Can a small citizen deliberation have more impact than a giant one?

Among the many trends I see in my work on democratic innovation I highlight two here, one in Canada, one in the US. One was very large, including over 500 registered voters. The other had only 12 citizens. Both demonstrated effective conversations among highly diverse people. One was also a deliberative problem-solving and visioning exercise. One had significant mainstream news coverage. Coverage of the other was innovative almost to the point of revolutionary. In this message I will give you an appreciative comparison of the two – particularly highlighting their size and media coverage – and, in closing, offer questions to consider. (Note: This long post would ideally have been offered as three separate posts. Due to its importance and some current personal challenges, I have combined them here into one post with three “parts”.)


In these times of intense polarization, most of us welcome any demonstration that people with really different perspectives can have a civil conversation that helps them better understand each other and the issues they face. And in these times of unprecedented challenge most of us also welcome any demonstration that such diverse ordinary people can together generate deeper ways to understand those issues and to address them more wisely.

Below I highlight just two of the hundreds of amazing deliberative experiments that have been happening around the world: (1) A US initiative, dubbed America in One Room that just happened in September 2019 and (2) a Canadian initiative called The People’s Verdict that occurred almost three decades ago in early summer 1991. Both were conversations across political divides. The second was also an exercise in citizen problem solving and visioning.

For both of these citizen deliberations, participants were scientifically selected by professional surveyors to represent the diversity of their whole country – 12 citizens in Canada selected by Decima under the sponsorship of Maclean’s magazine, Canada’s leading newsweekly (like Time in the US), and 526 voters in the US selected by NORC at the University of Chicago under the sponsorship of Helena (a catalyst for societal solutions).

Each deliberation lasted over one long weekend. And each was professionally facilitated – in the US by James Fishkin’s Stanford Center for Deliberative Democracy and in Canada by Roger Fisher’s Harvard Negotiation Project.

Both received excellent news coverage. America in One Room was covered by The New York Times, CNN, Vanity Fair and several less broadly known media including FiveThirtyEight and Axios. The People’s Verdict was covered by 40 pages in the July 1, 1991 issue of Maclean’s and an hour-long public affairs documentary broadcast the same week on Canada’s top-rated TV network (CTV).

America in One Room brought together hundreds of randomly selected American voters to learn about and discuss diverse proposals to address five of America’s highest priority public issues. Overwhelmingly, participants came to appreciate each other’s thinking and humanity and many of them on all sides shifted their views about the proposals they studied and discussed, usually towards the political center (from both left and right).[1] Although they came to no collective conclusions, polls before and after their three days of deliberation demonstrated these opinion shifts. (The method used – Deliberative Polling® – has been used more than 100 times in 28 countries in the last 25 years.) The New York Times published photo portraits of almost all of these ordinary people, immersing us readers in the wildly diverse human world of We the People. We got to appreciate the fact that they talked together really well.

Turn back the clock 28 years and move north: Maclean’s magazine brought together twelve Canadians scientifically selected to represent the diversity of Canada. Over a long weekend, they were challenged to come up with a shared vision for their deeply divided nation. Readers were introduced to each of the participants with a half-page bio and picture. Their collective drama was then documented through 12 pages depicting their intense, step by step interactions. After almost breaking apart, they made unexpected breakthroughs — and Maclean’s published all four pages of the detailed vision they created together, along with pictures of erstwhile enemies hugging in new friendships. Most remarkably, through Maclean’s total of 40 pages of coverage and an hour-long public affairs documentary on CTV, millions of Canadians got to vicariously experience the conversation through which these twelve truly diverse citizens discovered not only each other but dozens of actionable points of common ground. This unique coverage of their remarkable achievement stimulated intense conversation throughout their country for months afterwards.

So what about impact?  I expect that after the initial burst of interest in America in One Room, public attention on it will fade – although discussions about it will continue among deliberative democracy advocates. Despite its coverage, the vast majority of Americans will not even know it took place. Most public deliberations suffer this fate. Giant deliberations – despite their attention-grabbing spectacle – seem to have serious impact only when their recommendations are designed to directly influence public policy or an official public vote. Recent examples of this are the increasingly popular Citizen Assemblies which usually involve around 100 participants and are convened or sponsored by governments.

The 1991 Maclean’s initiative was different from these in significant ways, the most important of which was that odd phenomenon of giving readers a vivid VICARIOUS EXPERIENCE of political conflict evolving into breakthrough possibilities through well-facilitated conversation. This led Canadians around the country to spontaneously began pushing for more conversations like that to renew their political culture. Research showed that Canada was abuzz with these conversations for months after the Maclean’s/CTV reporting.

When I first saw a copy of that Maclean’s magazine, I wondered how it could have failed to transform Canada. To find out what happened, I hired investigative reporter Larry Shook in 2000 to interview major players in that initiative. He discovered that the magazine’s editors never realized they had innovated a new form of democracy. They thought of it as a new form of focus group. So they didn’t do it again in 1992 and every year thereafter. It was a political event that never became a political process. And so when in late 1991, politicians became uncomfortable with the direction and tone of the resulting public conversation, they could squelch the rising sense of possibility. Canada’s new “We the People” consciousness was never reconvened by Maclean’s to counter that development.

Now here we are several decades later. I wonder what we might learn from that Maclean’s innovation about giving the public a vivid VICARIOUS EXPERIENCE of this new way of talking AS a new way of doing democracy. What innovations might we add to bring the Maclean’s phenomenon into the 21st century? How could we use such understandings and innovations to catalyze a movement to transform our political culture into a conversational generator of wise public policy and collective action?

I’ve done extensive research and thinking about these questions. In particular, you’ll find a full page about The People’s Verdict (and its TV version – The People’s Accord) at Canadian Adversaries Take A Break to Dream: The Maclean’s 1991 Experiment.  That webpage includes not only several summaries, stories and analytic essays but the full original Maclean’s issue and CTV’s documentary as well as all of Larry Shook’s interviews (in both audio and print versions).


The reason I focus here on size is that small citizen deliberations allow for a greater investment (of time, attention, money, etc.) to support the deliberators (with information, facilitation, opportunities to think and speak, etc., to enhance the quality – especially wisdom – of their work) and to engage communities and media before, during and after the main deliberative event. Media engagements can and should feature elements – such as bios of or interviews with the participants AND a blow by blow account of what they went through – that evoke that special VICARIOUS EXPERIENCE that Maclean’s demonstrated so powerfully.

When hundreds of people are involved in a citizen deliberation, we media viewers can only get a tiny taste of who they are and what they went through (for example, see the NYT and CNN coverage of America in One Room). This leaves us as mere spectators instead of as potential actors on the political stage. We don’t get to see ourselves as We the People in charge of our own destiny.

Despite these advantages of small deliberations, we need to think about two of the main arguments for large deliberations, specifically: (1) their representativeness and (2) their spectacle that attracts public and media attention.

These two factors are very compelling within the current political paradigm. They look a bit different from the holistic “wise democracy” perspective. For example, the idea of needing hundreds or thousands of people to adequately represent the demographics of a larger population comes from public opinion polling. But notice how traditional public opinion polling measures whatever opinions people happen to have at the moment. Deliberative Polling® – like we saw in America in One Room – modifies this by registering changes in individual opinions through informed conversation. However, no form of polling is designed or able to measure wisdom that might emerge from interactive dialogue among diverse people. In fact, the very effort to measure the outcome usually demands conditions that limit the creativity of the group and the ability of something new to emerge.

Ideally, if a process had produced emergent collective wisdom, we would initially see new perspectives and possibilities evoking the strong support of a broad spectrum of experts and erstwhile partisans and opponents. Over the long-term, we would see the recommended policies and actions generating broad benefits.

To get there, we need an adequately diverse collection of people, perspectives and information AND we need a context within which they can interact in newly well-grounded but creative ways. That includes a process where all the participants truly hear each other and where their collective thinking evolves together towards outcomes that actually make sense to virtually all of them.[2] That combination is key to generating collective wisdom.

As we design such a process, however, we also need to ensure it is visibly inclusive and fair so the public views it as legitimate. Random selection can help in this – and it doesn’t have to involve hundreds of participants.[2] After all, only twelve trial jurors represent the community in life-and-death legal cases. (Notice how the fact that they must reach consensus helps legitimize the use of only a dozen people.)

Now let’s consider the media factor: It is obviously true that crowds and spectacle attract media. However, it is also true that media can be attracted to the novelty and drama of a good story. Quality public deliberations provide that, from both public affairs and human interest angles. And from those angles, having only one or two dozen people to track, interview and report on allows the media to do a more in-depth and engaging story. In contrast, having to deal with hundreds of people invites a more shallow kind of coverage. Some media will also be attracted by the idea of participating in a transformation of democracy.

Finally, I want to note that in all citizen engagements, we can consider both the impact on the participants and the impact on the larger community or world. In America in One Room, the intended impact was primarily on the participants and how they changed. Deliberative Polling® is designed to counter the common assumption that opposing factions cannot talk civilly with each other and shift their views. However, such deliberations produce no collective “findings and recommendations” to influence public affairs. In contrast, The People’s Voice deliberators were charged with articulating a shared vision for their divided country – a challenge they met with remarkable effectiveness. Their audience was the whole of Canada, not just government officials or even “voters” (the usual targets of outcome-oriented citizen deliberations). And experience suggests that creatively addressing shared public problems and aspirations is at least as transformative for the participants as engaging in a simple exchange of views, as useful as such an exchange may be.

I hope this essay stimulates more conversation among deliberative democracy adherents about the value of uplifting the status of smaller, more affordable citizen deliberations – especially when they are designed to generate collective wisdom and the vicarious involvement of millions of people to think differently and take wise action together.

I offer more details, links and thoughts about these two initiatives below.


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For convenience, I abbreviate “America in One Room” as AOR and Maclean’s “The People’s Verdict” as TPV.


AOR – 526 people (out of 331 million in the US in 2019).
TPV – 12 people (out of 28 million in Canada in 1991).

AOR – Sortition / stratified random sampling. (Inexplicably, they covered only 47 states, evoking an online commenter to complain: “There was nobody from Alaska.”)
TPV – Scientific selection for the maximum demographic diversity possible in a group of a dozen people.

AOR – 3 million dollars
TPV – Half a million dollars (about 1 million in 2019 dollars)

AOR – 3 days (a long weekend)
TPV – 2.5 days (a long weekend)

AOR – Moderators at each large table of about a dozen people, to help participants hear each other (not so much to “think together” toward a shared outcome).
TPV – One of the world’s top negotiators, the late Roger Fisher (co-author of the classic Getting to Yes) and two assistants from the Harvard Negotiation Project. For part of the deliberation the twelve participants broke up into three issue-related deliberation groups.

AOR – Health care, immigration, the economy, foreign policy and the environment. (These were derived from a prior public survey about which issues most concerned voters.)
TPV – No issues assigned, except to come up with a shared vision for Canada (which was coming apart at the time). However, the group decided to focus on three issues: the economy, the constitutional crisis, and relations between the provinces.

AOR – A briefing booklet and access to some experts regarding the five assigned issues. In the booklet, each of the five issues had a brief introduction about major differences (basically left/right) followed by five specific proposals which were accompanied by brief pro and con arguments. (According to a NYT editorial, a video version of the briefing booklet was also available, which is a good sign of accommodating different learning styles.) Individual tables each came up with a question they wanted to ask the experts and then, in a plenary session, representatives of the tables asked those questions. As far as I can tell, there was no actual discussion with the experts.
TPV – No briefings, but several participants were themselves experts on some of the issues.

AOR – Reportage on the event from major news media including The New York Times, CNN and Vanity Fair, often featuring comments from the participants. The main NYT article provided tiny portraits of almost all of the participants, which communicated a broad and visceral sense of “we the people” without providing much information about or connection to those individuals.
TPV – 40 pages of coverage in Maclean’s with the simultaneously broadcast of a CTV hour-long public affairs documentary. Half-page bios (with pictures) of all twelve participants including why they were chosen…. followed by a blow-by-blow account of what happened – who said what when plus photos reflecting their changing body language… followed by their 4-page agreement printed on parchment-colored paper with participants’ twelve signatures at the bottom. Also background articles on the issues, the facilitators and their method, the participant-selection process, the history of other Canadian attempts at public dialogue, the project’s impact on business, and a number of summary editorials and essays (see the bullet list on my page about the Maclean‘s process).

AOR – The process was much valued by all participants. In general it produced more tolerant, moderate, and respectful perspectives in most individuals, plus a few significant shifts in individual opinions. An overall shift towards “the center” in the final poll compared to the pre-event poll. For details, see and
TPV – The process was much valued by all participants. They produced a detailed shared vision that triggered widespread dialogue across Canada for months after the event (which were ultimately squelched by nervous politicians). Significant shifts in participant perspectives were produced and documented. A number of friendships blossomed among the participants, including erstwhile enemies – and they lasted, as reported by Maclean’s in a six month follow-up.


AOR = A great media spectacle demonstrating that civil discourse is possible.

  • A good demonstration of (a) the effects of deliberation on the opinions and mutual regard of individual voters participating in a deliberative exercise and (b) the ability of very diverse Americans to voice their opinions in a group setting and to respectfully listen to each other.
  • The vast presentation of participants’ photos in the NYT’s coverage helped readers relate to the participants in the general sense of being part of a diverse citizenry. But a reader could get lost in the seeming endlessness of the photos. There was no data about who the people pictured were – only where they were from.
  • CNN’s focus on 10 participants featured their pictures and a short quote about how they felt about the event. This “human interest” aspect was less evocative than the TPV approach. And there could have been more in-depth interviews available online.
  • They did a very large random sampling and achieved obvious participant diversity. Oddly, the selection failed to include people from several states. This is less a true failing of representation as a possible weakness in perceived legitimacy.
  • The briefing materials and facilitation seem adequate for a large-scale deliberation designed to stimulate thoughtful conversation rather than coherent collective recommendations. The briefing materials gave arguments for and against specific proposals associated with various partisan perspectives. While focusing on proposals and their pro/con arguments reduces the conceptual space for alternatives to emerge, it provides an efficient introduction to the controversy surrounding various issues, thus helping participants – who may have been ignorant of the specifics – to have an informed exchange of views.
  • From a wise democracy perspective, the short duration, the number of topics, the focus on pro/con arguments about proposals, and the very large group size constrained the quality and creativity of deliberation and thus the potential for emergent collective wisdom. The large number of participants also limited participants’ ability to engage with (and cross-examine) the expert witnesses.
  • There was no co-created collective outcome except the aggregate percentages of the final poll. The participants were focused on discussing preordained proposals rather than reaching beyond the proposals to find new and better approaches. (This helped the organizers to get measurable before-and-after survey results, but constrained collective creativity regarding the issues the official proposals were meant to address.)
  • The size (and thus expense) of the event makes it probably prohibitive for most communities seeking to convene citizen deliberations. The smaller the size, the more affordable it will be.

TPV = A powerful media event whose design drew readers and viewers into an intimate relationship with the participants, their dramas, and their ultimate success, leading to a vicarious mass experience of the process and discussion about their resulting vision for Canada..

  • The group’s small size (grounded in the familiar 12-person jury model) and broad framing (rather than examining specific proposals) enabled the deliberators to consider a broad range of views in ways that allowed them to be creative in their recommendations.
  • While the facilitation team was highly qualified, essential breakthroughs happened outside of facilitated forums (notably between a few female participants at Saturday’s dinner and in the following morning’s discussion). The results were generated by an emergent synergy between head (the facilitators) and heart (the women).
  • The scientific diversity of the group was highlighted by the half-page bios which enabled media viewers to identify with individual participants with whom they felt some similarity and to feel curiosity and/or enmity towards those they felt were significantly different from themselves. This generated emotional/tribal buy-in for the whole process-as-adventure-story.
  • This personal identification-and-resonance orientation made readers and viewers interested in seeing how the deliberation involved and impacted those participants they considered allies and enemies. This drew the public into the unfolding drama reported on in considerable and well-illustrated daily detail, resulting in millions of people having an unprecedented vicarious experience of a radically different form of engagement. (This incidentally addresses one of deliberative democracy’s ongoing puzzles of how to “scale up” deliberative conversations to cover whole communities or countries.)
  • The council’s full final statement highlights the remarkable level of thoughtfulness that can be generated in such a gathering of highly diverse ordinary people.
  • The multi-media approach involved both magazine and TV, enhancing all the above impacts, and introducing the Canadian populace to an unusual and appealing form of civic engagement.
  • Unfortunately, Maclean’s saw the experiment as an innovative “focus group” event rather than as a democratic innovation worthy of regular practice, thus allowing its impact to ultimately run aground in the storms of mainstream political controversy and machinations. If they’d done it each year, it would periodically have awakened the public to higher levels of collective insight and agency (e.g., as an authentic “We the People”).
  • A smaller event like this is cheaper to convene and carry out than events directly involving hundreds of people. In fact, most forms of citizen deliberation involve 10-40 people, and are thus far cheaper than even Maclean’s.

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I want to invite us all to both appreciate and think about the value, limitations, and potential roles that each of these (and other) approaches could play in a wiser democratic culture. For example:

* Consider the participants: What are the gifts and limitations of convening (a) one or a few dozen intentionally diverse people or (b) hundreds or thousands of diverse people? Consider expense, quality of facilitation and conversation, perceived legitimacy, and any other factor(s) you can think of.

* Consider the conversation: What is the importance of public demonstrations of highly diverse people talking and listening well with each other? What could help that dynamic replicate itself throughout the political culture of a community or nation?

* Consider the information: What are the gifts and limitations of briefings? What are their best forms? To what extent do pre-established framings and information – briefings and expert witnesses – enlighten citizen deliberators and/or restrict their thinking to mainstream perspectives and options? To what extent should deliberators be invited and helped to stretch beyond the options that are given to them? What ways of informing them would help them generate true collective wisdom?

* Consider the results: To what extent should such initiatives (a) shift the thinking of individual participants and/or (b) generate published findings and recommendations about the issue(s) they’ve explored together? What outcome of such an exercise would you most value and why?

* Consider power: How should such citizen councils or convenings relate to existing power structures? Are they best viewed as a source of “public input” for official decision-makers? Should they be set up to advise voters instead of government officials? Should they ever be given authority to make final policy decisions or to engage officially as peers with other decision-making institutions like legislatures or bureaucratic offices?

* Consider the conversational context: I’ve been speaking so far of council-like deliberations which some political thinkers call “mini-publics” because they are designed to engage the kind of diversity that exists in a community or country at large: They are intended to reflect what would happen in that larger public if everyone could be so engaged, with comparable informational and conversational support. However, there are also many other approaches to citizen engagement – cafes, dialogues, circles, “unconferences”, online forums, etc. – that can include far more people in generative interactions. What relationships between these different forms of public engagement could prove most valuable?

I think inquiries like this are vitally important for those of us who think citizen-based conversation, dialogue and deliberation should be a fundamental aspect of democracy. All the methodologies we work with – and there are dozens of them – have gifts and limitations and all can be viewed as potential parts of healthy conversational ecosystems where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and each part is enhanced by its role in the well-designed whole.

What do you think? I’d love to see your responses in the comment section of this blog post


[1] From a wise democracy perspective, the uplifting of “centrist” proposals does not necessarily mean that centrist proposals are any “wiser” than the partisan proposals they replaced, nor that better proposals could not have been achieved through a more creative form of deliberation that helped participants transcend the pro/con partisan framing altogether.

[2] Another reason for big citizen deliberations is the desire to have various demographics represented proportionally to their presence in the whole population. This is important if the results are going to be voted on – that is, if the outcome is going to be influenced by relative power rather than by how the recommendations could impact the longterm well-being of all involved. In wisdom-generating conversations, we seek consensus or near-consensus, since minority views suggest something important is still not being adequately considered and, if ignored, objectors could have reason to fight the results, thus undermining implementation. So in wisdom-generating conversations we seek to include maximum relevant diversity rather than proportional demographic representation. And, as a side benefit, that allows us to work with smaller groups of deliberators, thus reducing costs and enhancing deliberative potential.


Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440

Evoking and engaging the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole

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