Using a few million dollars to transform American political culture

What high-leverage initiatives can we imagine that could embed wisdom-producing dialogue and deliberation – among citizens, stakeholders, and/or public officials – deeply into the political life of the United States (and other countries, as well)?

A few days ago I was challenged to think of what wealthy people might do to embed dialogue and deliberation in political culture in the U.S. – especially given the unprecedented challenges and opportunities of this watershed – and highly polarized – presidential election season. What follows is a brainstorm intended to inspire anyone with exceptional wealth to engage in such efforts. I would be happy to consult with anyone ambitious enough to undertake any of these or similar initiatives, or refer you to others who could help.

If funders wanted to have an impact before the election, here are some ideas…

1. Convene and widely publicize specific productive conversations among otherwise divided/polarized people. My favorite mass media model for that is the “The People’s Verdict” (Canada’s Maclean’s magazine) / “The People’s Accord” (Canadian TV) initiative in 1991. Maclean’s magazine brought 12 Canadians who represented the hot diversity of Canada into 2.5 days of professionally facilitated dialogue that produced a visionary consensus statement – all brilliantly covered by the magazine and a TV public affairs program. Substantial information on this initiative can be found at and is well worth serious study. Along similar lines we can consider the Mont Fleur dialogues in South Africa in 1991-92 which engaged some very diverse leaders of groups struggling against each other during the closing days of apartheid in an intense but productive scenario-exploring dialogue. The remarkable results were promoted using some mass media but mostly in strategic small group presentations and discussions. See for a quick overview and, for details, download the English version of “The Footprints of Mont Fleur” from . More recently some people have proposed doing an edited presentation of a reality show version of transpartisan dialogue. There are many potential approaches to this. The idea is to exemplify the power of productive* transpartisan small group dialogue in a very clear and visible way and then expose the public and/or key partisan players both to the fact that such dialogue can and does happen as well as how it happens, so that it stimulates further public dialogue and thought-leader commentary as a result.

* By “productive” I mean both that the different “sides” come to understand each other better AND that they come up with public policy guidance that most/all of them strongly support.

2. Engage the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation in creating and implementing one or more plans to be funded by the major funders. NCDD is a large professional association that has for several months been collectively reflecting (especially in its internal listserv) on how to heal the political divisions and otherwise engage with the dynamics of this unprecedented electoral season. Left to its own devices, those reflections will most likely just inform the many activities various practitioners and organizations undertake on their own, which is fine. But if $500,000-$2,000,000 was offered as a motivator and resource for some effort crafted from the best thinking of all (or select) NCDDers in response to a question like “What could be done before the election – tapping the social dynamics of this election season – that would most effectively serve to embed dialogue and deliberation permanently in American public life?”, the chances are excellent that considerable energy would converge quickly to come up with something quite powerful. I have a number of possible designs for such an inquiry. (A simpler but perhaps less effective approach would be to sponsor a contest within NCDD with the winning approaches being funded. This has been tried before with mixed success. I prefer the larger inquiry with really substantial funding to motivate NCDDers with diverse approaches to seriously work together, rather than the competitive approach of a contest, but that is a matter of personal preference.)

3. Generate transpartisan visions using diverse approaches which are then compared and popularly voted on. This is a combination of (1) and (2) above. The idea would be create a “Transpartisan Challenge” inviting any and all practitioners of dialogue and deliberation to use their approach to bring together at least a dozen people (or even thousands of people) who represent different ideological/partisan perspectives to generate a vision for America that they are all excited about by October 1st. Each vision (from each of these groups) would be just 1-2 pages long, so that many of them could be read by many people. Then the visions would be subject to commentary and critique by partisans and the general public for a couple of weeks and finally voted on by millions of people. The top vision(s) would win significant prize(s) of at least $500,000 and be widely publicized during the final couple of weeks before the election. Ideally good records would be kept of each such process so that the processes could be studied after all the fanfare was over. The fanfare would serve to promote the idea that widely diverse people could work together to articulate a shared vision for their country.

If funders wanted to have a more profound impact over the next 1-3 years they might try these….

4. Create an app that engages hundreds of thousands of people in productive transpartisan conversations. My strategic vision for this is described in “A wisdom-generating deliberative democracy game app?”

5. Work with NCDD to develop a way to measure and rate public engagements based on how well they meet NCDD’s Core Principles for Public Engagement. Establish an activity or organization that does these evaluations, and then work to make such evaluations well known and respected (for both their integrity and their social power) among the public and key players in the political process. This would bring order to the somewhat chaotic and often low-quality (and even manipulated or intentionally pointless) public dialogue environment. (Related: Organize previous participants in high quality citizen dialogue and deliberation into a nonprofit public service association whose three primary purposes would be to promote more dialogue and deliberation, to promote the empowerment of the public’s wisdom, and to oversee the quality of public dialogue and deliberation, especially when it has been given enough policy influence to attract manipulation by special interests.**)

** Ideas in this post marked with double-asterisks are described in more detail in my book EMPOWERING PUBLIC WISDOM.

Finally, here are some other approaches for even greater impact over the next 3-10 years….

6. Finance the organizing of community-level Civic Councils – one or two dozen citizens randomly selected and dynamically facilitated for 1-2 days, like the Austrian model (which usually has an assigned public issue) or the original Wisdom Council process (which has no assigned public issue but is more like a We the People version of a president’s, governor’s or mayor’s State of the Union). The goal would be to have at least 100 communities doing at least annual councils for at least 3 years.** This could be centrally organized through the Co-Intelligence Institute and would include establishing a “learning community of practice” network among those communities to share lessons and various approaches.

7. Locate/recruit, train, network, and support politicians who are willing to make high quality dialogue and deliberation (among the public, officials, and stakeholders) THE central theme of their campaigns and public service as representatives of We the People and evocateurs of the wisdom of We the People. Some of my essays on this subject are “The story of Pat and Pat, the view from the year 2020”, “A Public Pledge to Hear the People’s Common Sense” and “Beyond positions: a politics of civic co-creativity”. Both conservative and liberal political strategists and funders have engaged in long-term integrated programs to develop candidates, think tanks, commentators, lobbying networks, and media in whole-system approaches to promote their partisan victories in the adversarial political system. I am suggesting here that a similar effort could be undertaken to promote a transpartisan, holistic political movement grounded in dialogue and deliberation.

8. Support research that identifies one or more dependable approaches to articulating a trustworthy and wise voice of We the People on any given public issue. Most current approaches to public dialogue and deliberation are designed to engage citizens with issues and each other in ways that shift their individual perspectives in more sophisticated directions – towards tolerance of and respect for each other and towards more broad-minded effective policy solutions. Deliberative Polling and National Issues Forums are examples. Other approaches seek to engage diverse citizens or stakeholders in dialogue and deliberation to develop coherent (majoritarian or consensus) recommendations. Citizens Juries and the Consensus Council are examples. Given my focus on empowering public wisdom in the policy realm, I’m especially interested in the latter approaches. But no research has been done to demonstrate whether the results of a single citizen deliberative council or stakeholder council is representative of what another comparable council would produce. I have proposed research that convenes and studies 3 independent and truly comparable Citizen Juries and 3 independent and truly comparable stakeholder dialogues – all on the same topic in the same geographical area. The results would be compared for differences and similarities, and for insights into how those differences and similarities came about. At least one more phase would then be undertaken to see if even more comparable results could be achieved. My recommendation for that stage would be convening a new set of 6 separate councils, each made up of several members of the previous six councils and facilitated by Dynamic Facilitation. Again, these would be studied for similarities and differences and how those came about. Further or other experiments could be done based on the results of these. Inspired by research clarifying the legitimacy of individual public opinion surveys as reflecting what other comparable surveys would come up with, the aim of this research would be to clarify a citizen/stakeholder protocol that would produce comparable results and thus be a demonstrably legitimate and unprecedented “voice of the whole” on public issues.**

SO: What other high-leverage initiatives can you imagine that could embed wisdom-producing dialogue and deliberation – among citizens, stakeholders, and/or public officials – deeply into the political life of the United States (and other countries, as well)?


Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440
Calling forth the wisdom of the whole for the wellbeing of the whole


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