Observations from a Hub of Local Democracy in Colorado

When Martín Carcasson first came to the Kettering Foundation, he had a little group of students and one big idea behind him: help communities solve problems while exposing students to community issues. Carcasson is an associate professor of communication studies at Colorado State University (CSU) and founding director of the CSU Center for Public Deliberation (CPD). In the center’s terms, his work is “Dedicated to enhancing local democracy through improved public communication and community problem solving.” What this means is the center is a unique resource in Northern Colorado. Now seven years old, the center has trained hundreds of students and community members in facilitation, community issue analysis, and public meeting engagement and hosted many of those meetings. Jack Becker: The Colorado State University Center for Public Deliberation has become quite the resource for Colorado. Can you tell us a little bit about what exactly the center does, and how? Martín Carcasson: The focus is primarily on the community level, which we describe as Northern Colorado, or perhaps more accurately Larimer County. As we have matured, I would say that we run projects in the community, of which convening public forums is a key aspect. We began as an organization that primarily ran meetings, but a lot of the work we do now is focused on before or after the meetings themselves. We essentially provide a set of services tied to deliberative engagement, including analyzing issues from an impartial, deliberative perspective, to working to identify and connect a broad range of stakeholders to the issue, to facilitating productive conversations among those stakeholders, to writing reports on those meetings, and finally to helping groups move towards actions. The cycle of deliberative inquiry, which we developed to explain the work of the CPD, lays out all the skills/services we provide to the community. We do this work by relying on a group of students who apply to a special “student associate program” and earn class credit while being trained. They take a 3 hour course their first semester, then return for at least one hour of practicum their second semester. Practicum is basically experiential learning; each credit hour equals 40 clock hours of work for the CPD. Many students end up returning for additional semesters for more practicum credit or simply volunteering. We’ve also done a series of community workshops to introduce community members to the work of the CPD, and from that have a group of around five community associates that help with events at times. We also do some statewide work, especially this year as I’ve been doing some work with CSU Extension. I trained a group of 14 extension agents from across the state primarily through a two-day workshop in November 2012 and then offered online webinars periodically. The CPD then ran some projects for CSU Extension, running an event in Jefferson County in the Denver area and in the mountains in Steamboat Springs this fall. After these experiences, however, we decided to focus more locally rather than trying to be more of a statewide resource as a center. I still do a lot of work statewide, especially through some consulting I do with the Colorado Association of School Boards. In the most recent release of Connections, David Mathews writes, “Too often, people are on the sidelines of the political system. They don’t make any choices, or they choose by not choosing at all.” In Colorado, and particularly in Northern Colorado, you’ve been able to develop a strong base of citizens who want to get involved. Why do citizens get involved in these public meetings, and why do they come back? I think people are on the sidelines because most current processes don’t really have a decent role for them. Most public processes are extremely limiting, like voting, citizen commenting time during city council or school boards or public hearings, signing petitions, writing letters to the editor, etc., and basically cater to people with set opinions. Most public processes are also too late in the process. People get a chance to respond to a decision, or maybe weigh in right before a decision is made, but rarely help define the problem, come up with potential responses, or really struggle with the inherent tensions. As a result, most public engagement is primarily complaining because people see things too narrowly. The good news, which I’ve learned from the CPD experience, is that the cynicism and polarization of the public is pretty thin. I think people are starved for genuine conversation. If you give them an alternative, they seem to latch on and enjoy it and realize it’s simply a better product than what they’ve been getting. They come back because they know it’s important. You have said that public problems are often “misdiagnosed.” In particular, you have argued that universities are focusing on developing the wrong skill sets for students. Can you say a little more about this? The primary theory behind the CPD is that most public problems are wicked problems that are marked by competing underlying values that are in tension and need to be addressed. Universities primarily teach models of problem solving that are either tied to expertise, such as seeking a technical answer to a problem, or primarily focus on activism, such as building a coalition to affect change. Neither of these models works well because both don’t see problems as wicked problems, thus the misdiagnosis. Experts see problems as technical problems, and activists see problems as primarily people problems, such as seeing things as good versus evil.  One way to think of wicked problems is that the problem is what is wicked, not the people. You’ve introduced an additional framework for thinking about problems as adversarial, expert, and deliberative and argue that the first two are often overemphasized, while deliberative engagement is overlooked or, at least, not given the adequate resources and attention to build more deliberative capacity. Your particular work has stressed the deliberative, but you also stress the importance that each contributes to addressing public problems. Why do you think this is so? When are these three modes of work at their best and how do they work together? I think expert and adversarial processes are overemphasized because they are much more natural and supported by existing institutions. As I was saying before, universities were built on the expert model, which provides major capacity. The two party political system relies on adversarial politics, and social movements fit well into that model. The Internet is now a great tool for adversarial politics, making it so easy for like-minded people to gather and grow. Many refer to this as “echo chamber” because people only hear voices like their own. The deliberative model is typically under-resourced because it requires what I’ve called “passionate impartiality,” which is simply in low supply. Too few people are willing to take an impartial view and focus on process. This is one of the reasons I think the centers for public life, and as I’ve argued, communication departments in particular, can be such critical institutions for communities. They can provide a critically needed resource. When I started examining the adversarial, expert, deliberative typology, I usually saw the first two as “bad” and deliberative as “good.” I’ve realized that all three are necessary. I actually rely heavily on the other two to do my work, and at its best, the deliberative perspective can bring out the best in the other two. In a way, the deliberative perspective works to focus on the positive aspects of both while undoing or overcoming the limits and negative consequences of each. Adversarial processes can provide important challenges to the status quo or dominant perspectives and help provide a wide range of perspectives. Adversarial processes also have more of a focus on moving to action and keeping people motivated. Expert processes help infuse decision making with high quality data and reality. You’ve long argued that universities are critical “hubs” of democracy. The CPD is certainly a powerful demonstration of that argument. Another way to conceptualize democracy’s hubs is as civic infrastructure, a topic that’s much talked about these days. When I talked with Sandy Heierbacher, director of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation Director, she conceptualized civic infrastructure as “the underlying systems and structures that enable people to come together to address their challenges effectively.” Thinking along those lines, how do you connect the work that the CPD is doing to the larger civic infrastructure in Colorado? In an article I wrote for Kettering on democracy’s hubs, I argued that communities need capacity for passionate impartiality to take on wicked problems, and that while universities are not really a good fit, they are likely the best shot communities have. The win-win-win-win of the CPD is the reason why. Students win by gaining skills, universities win by getting good publicity for helping the community, professors like me win because we get to study real deliberation and provide innovative teaching, and finally the communities win because they get the increased capacity for little or no cost. I very much agree centers like the CPD are key parts of civic infrastructure. I think organizations like United Way, League of Women Voters, and community foundations can also provide passionate impartial infrastructure, but doing the work well takes so much time and so many different skills, I think it is hard to expect them to be able to do it on their own. Here again is where organizations like the CPD can come in. We work closely with those organizations, providing them with the additional capacity to be able to do this sort of work. We have also worked closely with several citizen boards and commissions, which, like these other organizations, they care about community, that is, they are passionate, and are impartial, but don’t have the time, resources, or skills. We compliment them well, and with the students and with me fashioning almost full time hours out of this work, we have more and more time to try to do it right. Jack Becker is a former research assistant at the Kettering Foundation and currently a graduate student at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He can be reached at jackabecker@gmail.com.