Tom Atlee: Citizens Panel Cuts 2.2 Trillion in One Hour

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Tom Atlee

Dear friends,

The 160-person British Columbian Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform took every other weekend for a year to research and reach consensus on the best method for their province's election process.

The fourteen citizens in a Danish Consensus Conference take several weekends over several months to learn about their assigned technical issue and come up with shared recommendations for Parliament and the public.

A 24-person Citizen Initiative Review of the kind now institutionalized in Oregon takes a week to figure out how to best advise voters on a given ballot initiative.

Similar Citizens Juries on all kinds of subjects also take about a week.

The dozen citizens selected for MACLEAN'S magazine's 1991 “People's Verdict” deliberations took just three days to come up with a lengthy vision for Canada's future direction.

A Wisdom Council often takes just two days to come up with a consensus statement sharing their concerns and dreams for their community.

Hundreds or thousands of people in a 21st Century Town Meeting take one day to make decisions on the issue that they have been assigned.

And now ABC News gave five citizens of diverse political beliefs one hour to solve the deficit crisis that Washington can't seem to resolve in months.  This small group's success is the special feature of this e-mailing, so check out ABC's very short video (2:43) about it

So what's the point here?

There are many good arguments about how many people should be included in such citizen panels, how they should be chosen and informed, what policy options (if any) they should be given to consider, what conversational methods should be used, how much time they should be given to come to their conclusions, and so on and so on.

I have very strong opinions about all this — e.g., that the quality of public decisions is enhanced by having a small group deliberate for a number of days (for example, giving one or two dozen people about a week).  I also think the limited policy options the panelists are given — as in the case of the ABC News session — may get in the way of more creative and wise outcomes.  But these are all side issues in this particular message.

What I want to point out here is that no matter what supports and constraints such diverse ordinary citizens are given, they almost always seem to be remarkably capable of coming up with useful insights and recommendations on public issues if the forum they are in has been intelligently designed.

This suggests that perhaps there is more to politics and governance than the wasted energies of battles, bargains, and power plays.  There is a role – I think a profoundly significant role – for public wisdom.  It is worth considering how to best achieve it – and perhaps then how to truly empower it.


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