Replacing Microphones with Deliberation

In many places official public meetings are reaching a crisis point because meeting formats are fodder for problematic exchanges between the public and elected officials. We need to think about how democratic innovations can recreate the spirit of the exchanges that official meetings are meant to constructively serve in a healthy democracy. The League argues that one way to do this is to experiment with new conversational formats that replace microphones with deliberation.

On February 15, the Center for Democracy Innovation hosted a webinar entitled: What Do People Need to Feel Heard: Replacing Microphones with Deliberation. The webinar was the second public event for the American Arbitration Association – International Center for Dispute Resolution (AAA-ICDR) funded project that seeks to inject democratic innovations into official public meetings.

Carolyn Coleman, Executive Director and CEO of the League of California Cities, and Tracy Colunga, Civic Engagement Practice Director of the Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation, provided commentary during the webinar. They talked about the challenges of safety and equity in public meetings and gave input on potential solutions.

The webinar outlined some of the key findings from the project, which involves working with three communities: Boulder, CO, Mesa, AZ, and Fayetteville, NC. In each community, we are working with a different official public meeting setting: a City Council, a Governing School Board, and two boards and commissions, respectively.

The project involves two forms of research and several stages of work in each community:

  • Qualitative interviews with key stakeholders (residents, city staff, elected officials, academics, local media, and non-profit/grassroots groups) to produce a scan of civic infrastructure.
  • Quantitative scorecard results from the public rating their experience at official meetings to produce a baseline of civic measurement (here’s an example).

Through various community interviews and the reflections provided on the scorecards, we found that one common theme is the desire to be heard. This subject was explored in the second half of the webinar. The public yearns to be heard, and elected officials often puzzle over how to provide substantive opportunities for the public to be heard.

Some select quotes from interviewees outline this imperative.

“There’s a difference between being heard and being listened to…not just conceding to the most prominent voices in the room.”

“When you are a community member, you’re sort of talking to straight faces who aren’t responsive. When you’re elected, you’re hearing from people at the wrong moment in a project.”

“Meetings can be intimidating and uncomfortable if you don’t know the right way (or the expected way) to communicate.”

A strong reason behind this frustration is institutional and process design. Existing practice – if an official body allows it in the first place – is to carve out a limited space for the public to go up to a microphone and speak at elected officials. This follows some variation on meeting agendas like ‘public comment’ or ‘call to the public.’

The merit of this opportunity is that the public get to go on official record for their community/officials to hear their thoughts, in an unscripted way. But is this the best we can do – a short cathartic exercise – for the public to be heard? There is no opportunity for nuanced dialogue among peers or between the public and elected officials.

We have heard a few reasons that talking at a microphone tends to leave the public dissatisfied:

  1. The limited time to speak
  2. Depending on the context, if there are large numbers of people in the queue to speak, not everyone might get a chance to speak.
  3. The lack of elected official acknowledgment and discussion after speaking,
  4. The limited awareness of how input gets factored into decision-making, and
  5. The significant rise in contentious and unsafe environments where people tread a thin line between freedom of speech and aggressive, hateful, or unruly behavior.

What stands in the way of generating the effect of being heard is an attachment to ideas of the status quo about what can and cannot be achieved within official public meetings (legally), which are often grounded in assumptions about what these meetings are meant to do (normatively).

So, how can we retain the spirit of what public participation at official meetings is meant to do (as opposed to what currently exists), by injecting some democratic innovation? What would a different format look like? Where could technology and asynchronous input factor in? What type of adjustments would be legally required and where on an agenda could changes be made? What might we need to retain so that the public does not feel like they’re losing an opportunity rather than gaining a better one?

Our team works with the idea (which is backed up by a vast body of research) that democratic innovations are a vital way to help people feel like their input matters in decision-making.

Stephen Elstub and Oliver Escobar define democratic innovations as “processes or institutions that are new to a policy issue, policy role, or level of governance, and developed to reimagine and deepen the role of citizens in governance processes by increasing opportunities for participation, deliberation and influence.”

Democratic innovations tend to involve some form of agenda-setting, learning and informed conversation, and recommendations on an issue. This combination often has some form of impact on people’s internal disposition because norms for engagement are commonly agreed upon generating mutual respect, the trust for a process increases because it is designed for thoughtful two-way communication, and/or policy outcomes arise in some way from a more considered participatory exercise.

We suggest some form of sequencing of smaller roundtable discussions between elected officials and the public, starting from within the community, and then leading into official processes like boards/commissions, study sessions and then official public (council/hearing) meetings. In this way, the end point of an official public comment session isn’t the focal point, but rather everything leading into official settings, and then involving newly designed spaces for better public conversation at these meetings.

Considering that our goal in this specific project is to promote democracy innovations in the context of official settings, democratic innovations need to coincide with adjustments to the design of a deliberative/participatory public comment, at select stages of an agenda, and consistent with the laws that govern public participation.

We’ve found a much broader interpretation of where and what type of public participation is required within official settings. In fact, public meetings can consist of smaller roundtable discussions involving collective deliberation rather than strictly individual microphone-based engagement. But from the standpoint of the public, there needs to be certain guarantees, like a digital and verbal opportunity for their input to go on official record, a chance to exchange ideas with their peers and elected officials, and some way for their input to be accounted for in decisions.

We look forward to sharing more about the final stages of this project. Stay up to date with this project by visiting our website, following us on social media, and signing up for our newsletter!

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