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A Farewell to AmericaSpeaks

By Joe Goldman / 2014 January 2nd

One of the leading innovators in the field of public deliberation, AmericaSpeaks, recently announced that it is closing its doors after almost 20 years in operation. As a recent funder of the organization, the Democracy Fund is sorry to see a grantee close their doors. As someone who has worked in many capacities for and with the organization since 1998, I’m especially saddened by the news. While the organization’s work will continue through many other forms, there can be no doubt that its leadership, creativity, and vision will be missed.

Over the years, AmericaSpeaks directly engaged hundreds of thousands of people in deliberation and touched the lives of millions. I personally witnessed citizens break down into tears many times because they felt heard for the first time and were moved by truly experiencing democracy in action. AmericaSpeaks’ work has meant a great deal to so many people. Whether it was engaging citizens in shaping New Orleans’ recovery plan after Hurricane Katrina or helping federal employees to develop better ways to involve the public, the organization was an important force for the highest values of our democracy.

A website has been created to share memories of AmericaSpeaks. AmericaSpeaks has also compiled a legacy document that summarizes the organization’s accomplishments and is worth reading. It seems appropriate to take this moment to reflect on what AmericaSpeaks is leaving behind. I’m sure that others will comment on these topics, but I’d like to offer my own take here.

Innovation

The two things that I always liked best about AmericaSpeaks were its ambitious vision for our democracy and the continued willingness of the organization to innovate. Some would point to the 21st Century Town Meeting model as the most important AmericaSpeaks’ innovation. Certainly, the widespread use of audience response systems in public meetings and the use of the 21st Century Town Meeting model in such places as Denmark, Australia, England, Italy, and elsewhere, are a testament to this. But for me, there are several other innovations that are just as significant (and often overlooked). Among them are:

  • Participatory Budgeting and Strategic Management: The first major initiative that I managed for AmericaSpeaks was a participatory budgeting program for the Mayor of Washington DC in 1999 called Neighborhood Action (I eventually joined the staff of the Mayor’s Office to coordinate their Neighborhood Action program for Mayor Anthony Williams’ chief of staff). Long before Chicago or New York adopted participatory budgeting, AmericaSpeaks designed a process that engaged thousands of DC residents in shaping the city’s priorities, which then drove the city’s strategic plan, municipal budget, performance contracts for agency directors, and a public score card for the city.

    Over the course of Mayor Williams’ eight years in office, the “Neighborhood Action” program influenced the deployment of millions of dollars in city funds. At the neighborhood level, planning department staff worked with citizens to develop strategic neighborhood action plans that were linked to cross agency teams who were charged with addressing critical neighborhood needs. I’m unaware of any example of a municipal program in a major city that more comprehensively put citizens at the center of planning and priority setting as was instituted under the Williams Administration. While few have attempted to replicate the DC model, it is worth paying attention to the Washington DC Neighborhood Action initiative as participatory budgeting begins to really take off across the US over the next few years.

  • Open Government: President Obama’s Open Government Initiative brought a focus on openness to the federal government in 2008. However, despite the Obama Administration’s verbal commitment to transparency, participation, and collaboration, the primary focus of the initiative from its early days was on transparency. AmericaSpeaks was one of the most vocal organizations pushing the White House and federal agencies to remember the President’s commitment to participation. The organization was instrumental in articulating the core principles that would be required for executive branch innovation – many of which would go on to influence elements of the open government program. AmericaSpeaks convened federal managers to develop recommendations for Administration policies towards greater participation. It also authored several important reports evaluating the Administration’s progress and making recommendations for improvement.

Proof Points

The last 25 years represent an important period of research and development for the field of public deliberation. AmericaSpeaks and its peers developed a series of innovative formats for engaging the public on the premise that diverse groups of citizens could find common ground on complex policy issues in ways that could improve the governance process. While these processes have not been institutionalized at a scale that had been hoped for, we have demonstrated the value and potential for integrating public deliberation into our governance processes.

To this end, AmericaSpeaks is leaving behind an important paper trail that proves that many of the principles behind deliberative democracy are well-founded and do work. Independent researchers documented the impacts of many of AmericaSpeaks projects. Over the years, they found that citizens learned from public deliberations, changed their points of view, gained a greater sense of efficacy, and took action as a result of their participation. At the same time, evaluators found that well designed public deliberations led to important, meaningful policy changes.

One set of evaluations looked at the degree to which deliberation could influence policy and decision making.

  • A Harvard University study of AmericaSpeaks involvement in the creation of the Unified New Orleans plan after Hurricane Katrina found that the public’s involvement significantly impacted stakeholder’s views about the planning process. The evaluator interviewed two dozen New Orleans leaders about the impact of the deliberations. She found that the AmericaSpeaks’ work enhanced the credibility of the plan. Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge Morrell told the Harvard researcher: “I think it has done more to bring credibility to the table than all of the little individual meetings that people go to.”
  • Interviews with stakeholders by Columbia University researchers in New York after AmericaSpeaks’ 21st Century Town Meeting about the World Trade Center redevelopment process found that the public had a significant impact on the planning. For example, the Vice President for Design and Planning at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation told the evaluators that the AmericaSpeaks town meeting was “critical in giving him the leverage he needed to open up the design process against the original wishes of the Port Authority.” According to the New York Times: Governor Pataki decided it was “time to go back to the drawing board” in response to “a wave of public dismay over the first designs for rebuilding Lower Manhattan” as articulated through the AmericaSpeaks deliberations.

Other studies focused on the effects that deliberation has on individual participants. For example:

  • A Northwestern University study of a series of deliberations on Social Security found that “not only did attendees say their understanding of facts of Social Security increased as a result of their participation in the forum, but also their responses to a series of six factual questions showed their overall knowledge really did increase.” The evaluation went on to say that, “after the forum, attendees were dramatically more likely than others to say they spent time thinking about talking about, and reading about Social Security.”
  • The same Columbia University study of the AmericaSpeaks town meeting on the world trade center development process mentioned above also reported that: “A respondent who described herself as politically conservative said she was “amazed at what came out of my mouth. I said there should be low income housing down there.” She explained that the discussion gave her “time to really think about things I’ve never thought about very much” and she came to believe “this could be a new beginning for a lot of—for our city and for all of us—and to have low income and middle income housing…would be a new beginning.”
  • Research by professors at Harvard and the University of California found that participants in a statewide discussion on health care were far more likely to take action out of a town meeting than those from a control group: “One of the most striking findings from our research so far is that those who participated in the CaliforniaSpeaks town meeting were far more likely to engage in a range of political acts on the health care issue — such as contacting public officials, volunteering for organizations, signing or circulating petitions, calling in to a radio station, and contacting other media.”
  • The same researchers from Harvard and the University of California found that participants in a national discussion on debt and deficit moderated their views and reported high value from the event: “On different policy items, liberals and conservatives seem to have given ground on their specific priorities in order to help achieve this goal over the course of deliberation. For example, conservatives became more supportive of raising taxes on the very wealthy (liberals began with high levels of support for this measure and didn’t change much). To a similar degree, liberals became more supportive of a 5% across the board cut to discretionary programs after one day of deliberation.”

It’s worth noting that the study of public deliberation within the fields of political science and communications has dramatically expanded over AmericaSpeaks tenure. There is little doubt in my mind that AmericaSpeaks played a significant role in this development through such things as the creation of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and the Journal of Public Deliberation, the publication of the Deliberative Democracy Handbook, and its many researcher and practitioner convenings on deliberative democracy.

Looking to the Future

Looking forward, I think the great challenge for the public deliberation community will be to figure out how to institutionalize the practices that have been developed over the past two decades by AmericaSpeaks and its peers. In the past,, the public deliberation community has valued adherence to the core principles of deliberative democracy at the expense of broader adoption of practices that engage and empower the public. AmericaSpeaks itself in partnership with Face the Facts worked to marry the production of events, media, and deliberative practices in 2011 and 2012 with the support of the Democracy Fund. However, as a community, we have too often criticized practices that do not live up to our standards even though they have the potential to provide more people with a greater voice in our democracy. While we should not give up on our principles, we need to acknowledge that not enough progress has been made in institutionalizing the practices that we have spent so many years developing and defending.

When I look at the field of practice today, I am most excited by those organizations that are working to institutionalize deliberative practices in ways that directly respond to core incentives that drive the behavior of major institutions in our political system (and that do so with relatively little expense). Participatory budgeting and citizen initiative reviews are two of the most important examples of deliberative practices that can be easily institutionalized and scaled. Both have their shortcomings, but will only improve with time. Similarly, Talia Stroud’s work at the Engaging News Project is finding inexpensive ways that newsrooms can changes to how they present information on their web sites that incentivize greater engagement and deliberation (and that also attracts more readers and more revenue for the publications).

The biggest vacuum that AmericaSpeaks leaves behind in its wake is its vision for national deliberations that provide the public with a voice in the national decisions that are made in their name. I am hopeful that organizations like Voice of the People, PopVox, and the National Institute for Civil Discourse will fill some of this void – though their solutions look very different than those envisioned by AmericaSpeaks. Hopefully, the national discussion on mental health that was co-sponsored by multiple deliberative organizations will also point the field in a new and productive direction.

Thanks

The staff, associates, and partners of AmericaSpeaks are some of the most impressive and talented people with whom I have ever worked I cannot count the number of times that I have seen this group accomplish seemingly impossible tasks under the most challenging circumstances. It has been an honor and a privilege to be associated with each and every one of you. Thank you to Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, Steve Brigham, and everyone else who made this organization’s work possible.

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