Starting Points For Deliberative Politics

Hello! Welcome to Inside Public Judgment, a Kettering Foundation blog where we hope to share what we’re learning about how the public comes to judgment on difficult problems. This is not the same thing as public opinion. We are talking instead about public judgment, a termed coined by Dan Yankelovich and explained at length here. Public judgment is of concern to anybody who’s working on a public problem—whether a policymaker or someone working with fellow community members—because, as Yankelovich wrote, any "solution" to such a problem not rooted in public judgment is built on sand.

At KF, we study what it takes to make democracy work as it should. How the public comes to judgment on difficult issues, and in what ways that judgment can be most sound, is fundamental to a well-functioning democracy. We try to think with and learn from the people and organizations throughout the country (and world) who are working on public problems, sharing the questions and insights we’ve gained from more than 30 years of research.

We thought we would share some of these insights via this blog. We hope that by sharing what we’re learning, you may find something that prompts a new question or insight about your own work. We do a great deal of research here at KF, only a fraction of which makes it into our publications and National Issues Forums issues guides. We want to be of use to anyone in the field that can use it.

As a first post, it seems like a good idea to share some of the starting points for KF’s work:

  • One aim of democracy is for citizens to have a stronger hand in controlling their own future.
  • There are a number of “problems of democracy”—things that get in the way of democracy functioning (that is, things that get in the way of people taking control of their future).
  • Politics can be described as a set of practices that can respond to these problems.
  • There are different kinds of problems that face people in communities. Some are technical and can be solved unilaterally (e.g., how to build a new jail), but others are much more difficult because they involve tensions between things held valuable that must be worked through (e.g., what we should do about a growing sense of personal vulnerability in our community).
  • Some of the things we all hold deeply valuable (not the only things) are often in tension: “security,” “fairness,” and “freedom.”
  • We don’t “solve” such problems—we need to negotiate our provisional solutions together, and we do this repeatedly over time. We do this by weighing options for action against what we hold valuable and against likely consequences—this is deliberation.
  • Naming in public terms and framing for deliberation are powerful ways to make it more likely (and possible) for citizens to weigh these things held valuable.
  • We need to weigh options fairly when working through problems in order to reach a sound decision. In practice, this means that we need to consider options that may be uncomfortable.
  • In naming and framing, it is important to start where the public starts—which is rarely the same starting point as experts and institutions.
  • It is important to try to place what citizens can do at the center of naming and framing. Otherwise the decision is about what someone else (an institution, business) should do, not what we should do.

These are just starting points. In future posts, I will try to offer some episodic looks into the ways in which the public is coming to judgment on some very tough issues, including our political system, mental illness, and our budget priorities. I hope you find them useful and would love to know what what you take away from them. You can always reach me via email at brourke@kettering.org.