I am asked to talk about what I think are some of the most important elements of public deliberation to different groups from time to time. Public deliberation is just one way of describing people working together to weigh options about what we should do about a difficult shared problem.
One aspect of this involves the question: What problem should we talk about? This shows up in different ways. For instance, groups that seek to work in civic engagement often have a problem on their minds that they believe the community must address. “How will we get people to come to such meetings?” they may wonder. Or in other cases a group thinking about fostering public dialogue has the sense that there is something that is bothering people throughout the community, but aren’t sure exactly what it is. “What do people think the problem is?” such groups may wonder.
These are all different ways of talking about naming. By that term, when applying it to public deliberation, I simply mean: What is the problem that we all agree we must talk about? If I want people to come to my meeting, I need to present a problem that everyone agrees is important to discuss.
But for groups trying to foster public deliberation, it doesn’t stop there. Not all such “shared problems” are actually suited to public deliberation. Why? Deliberating together is necessary for problems where collective (complementary) action is required in order to move forward. This isn’t the case for all problems — some problems, while widely seen as important, can be solved by one or two agencies or organizations, or the solution is clear and it is technical.
(Note that these aren’t the only important dimensions, but they are high on the list. Public deliberation is called for where the nature of the problem is in dispute, where solutions involve tensions between things held commonly valuable, and where any solution necessarily involves multiple actors. Some people refer to such problems as “wicked” problems.)
I recently began thinking about different ways to convey the nature of problems that are suited to public deliberation, and I had an insight that I could draw a picture of those two different dimensions. I scrawled this down on a scrap of paper, but more recently I’ve tried to make it clearer. Below is what I came up with. Click it to see it larger and more legibly.
Notice that I have notionally spread out different kinds of “shared problems” to show how it works. You might dispute my placement. It’s really just illustrative — my point is that there is an important difference between the issue of “crime” and “pedestrian safety” in the minds of most people. Indeed, each dimension on the graph represents the broadly held sense in the community about the problem. (So it isn’t precise and isn’t meant to be.)
Problems toward the upper right on these scales are more likely to require public deliberation — so groups seeking to support such public work will likely be best served by focusing on such problems.
What this means practically is that a group may think that the community needs to talk about, say, healthy school lunches. But it is easy to imagine that among community members there won’t be broad agreement that we MUST deal with this issue, nor broad agreement that working together is necessary to tackle it. During concern gathering where the group asks community members what concerns them about the issue, they may hear people talk about food deserts, difficulties in finding healthy food that families experience who are struggling, and worries that poor health is creating problems more broadly in the community. In listening carefully to such concerns, the organizing group may come to the conclusion that people in the community are more willing to believe that “obesity” is a problem we ought to or must deal with, and that progress will take many different people.
In a learning exchange where I recently discussed this way of looking at problems, a number of people suggested different dimensions, or making it three-dimensional. Those are valid ideas and I think the concept is worth playing with.