Will powerful conversations solve state and local budget crises?

What would happen if professional organizers and facilitators of dialogue and deliberation decisively and publicly demonstrated their capacity to help cities and states solve their biggest problem — collapsing budgets — and then broadly promoted that fact?

What’s the crisis? States, cities and towns across the United States are collapsing under mountains of debt. The mortgage crisis crashed property taxes, the primary source of revenue for cities. Cities are cutting off services from education to police to road repair. Comparable crises are hitting state governments, some of whom are selling off public properties, utilities and service institutions, resulting in a major privatization of the commons. Some states and cities are contemplating bankruptcy, thereby scaring off bond investors. See for fascinating and troubling information on all this.

Advocates and practitioners of processes like Study Circles, Future Search, Dynamic Facilitation, Open Space Technology, and many other approaches have proclaimed the power of whole-system conversations, citizen engagement and stakeholder dialogues to solve the problems of communities. Shouldn’t the power of such conversations be seriously considered by every legislature and administration? Shouldn’t the dialogue-and-deliberation approach be in the news as much as problematic solutions like staff layoffs, union-busting, bankruptcy, and increasing elementary school classroom size to 60 students?

The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, the International Association for Public Participation, the International Association of Facilitators, and the many networks of practitioners would clearly benefit from greater demand for powerful facilitated conversations. Clearly, the budget crisis is an opportunity of epic proportions. But how might it be engaged?

Market experts know the power of strategically offering free products and services as part of a campaign to increase overall sales. Stores offer weekly specials — so-called “loss leaders” — to entice consumers into the store where they will see, want, and buy full-priced products. Workshop leaders offer free teleseminars to attract potential buyers for their full-priced workshops. Software companies and online providers offer free basic services to a mass audience, some of whom then buy full-featured services. Businesses of all kinds provide pro bono services and donate products to charity not only to do good, but to enhance their image and demonstrate the value of their products and services, thereby increasing demand for their profitable offerings.

Is it possible that some network, coalition, or organization of dialogue and deliberation professionals would come together to STRATEGICALLY deliver free or heavily discounted services to 5-10 towns, cities or states for well-done, well-studied, well-documented, and well-publicized work on their budget crises? Ideally such an effort would integrate a number of methodologies and approaches like the ones mentioned above, plus some participatory budgeting approaches, in each town. Such an “integrated program” would use each methodology for what it does best and, hopefully, arrange things so results or participants from one process feed into another process in a way that magnifies the value of both. The outcomes of these model projects — including research results, videos, and testimonials from all parties involved — would then be heavily promoted to public officials, citizens, activist organizations and foundations around the country. (I can imagine such a potent collaboration would be very attractive to foundations, especially if the practitioners are offering their services pro bono or for greatly reduced fees.)

As much as I’d like to see an integrated approach done to benefit the whole field, clearly this opportunity could be grabbed by practitioners of a single method, if they dived in and did it in a strategic way, including intelligent use of the results in marketing their services. If we can’t collaborate on this sort of thing, at least we can compete in ways that benefit the whole society!

The purpose would be to make it CRYSTAL CLEAR that powerful conversations offer governments and citizens ways out of the crisis that are both less expensive and less damaging than most of the other solutions currently being pursued. Powerful conversations would probably also increase the health, vitality and capacity of the communities and governments that use them.

I am a visionary and writer, not an organizer. But I hope this vision inspires or provokes some dialogue and deliberation professionals and/or some funders and/or some activists to take this on. ThePoint http://thepoint.com would be a great resource for pulling it together. I would be happy to be a thinking partner — pro bono, of course — for whoever chooses to actually do it.

Tom Atlee

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