By Janet Harris, Robert C. Richards, Jr., James Hopper, Chul Hyun Park, Carder Hawkins, Claire Hollenbeck, and Stefanie Vestal
Too often, citizens’ input during discussions of public matters has no policy impact. In Arkansas, an innovative civil-society organization aims to change that pattern. The Winthrop Rockefeller Institute offers a distinctive method to increase citizen participation in policy proposals through collaborative problem-solving and respectful dialogue. This method is called the “Rockefeller Ethic,” and it is used to further the Institute’s mission of continuing Winthrop Rockefeller’s collaborative approach to creating transformational change. By designing a participatory process that includes citizen input alongside that of policymakers and public officials, the Institute increases the likelihood that citizens’ ideas will be included in policy decisions.
This article explains the Rockefeller Ethic and the Institute’s approach to linking citizen involvement to policymaking through case studies of the Institute’s public-engagement efforts.
The Participation-Policy Disconnect
Scholars such as John Gastil, Kimmo Grönlund, and colleagues have found that structured citizen participation usually has little or no effect on policy. In their article in the journal Politics and Society, Gastil and Robert Richards explain that even in direct-democratic elections, where citizens regularly influence policy, the quality of citizens’ participation is generally low, due to inadequate information and insufficient opportunities for citizen deliberation.
In Arkansas, evidence concerning public participation and its policy impact is sobering. Arkansas data from the U.S. Census Bureau reveal low and declining levels of nonpolitical civic participation such as talking with neighbors and volunteering compared to other Southern states and the nation. Further, though the Participedia project has documented 25 Arkansas citizen-participation events, few have had policy consequences.
Moreover, relatively few Arkansans participate in elections. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 65 percent of adult Arkansas citizens, on average, registered to vote in the last three presidential elections, dropping to 61 percent in off-year elections, rates five to six percent below the national average. Adjusting voter-turnout figures by registration rates, only 43 percent of eligible Arkansans, on average, voted in the last three presidential elections, and 31 percent in off-year elections.
Thus, Arkansas has relatively subdued and falling levels of civic participation, mostly with no direct connection to governance and only a small share of residents’ participating in processes that clearly affect policy. To address this gap between participation and policy, the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute (the “Institute”) has taken action. The Institute has forged a distinctive approach to citizen engagement that links high-quality citizen deliberation to formal state- and local-government policy processes. Further, the Institute’s approach creates opportunities for societal change outside the policy and governance process. This approach rests on the values and insights of the Institute’s namesake, Winthrop Rockefeller, Arkansas’s governor from 1967 to 1971.
Winthrop Rockefeller’s Legacy
In Governor Winthrop Rockefeller’s farewell address to Arkansans in 1971, he issued a challenge for civic engagement: “Every citizen has a duty to be informed, to be thoughtfully concerned, and to participate in the search for solutions. Only by working together can we make the contribution necessary for building the world we all yearn for.”
Having experienced a recalcitrant legislature during his administration, Rockefeller used his own example of working across political divides as a model for collaborative problem-solving. Rockefeller once said, “I hope that I will never reach a time when I will not be able to work with people whom I disagree with if we can reach a common goal by doing so.”
Rockefeller’s core principles—which the Institute calls the Rockefeller Ethic—and the Institute’s method of linking citizen participation to formal governance and documenting the collective wisdom of group collaboration, reflect the lessons of Rockefeller’s life and his desire to create transformational change through collaboration.
According to historian John Kirk, the Rockefeller Ethic’s principles arose largely from Rockefeller’s experiences of group problem-solving and decision-making in four settings: the Texas oil fields, the U.S. Army, the board of directors of a major civil rights organization, and Rockefeller’s adopted home state of Arkansas. Young Rockefeller, having left college early and eager to learn the family business from the ground up, worked as a roustabout in teams of laborers in the Texas oil patch. When the Second World War broke out, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he fought in infantry regiments in the Pacific. After the war, while pursuing a new career as a cattle farmer in Arkansas, Rockefeller found that talking with neighbors and employees was crucial to solving practical problems involved in running a farm. In the oil fields of Texas, the battlefields of the Pacific, and the open fields of the Arkansas River Valley, Rockefeller experienced the benefits of group problem-solving and decision-making, in which people from all walks of life, with diverse worldviews and experiences, pooled their insights to achieve shared objectives. Moreover, Rockefeller served on the board of the National Urban League, a civil-rights organization. There, Rockefeller observed how citizens’ collective action could generate power leading to constructive social change.
Since Rockefeller’s death, the Institute has distilled his problem-solving principles into the Rockefeller Ethic, which has become the bedrock of the Institute’s approach to fostering constructive political discussion and reform in Arkansas. The Institute has also taken lessons Rockefeller drew from his life experiences and woven them into an approach to policy intervention based on directly tying meaningful citizen engagement to state and local policy processes. In the following sections, we explain the Rockefeller Ethic and set out the Institute’s approach to connecting citizen involvement to policymaking.
The Rockefeller Ethic
Three values lie at the heart of the Rockefeller Ethic: collaborative problem-solving, respectful dialogue, and diversity of opinion. Each value contributes to the transformational change that was the ultimate aim of Rockefeller’s life and work.
An advocate of collective decision-making, Rockefeller maintained that when people with shared goals come together, they had the power to create stronger solutions with a larger impact. Rockefeller encouraged citizens to act in this way and maintained that only by issuing challenges to established governance structures could actionable alternatives be identified. Collaboration was a necessity for Rockefeller, the first Arkansas Republican governor since Reconstruction facing an almost exclusively Democratic legislature.
Yet gathering to talk was not enough, in Rockefeller’s view. In order for collaborative discussion to work, it had to be conducted in the right way. Rockefeller emphasized that people engaged in a challenging group discussion needed to work towards mutual understanding, even and especially across differences of opinion. When mutual understanding shapes the conversation, participants are more likely to grasp where others are coming from so that they can focus on solving problems and creating new opportunities together. Rockefeller saw the value of respectful dialogue as forming a sturdy foundation on which the constructive sharing of ideas could occur, even amidst strong disagreement. For example, Rockefeller consistently invited legislators to his farm for discussion of his policy ideas, seeking input and consensus from those on the opposite side of the political aisle.
Third, Rockefeller believed that to solve problems, create opportunities, and bring about transformational change, a diversity of opinion among participants was necessary, as the strength of our solutions depends on our differences. Echoing theorists such as Hélène Landemore, who laud diverse perspectives in democratic problem-solving, Rockefeller held that collaboration among people with contrasting values, viewpoints, and experiences yields better solutions with more enduring impact. He cited his belief in the value of competing viewpoints when he decided to run for office as a Republican in a one-party controlled political system. “With no alternatives, there are no challenges, and with no challenges, there is no change,” he declared. “With no change, there is stagnation.”
Connecting Participation to Policymaking
As a director of the National Urban League, Rockefeller witnessed how change could arise when citizens’ involvement was tethered to formal advocacy within government culminated in the passage of the U.S. Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Since 2016, Janet Harris, now the Executive Director/CEO of the Institute, has translated Rockefeller’s insights from his writings about his life experience and his achievements as governor, philanthropist, and business leader into designs for public-engagement processes aimed at influencing policy and enabling collective decision-making. With 20 years of experience in leadership in Arkansas state government, Harris has deep knowledge of formal policymaking, along with some of the challenges of traditional civic-engagement channels. Moreover, while obtaining a Master of Public Administration degree, Harris acquired expertise in dialogue, deliberation, and the design of citizen-engagement processes. She became convinced of the value that well-structured citizen input could contribute to policymaking.
Starting in 2017, Harris and her team at the Institute began to implement this approach to participatory impact, which puts the Rockefeller Ethic into practice by blending multiple methods of dialogue and deliberation. For example, Harris integrated elements of Essential Partners’ Reflective Structured Dialogue method into the design of discussion procedures. In addition, Harris combined several other discussion and decision-making techniques—from roundtable discussions to focus groups and plenary sessions—in various ways. Harris also incorporated Sam Kaner’s “gradients of agreement” scale of response options to help participants express a range of opinions about policy alternatives, making it easier to identify common ground.
Complementing these methods in the Institute’s approach is the inclusion of ordinary citizens, current and former public officials, subject-matter experts, and nonprofit and business leaders. While experts share knowledge rooted in research, past and present government personnel shape policy ideas that emerge during deliberation in order to increase their viability. For example, previous and serving officeholders can share insights about proposals’ political feasibility within the legislature or executive agencies, or counsel the deliberating group about technical requirements of legislative or administrative procedure. In addition, leaders in business and the nonprofit sector can enhance the quality of proposals by advising on their likely real-world impact.
How does this approach work in practice? Four case studies illustrate.
Dicamba Task Force
According to the University of Arkansas, agriculture is Arkansas’s largest industry, contributing $19 billion annually to the state’s economy, so addressing major challenges to the farming community is a policy priority in Arkansas. In 2016 and 2017 such a challenge was presented by dicamba, an herbicide used by soybean farmers to eradicate invasive weeds. In Arkansas, dicamba was found to drift and severely damage other crops. Boyce Upholt and other journalists reported that many farmers incurred substantial losses. Those losses led to sometimes violent conflict, between farmers whose crops had been damaged by dicamba and farmers who used dicamba, in which at least one farmer died.
To quell the violence, then-Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson appointed a Dicamba Task Force consisting of a diverse group of affected farmers, as well as scientific experts— agricultural researchers and representatives of herbicide manufacturers—and state agricultural officials. As Heather Southard and Bailey Fohr have explained in their case study of the task force, the secretary of agriculture commissioned the Institute to design and facilitate a dialogue process to help task-force members determine the current uses of dicamba, the consequences of the conflict to their communities, and ways to mitigate those effects. The task force faced formidable challenges: the conflict had grown bitter and emotional, some scientific evidence was ambiguous, and the governor sought a decision within days.
To encourage constructive discussion, the Institute designed a two-day structured process governed by norms of respectful dialogue and guided by trained facilitators. Task-force members engaged in a series of deliberative roundtable discussions leading to phases of voting in which consensus was encouraged by allowing participants to use Kaner’s four-point scale to express the strength of their approval of policy options, rather than a binary choice. After two days of dialogue and voting, the task force agreed on three policy recommendations, which afterwards were implemented by the state. The result was a late season ban on dicamba use and policy changes to prevent similar controversies. Although some litigation and disagreement continued after the state’s actions, the task force’s policies seemed to work: crop losses greatly diminished, and the conflict became nonviolent and manageable.
The Institute subsequently launched three citizen-engagement projects on issues that were among Winthrop Rockefeller’s policy priorities and remain salient to Arkansans today: incarceration, economic development, and healthcare.
Incarceration, Recidivism, Reentry, and Reunification (iR3)
Incarceration powerfully affects Arkansas residents, whose incarceration rate, reports the Bureau of Justice Statistics, exceeds the national rate by 55 percent. Moreover, imprisonment and its consequences disproportionately affect Black Arkansans, who make up two-fifths of state prisoners but only 16 percent of Arkansas’s population. What’s more, Arkansas’s recidivism rate tops 50 percent, according to the Arkansas Department of Corrections.
To address these challenges, the Institute designed the Incarceration: Recidivism, Reentry, and Reunification (iR3) project, aimed at breaking the cycle of recidivism, supporting reentry, and improving the justice system in Arkansas. In iR3, 50 diverse participants from Arkansas’s corrections ecosystem (among them corrections officials, formerly incarcerated citizens and their families, legislators, judicial-branch personnel, lawyers, and community leaders) participated for 17 months in facilitated focus groups and conference-style meetings as well as three working groups. Moreover, a committee of Arkansas judges advised the working group charged with drafting policy recommendations. Outcomes include production of an original magazine and podcast dedicated to telling stories of successful reentry, a burgeoning network to centralize and share reentry resources, and a $1 million grant from the Arkansas Attorney General to create a playbook of best practices for diversionary programs that can be shared by judges across the state. As of spring 2023, policy recommendations remained under development.
Conway Area Chamber of Commerce - Vision 2035
The City of Conway, Arkansas and the Conway Area Chamber found themselves in the middle of a strategic-planning process when the pandemic struck in 2020 and had to decide how to proceed with their effort while effectively involving citizens. “I was really conflicted,” chamber leader Jamie Gates said of the decision to move forward with the strategic plan during a pandemic. “I didn’t know if it was appropriate. I was worried about participation.” The chamber engaged the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute with its Rockefeller Ethic to facilitate 57 Zoom meetings with over 200 citizens to help envision the city’s future in 14 key growth areas including economic development, arts, education, and public safety. “We had more than 1,000 hours of professionally facilitated, intentional, goal-setting conversations about our community,” Gates said.
As a result, the City of Conway’s citizen-informed Vision 2035 plan serves as a guiding document for government, nonprofit, education, and business leaders in setting a strategic direction for the future of the Central Arkansas town. Institute facilitators hosted Zoom sessions after hours to allow citizens to participate after work. Using a virtual whiteboard, shared Google docs, small-group breakout sessions, and consistent reporting between sessions, the meetings had a high level of participation and engagement.
Arkansas Rural Health Summits
Forty-one percent of Arkansans live in rural communities, compared to 14 percent nationally. Higher rates of poverty, food insecurity, obesity, and other health-factor risks make rural healthcare particularly challenging. To make matters worse, the number of doctors choosing to practice in rural communities has steadily declined over the past generation.
From 2017 to 2020, the Institute hosted a series of Rural Health Summits, convening dozens of practitioners in the rural health space to decide how to tackle the complex challenges of rural health. The first Summit ended having identified around 100 individual resources and over 140 critical issues that could be addressed through collaboration. Throughout the first two years, a committee of nonprofit leaders, medical providers, and patient advocates narrowed the group focus to four actionable areas of collaborative impact and set goals for the future through meetings facilitated by the Institute.
The Rural Health Summits resulted in an inventory of health-profession pipeline programs in the state of Arkansas by profession and grade-level; a graduate medical-education and rural-placement consortium between the state’s three medical schools; Arkansas’s first community health-worker certification program; an annual summit to support graduate medical students interested in rural practice; and the creation of a standalone 501(c)3 Rural Health Association of Arkansas to serve as the backbone organization for future collaborative efforts.
Insights and Lessons
These cases highlight how the Institute applies the Rockefeller Ethic and connects citizen participation to the policy process. In all four projects, the use of trained facilitators, ground rules, multiple in-person gatherings, and decision procedures encouraging the identification of common ground and consensus fostered respectful dialogue and constructive group problem-solving. All four projects also included participants with a variety of views and experiences, as well as both ordinary citizens and current or former public officials; those features reflected Rockefeller’s ethical principle of considering diverse opinions, while enabling policymakers to shape proposals informed by citizen input. Further, the Institute’s years of experience honing these practices have yielded additional insights on effectively implementing this approach.
The first insight concerns time. As shown in the case studies concerning incarceration, economic development, and healthcare, designing participatory processes to occur over extended time periods can heighten the quality of evidence, discussion, reflection, and decision-making. Longer processes allow a greater number of diverse community members to contribute while enabling organizers to incorporate that input into customized information resources that enhance subsequent phases of deliberation. Moreover, as Martín Carcasson and Leah Sprain explain in their study of deliberative inquiry, longer processes foster deep deliberation, offering participants multiple opportunities to make up or change their minds and carefully weigh trade-offs of policy options. A design involving multiple rounds of engagement also allows for course correction if an impasse arises.
The second insight concerns employing multiple engagement techniques. As Tina Nabatchi and Matt Leighninger recommend in their public-participation textbook, using a variety of participatory methods—spanning “thicker,” i.e., more deliberative, and “thinner,” i.e., less demanding techniques—enables inclusion of a greater range of citizens’ views. Whereas the incarceration case study shows how both “thinner” methods like surveys and “thicker” techniques like deliberative roundtables can be coordinated to maximize community members’ input, the Dicamba Task Force demonstrates how multiple “thicker” methods—including Reflective Structured Dialogue and deliberation about options using the gradients of agreement—can be blended to encourage rich dialogue and effective decision-making.
A third lesson is to involve individuals with government experience in the organizing team. In designing the Institute’s public-engagement projects, Harris and the Institute’s Chief Strategy Officer Carder Hawkins—both of whom have decades of state-government experience—draw on extensive knowledge of policymaking and relationships with public officials and civic leaders. Those resources enable Harris and Hawkins to select issues on which near-term government action is feasible and to recruit as participants political and civic leaders who are likely to champion policy proposals that emerge from these projects.
A fourth and final lesson concerns involving public officials from start to finish. As Michael Neblo and others have shown in research on deliberation involving both citizens and public officials, fully including political leaders alongside community members allows citizens’ voices to influence the content of policy proposals, while leaders’ informed judgments can shape those proposals’ form and strategies for introducing proposals into the policy process. For example, the continuous involvement of state officials enabled the Dicamba Task Force’s recommendations to be promptly implemented by regulators.
As these case studies illustrate, the Institute has crafted an approach to citizen deliberation—rooted in principles of respectful dialogue, diverse opinions, and collaborative problem-solving that constitute the Rockefeller Ethic—designed to maximize that deliberation’s influence on policy, through the inclusion of public officials. The Institute’s experience further shows that designing discussion processes lasting several months, using multiple engagement techniques, employing organizers with state-government experience, and involving public officials as participants from beginning to end enhance the quality of deliberation and the viability of resulting policy recommendations.
Winthrop Rockefeller hoped other states would emulate his style of collaborative governance. The Institute hopes that its method, inspired by Governor Rockefeller, will maximize the policy impact of citizen participation and furnish a promising example for changemakers around the nation.
Carcasson & L. Sprain (2016), “Beyond Problem Solving: Reconceptualizing the Work of Public Deliberation as Deliberative Inquiry,” Communication Theory, 26(1), 41–63, https://doi.org/10.1111/comt.12055.
Fohr & H. Southard (2019), “Dicamba Task Force,” Participedia, https://participedia.net/case/6323.
Hawkins (2022), “Seeing the Rockefeller Ethic in Practice,” Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, https://rockefellerinstitute.org/blog/seeing-the-rockefeller-ethic-in-practice/.
Kaner et al. (2014), Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-making (3rd ed.), Jossey-Bass.
A. Kirk (2022), Winthrop Rockefeller: From New Yorker to Arkansawyer, 1912–1956, University of Arkansas Press.
Nabatchi & M. Leighninger (2015), Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy, Jossey-Bass.
K. Urwin (1991), Agenda for Reform: Winthrop Rockefeller as Governor of Arkansas, 1967–71, University of Arkansas Press.
(Editor’s Note” Partial funding for the research and writing associated with this article was provided by McMaster University under the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada-funded project “Participedia Phase Two: Strengthening Democracy by Mobilizing Knowledge of Democratic Innovations” (Dr. Bonny Ibhawoh, Principal Investigator). Archival photographs of Winthrop Rockefeller were provided courtesy of the UA Little Rock Center for Arkansas History and Culture.)
Janet Harris is Executive Director/CEO of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute.
James Hopper is Director of Development at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute.
Carder Hawkins is Chief Strategy Officer at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute.
Robert C. Richards is Assistant Professor, University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service and a co-investigator on Participedia Phase II.
Chul Hyun Park is Associate Professor, University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service and co-director of its Open Governance Laboratory.
Claire Hollenbeck is a Master of Public Service candidate, University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service and a research assistant on Participedia Phase II.
Stefanie Vestal is a Master of Public Service candidate, University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.