New England Center for Civic Life

The New England Center for Civic Life is dedicated to the teaching, practice and study of deliberative democracy. The Center's initiatives and research are based on the premise that in order to foster strong communities, based on principles of inclusiveness and equity, individuals must engage in thoughtful and civil dialogue. The Center serves as a resource for students, higher education professionals and community members.

The Center for Civic Life was founded in 1998 on the premise that engaged and deliberative communities are vital for a healthy democracy and for individuals to realize their goal of experiencing rich and fulfilling lives. Through creating and implementing initiatives that uses deliberative practices-whether in the community or in the classroom-the Center creates opportunities for people to become active producers of knowledge and engaged members of their communities.

“Explicit links are made between personal experiences and local, regional, national or global issues ... The Center's programs ask participants to think critically, listen attentively, examine assumptions, value diversity and publicly voice their ideas.”

Deliberative Democracy Frequently Asked Questions

Finding the answers to an ethical dilemma — a "What should we do?" kind of question — can present a significant challenge to any community. This kind of problem is usually persistent and seemingly intractable. Finding productive approaches to such an issue can be complicated by the fact that in our increasingly diverse society, people don't always share the same priorities or values.

Deliberative democracy is based on the idea that individuals must work together to identify issues of common concern and together develop approaches for addressing them. As people work through conflicting choices together, common ground is identified. Common ground is that place where individuals see how their goals are shareable, their values overlap and their interests intersect.

Deliberative democracy is an approach to democracy that puts people at the center and that is more "voice-centered" than "vote-centered." In this conception of democracy, individuals play a more robust role from the local to the global levels. Deliberative democracy is animated by the idea that public deliberation is essential for better and fairer solutions to problems we face in common, for a stronger sense of legitimacy for public processes and institutions and for stronger communities.

Deliberative dialogue is a set of practices for communicating with others and addressing common problems and issues. These practices enable people to talk about difficult issues not only on the basis of knowledge, facts, and professional expertise, but also from the perspective of their deeper concerns, values and personal experience. These practices help participants speak not only as individuals, but as members of a community, not only as groups with competing interests, but also as a community with shared interests, concerns and goals.

Deliberative dialogues are structured conversations of varying lengths and formats with ground rules and a discussion guide that lays out a range of possible approaches to an issue-an issue book or an issue brief-that participants move through with the help of a trained moderator. The ground rules encourage participants to listen to each other, and to get beyond debating and other adversarial ways of communicating. Discussion guides or issue books/briefs frame the issue in a way that helps participants wrestle with choices and tradeoffs associated with making tough public policy decisions. Moderators encourage participants to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of various approaches to an issue that are laid out in the issue book or brief, and to reach for common ground in creating general directions for acting together.

This is what is called doing "choice work." Deliberative dialogues are not debates, nor are they casual or superficial conversations. They involve thinking and reasoning together and working through conflicting possible choices with others in an effort to reach some common understandings and decisions about how to address and take action on an issue.

When citizens engage in deliberative dialogue about an issue and when a community has a habit of asking its members to make choices, the directions that are chosen often are better and they have a legitimacy that simply doesn't exist otherwise. Citizens catch the bug of being engaged and of taking ownership of problems. They talk about what they can do, not what others ought to do.

Deliberative dialogue is a way of making a connection with others in your community that you don't usually interact with and to an issue that can often feel too big to influence or too impersonal to relate to directly. Participants in deliberative dialogue forums are able to see their personal stake in public issues because they are encouraged to draw on their own values, concerns and life experiences as well as on pertinent facts and technical information in addressing those problems. And because they are doing this in the company of others engaged in the same thing, they are able to make stronger connections to others, especially with those whom they might not otherwise associate.

Participants in these dialogues develop a public voice, and they are transformed by that experience. Someone who may seem intellectually unable or inarticulate will begin to show their thoughtfulness and develop their ability to speak with more facility about issues in public. The practice has a way of sensitizing people to the life experiences and interests of people that are significantly different from themselves.

So, as they become more active and powerful participants in their communities, they also become more empathetic. They develop into stronger and more confident individuals while simultaneously becoming more connected to others, and often with people they have not been able to relate to before. When citizens develop these qualities and capacities, the conditions for significant social change are in place. People are enabled to act differently because they have learned to talk and listen to each other differently.

And often something new-some new understanding, some new insight or idea for acting differently to address a problem-gets created as a result, an idea that no one individual or group of individuals had in mind fully going into the dialogue. When that happens-as it almost always does to some degree-one realizes the truth of the idea that we are more together than we are alone.

The kind of action that follows is a rich array of varied and collaborative efforts that reinforce one another. They spring spontaneously and unpredictably from the connections and sense of interdependence that are forged by the practice of dialogue.

Action will be imagined at many levels and from a variety of angles because deliberative dialogue allows for problems to be addressed in their full complexity and authentic thickness.

Deliberative dialogue can be used to deal with a wide variety of issues including education, social security, foreign policy, health care, and the challenges of biotechnology. The particular approach used by the NECCL has been developed and refined over the last 20 years by the Kettering Foundation of Dayton, Ohio and the many people who organize and moderate National Issues Forums (NIF) across the country.

National Issues Forums are deliberative dialogues among adult citizens primarily on issues important in their communities and in the nation.

NIF forum booklets

Recent NIF forum booklets include:

  • Terrorism: What Should We Do Now?
  • Crime and Punishment: Is Justice Being Served?
  • Race and Ethnic Tensions: What Can We Do?
  • A Nice Place to Live: Building Communities and Fighting Sprawl
  • Money & Politics: Who Owns Democracy?
  • Violent Kids: Can We Change the Trend?
  • Public Schools: Are They Making the Grade?
  • Our Nation's Kids: Is Something Wrong?
  • Alcohol: Controlling the Toxic Spill
  • What Goes on the Internet?
  • The Boundaries of Free Speech Environmental Protection: A Challenge Bigger Than All Outdoors
  • How Can We Be Fair: The Future of Affirmative Action
  • Mission Uncertain: Reassessing America's Global Role
  • Contested Values: Tug-of-War in the School Yard
  • Jobs: Preparing the Workforce for the Twenty-first Century
  • Welfare to Work: Who Should We Help and Why?
  • The Environment at Risk: Responding to Growing Dangers
  • Governing America: Our Choices, Our Challenge
  • The Health Care Cost Explosion At Death's Door: What are the Choices?
  • Pocketbook Pressures: Who Benefits from Economic Growth?

locally framed issues

Some examples of locally framed issues include:

  • Improving Race and Ethnic Relations on Campus
  • Gender: What Difference Does It Make?
  • Sex: Making Public Policy for Private Passions
  • Time for Life: Balancing Work, Love and Leisure A World in Common: Talking About What Matters in a Borderless World
  • Pathways to Prosperity: Choosing a Future for Your Community
  • Land Use: When City and Country Clash
  • Women's Health: What are the Problems, What Should We Do?
  • Which Way Forward for Women?
  • Politics for the Twenty-first Century: What Should Be Done on Campus?
  • Preparing for the Future: What Kind of Education Do We Need After High School?

Deliberative dialogues often use a certain kind of discussion guide to help facilitate public deliberation-the making of choices together. Public issues and community problems often present us with a variety of choices for understanding and acting on a problem.

We find that polarization is avoided and productive dialogue and deliberation are encouraged when issues are presented with more than two sides, which is the way citizens actually tend to relate to issues. Issue books or issue briefs frame an issue in terms of three and sometimes four approaches or choices. (Issue briefs are shorter, at-a-glance versions of the choices for deliberation.) Less than three seems to promote debate and more than four gets too unwieldy for group discussion.

These various approaches often conflict with each other and have tension between and within them mirroring the conflicts and tensions that are among and within the participants as well. The issue book or brief provides a brief overview of the problem and presents three or four "choices" or approaches one at a time. Each choice includes a general statement of the problem from the perspective of supporters of that choice, a few of the best arguments for the position, and a list of a few possible actions that could be taken and the likely tradeoffs associated with them.

As participants deliberate on each of the very different and conflicting choices, they try to discover what they value most about each approach, what costs and consequences they think they can live with and what future actions they would more or less support together.

Framing issues and developing issue books or briefs is one thing we do to help along the process of deliberation. It is a difficult and time-consuming process that requires some training and experience, but it has many rewards. When we frame an issue well, we capture the most fundamental concerns that are behind the ways people see a problem. The goal is to make sure everyone can see themselves in the choices or approaches they're asked to consider. When this is accomplished it can encourage citizen participation.

Framing an issue well-for public deliberation-requires "working through" the following steps, ideally with a group which represents the diverse views in a community:

  • Identifying people's concerns
  • Grouping like concerns and perspectives
  • Bringing the problem into focus
  • Recognizing the tensions
  • Outlining the benefits and drawbacks of each approach
  • Listing the actions and trade-offs
  • Testing the framework

Having the choices framed ahead of time by others helps participants in the deliberative dialogue forum get quickly into the meat of an issue and forces them to come to grips with the major tensions and trade-offs associated with it. The choices are not meant to be exhaustive and participants are encouraged to bring up ideas that they feel aren't included in the framework. But a well-developed issue framework should provide the building blocks for the group's work of co-creating a general sense of direction for where they want to go on an issue. The objective in a deliberative dialogue is not to take a vote at the end on which choice individuals prefer.

Rather, the goal is to arrive at a better common understanding of the issue through a thorough examination of the major choices we have in relation to it. Ultimately, participants are trying to discover and create some sense of common ground among them upon which future action might be taken, creating their own approach which may involve parts of some or all of the choices in the framework of the issue book.

Discovering and creating common ground for action is the goal of deliberative dialogue. It is often created out of a discovery of shared concerns and interests among participants, or at least a better understanding and acceptance of why people hold valuable the things they do. Common ground is more than a compromise, where parties agree to disagree and split the difference, and less than consensus, where the objective is to arrive at like-mindedness on an issue.

Common ground, on the other hand, is that place (or those places) where participants can see how their goals are shareable, their values overlap and their interests intersect with those of others. It is the basis for win/win solutions to problems, where all parties in the dialogue have had their concerns and interests heard and accommodated to some degree in the decisions made.

Common ground for action describes the relationship we have when we must take action together, even when we do not fully agree about our convictions. When you think about it, much of our daily decision making is in the area between agreement and disagreement. We usually don't fully agree with or fully disagree with others. We don't often give up our convictions to other people. But we do find ways to work with others-sometimes even if we don't particularly like them. That is the reality that common ground for action attempts to address.

Deliberative dialogue is that form of talking that helps us to address differences of conviction. If we differ in conviction, we can't have consensus and we are very unlikely to compromise. What we do is find over-lapping self-interests that enable us to take action together. That behavior is common ground for action.

New England Center for Civic Life

James (Jed) Donelan
Program Coordinator