Initiated by Tom Atlee
:Modified by/ Commented on by __________

Executive summary

This is a proposal for consideration by experts in dialogue and deliberation, telecommunications and social software technologies, networking, and social uses of education (and perhaps other fields) as part of an exploration of options for designing a potentially self-organizing, self-replicating deliberative system which is usable by any community, state, province, country or other population. The purpose of the system will be:

:(a) to find the community's inclusive collective judgment or wisdom about any circumstance or issue that concerns it - i.e., to develop an informed, trustworthy, inclusive voice and will of We the People -
:(b) to implement that informed public will through direct individual and community action and/or pressure on existing institutions and powerholders.

This effort seeks to combine the wisdom-generating power of high quality face-to-face dialogue and deliberation with the distributed intelligence and networking power of the internet and social software, and to tap the collective-intelligence resources of educational institutions, libraries, community groups and other parts of society as needed to serve the above purpose.

Among the system functions for which we need design solutions are:

  • How will issues-for-deliberation be identified?
  • How will these issues be framed?
  • How are deliberative groups to be selected?
  • What sorts of deliberative process should be used?
  • How will information and expertise be provided for deliberators?
  • How will the deliberators make their final decisions?
  • How can the results of these deliberations impact public policy and public life?
  • What sources of organizing energy and structure could support this?

The paper below provides some initial answers to these questions and solicits more.




This project is based on the following assumptions, which should be shared by those developing it:


1. It is possible and desirable to have "generative conversations" that use diversity creatively, that move through and beyond conflict, and that generate collective intelligence and wisdom.


2. It is possible and desirable to use such conversations to engage the latent collective intelligence and wisdom of a whole diverse community or society in creating a healthy collective future. (Note: This is the foundation of holistic politics.'' Holistic politics may be distinguished from ''cooperative politics,'' which involves people working together well towards shared goals - and from ''power politics, which involves fighting the good fight for proposals, candidates, or values we believe in or which serve our partisan (or individual) interests. These are not mutually exclusive: For example, coalitions use cooperative politics to better fight in the realm of power politics.)


3. It is possible and desirable to use generative conversations to bring forth a coherent, legitimate, sustained voice and will of We the People. "Coherent and legitimate" means that coherent findings and recommendations can emerge from councils of citizens whose diversity reflects the diversity of their community or society, and that those findings and recommendations can then have broad support among the relevant population, who then can and will act in a variety of ways on that shared understanding and intention.


4. It is possible and desirable to use such generative conversations to help democracy evolve away from manipulative and coercive modes toward forms of self-governance that arise from shared understandings and intentions, ongoing communication, and widespread voluntary engagement in co-creation of society's public life.






. The inquiry introduced in this paper is based on my belief that it is both possible and vitally necessary to develop an inclusive, legitimate, trustworthy voice of We the People at community and society-wide levels. This is part of a broader effort to develop our capacity for collective intelligence and wisdom at all levels, to adequately address the unprecedented problems and opportunities we face in the 21st century.

Most current democratic systems do not further the development of collective intelligence and wisdom. They fragment communities and societies into reductionist, adversarial "sides" and reduce complex spectra of possibilities to oversimplified "positions" that preclude creative alternatives. With few exceptions, existing processes of democracy

1. do not provide much effective power to ordinary citizens;
2. promote at least as much ignorance and distraction as informed public dialogue;
3. serve special interests better than the general welfare;
4. impede breakthroughs that could creatively resolve problems and conflicts; and
5. undermine the emergence of inclusive community wisdom.

A community's diversity is a potential resource for meeting its needs and challenges with collective intelligence and wisdom. Among the most important conditions for realizing that potential are high quality information, dialogue, and deliberation. High quality citizen deliberation can be designed to generate the sort of common sense community wisdom that can then be collectively validated as a legitimate, thoughtful voice of We the People. The primary aim of deliberative democracy, in my opinion, should be the catalyzing and empowerment of such an inclusive voice of the collective intelligence of the whole polity, at all levels of political organization. The question is how to generate or invoke that Voice.


Earlier strategies have advocated a certain category of citizen deliberative councils - e.g. citizen juries, consensus conferences, etc. - designed to convene an ad hoc microcosm of a community (city, state, country) to reflect on that community's issues or general direction. In the process of their deliberations, participants become well educated about the facts of the matter at hand, as needed, and then report their conclusions back to the whole community and to official decision-makers.


Such citizen deliberative councils have been held hundreds of times around the world as unofficial sources of citizen input. Howerver, there are ways these citizen councils could be (and occasionally are, e.g., and ) officially integrated into the operating structures of a democracy, creating the potential for widely recognized community intelligence and wisdom.


Unfortunately, official forms of these councils are rare. Also the wise democratic potential of these councils is being recognized only very slowly. Some of the resistence comes from public officials reluctant to share their power (and shake up their status quo) with involvement from the public. However, resistance also comes from activists and interest groups habituated to the adversarial struggles of power politics and unable to let go of the possibility of winning through non-inclusive means and truly trusting the deliberative wisdom of the community. Finally, the expense of these citizen council processes - which runs from a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars - is usually more than can be afforded by their few far-thinking advocates, at least at the grass-roots level.


So even as these innovations slowly expand into the operations of governance around the world, the rapidly growing need to address our unprecedented 21st century circumstances demands that we find more fluid, cheaper, readily reproducible ways to generate and empower the citizenry's latent collective intelligence and wisdom in forms that can impact public policy, community programs and popular consciousness and behavior.


So my inquiry may be stated like this:


How can we envision and create
a potentially self-organizing, self-replicating deliberative system
usable by any community, state, province, country or other population
(a) to find its collective judgment or wisdom about any circumstance or issue
:-- i.e., an informed, trustworthy, inclusive
:voice and will of We the People --
(b) to implement that informed public will
:through direct individual and community action
:and/or pressure on existing institutions and powerholders.

My intuition is that such a system will feature at least the following:

1. the collective wisdom-generating potential of face-to-face dialogue and deliberation;
2. the distributed intelligence, information processing, and co-ordinating potential of computer networks and social software;
3. the issue-researching and -clarifying potential of nonprofits and institutions of higher education (especially graduate students).





Pursuit of this vision requires a shift in perspective - from partisan to holistic. Currently we have, and are rapidly developing, powerful forms of online partisan advocacy. Bloggers, Move On, Dean Space and other online innovations have played a significant role in the partisan battles of the last few years. The founders of Dean Space are now developing Civic Space, an integrated social software to empower any community of interest or place to pursue its objectives in a more powerfully coordinated way. Move On has piloted innovative ways to surface and select popular issues, solutions and messages; to fundraise; to lobby; and to engage people in face-to-face gatherings on behalf of progressive causes and candidates.


As inspiring as such methods are from a partisan perspective, we need to realize that they will be used by all sides in our adversarial system. Their development will generate a sort of technological arms race making possible more intensely engaging campaigns. This outcome will not likely move us far towards a wiser politics-of-the-whole which can stably guide governance in broadly agreed-on directions. That's where the shift in perspective comes in.


With a simple flip of awareness, these technological tools COULD become powerful resources to further a holistic democracy on behalf of an INCLUSIVE We the People. Instead of advocating partisan positions, imagine those technological resources being used to promote programs and policy directions arrived at by the kind of powerful, inclusive dialogue and deliberation that happens in citizen deliberative councils. Imagine our communities' diversity being engaged not adversarially to decide who wins, but rather creatively to craft more brilliantly comprehensive insights, solutions and innovations.


Holistic politics uses the wisdom of the whole for the benefit of the whole. We need some holistic political inquiry to envision systems which use face-to-face deliberations to generate wisdom from a broad spectrum of perspectives - and then use the new technologies to help the citizenry push that collective wisdom into legislation, policies, and programs that serve the general welfare. Furthermore, wherever infocom technologies and networks can be used to cheaply and satisfactorily (if not completely) fulfill a function served by some aspect of citizen deliberative council design, we should actively experiment with those alternatives - especially where it enables ready local self-organization of such a deliberative system.






The following is one direction we could go. It may be biased by its author's familiarity with face-to-face dialogue and deliberation and his newness to the potentials of web- and software-based social technologies, and the trends and opportunities available in the educational sector. Thus, this visioning exercise is intended to provoke not only appreciations and critiques, but alternative/ additional approaches and possibilities - and, above all, a gathering of people interested in pursuing this question further in a couple of days of intensive conversation, as well as R&D funding to move ahead with whatever emerges from such conversations.


A. Issue identification


Let us imagine some system whereby issues can be surfaced and prioritized. This may include the kind of Move On system where anyone can post an issue and vote on the importance of issues other people have posted. It may come from Meet Up inspired networks of living room dialogues who submit issue ideas and suggested priorities into some software that aggregates them all. There should also be a way to engage experts who are monitoring emerging issues about which the public has little awareness, but which could have a profound effect on their lives, and to include such issues in the emerging roster of priorities for deliberation.


B. Issue framing


Framing an issue in adversarial politics'' involves contextualizing the issue in a way that favors your position. Framing an issue ''for deliberation, in contrast, involves developing impartial (or multiple-viewpoint) briefing materials which cover the mainstream perspectives on that issue to give deliberators an understanding of the nature of the controversy without limiting their options. Thorough framings provide extensive information, as well as guidance in exploring the value choices underlying various positions - and the consequences and tradeoffs implied by them. Ideally such framings are presented in such a way that most participants can resonate at least somewhat with every perspective or see how a reasonable person could support that view. Usually there are three or four alternatives presented - since only two would invite polarization and five can seem overwhelming. However, a good framing often invites participants to move beyond the mainstream perspectives -- to co-create their own alternative(s) that integrate the best of the various perspectives or which step totally outside the limitations implicit in ALL the given perspectives.


Some organizations create briefing booklets and framings for common issues (the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation has a good selection at ). But the system we design should also be able to generate its own, as needed. One source might be undergraduate or graduate students who do issue framings as projects or theses. Graduate theses tend to end up hidden away on a shelf somewhere. Framing significant social issues would allow them to actually make a difference with their research. There also may be a way for diverse nonprofit interest groups or experts to co-create framings in a moderated collaborative online workspace or even something as open as a wiki (a for issues!). For citizen deliberative councils, an oversight group is usually gathered together, made up of 5-10 partisan experts from across the spectrum, who together ensure that the materials presented to deliberators are impartial. Could the convening of such oversight groups be woven into an ongoing process of some kind as issues surface?


Issue identifying and framing (and deliberating) systems should have local, county, state/provincial and national (at least) levels of function to make space for level-specific issues - and perhaps offer some interactivity among them. For example, different counties could share work on waste disposal issues, and many state-level issue-framings about education could be aggregated for handling educational policy at the national level, as well.


C. Deliberation Group Selection


One of the most potent advantages of the citizen deliberative councils described briefly earlier is that they have rigorous ways of choosing participants to collectively represent the diversity of the community and be resistant to outside pressures. This gives them a potential legitimacy that is similar to, but more refined than, the selection of juries, which also seeks to convene a cross-section of the community. However, in citizen deliberative councils, the selection usually involves establishing a pool of randomly selected citizens (from voter rolls, drivers licenses, phone listings or other broad sampling of citizens) from which people with community-characteristic demographics can be selected ("stratified sampling"), usually by phone interviews and/or mailed surveys. This is done separately for each council convened. This level of rigor is one of the major expenses of convening such citizen councils, so we need alternatives.


So let us imagine that in any local community where our new-style deliberative network is going to be established, that organizers gather at least 600-1000 people (or 10% of the community, whichever is less) who agree to be on call for deliberative service to the community. They turn in their individual demographic information. Then, when an issue comes up for deliberation, a computer program selects 4-10 groups of 5-10 people who collectively represent the diverse demographics of the community. When they are done with their deliberation, they go back into the pool, awaiting another random selection. Any intitial investment in organizing them is ameliorated by the fact that the same pool can be reused for different deliberations. Some maintenance of the pool would be required, however, to maintain (or increase) its size and/or diversity.


A resource for thinking about this may be Lyn Carson's manual for a Residents' Feedback Register , although the use of this random pool is somewhat different.


D. Deliberation Process


Most citizen deliberative councils involve 12-24 deliberators meeting in concentrated dialogue over 4-8 days (distributed over one to ten weeks, depending on the method) facilitated by professional facilitators. Since our system probably cannot match the deliberative quality of this arrangement, we can seek to augment it in various ways using the distributed intelligence potential of the web. We would, however, have all the actual deliberative groups engage in face-to-face dialogue.


By having several groups of 5-10 people (somewhat like study circles or planning cells ) deliberating simultaneously on the same issue (face to face, but each group relatively independent of the others), we can compare outcomes from the various groups. Where the outcomes are largely the same, this would be powerful evidence that the will of We the People is fairly obvious. However, where the outcomes from different groups are significantly different, we can use that diversity to enrich the deliberations by mixing and matching people from the different groups to seek higher common ground. This can be done in the spirit of world cafe , with people moving to different groups in some pre-ordained or random order, where they would continue their deliberations. After several rounds of such shifting, if a coherent outcome has not appeared readily (e.g., on a collective wiki page), members of all the groups could meet together for a day-long plenary deliberation, using the best facilitation available.


Volunteer facilitators/moderators for small-group deliberations can be readily trained by keeping the guidelines simple. Basic facilitation manuals are available from sites like the Study Circles Resource Center and Lets Talk America and conference call trainings and support - as well as live workshops - can be made part of the system. It may even be useful to organize the volunteer facilitators in support groups locally that meet regularly to share experiences and pointers. Many cities have professional facilitators who could help out on this, contactable through their professional networks (e.g., , , , , etc.) Most likely research will help us decide what the best facilitation method for this purpose should be, and how to best train local grassroots facilitators.


Some citizen deliberative councils (e.g., many citizens juries as contrasted with consensus conferences) reduce the complexity of decision-making by charging deliberators to choose among (or rate) pre-ordained options, departing from these only where they have broad agreement to do so. While this can reduce the collective intelligence of the outcome, it may be appropriate where fixed aternatives are built-in (such as the evaluation of a ballot initiative) or where facilitation resources are not up to the challenge of evoking co-creativity out of conflict.


Finally, there is the question of using online dialogue or collaboration spaces (e.g., wikis), either to help the several deliberation groups collaborate (when and as appropriate) or to allow participation by or commentary from the larger community, at various stages of the process. People familiar with public uses of such online resources can help suggest fruitful lines of experimentation in this realm.


E. Information sources and expertise


Among the educational characteristics of citizen deliberative councils are these:


As noted above in the discussion of "framing", an oversight committee of politically diverse experts is often formed to oversee the information provided to the citizen panel, including any experts they interview. Members of this committee can demand inclusion of specific information they favor, but cannot preclude anyone else's information. To the extent they collectively ensure that a full spectrum of (at least mainstream) viewpoints is adequately represented, they deflect criticism that the process is biased. This is an important factor in both collective intelligence (which learns from and integrates diverse views) and legitimacy (the willingness of ordinary citizens and officials to respect the outcomes of the process).


Another characteristic - an odd one, from this perspective - is that traditional citizen deliberative councils have seldom used the Internet and are often weak in including creative perspectives and options that have been developed outside the mainstream discourse on the issue.


Finally, traditional citizen deliberative councils provide a unique opportunity for citizens to actually interview and cross-examine experts on the issue they're deliberating. This is a hallmark of the process, and vital to providing the citizens with clarity about the issue. However, providing stipends and travel costs to expert witnesses can be a major expense.


So three questions come to mind:


1. How do we achieve adequately balanced oversight in a grassroots online process?
2. How do we utilize the unprecedented information-gathering capacities of the Web to inform deliberators - even beyond mainstream perspectives?
3. How do we use modern technology to reduce the cost of access to expertise?

Some approaches for each of these:


1. Regarding the first question, the process organizers could contact advocacy groups on different sides of the issue, asking who they would consider legitimate experts to oversee such a process. If there were a national or international movement around this - a concerted effort to generate an inclusive people's Voice - lists of willing experts on various sides of various issues could be developed (centrally or through the efforts of diverse local groups) and made available online. Cooperating academic institutions may also be willing to provide overseers. Explicit approval of an expert by a known partisan advocacy group legitimizes that expert as a representative of a particular part of the spectrum of opinion on that issue - a useful fact when trying to present a balanced group of experts.


2. One way we might harness the Web for citizen deliberative activities is to challenge deliberative teams working on an issue to see which can come up with the most interesting information and/or options from the Web within a specified time. This would require Web literacy or the assistance of neutral Web search assistants whose purpose would be to enable a group to pursue its Web searching function, following its own interests and sensibilities. This Websearching could go on before, during or after other aspects of the group's deliberations; this is subject to research. It may be that after they have explored the pros and cons of mainstream proposals, they will be informed enough to understand and evaluate other options. They can then get expert critiques of those new options, back and forth, until they are satisfied they understand the best solutions available.


3. Audio and video teleconferencing, as well as email and instant messaging, offer intriguing possibilities for interviewing experts. There needs to be a way for the diverse experts to hear each other, as well as for the citizen deliberators to hear them. Especially in cross-examination, body language can be an important factor in judging the information being provided, so video or face-to-face interaction is highly desirable. We'll need to research what is lost and gained through expert consultations that aren't face-to-face. Obviously, if LOCAL experts are willing to show up at a face-to-face gathering for free, effort should be made to gather all the deliberators together to efficiently engage with those experts, even if the deliberators deliberate in their separate groups afterwards.


F. Decision-making


During the research phase of all this, we will want to see how close we can get to consensus, while recognizing the limitations of our design for that (despersed groups, non-expert facilitation). Probably it is most useful to have different levels of agreement being expressed simultaneously in the findings and recommendations - e.g., what is there full agreement on? 85% agreement? 67% agreement? - as well as any coherent minority (or mere majority) statements (like the minority opinions issued by US Supreme Court justices alongside the majority opinions). Given the not-so-robust nature of our process, it is probably best to only strongly advocate for those decisions that are supported by at least a super-majority (two-thirds or more) of the deliberators.


It may also be useful to include the larger community (city, state or country - or just the community of those actively participating in this new type of politics) in evaluating outcomes from the deliberative process. If several options are available which are supported by more than 10% of the deliberative participants, perhaps these could be put up to some sort of vote by the larger community.


In general, the fewer participants and the weaker the process (in design and facilitation), the higher the level of agreement we will need to achieve in order to generate a sense of legitimacy. This is why juries, who only have twelve people, can be viewed as a legitimate expression of the community: They come to full consensus. With thousands of people and little deliberation - as in a poll or local election - 51% is considered adequate to represent the opinions of the whole population. Since in the current proposal we are dealing with 20-100 citizens and medium-quality deliberation, somewhere between three-quarters majority and full consensus might pass as a Voice of the People, if they are adequately diverse and the process is demonstrably unbiased. Again, this is subject to research. And important research it is, since we don't just want to go through the motions. We want to generate a deliberative voice of We the People that the vast majority of the population will recognize as such, so that it can then be legitimately empowered.


G. Creating impact


There are many ways to create impact, among them these:


1. Dialogue. Promote more conversations on the topic, with forums in which community members can talk about the deliberators' findings and recommendations as well as hearing about the deliberators' personal stories from the experience. In addition to online forums, face-to-face World Cafes and study circles are two simple ways to ripple the results out into the community, especially if they are seeded with participants from the original deliberation. A community World Cafe could be kicked off with a half-hour description, by the participants, of their experience. Alternatively, a public forum could be held in which relevant public officials join participants for a dialogue (viewed by the public). Citizen deliberators would explain how they came to their conclusions and the public officials would describe how they see the issue, to the enlightenment of everyone involved, including the viewing public.


2. Media. The more, and more varied, media that come out about any public deliberation, the better. This includes press releases, media coverage of public events where the participants report their findings and recommendations, media coverage of the "human interest" story of the changes participants went through during the process, letters to the editor, talk shows, etc. - as well as online publicity and commentary such as blogs and websites. For an example of truly remarkable mainstream media coverage of a citizen deliberative council, see the pdfs at the bottom of .


3. Lobbying and mobilization. Here is where online phenomena like bloggers, Move On, and Civic Space can be used to empower We the People to ensure its Voice is heard. These could provide innovative ways to spread the word; to craft messages and media; to fundraise; to mobilize demonstrations or community engagement in recommended community projects; to lobby; and to engage people in face-to-face gatherings on behalf of solutions recommended by duly convened citizen deliberations. As noted earlier, this is not so much a matter of developing new technologies as a matter of using state-of-the-art activist technologies on behalf of "the whole" rather than to push partisan perspectives.


4. Politician (and other leader) involvement. Many politicians and public officials can be influenced by what the public - particularly an informed, inclusively deliberative public - say and want. One approach is to allow them to view deliberations, participate, show up as expert witnesses and/or engage in public forums as described in (G1) above. It can even be as low key as the public official having a private hour-long interview with several of the citizen deliberators, just to get a feel for how the educated public thinks about the issue involved. Another way is to actively solicit the prior support and/or sponsorship of public officials. They can sign a Politicians Pledge (e.g., ) to take seriously the results of any duly convened citizen deliberation. Several public-participation-oriented politicians (especially of diverse political views) can sponsor certain specific citizen deliberations. Their engagement - or lack of it - can be made into a campaign issue. Similarly, other community leaders can be usefully involved, especially if they represent a broad spectrum of normally adversarial views and/or have extensive networks which may be impacted or activated through the involvement of their leader(s).


5. Cultural embeddedness. This kind of ongoing deliberative process can, over time, become the voice of We the People if, and only if, the majority of citizens come to expect and respect its work. Given good, supportable, REGULARLY CARRIED OUT process, a culture of deliberation should grow such that people await the results eagerly, and don't finally make up their own minds about an issue until they have heard the voice of We the People (which is not directive, but informative in a unique way). This sense of expectation can be nurtured by carrying out the initial participant selections (and other steps of the process) with some fanfare to engage the community and communicate that something significant is going to result. However, this should probably not be done too much until there's a track record of success.


6. Institutionalization.'' Ultimately, when the process is developed, proven and well-known enough, it MAY be embedded in local, state and national political and government institutions (unless, of course, it has grown to supercede them). Some of the ways that citizen panels can be institutionalized (many inspired by John Gastil's book ''BY POPULAR DEMAND) are described on . All this, however, is in the future. Chances are, this effort will evolve in unpredictable ways, some of which may make institutionalization irrelevant.




H. Organizing energy and structure


The initial organizing energy needs to come from a small group dedicated to realizing this possibility, perhaps working with a chaordic model . When a good beta design is worked out, it can be spread by bloggers, seeded by dedicated teams (as was done by Beyond War in the 1980s, when about a dozen families moved to swing states and catalyzed self-replicating livingroom presentations demonstrating that war was obsolete, which spread rapidly), or spread through collaborating organizations (as has been done by National Issues Forums since the early 1970s, providing materials and training for deliberation, and promoting those resources and their resulting successes to community groups, NGOs, educational institutions and receptive public officials). When deliberations are held, chances are good that some of the deliberators will be interested in helping spread the excitement and power they experienced, as long as they get some support in doing so. An alternative political party like the Centrust Party may also be interested. What other approaches might be useful?






As noted at the beginning, this is only one outline of what might be done. More possibilities need to be explored. Our first step should be convening experts in dialogue and deliberation, telecommunications and social software technologies, networking, and social uses of education (and perhaps other fields) to explore this and other options for designing:


How can we envision and create
a potentially self-organizing, self-replicating deliberative system
usable by any community, state, province, country or other population
(a) to find its collective judgment or wisdom about any circumstance or issue
:-- i.e., an informed, trustworthy, inclusive
:voice and will of We the People --
(b) to implement that informed public will
:through direct individual and community action
:and/or pressure on existing institutions and powerholders.

Then funding should be found to create numerous experiments in manifesting such systems. The results of these experiments should be tracked. We should keep our eyes peeled for breakthroughs which can catch on quickly and spread readily, providing an under-the-radar network for powerful citizen deliberations and action and lobbying on behalf of the common good. In the meantime, we should do our best to introduce existing activists - especially online innovators and social entrepreneurs - into this new perspective of holistic democracy and its incredible possibilities.


See also Electronic Democracy




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see where we are also listing similar practices

  --Michel Bauwens (Not signed in).....Sun Jan 31 00:53:33 -0800 2010

The Bohm Dialogue, especially Collective Reflection has significance for me in terms of artistic critique and dialogue.

If one wanted to connect this to Jungian thought I'd relate to that.

  --Srule Brachman (Not signed in).....Mon May 21 17:09:16 +0000 2012





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