiments on deliberation, and on the implications of ancient democracy for modern practice. This report represents the first part of the Bridging the Gap research project. For a set of slides that brings in the lessons learned from recent evaluations of public deliberation projects Part 2 of the research see the Deliberative Democracy Consortium Resource page at: i

3 EXECUTIVE SUMMARY This report explores what elected officials know and think about public deliberation, as well as what they need to know to assess the potential value of public deliberation as a governance tool. Data from interviews with twenty-four state legislators and senior staff for federal legislators yielded some provocative results with practical implications for the field of public deliberation. Only four respondents had familiarity and/or experience with deliberation. The majority of those interviewed for this study did not know what public deliberation was, and even after explanation, had trouble understanding how this approach differs from what they already do to engage their constituents. With few exceptions, the respondents conflated it with their present engagement practices such as polling, public hearings, town halls, tele-town halls, and opportunities to hear individual stories. Perhaps most interesting was the sheer skepticism lawmakers expressed about the feasibility of deliberation. Given that lawmakers generally did not believe public deliberation is possible, they were hampered in assessing its utility. All the legislators recognized that constituent engagement is a job requirement ( a necessary part of the game ) and essential for political survival. Standard forms of engagement were also seen as a way to foster connections and two-way communication between legislators and constituents to enable lawmakers to hear and respond to the concerns, needs, and positions of the real people as distinct from special interests. Despite these benefits, lawmakers were quick to point out several challenges and risks of engaging constituents, including limited resources and complicated logistics, dealing with an angry and hostile public, and the difficulty within a partisan political environment of engaging constituents in a realistic discussion of legislative options. Each of these drawbacks to traditional participatory mechanisms has important implications for public deliberation. Simply put, these risks and challenges shape and color the way lawmakers think about citizens, the role of public officials, and the potential of public deliberation. While the lawmakers could generally see the intellectual, ethical, and philosophical reasons for using public deliberation, they had trouble imagining how it could be employed in the real world. Beyond their suspicion that deliberation would be logistically challenging and resource intensive, they doubted the motivation and willingness of citizens to participate in such processes; were fearful of being attacked by angry, partisan, and uninformed citizens; apprehensive of cultivating critics, being caught off guard, or subjected to negative press coverage; and worried that such processes would be hijacked or commandeered by organized interests. They argued that deliberation was not politically feasible and expedient because they are forced to cater to the loudest and most extreme voices and the people with money to finance campaigns. They felt trapped in and saw fellow legislators as corrupted by a legislative system that is itself not civil and deliberative. Few saw political incentives to support the use of public deliberation, except perhaps, as some state legislators suggested, on issues that are politically unwinnable where there are tough decisions to be made, the politics are polarized and partisan, public misconceptions about what is possible abound, and there are no incentives for legislators to compromise. ii

4 Given these experiences and perceptions, it is unsurprising that legislators said they would need to see and understand the methods and processes of public deliberation for themselves before they would be able to assess the value of the deliberative approach or the content of a particular deliberation. Personal exposure would enable them to understand how deliberative processes are different from, and in some contexts and for some purposes, better than, what they already do. Proposals for a deliberative process would need to align with the interests and concerns of the member, be implemented at a district (as opposed to national) level, and with the buy-in of the member and her/his staff from the start. Five specific considerations emerged as critical: 1. Lawmakers want to know who organizes the deliberation and how the event is structured. They overwhelmingly indicated that it would be important for the organizers, conveners, and moderators to be neutral, balanced, and non-partisan, and to be perceived as having these qualities. 2. All of the interviewees indicated that it would be important to ensure that participants in such processes are demographically, politically, and ideologically diverse. 3. The majority of lawmakers were interested in seeing evidence that public deliberations are civil, informed, and take account of the complexities of the policy issue under discussion. 4. Lawmakers were curious about the likely impacts of deliberation on participants, particularly in terms of trust in government, learning, understanding the complexities of issues, openness to different perspectives, and increased political engagement. 5. Some lawmakers wanted to know how public deliberation might influence the policymaking process, and were interested in evidence demonstrating the public s willingness to confront and address tough choices and tradeoffs. Information showing that all perspectives were considered, and that new, politically viable and attainable options or ideas were generated would be welcomed. Based on these findings, we offer four broad recommendations intended to help the democracy and civic reform community advance the use of public deliberation as a governance tool. Invite lawmakers to witness public deliberation educate them through involvement. Hearing about deliberation does little good; description is not enough, lawmakers need to participate in, or at least observe, a deliberative process to understand it. Participation should not be limited to a familiar format (e.g. being on a panel as part of a plenary session), but must include exposure to what is most distinctive about public deliberation, namely discussion among ordinary citizens. Invitation by a known and trusted person or group is the golden rule of legislator recruitment. Build the capacity of the field to respond to the interests, needs, and concerns of lawmakers, as well as the characteristics of the political and legislative process. For public deliberation to become a regularly used governance tool, the field must build its capacity to address issues central to the realities of modern lawmakers. Promising capacity- iii

5 building approaches include: 1) focusing deliberative events on lawmakers priorities and concerns; 2) the development of a robust network of neutral, balanced, experienced, locally trusted, and non-partisan organizations who can partner with legislators to deploy deliberation on issues as they arise; 3) the use of consistent, opportunistic, and locally-driven follow-up to deliberative events; and 4) the purposeful design of public deliberations to address, in advance, lawmakers perceptions about legitimacy and utility. Build documentation and evaluation into the design of public deliberation processes, and communicate the results to legislators promptly after deliberation. Key documentation and evaluation indicators will include whether 1) the organizers, conveners, and moderators of the event, as well as any informational materials used during the event, are demonstrably neutral, balanced, and non-partisan; 2) participant recruitment is carried out in a way that produces demographic, political, ideological, and geographic diversity; 3) the deliberations are structured so as to promote informed, civil, constructive, serious, open-minded, and productive discussion; 4) the deliberation helps create a better public and better citizens ; and, 5) the conclusions reached by participants are informed by a broader range of perspectives, generate new options or ideas, and are politically viable and attainable. Develop and implement a comprehensive and concrete education campaign organized around specific deliberations and aimed at politicians, policymakers, the press, and the public. While we recognize the limitations of any educational effort that does not include personal exposure to the process, we recommend that the field develop and implement an education campaign that is responsive to the concerns and suggestions of the lawmakers. It will also be important to educate the public, the media, and other policymakers about the methods and value of public deliberation. For each of these audiences, vividness and concreteness will increase the likely success of such efforts. The next phase of this SOND initiative will use these findings as the framework for presenting data from several major deliberative initiatives conducted in 2010, supplemented by generic information about public deliberation assembled over the years. The resulting presentations will be shared with key stakeholders, including groups representing elected officials at the state and national levels, interested funders, and the public deliberation community at large. The reactions to those presentations will further inform the field s ongoing effort to make public deliberation useful for democracy. iv

6 BACKGROUND In early August 2009, a group of experts and advocates active in various aspects of public engagement convened the second Strengthening Our Nation's Democracy (SOND II) conference in Washington, D.C. One committee that emerged from the conference (co-chaired by Cynthia Farrar of Yale University and Joe Goldman of AmericaSpeaks), was charged with exploring ways of demonstrating to policymakers the potential value of deliberative public engagement. The co-chairs convened a group of scholars and practitioners, and developed two related research projects under the heading Bridging the Gap between Public Deliberation and Public Officials. 1 The first project, which is the focus of this report, seeks to discover what legislators know and think about public deliberation, as well as what they would need to know to assess the value of public deliberation as a governance tool. The second project will use these findings as a framework for compiling and presenting the substantive evaluations of several major deliberative initiatives conducted in 2010, along with additional information about public deliberation assembled by the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and other organizations over the years. The resulting presentations will be shared with key stakeholders, including groups representing elected officials at the state and national levels, interested funders, and the public deliberation community at large. Appendix One briefly describes both Bridging the Gap projects. This report also contributes to the research tradition of the Kettering Foundation (see and its focus on the questions: What does it take for democracy to work as it should? And, what does it take for citizens to shape their collective future? In particular, this report builds on Philip Stewart s research about A Public Voice, which sought to deepen our understanding of the conditions under which elected officials at the national level [primarily those in Congress] come to the insight that building a relationship with a deliberative public is valuable, if not essential, to addressing effectively the policy dilemmas they face. 2 OVERVIEW OF THE STUDY In consultation with the Kettering Foundation, the working group overseeing this Bridging the Gap study (led by Matt Leighninger of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium) identified four questions about public officials and public deliberation: 1. What are the key obstacles to elected officials ability to recognize and utilize citizen work arising from public deliberation? 2. What findings from public deliberation might lead elected officials and policymakers to see the approach of public deliberation as useful for the work of policymaking? 3. What kinds of information arising from public deliberation about a significant public issue might be of interest to elected officials and other policymakers? 4. How might the gap between the public and elected officials be bridged? 1 The working committee includes the following members: Cynthia Farrar, John Gastil, Joe Goldman, Gail Leftwich Kitch, Matt Leighninger, and Tina Nabatchi. 2 Stewart, Philip D Connecting the Deliberative Public to its Elected Representatives: A Research Report on A Public Voice. []. 1

7 Tina Nabatchi of Syracuse University and Cynthia Farrar of Yale University were asked to conduct interviews with federal and state legislators to explore these questions. 3 Considerations of efficiency and ease of access led them to contact the interview subjects through intermediaries known to members of the working group. Interview Subjects From June through September 2010, researchers interviewed a total of twenty-four state legislators and senior staff for federal legislators. In selecting interviewees, attention was paid to geographic and party diversity, seniority, and range of experience. Table One shows the number of people interviewed broken down by level of government, party affiliation, and gender. Appendix Two provides a list of the state-level interview subjects; however, to preserve confidentiality, no quotations in this report are attributed to any specific person. Federal-level interview subjects requested complete anonymity; thus, no list of these subjects is provided. Table One: Interview Subjects Democrat Republican Total State Level Federal Level Total Male Female Total State Level Federal Level Total State-Level Interviews A total of eleven interviews were conducted with state-level legislators, of which six were Democrats and five were Republicans. Seven interview subjects were legislators from Michigan, and four were legislators from other states. Table Two shows the number of interviews with state-level legislators, broken down by both state and party affiliation. Table Two: State-Level Interviews Democrat Republican Total Michigan Other States Total The working group discussed the desirability of interviewing public administrators in addition to legislators; however, given the variety and breadth of administrative roles in the two levels of government and our timeline for completing this research, we decided that a study about public deliberation vis-à-vis administrators was better left for future research. 2

8 In Michigan, a local public policy consulting firm arranged interviews with seven state-level legislators. Although the consulting firm was known to the working group through its assistance with a Deliberative Poll held in Lansing in November 2009, none of the selected legislators were connected to that event. The interviews were conducted in person by Cynthia Farrar during the second week of June The remaining four interviews were arranged by Bruce Feustel, who staffs the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) Government Effectiveness Group. Cynthia Farrar conducted these interviews; Gail Leftwich Kitch was also present. These interviews took place in person, at the NCSL annual meeting on July 26, Federal-Level Interviews A total of thirteen interviews were conducted with senior staff for federal-level legislators. Due to access issues, direct interviews with federal legislators could not be arranged. Of the thirteen interview subjects, nine were Chiefs of Staff, two were Office Managers, two were Staff Directors, and one was a District Director. Nine staff worked for members in the House of Representatives and four worked for members in the Senate. Six staff worked for Democrats, and seven for Republicans. Table Three shows the number of interview subjects by both legislative chamber and party affiliation. All of the interviews were arranged with the assistance of Tim Hysom, Director of Communications and Technology Services at the Congressional Management Foundation. Interviews were conducted by Tina Nabatchi via telephone in August and September Table Three: Federal-Level Interviews Democrat Republican Total House of Representatives Senate Total Interview Protocol In May 2010, the lead researchers developed an interview protocol in collaboration with the working group. The protocol was designed with open-ended questions so that interviews would be conversational; however, prompts were used in cases where the subject lacked the knowledge to respond to the question (the interview protocol is presented in Appendix Three). In addition, the protocol was designed so that it could be used with both state and federal subjects, with minor adaptation to accommodate differences between the two levels of government. It was also designed to be responsive to the amount of time allotted by each interviewee, which ranged from 30 to 75 minutes. Data Analysis and Findings All interviews were tape recorded with the permission of the subjects. The recordings were then sent to a professional for transcription. The researchers collaborated on the analysis. In conducting the interviews and analyzing the transcripts, the researchers became aware of two 3

9 unanticipated factors. First, legislators generally had little to no understanding of public deliberation; thus, in most interviews, a significant amount of time was given to explaining and clarifying public deliberation as an engagement mechanism. Second, because the lawmakers did not fully understand deliberation or believe it was possible, the original focus of the study became blurred. The interview protocol was designed to ascertain what kind of generic information from evaluations of past deliberations would help persuade lawmakers of the utility of the approach. But since personal exposure or testimony from trusted informants was considered crucial to any reliable assessment of deliberation s potential, lawmakers tended to move away from generic evaluation questions to how they themselves would judge a proposal to hold a deliberation, or interpret what participants in such an event had to say. For these reasons, the findings only loosely reflect the interview questions, and are organized into four overarching sections: 1. What mechanisms are legislators currently using for citizen engagement? What are the aims, benefits and drawbacks of these mechanisms? 2. What do legislators know about public deliberation? What do they see as the risks and benefits of public deliberation? 3. What criteria would legislators use to assess whether and when the methods of public deliberation would be (or have been) helpful? 4. Given a deliberative event that meets these criteria, what information about what occurred at the event would be useful? The findings for state-level legislators are presented first, followed by the findings from the federal-level. For both sets of interviews, results are presented in order of the four questions listed above. However, the report does not seek to impose an inappropriate uniformity or clarity on what were wide-ranging and provocative conversations with their own center of gravity. Many of the quotations incorporated in what follows were edited to improve readability, for example by removing repetitive statements and extraneous language ( ers, ums, ahs, and so forth). No edits to the substantive content of the quotes were made. STATE-LEVEL FINDINGS What mechanisms do state legislators currently use for citizen engagement? The state legislators identified twelve different mechanisms used by their offices to engage citizens or constituents. Table Four lists every engagement mechanism brought up in the interviews, as well as the number of respondents who mentioned each mechanism. Traditional constituent engagement mechanisms, such as newsletters, mass media, constituent casework, phone calls, office hours, and mail, remain popular with the state legislators. Seven respondents discussed the use of newsletters to connect with constituents. Some penned their own weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly newsletters, and others wrote columns or information that were published in the newsletters of local organizations. 4

10 Table Four: Engagement Mechanisms used by State Legislators Engagement Mechanism Number of Respondents 7 Newsletters 7 Town Hall Meetings 7 Phone Calls 7 Social Media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc.) 6 TV or Radio Show 6 Meetings/Forums Convened by Others 5 Office Hours 4 Mail 4 Casework/Personal or Individual-Level Work 3 Website 1 Informal Weekly Meetings 1 To communicate with their districts, representatives maintain a presence on traditional media, including TV and Radio: Media, mass media, is still probably the most effective way of doing that [informing people about what the representative is doing]. And television, even though it s been around a long time, is still a very powerful tool. It always amazes me, in my district, when I go home and talk to people, they ll say, oh! I know you! I saw you on TV. Legislators also use and other internet tools. Seven respondents noted that they use to connect with constituents. They send individual s (i.e., the constituent s the legislator and the legislator responds) and mass s (i.e., the legislator sends an to every constituent in her/his database, or distributes an electronic version of the newsletter). Six respondents said that they had a social media presence, and used tools such as blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. One legislator who has made considerable use of social media tools conceded that the next generation [will] force us all to think that way, but he himself prefers the human interaction... the face value. And I think our world s losing that a little bit. Another respondent asserted, The internet poses a whole new way of doing business social networking, Facebook The paradigm is changing. As this and other respondents suggested, social media and online tools are transforming the ways in which legislators interact (and have to interact) with constituents. Legislators don t get many old fashioned letters anymore, and need to adapt to interface with a wider range of constituents. This is particularly true in the wake of the Obama campaign, which used such technologies quite successfully. The most creative idea for exploiting the potential of new media to reorient the relationship between elected official and constituent came from the reluctantly digital legislator cited above: I think there s [an aspect of] social networking that could be about once you ve built some trust up with a group of folks [in a deliberation], they could become advisors in the process electronic advisors I mean you could try to translate that into something maybe with the younger generation. One-on-one constituent casework remains a high priority. As one respondent said, Somebody calls, this is the issue, you go and meet with them, you go talk. Another noted, ongoing 5

11 constituent casework is vitally important I would say the largest part of my job is the constituent service part. Seven respondents noted specifically that they used phone calls to connect with individual constituents; four discussed holding office hours; and snail mail was also mentioned. One legislator noted that he conducts a weekly informal meeting, where he sits with his constituents at a local restaurant and talks for one to two hours, depending on who s there and how active the group is. He stated, I go with an agenda, where I control the conversation, [but] I totally go to respond to what they come with to talk about. When asked about face-to-face engagement mechanisms that go beyond office hours, seven respondents said that they use town hall meetings. The frequency of the meetings ranged from doing a lot of town meetings to doing one every year with our senator and other representative. One legislator noted, I do quarterly town hall meetings now, spring, summer, fall, winter, where we essentially give the town hall a theme. The respondent then provided examples, such as school issues, public safety, zoning, and bills in the legislature or bills that have passed. Another noted, We pretty regularly hold town hall meetings, just to get general input. Sometimes we ll have a specific topic; most times it s just general discussion. A lot of engagement opportunities seem to be initiated by local groups and organizations. For example, five respondents said that they attended meetings or public forums convened by others (e.g., meetings in townships, cities, and villages, or meetings convened by local groups and organizations such as schools, farm bureaus, and senior citizens). In some cases, the representative hears about the meeting and asks to be placed on the agenda. As one noted, If I call and say, I d like to stop by and see you and share some things that have been happening on the state level I ve never had anybody refuse to put me on the agenda. This respondent also suggested that it s important to go where the people are because usually it s better to take advantage of a meeting that [the public is] already going to be at, that they re already availing themselves of. In other cases, a local organization or group reaches out to and invites the representative. As one said, I pretty much go to almost anything I get invited to.if I m invited, I go. Likewise, five respondents said that they work directly with advocacy groups such as senior citizen organizations and Parent-Teacher Associations and that they are in the community a lot. Aims, benefits, and drawbacks of current engagement mechanisms Several respondents explicitly noted that engagement was part of their job. As one said, I was elected by the public to be out there. Others suggested that in addition to being part of the job, engagement was necessary for political survival: The objective is to serve the constituency, and a happy constituent is a constituent that votes for you. But at the same time, that s what I promised I would do if I was elected. One legislator observed that reaching out to constituents is especially important, but also challenging, for state representatives: Other than real local government, you know municipalities and townships, and counties, we re as small as you can get. I ve got approximately 90,000 people that I represent. I have a challenge in my district that s different than the challenge in some of the urban areas. I have four counties [and] getting out and interacting with people face to face is hard. 6

12 Most of the legislators observed that the benefits of engagement include productive two-way communication. At a minimum, reaching out to constituents establishes contact: You want to be as connected as possible. I want my constituents to feel that they re connected to me. As one legislator noted, engagement provides insight into how [constituents] are feeling, and gives them an opportunity also to communicate with me, which is very important. Another legislator said, I think you need to go back and be with the real people. My pastor at my church says he can tell if a lot s been happening in the capital the week before by the number of people who wait for me after church. Making contact with constituents often leads to the exchange of substantive information. Representatives emphasized the importance of enlightening constituents. For one, the goal of engagement is to inform people about the things that we re doing that affect them. Meetings with constituents give legislators a chance for give and take with real people about their concerns, with a view to providing assistance. Another legislator observed, I really see myself as somebody who is an information giver, with so much stuff that goes on in [the state capital], where people just don t even have a clue that we re there to help them, or we can help put them into contact with people who can help them. Constituent stories can help legislators identify concerns that apply to others in the district or the state, and that could appropriately be addressed through legislation. One legislator remarked that engagement is a two way street. I always have believed that the best information I get is from my constituents. It s not from lobbyists, it s not from special interest groups, it s not from my colleagues down here always, but it s from my constituents. Similarly, another said, I m trying to find what the issue really is. I m trying to figure out where they re coming from trying to understand the issue, and then trying to figure out, is there a solution that I should be a part of, or is a solution coming from somewhere else, and I help them find that other solution [it s about] connecting dots. As others stated, when they engage constituents, we re getting intelligence and information that we can use to help others and we identify opportunities for legislation. One legislator remarked, I can t tell you how many times someone has made a suggestion that I ve run with, or they ve come up with some proposals that I ve used. As a concrete example of how sometimes it s one individual that can influence public policy, a legislator explained that a constituent with Crohn s disease had expressed a need for stores to have public restrooms. The representative wanted to help, and legislation was passed. When asked about the benefits and drawbacks of current constituent engagement efforts, some legislators observed that they and the policymaking process benefited by being exposed to the way issues look to their constituents. As one lawmaker said: [Sometimes] I ve had a proposal and gotten some feedback, and have changed my point of view as a result. He believes that we get a better product when more people are involved in the process. When all sides, all perspectives [are present] we can get divergent views, divergent opinions about particularly complex legislation As bright as sometimes we think we are, very often someone comes with a different perspective that causes you to think a different way. That s why I value our town hall meetings. Another legislator expressed a similar sentiment: Well, I think it s always good when I hear from people, even when I hear from people who disagree with me. Because, 7

13 sometimes you hear from people and quite honestly, they tell you things that you never considered. I think the thing that we don t do often enough is talk directly to the people who are being affected by what we do. After giving an example about education, this legislator continued, We talk to the people who are in charge so to speak, or who represent the people who are in charge. And, what happens is, I don t think you get the variety of opinion that s out there. So, I think it is a good thing when something happens that gets people s attention so they do react to it and they do make their voice heard. I believe it does [make for better legislation] if you can get input on something. The fact that constituents often come to meetings with a specific personal issue to raise was mentioned as a benefit and an opportunity, but also as a challenge. The citizens who turn up are invested, and concerned. One legislator observed that people are busy living their life. And what we do down here [at the capitol] isn t always their number one priority. It only becomes a priority when it affects them directly. And when an issue does affect citizens directly, they may have difficulty seeing the larger picture. After noting that engagement results in the exchange of useful information, another legislator proceeded to describe the opportunity to help citizens look beyond their own individual needs to the challenges faced by the state as a whole: I see my role as a policymaker also as an educator. I mean I m there to learn and listen to them, because it s amazing what you can learn from your constituents, and how much it does influence you. But I also see my role as one of an educator, to talk to them, for instance about the budget crisis that we ve been in a lot of people have no clue about the real [issues]. It s always just keep my program whole, cut somebody else. And so I say, who would you like me to cut? And how much would you like me to cut them? To try and help them see the real challenging decisionmaking that we re going through. Most of the lawmakers mentioned the trend toward a more oppositional tone in public forums. Several commented at length on the increasing passion, even anger, of constituents who come to meetings to articulate their pressing personal concerns and do not seem open to reasoned discussion about how their interests fit into the larger picture. The primary risk of engagement perceived by state representatives is public anger: There s a perception right now that the only people that would show up to an opportunity to engage their legislator are going to be the mad and angry folks who don t always come with good suggestions. They come with a lot of opinions, which are valuable, but no suggestions on how to fix it. Other legislators commented at length on the effect an increasingly angry public has had on the willingness of legislators to participate in group discussions with constituents. The anger has gotten worse in the last year or so, really since 08 when the economy hit the skids. Prior to 2008, it seemed like elected officials saw [town hall meetings] as a great opportunity to show that I am engaged, and I am seeking feedback, and we re going to have a town hall meeting, and I m going to sit down front, and I m going to stay there as long as people want to stay there, and they saw it was something that was beneficial, either, for information for them, or for just raw political gain. They wanted to be perceived as looking good, or caring. About 2008 that election cycle, things started getting nasty. People weren t really actively seeking out opportunities to hold town hall meetings, because it wasn t a positive 8

14 experience. The people who were at these meetings, who really wanted to engage their elected official in a constructive way, were turned off by the tone, and the yelling, and the confrontational, negative vibe. folks just don t get out of their house like they used to 50 years ago, they don t want to go sit in a room. Let me put it another way, the kind of folks who would leave their home to go sit in a room don t always offer the most constructive criticism of their elected officials. They re there because they re angry and they want to yell at somebody. And as an elected official, I ll take some of that. I ll take a lot of it, because that s my job. But at a certain point, when someone goes over the line, or you just get to the point where everyone said the same thing, you just have to say I understand you re angry, I understand why you re angry, and there s not really any more reason for us to sit here for another 3 hours for you to yell at me and tell me the same things over and over again. Now that s just an impression that a lot of elected officials in my state have expressed. The themes that emerged in discussion of the legislators own attempts to engage constituents the value of attending to constituent concerns, and the difficulty and importance, especially in the present climate, of reconciling the most vocal voices with each other and with the legislator s responsibility to consider the best interests of the public as a whole also surfaced when the conversation moved on to the role of the public in the policymaking process, and how that affects what lawmakers accomplish. Asked to offer examples, some Michigan legislators pointed to a recent smoking ban as an effective and appropriate expression of political will on the part of the public, with the help of advocacy organizations: The public has a great influence actually. I ll give you an example; the smoking ban, that was passed. In all honesty, the reason why that passed is because there was such an aggressive push over a sustained period of time, until it got to a point of critical mass. And the legislature just had to dispose of the issue, period. There was no getting beyond it. That s a great example of how organized advocacy really does work. You really need to pull us largely around that issue and keep hammering. And in that regard, the people truly do influence the legislature. For a second legislator, the mobilization for the ban succeeded in conveying genuine and important information about constituent preferences: I think you get caught in a beltway mentality like you would in D.C. as to how you make your decision-making process, based primarily off of what you think is normal from up here so for example the smoking ban we just did in the state, well, a lot of my district smokes, so you d assume that there d be enough of a percentage of people down in the district that might not like the idea [of a ban] [but] the letters I got were huge [in saying that] they don t want any more smoking. A third respondent said that the smoking ban passed because there was large scale mobilization, where you get thousands of people signing online petitions. 9

15 Despite the strength of online petitions in the smoking ban case, other legislators expressed dismay about what they see as electronic lobbying that purports to convey the views of the public. They tend to dismiss mass as no better than old-style form letters. As one lawmaker said: Somebody [will] forward you an which is being forwarded by the special interest group, then call our office, and say I just received this , I don t know from who or what, but it s saying that, golly, you shouldn t do this. Well, that has no influence on us at all, you know. Cause when you see the you know exactly who s putting it out. So you feel like, it s the general public, it s just me and you but they re just being used by a special interest group to advocate their argument. And you see that all the time. A focus on the large numbers that can be mobilized by electronic means is seen by some legislators as the equivalent of governing by opinion poll, and as both a cause and a consequence of a polarized political environment. If the message is always just about polls and size, well, that s the reason why we don t agree, why there s so much indecision and so much political calculating and all these other things. I think it s easier to niche yourself today. The internet allows people to find more people who think like themselves. For example, flash mobs make it easier to pull a ton of people together real quick, or, for example in committee, say it s an environmental issue where the environmental groups might have sent up a person like a lobbyist at one time, [now] they ll stack the room. Usually you only hear from people on the specific issue that affects them and then you ll hear from both sides. And sometimes both sides just try to win it by pure numbers, not as much by argument or by reason. The legislators who mentioned the smoking ban acknowledged that one reason why the mass mobilization worked and worked legitimately, in their view was because there were no clearly divided party lines. There was no one side or the other. Many respondents suggested that the public s influence on legislation was lessened because the public tends to be misinformed, has an all or nothing attitude, and generally fails to see the complexity of issues. One legislator commented, I have very mixed thoughts about [the effect of public engagement on the policymaking process]. Sometimes I think it s just people venting about whatever the issue might be [and] I m trying to find the two sides to this issue, and to find out where a solution is at. In part, this is because people don t have time to do the homework. To have real influence on legislative outcomes, one suggested that the public would have to take the time to research it and really understand it and see how it affected their point of view, their beliefs or, what the role of government is. This was echoed by another: I think the larger public is usually not engaged. You re hearing from the stakeholders bringing forth their ideas of why. But, you don t hear the argument how it directly impacts them, or what their stakehold is or why it s good for the state or not good for the state. 10

16 How do state legislators understand public deliberation? By and large, the state officials did not know what public deliberation was or how it had been used, and most have had no experience with it. Only one respondent was able to accurately describe elements of public deliberation processes, saying, it s a cross section of people who come together to [listen to each other] at a table with 12 people, who just have very different life experiences. So they get a chance to think things through for themselves. Among the Michigan representatives, only one had definitely heard about a recent example of public deliberation in their state, the Hard Times Hard Choices statewide Deliberative Poll held in November (See Box One for a discussion of responses from legislators with previous knowledge about deliberation.) After the interviewer described that process, a few said they thought they had read about it. Another who did not know the term public deliberation had evidently had experience with the approach. Even after public deliberation had been defined and described, the legislators still had difficulty understanding the concept. With two exceptions (out of 11), these legislators found it hard to understand how public deliberation differed from practices such as polling, public hearings, town halls, and opportunities to hear individual stories. For example, one acknowledged that public deliberation would head off so many potential conflicts and problems when we can get into a discussion about proposals publicly, however, as an illustration of public deliberation, this respondent then referred to public hearings and the like, [where I can present] issues that I may disagree with, or they may disagree with me on. Another lawmaker responded that public deliberation sounded like polling and noted, I do have a problem sometimes with legislation that is poll driven. I ll be very candid, we have a lot of that. You conduct a poll and I ll get a very jaundiced eye It s just a snapshot in time. And, because the public doesn t have the big picture so to speak, there are times that you have 11 Box One: State Legislators Familiar with Deliberation The two state legislators most familiar with public deliberation were convinced that it is possible for ordinary citizens to engage seriously across their differences; this did not necessarily translate into a belief in the political viability of the approach. One was skeptical about the possibility that a deliberative process could impact partisan politics. He asserted that his colleagues would only register an argument for potential political advantage. In his view, the neutrality and open-endedness of the deliberative process makes it a hard sell to anyone who sees other ways to achieve a particular agenda. Pressed about the potential impact of taking public deliberation to scale, he said that perhaps exposure to the process could teach both sides to evolve to a higher level of thinking and of political being. The other legislator appreciated the potential value of deliberation, especially for polarizing issues (e.g., the siting of windmills), when public hearings are not useful in getting beyond the hysteria. He shrewdly commented on structural considerations that could affect procedural legitimacy, noting the impact the presence of an elected official could have on the participants sense of responsibility for considering tough tradeoffs there is this assumption by the crowd around the table that, [elected officials are] here to fix it. He also valued using confidential individual polling ( push buttons ) to register views and encourage frankness, and discussed the need to prevent people who share a concern from banding together. Interestingly, he was also the most optimistic about the political process itself. He criticized the widespread belief that legislators were incapable of negotiating across party lines.

17 to make decisions that would go against polling that would prove to be unpopular. A third legislator remarked, I m having a hard time figuring out how this is so different from a hearing that a committee would have, because you do bring in people from, from all different sides. What s going to bring these people in? I have a hard enough time when I think I have an issue that I think is important, getting people to show up. Even after further description, this representative expressed confusion, asking, So you think that s more effective than doing a phone survey or whatever? Finally, in a case where the Hard Times Hard Choices deliberation was described, one lawmaker asked: That wasn t those housewives on CNN that balanced the budget in 2 hours?... They just gave a real brief overview of what this budget does. Like cut $500 million here, $600 million there, without any idea of the consequences or ramifications of the cuts [and made it look] simpler than making cookies! The difficulty of conveying what is distinctive about public deliberation provoked initial resistance to or dismissal of the idea among many legislators: If it is anything like a poll, or a quick and dirty tapping of the public pulse, they don t want anything to do with it. Or, alternatively, it s useful to talk with people who come from various different backgrounds and perspectives, and they do this already. One feature that seemed particularly difficult for the legislators to grasp initially was the idea that a deliberation across difference does more than produce a range of stories and perspectives (of the kind they expect to hear at town meetings or office hours) that it gives members of the public a chance to consider their own concerns in the context of different needs and perspectives, and to reflect on the implications for public policy. One legislator commented that public deliberation as described by the interviewer might help a representative understand what voters are feeling, but then indicated this would not likely influence his own approach to legislation: A lot of times, when you re sitting and listening to voters, like wow, they are so uninformed, and so out of touch with reality that sometimes it s just scary. But it all, in the end, boils down to your own personal feelings, your own personal beliefs, and what you think is the best way. The risks, benefits, and possibilities of using public deliberation for policymaking Once they began to grasp what is distinctive about public deliberation, most of the legislators were intrigued and willing to consider the value of the approach. However, there were exceptions. One respondent did not share the premise or goal of deliberation, arguing that there is no need to consult the public, and that it might even be counterproductive, in any context other than voting. In his view, the representative system works: ordinary people just want to get on with their lives and be left alone; they ll pipe up if they re concerned. In cases where more engagement is required, existing tools are sufficient. He expressed a concern about the low and skewed voter turnout, and an interest in getting more citizens to respond, not just react. And if there are going to be voter initiatives (referenda), he thinks it would be better to get (a broader range of) voters to look beyond the marketing message to the facts of the matter. However, this respondent thinks there are other (and sufficient) tools at hand to provoke scrutiny from different perspectives, even in the initiative process: recent legislation in his state requires petition signatures from across districts, and stipulates the convening of public hearings regionally. Some legislators who shared or were at least open to the aims of public deliberation pointed to features of the existing governmental system in explaining why they thought the approach was 12

18 not feasible or needed. A legislator who has extensive experience with public deliberation tended to portray it as an alternative to representative government, and believes that so long as a traditional leadership model of government is in place, this rather different understanding of the relationship between elected officials and the public will never get a real hearing. He said that legislators just convene [town meetings], they show up, they don t have any responsibility, it s input, and it s at a distance. You don t have to build a relationship, you re not obligated to follow it Thank you for sharing. And, we ll have to do what we do, and I hope you understand that this is a representative form of democracy, and, there s other players, and I m only one vote, and all of that. Another legislator pointed to the impact of Michigan s term limits, which tend to enhance the power of lobbyists, who influence the uninformed new representatives and lead legislators to focus on a narrow agenda that they believe they can accomplish in 6 years. Moderates and generalists, who might be open to the idea of deliberation across difference, get squeezed out. Another legislator who was intrigued by the idea of public deliberation noted that he had found more traditional ways to get the uninvolved majority to weigh in, namely by providing economic incentives for them (and associated advocacy groups) to do so. The example he cited was a tobacco tax bill. By earmarking the resulting revenues for health care programs and services, he gave many constituents a reason to speak out against the smokers and corporate lobby. Even those legislators who thought that public deliberation could improve the policymaking and political processes were skeptical about the feasibility of this approach to public engagement, both logistically and politically. One legislator quipped, I m kind of intrigued as to how you would start. I mean, what would you do? Where would you begin that process? Because it sounds like it s different than what my perception of citizen engagement is, which has been getting yelled at it s my job to sit in a room and get yelled at sometimes. As this comment implies, legislators were skeptical about the very possibility of civil and balanced engagement across parties and perspectives, by the public, and between the public and the legislator, in the present political, media, and advocacy context. When they challenged the feasibility of the approach, many of the legislators focused on public capacity and motivation to engage in serious deliberation. Some asserted that deliberation is a pipe dream because people are not in pursuit of knowledge and that they don t have enough time to really do their homework. Other similar comments include: There is so much information out there. There are no renaissance men anymore. You can t be expert on everything. And I think we ve become very attuned to 30-second sound bites and I don t think we deliberate enough. And I m including myself in that. We want easy answers, and often I don t think the answers are easy; they re very complex. I think the art of deliberation has been severely hampered in general The general public, especially 20 year olds, I mean, [Jon Stewart is where] they get most of their news. It s all show today, or they get it off one little paragraph on [a] website or [they] have Google alerts. It s much easier to be much more narrow on your issues than it s ever been in history. 13

19 Deliberation can only be of value when the public is truly informed. They just can t get information from one source, or one source that has an interest, or one source that s trying to keep you involved in their organization. It s a challenge to get people who are interested enough, and open enough, to [participate in serious deliberation across difference]. Quite often, people who get involved in these public policy issues are driven by a passion, but often that passion is, from my observation, pretty narrow. According to the interview subjects, the difficulties of getting the public to connect across difference are aggravated by the present polarized political environment. No one media, advocacy groups, politicians has any incentive to engage the public in both sides (or multiple aspects) of an issue. Instead, everyone feels they have to engage in partisan play-acting, which is exacerbated by interest group mobilization and competitive media. The interview subject who was sympathetic to the aims of public deliberation but thought it was impossible given the current state of affairs suggested that in general, the better the conversation at a public forum, the less interested the public is in participating because the way most media works, they re for the car crash, they re not there to see the traffic flow well. He also noted that the groups that organize these discussions have no interest in a real deliberation. He then gave as an example a business group that wants to make Michigan a right to work state. He invited them to have a debate, but there was no debate they just wanted to show how unions were bad. I don t know if there s many decent forums out there, and who d be willing to listen to a decent forum? Moreover, he stated, even if you start with productive discussions, I don t think it ll stay that way. I think it ll deteriorate into something about Democrats are bad, Republicans are good. Even though nine of the lawmakers thought it was worth pursuing the aims of public deliberation once those objectives had been explained and understood, most shared the suspicion that it could never get traction, given the current state of politics: One side will say my people don t want their taxes raised, period. And then on the other side, my people want these services, and let them tax, period. Many people over there in the capitol, they don t necessarily get to a point where it s politically expedient for them to marry those, because politically, you have to play to your constituency. So, you don t tell the part about how we need the taxes to pay for the things that the people that don t want their taxes raised will want you don t tell both sides of that story. One legislator expressed concern that the more people you get engaged, the more critics you could be breeding. And a lot of my colleagues would say, I d rather keep them in the dark. Another echoed this perception, saying that public engagement breeds opponents and breeds detractors. As illustration of the same point, a lawmaker described a process in Michigan with diverse groups that went around the state of Michigan, took testimony from folks it was a deliberative process, they took time doing it. They came out with data, they came out with recommendations. We pretty much ignored everything they said, because [their conclusion was that] if we re going to continue to maintain our infrastructure and our highway system and our transportation system we re going to have to raise revenue which meant raising taxes. The poll-driven data says better not do that or you won t get reelected. 14

20 Any short-term ability of deliberation to move people beyond narrow self-interest to a broader understanding of the challenges facing the state would, these legislators believed, be washed out by the polarizing effect of political incentives, aggravated by the media and by special interest groups. For example, one respondent said, I think the apprehension of your average lawmaker [is not] necessarily because they don t want to interact. [The] concerns that I have heard are, well the press doesn t cover this. If they do cover it, they just pull out a couple little things, and they always make me look bad. Similarly, another stated, The environment has to be changed, because I think the politicians and the media that reports on us, I think our agenda is an us versus them thing, and the media has become an us versus them purveyor of what s going on. Echoing this concern, another respondent pointed to problems with advocacy organizations that have to justify their means of existence and often put out false alerts, create issues that aren t really real, just to make sure that their membership believes they re doing and working hard for the dues they pay per month. This respondent went on to suggest that often these organizations know what s right, what needs to be done, [that] there s a compromise needs to be reached. But their problem is the same thing: they won t be able to sell it to their membership because their membership feels so strong. That s the one reason they belong to this organization. Therefore when the organization tries to do something reasonable or practical, or to move the state forward, their own people are in an uproar. It makes it impossible for them to be part of [a] constructive dialogue [at the Capitol]. While many legislators asserted that the policymaking system had been crippled by the progressive polarization of the electorate, others did not believe that was the case. A couple of lawmakers insisted on the responsibility of elected officials to make hard decisions that the public (seen as individual voters, or respondents to polls, with personal interests to protect) would never be disposed to make for themselves. One legislator said he believes there are times because the public doesn t have the big picture, that you have to make decisions that would go against polling, that would prove to be unpopular. Another legislator, familiar with and supportive of processes of public deliberation, observed that traditional ways of resolving an impasse remain available. He referred to the public perception that there is gridlock, and denied that this was so. There is still negotiation among legislators, he said: I think people don t understand that. I think they really believe people are chasing each other with blunt instruments, and it s not that way. Legislators observed that polarization both renders public deliberation unlikely, and demonstrates the need for this kind of engagement across difference. The legislator just quoted about the continued potential for legislative negotiation also noted that in Michigan, this kind of discussion [i.e., public deliberation] has really ramped up over the last couple of years. You got people all trying to engage a little of everybody. He attributed the move toward new forms of public engagement to the feeling that we re sick of this partisan fighting, and we re sick of nothing getting done, and there seem to be people trying to find solutions in this process without the legislature. The appeal of public deliberation seemed to be the admittedly unlikely prospect of shortcircuiting the vicious cycle of partisanship by stepping outside it. For example, one interview subject said, that s what we need. We need to understand that there s another point of view. 15

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