Tom Atlee “public wisdom” conference call 1/17/2012

I’ll be doing an online dialogue in the 2-hour National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation Confab Call on Tuesday, January 17th at 2pm Eastern (11am Pacific). Ben Roberts, a principal in both weDialogue and Occupy Café, will be facilitating the call on the Maestro conference call platform (which enables questions, voting, breakout groups, etc.). To participate, register at

We’ll be talking about some of the concepts I’m exploring in my book “Empowering Public Wisdom: A Practical Vision of Citizen-Led Politics” (currently in final edits). There’s a brief writeup about the book, below. You can also view a couple of the draft chapters at and
(Online comments have been closed, but you can write me if you would like to share your thoughts about the chapters.)

In the Confab Call I will spend 5 or 10 minutes describing the thesis of my book. Then we’ll open up for Q&A and dialogue to explore topics related to the book’s theme of “empowering public wisdom”. These topics could include:

* Contrasting open forums for citizen participation with randomly selected citizen panels. Why would we choose to do one or the other?

* When convening “mini-publics” (panels of randomly selected citizens), what is involved in their being representative of the larger community – or being SEEN to be representative, and trusted as a legitimate voice?

* When it comes to crafting public policy, what are the trade-offs (and divisions of labor) involved in (a) elected representatives being fully responsible for it, (b) having deliberative citizen bodies advise officials, (c) having citizens directly vote on policy and (d) giving deliberative citizen panels real power to directly shape policy?

* What is gained and lost in the choice between online and face-to-face citizen engagements? Do conference calls and video conferencing have a potential role to play in formal citizen deliberations? Is it actually possible to have quality online deliberation among ordinary citizens – especially if they are randomly selected? What do we need to know and do in order to achieve high quality online deliberation?

* How do we feel about the diverse approaches to citizen participation which variously seek to do the following:
– to inform citizens to make better decisions as voters
– to allow citizens to voice their opinions as input for decision-makers
– to enable citizens to shift their opinions in interactions with others
– to generate public judgment
– to generate public wisdom
– to empower the people to make policy that affects their lives
– to help communities (of place, of interest) self-organize

I expect our conference call dialogue will be a relaxed and meandering “living room conversation” – including at least one period for breakout conversations. I would love to hear what you have to say about topics like this – and am open to other topics you might like to raise. As far as I’m concerned, we don’t have to cover any particular ground or arrive at any particular conclusions.

I hope to “see you there” and, regardless, I wish you the best at the start of what promises to be a very interesting year, in so many ways!



Here’s a bit more about my book, which is due to be published in early August 2012:

Our existing democratic-republican political system is clearly unable to deal with twenty-first-century challenges. We need more wisdom in our public policies, our public budgets, and our public conversations – and we need it soon. This book, Empowering Public Wisdom, suggests that it is both vital and possible to generate authentic collective wisdom through the conversations of ordinary citizens.

“Public wisdom” results when the public – as a whole or in randomly selected “mini-publics” – engages in learning about, reflecting on, and discussing public affairs in ways that take into account what needs to be taken into account to decide what will produce long term, inclusive benefits (that’s the definition of “wisdom” I’m using in this book).

The two chapters posted online (see the links above) describe that kind of randomly selected mini-public – the various forms of temporary, well-informed “citizen deliberative councils.” They tell us about the hundreds of these councils that have been held around the world and how they have been used. They tell us about new forms of councils that could be developed and new ways they could be used – including organizing them at grassroots levels and through using the Internet.

These councils provide a way to readily and affordably generate a legitimate, authentic, coherent, and wise voice of “we, the people” – a voice for “the general welfare” that is not currently present in our political discourse. It moves us beyond partisanship to a place of collective responsibility for our shared destiny. It reclaims the idea of “we, the people” as a coherent political force that integrates the diversity of the whole citizenry rather than a catchphrase used by one more special-interest group that attempts to speak for “the people” but doesn’t really embrace our full range of perspectives and needs.

Other chapters in the book discuss (a) the role of power – especially how to balance power in a democracy and move from power-over to power-with; (b) the need to rein in corporate and financial domination of elections and government; (c) the strengths and limitations of both representative and direct democracy; (d) the polarization of our current political life and strategies to creatively move beyond it without dishonorable compromises and deals; (e) dozens of high quality conversational processes for mass public participation; and (f) how the power of public wisdom might actually be institutionalized in our government.

This is a radically new way to think about democracy. It embraces diversity, engages participation, and addresses conflicts and ignorance in profoundly different ways than we are used to hearing in bars, on talk shows, in public hearings, and within the halls of government. This is not a kind of direct democracy, where everyone votes on everything. Its bottom line is not just “participation” or “winning” but collective wisdom. Empowering Public Wisdom offers practical approaches for achieving exactly that.

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