Saturday, January 21, 2012

Public Wisdom

Our existing form of republican democracy is clearly unable to deal with 21st century challenges. We need more wisdom in our public policies, our public budgets and our public conversations - and we need it soon. It is both vital and possible to generate authentic collective wisdom through the conversations of ordinary citizens.

'Public wisdom' results when the public - as a whole or in randomly selected 'mini-publics' - engages in learning about, reflecting on and discussing public affairs in ways that take into account what needs to be taken into account to decide what will produce long term, inclusive benefits.

We are more able than ever to subscribe to such a randomly selected mini-public - and its various forms of temporary, well-informed 'citizen deliberative councils'. We are aware of the hundreds of these councils that have been held around the world and how they have been used. They tell us about new forms of councils that could be developed and new ways they could be used - including organizing them at grassroots levels and through using the Internet.

These councils provide a way to readily and affordably generate a legitimate, authentic, coherent and wise voice of 'we, the people' - a voice for the general welfare that is not currently present in our political discourse. It moves us beyond partisanship to a place of collective responsibility for our shared destiny. It reclaims the idea of 'we, the people' as a coherent political force that integrates the diversity of the whole citizenry, rather than a catchphrase used by one more special-interest group that attempts to speak for the people; but doesn't really embrace our full range of perspectives and needs.

It comes down to: (a) the role of power - especially how to balance power in a democracy and move from 'power-over' to 'power-with'; (b) the need to rein in corporate and financial domination of elections and government; (c) the strengths and limitations of both representative and direct democracy; (d) the polarization of our current political life and strategies to creatively move beyond it without dishonorable compromises and deals; (e) dozens of high quality conversational processes for mass public participation; and (f) how the power of public wisdom might actually be institutionalized in our governments.

This is a radically new way to think about democracy. It embraces diversity, engages participation and addresses conflicts and ignorance in profoundly different ways than we are used to hearing socially, on talk shows, in public hearings and within the halls of government. This is not a kind of direct democracy, where everyone votes on everything. Its bottom line is not just participation or winning, but collective wisdom.

Without deliberation we don't get public wisdom. The popular 'wisdom of crowds' idea - that the aggregated responses of many independent people generates better answers than any one of them, or even experts - is sometimes useful for crowd-sourced estimates and predictions. But, it does not generate true wisdom. That takes deliberative conversation among diverse people.

During deliberation when anyone complains about something the obvious questions are: "What do you think should be done about that?" or "If you were in charge, what would you do about it?" - always channeling participants' thinking towards solving the problem without privileging any particular solution. If someone starts to argue or invalidating another statement, the next question becomes: "What's your concern?" - translating conflict into concerns composts antagonism into creativity.

This approach engenders a quality of conversation Jim Rough calls choice-creating. Although Rough doesn't consider choice-creating to be deliberation, it provides a far more dynamic way than institutionalized forms of deliberation. This process is deeply creative and non-linear, following the group's energy rather than any pre-determined course or agenda - and it is extremely powerful.

Underlying all these details about citizen deliberative councils is a larger purpose: to bring about the urgently needed next step in the evolution of democracy itself. It is desirable and likely that regular use of citizens deliberative councils can help transform 'We the People' from a patriotic myth to a highly conscious and intelligently coherent political force. It can help bring real vitality to this ultimate democratic authority - the people - that remains fragmented, entranced and unable to act clearly and consistently on its own behalf.

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