Dialogue With Boundaries

It is often assumed that dialogue should be an open forum in which everyone gets to speak their mind.  Not  everyone though is comfortable with this sort of dialogue and thus fail to bring their concerns to the table.  Not all who do come to the table are informed or interested in learning.  Yet, the myriad and pressing problems we face today require public dialogue that is both informed and inclusive, and that builds the understanding needed to create a broad-based political will to change.

We might make more progress by creating more dialogues with boundaries  –  that is, dialogues, whether in person or online, that are focused by mutual understanding and acceptance as to their purpose, moderated for civility, and organized into discernible threads that help new ideas emerge in coherent ways.

How do we create an inclusive dialogue on major policy issues and still have boundaries? One way might be to have multiple dialogues at different levels that are networked.  People enter dialogues at many different levels. The Office of Science and Technology Policy has recently started a blog that is working to develop a national conversation on how we approach policies, and other groups like The Right Question Project have started dialogues that help citizens learn basic skills needed to participate in everyday democracy.  Citizens have also been encouraged to host house parties to discuss health care and other issues. How can such efforts be linked? How do we build and share knowledge? What would help us to better understand the intersections between issues? To what extent does blog technology allow us to have the sorts of dialogues that can lead to real and productive policy changes, and what are its limits?  One of our commentators, commenting on the post below titled “what makes discussion meaningful or productive” suggested fielding panels of speakers on key topics of interest to help citizens become more informed about issues.  Could we build “information gateways” – attendance at an event, reviewing written materials, or viewing on-line videos — for participation in a moderated blog?  Are there other approaches we should be taking to gather our resources and make the best decisions possible?

Here is a quote to consider from Woodrow Wilson:

I not only use all the brains I have, but all the brains I can borrow.

Our primary question is, how can we best use all of our brains?

Transparency, Open Government, and Education

On January 21, 2009 President Obama issued a memorandum on “Transparency and Open Government” which was published in the Federal Register on January 26, 2009, Vol. 74, No. 15, p. 4685.   There he stated that his administration would work to create “an unprecedented level of openness in Government” and work to “establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration” with the goal of strengthening our democracy.  Different paragraphs in the memo state that “government should be transparent” in order to promote accountability; “government should be participatory” in order to improve the quality of its decisions; and that”government should be collaborative” in order to actively engage Americans in the work of their government.  These goals are well aligned with the ideals of our democracy.  Yet they may assume an intellectual infrastructure that is not yet in place.  A column in the December 24 & 31, 2007 New Yorker titled “Twilight of the Books” cited a Department of Education study on literacy that indicated that the proportion of adults capable of comparing viewpoints in two editorials at 13%.  A 2005 study by the American Bar Association indicated that only 55% of adults surveyed could name the three branches of government. Other studies have indicated that many Americans lack the literacy needed to handle complex, real-life tasks like reviewing credit card offers and other financial instruments.

Participatory engagement would suggest knowing the branches of government and their functions, and understanding the different proposals made.  Although engaging more Americans in the work of government is a laudable goal, it is one that will require more than posting data online and otherwise making text available.  We also need to equip citizens for informed dialogues in which they can learn from and inform each other, as well as provide input to their elected officials.  This will require active effort to build skills and a range of media.  If done well it has the potential to revitalize public involvement.  Suggestions for engaging the public made elsewhere on this blog have included public debates and other kinds of forums.  How do we best equip the public for a participatory role in modern government? Your suggestions are welcome.

Education, Participation, and Responsibility

Jefferson once wrote that we must “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”  In supporting public education he spoke of the need to train people to be the guardians of their own liberty.  A recent Case foundation report, Citizens at the Center, indicates that the average American is not equipped with the knowledge, literacy, and analytical skills needed to assess the issues that we face today.  Yet, without the participation of these citizens, our solutions will be ill informed and incomplete.  How do we infuse Americans with the skills needed to meaningfully contribute to dialogue?  What role can our system of education play in building this dialogue and promoting ongoing engagement?  Who has the responsibility to ensure citizen engagement?  Who benefits when citizens don’t have the skills to engage in dialogue?

What is a wise decision?

Nadler and Chandler, writing in their 2004 book “Smart Questions,” set forth a ‘data to wisdom’ continuum, with “raw data” — information whose validity depends on the methods of collection and context,– being the least valuable information, and “wisdom” being the highest level of information.  From “raw data”, the continuum proceeds through “real information” (raw data placed in context), to “knowledge” (digested information), to “understanding” (insight into how knowledge integrates into the big picture and how it might be used by others) to “wisdom.” Wisdom is defined as “the ability to put understanding to use” or the “transformation of understanding into concrete action”.  Both understanding and wisdom require an integration of information with values and beliefs, and are particularly needed as circumstances change.  Daniel Yankelovich, writing in “The Magic of Dialogue” wrote that “An ideal use of dialogue is to reconcile conflicting systems of social values” and that dialogue can help to “focus on our imaginations on what kind of society we really want.”  As he points out, such dialogues occur in a framework of mutual respect and help build both trust and a sense of community. Our country faces a number of highly complex issues that will require many wise decisions along the way if we are to effectively work our way through them.  Citizens have much to contribute to that wisdom. How can we engage in more effective dialogue as we seek to find our way forward?