Report Shows Impact of Deliberation on Energy Issue

NIF Forums Report Suggests Striking Differences in Views of Leaders and Public on Energy Issue, Shows Importance of Deliberation. The American people and their leaders diverge sharply in how they perceive the nature of U.S. energy issues, with significant policy implications unless this gap is bridged, suggests a new analysis of National Issues Forums on the country’s energy use. The study, Public Thinking about the Energy Problem, by Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation, shows that citizens have deeply held concerns about energy-related issues, ranging from high energy costs, dependence on foreign sources, and environmental degradation. Yet citizens tend to compartmentalize these issues, whereas political and business leaders are more likely to see them as interrelated problems that threaten the country’s economic well-being, the study reports. As a result, policymakers seeking meaningful energy-policy reform and citizens—mostly worried about $3-a-gallon gas, the possibility of terrorists controlling energy sources, or the future of the planet—appear fated to talk past one another unless serious, concerted efforts are made to better engage the American people in the assorted issues that comprise the country’s energy challenges. Public Thinking about the Energy Problem, however, shows that, through deliberative forums, the public can come to grips with the complexity and importance of this challenge. That’s what happened during 2007, when thousands of citizens across the country gathered in National Issues Forums to discuss the energy situation. As citizens deliberated, a subtle but important shift took place in the way that forum participants talked about energy. They increasingly saw the nation’s energy problems more holistically and recognized the relationship among high fuel prices, national security, global warming, and the health of the economy. A man from Hempstead, New York, may have put it best when he said: “I think the word we like to use here is multifaceted, because we need to focus short-term [and] long-term . . . [and] get at it from every direction.” Notably, forum participants favored investing in alternative energy and nuclear energy as ways to free the country from rising prices, reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign suppliers, and offer a more environmentally friendly way to meet growing energy needs. They lamented how wasteful and consumption-oriented American life has become. Citizens also expressed support for conservation efforts to reduce energy use—but only if policymakers adopt a sustained leadership role. However, policymakers face a significant hurdle if they want the country to embrace conservation measures or pay for developing new energy sources. Public Thinking about the Energy Problem finds that the public does not trust either the federal government, which they say is too close to energy-producing companies and the auto industry, or energy companies, which they see as being too profit-oriented. Still, citizens believe that the gamut of energy challenges can be addressed. As a California man said: “Americans always respond when the country faces a challenge and, if called on, will do so again.” Public Thinking about the Energy Problem is based on research involving more than 1,200 citizens in deliberative forums in 42 states and the District of Columbia between December 2006 and December 2007. These forums highlight the evolution of people’s thinking from initial understandings and beliefs to deeper, more considered perceptions about the energy issue. Public Thinking about the Energy Problem was presented on Wednesday, March 5, at George Washington University’s Jack Morton Auditorium in Washington, D.C. The program, “Coming to Judgment . . . on The Energy Problem,” was sponsored by the Kettering Foundation, the National Issues Forums Institute, and Public Agenda. John Doble, senior fellow at Public Agenda, presented the nonprofit organization’s research on the NIF energy forums. “Coming to Judgment . . . on The Energy Problem” opened a two-day gathering of distinguished public and professional leaders who explored public progress toward coherent and viable judgment on the energy issue and the rising cost of health care. The two-day program was filmed for nationwide distribution. The panel at the energy gathering included: Carolyn Farrow-Garland, program officer, Kettering Foundation Jay Hakes, Director, Carter Presidential Library Richard Harwood, president, The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation Jean Johnson, executive vice president, Public Agenda Gail Leftwich Kitch, executive director, By The People/ MacNeil/Lehrer Productions Carolyn Lukensmeyer, president, AmericaSpeaks David Mathews, president, Kettering Foundation Steven Mufson, correspondent, Washington Post Congressman Tim Murphy (R-PA) The second half of this program, “Coming to Judgment . . . Paying for Health Care in America,” took place Thursday, March 6, also at George Washington University’s Jack Morton Auditorium. The health care event opened with the preview of a new documentary film, The Cost of Health Care, produced by Milton B. Hoffman Productions. Following the screening, a panel considered how deliberative forums this year might help the nation move toward a judgment on the challenge of addressing the cost of health care. The event also marked the start of a new National Issues Forums series, “Paying for Health Care in America: How Can We Make It More Affordable?” The health care panel included: Georges Benjamin, executive director, American Public Health Association Stuart Butler, vice president, domestic and economic policy studies, Heritage Foundation Carolyn Farrow-Garland, program officer, Kettering Foundation Richard Harwood, president, The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation Jean Johnson, executive vice president, Public Agenda Gail Leftwich Kitch, executive director, By The People/ MacNeil/Lehrer Productions Carolyn Lukensmeyer, president, AmericaSpeaks David Mathews, president, Kettering Foundation Congressman Tim Murphy (R-PA) Frank Sesno, professor of media and public affairs at The George Washington University and a special correspondent at CNN, moderated both events. In attendance were National Issues Forums Institute directors, numerous NIF participants, Washington policymakers, and representatives of the nation’s Presidential Libraries, National Archives and Records Administration.