Combating Democracy's Problems
The Community Engagement Institute
Learning from each other combats democracy’s problems. Many times, citizens are sidelined because they don’t think that they can make a difference. Wicked issues are framed in ways that promote divisiveness and not all options for solving them are considered. Democracies depend on constant collective learning and a system to promote dialogue.
The result is a lack of people participating in the decision making process or the perception that "the end is already decided, so why bother?" Decisions are often made by a small group or hastily without giving the public the opportunity to be able to reach shared or reflective judgment.
Small communities and public institutions are facing daunting problems that can best be solved if all citizens are given the space to work together to produce common ground on the things upon which they do not agree. Traditional ways that communities go about solving problems may limit citizen participation. When people disagree about what to do, it prevents them from joining forces.
Political institutions’ efforts to organize citizens can backfire by draining away the vital energy that people bring. The mutual distrust between citizens and many political institutions has been quite acute for decades. Citizens see politicians as unresponsive as well as ineffective, and the political environment doubts that the general citizen is responsible and capable to make informed choices.
The Institute teaches community and elected leaders how to create space for citizens to work together by following these steps:
· Identify or name the issue in their own terms of what is most valuable to them.
· Frame the issues so that a range of actions are considered and the trade-offs required are evident.
· Make deliberative decisions weighing the trade-offs, to turn hasty reactions into sound judgment.
· Identify resources that are available, even intangible ones like enthusiasm and commitment.
· Organize actions in ways that builds upon the common ground and helps the other become better.
Asking questions in a different way can help open up the values of certain positions.
Questions such as:
· How does this problem affect you and your family?
· What do you think is the right thing to do?
· What might be the consequences, both positive and negative?
· What are our options?
· Who else do we need to solve the problem?
· What resources could we use?
· Can we support one another?
· What are we learning?
When you set up the process to allow citizen participation, great things happen. People actually get along. They come up with wonderful solutions that, when they come together, are better than any previously proposed.