Saturday, October 13, 2007

Nationwide Citizen Deliberations: A Future Trend?

Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards has called for nationwide citizen deliberations. Calling them a "Citizen's Congress," he wants to convene 1 million Americans to deliberate and help inform policy in Washington D.C.

His announcement marks the first major recognition at the federal level of the growing deliberation movement - an attempt to bring citizens more directly into the policy-making process.

Organizations, such as AmericaSpeaks, have popularized deliberative efforts working with local and civic organizations to host deliberations. Researchers, such as James Fishkin, have advocated deliberative polls -- ways to poll Americans after they have become informed and deliberated with others on the issue before expressing their opinions. These efforts suggest that people learn more, develop more informed opinions, and become more politically engaged. Theoretically, citizen deliberations legitimize the policy making process by involving them more directly in identifying political problems and solutions.

This gives my new research an interesting potential life. I'm working with Peter Muhlberger, a political scientist, and Nick Webb, a computer scientist. Together we are trying to develop natural language software technologies that will help facilitate political deliberations that occur online. By providing tools to help citizens learn about the political deliberation before and during the deliberation, as well as facilitation tools to help citizens with the process and progress of the deliberations, we hope to enable better deliberations.

We just received a $450,000 National Science Foundation grant to bring these ideas to life.

Who knows. If we actually manage to make these technologies work, maybe we'll see them in action in Edwards' Citizen's Congress. Now, that's a thought!


bryan said...

The idea of citizen's deliberations is an interesting one; however, it could have an unintended consequence of taking poorer populations even further out of the democratic process.

Being able to take time to volunteer in a process such as this means being able to have the resources available to take the time. If you have to work multiple jobs or can't afford the extra day care, then this is a process you can't participate in.

If it moves online, then the digital divide limits participation to an even smaller few.

While this idea is certainly preferable, on its face (I admit I know nothing about it beyond what is contained in this post), to Initiative and Referendum, since it requires citizens who participate to first gain an understanding of the issues, it has some very large obstacles to overcome.

Joe Erjavec said...

That's an interesting idea.

I think that if public libraries are fulfilling part of their mission, that may enable overcoming some of the obstacle that Bryan references as a real risk. They should provide Internet access and training to those who can't afford a home computer.

Anna M. said...

Congrats on the NSF funding!! That's exciting!

Jenny Stromer-Galley said...

I don't disagree, Bryan. Time and access are two major obstacles to citizen participation in such deliberations. People with children are much less likely to participate in civic activities - and now I know why -- they have no time!