Category Archives: Blog

Digitizing Deliberative Democracy

The smartphones in our pockets can seemingly accomplish anything—even things you didn’t know you needed (like downloading virtual bubble wrap). While various apps and our social media feeds may threaten our productivity and full night’s sleep, they also connect us to people, organizations, and information at our fingertips. However, there’s one key area that hasn’t quite reached its full digital potential: democracy.

While we live in an increasingly interconnected world, we also use the internet to join neighborhood associations, alumni pages, and other community groups. Digital spaces, which can be used on a city to national scale, may have the power to cultivate meaningful local impacts. It’s no secret that trust in the institutions and processes that govern our lives as citizens is in decline. Could digital democracy, that seeks to involve citizens anywhere, anytime, be the fix?

Increasing Accessibility

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The Minnesota Community Assemblies: Red Wing

This June and July the Jefferson Center hosted a Penn State student, Emma Rohan, made possible by Penn State’s Nevins Fellows program. Emma’s academic work focuses on education policy, and she came to us with experience in the field of deliberative democracy. While she was here, we were grateful for Emma’s support in the first of three Minnesota Community Assemblies — Red Wing. Below is Emma’s reflection on the experience.

It’s been an exciting and engaging start to the Minnesota Community Assembly Project (MNCAP)! This project, part of our Democratic Innovation Program, began in Red Wing over the course of three weekends. On Friday, June 9, participants gathered in the Red Wing Ignite event room, brimming with expectation and more than a little caffeine.

Eight full days of deliberation is a lot of work and commitment, but the thirty-six Red Wing citizens were in it for the long haul. Before they got down to business, participants had the chance to introduce themselves to their neighbors by sharing what they are sacrificing in order to be present at the Citizens Assembly. Taking care of children, enjoying free weekends with family, and going to work are just a few of the activities that participants agreed to forgo for this eight-day project, acknowledging that engaging in citizen-led democracy sometimes involves personal sacrifice.

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Leading the Way: Pittsburgh, PA

As we explore exciting cases of citizen engagement initiatives across the country, our first installment of this series brings us to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

It is no coincidence that people tend to trust local government at much higher levels than federal government. One likely contributor to this prevailing attitude is the proximity of local public officials to their constituents—one can often more easily contact their City Councilmember, Mayor, or City Administrator than their Congressperson—supports relationships built on accountability and responsiveness. On the state and federal levels, legislators hammer out policy details far removed from their constituents and largely rely on their phone calls and emails to provide any feedback on proposed legislation. In contrast, many cities currently use citizen engagement practices to gather feedback for policy development, and in-person events tend to be more frequent. Given these difference in engagement dynamics, it’s both possible and practical to utilize deliberation in local policy development.

One city stands out in its efforts to increase public deliberation and citizen participation: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Through its partnership with Carnegie Mellon University’s Program for Deliberative Democracy, the City of Pittsburgh has developed a tool for city government to use as a guide for developing deliberative, citizen-driven engagement programming. Part of Mayor William Peduto’s campaign platform was an increase of citizen engagement and, as mayor, Peduto supported the recommendation to make Pittsburgh a center for deliberative democracy. As a result of this commitment, the city has used Deliberative Forums for the selection of a new Chief of Police and to set goals for its capital budget. Using the lessons learned from the experience of holding Deliberative Forums, the city partnered with the Art of Democracy to craft “A Handbook for Deliberative Community Forums,” intended to provide other cities with best practices and recommendations for their own future citizen engagement processes.

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Toward A “Greater” Minnesota Climate Policy

Our work on the Rural Climate Dialogues began nearly four years ago, and continues to this day. Over the course of the program, we have heard repeatedly the need in Greater Minnesota for support from metro-based state agencies and organizations, and in September we responded to this call.

Eighteen Citizen Jurors and leaders from the three Dialgogue communities were selected to meet from September 8-9 with one another and representatives from state agencies. Over the two days, these representatives of rural Minnesota worked to uncover the shared priorities, actions, and barriers among their very different communities, and worked with the Center for Rural Strategies to tease out the personal stories underpinning their concerns about the changes rural Minnesota’s climate is experiencing. The stunning diversity of experience and perspective on climate issues the participants represented was unparalleled for traditional outreach efforts by agency staff, who rarely have such an opportunity to hear from rural residents.

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