As posted to Cairns:

Today was the first day of the North American Summit on Citizen Engagement, sponsored by The Whistler Forum for Dialogue. It’s a remarkable gathering of experts, practitioners and thoughtful commentators in the field of public engagement and dialogue from across North America. The gathering is an equal mix of Canadians and Americans, including Cairns supporters Carolyn Lukensmeyer of AmericaSpeaks and Sandy Heierbacher of the National Coalition on Dialogue and Deliberation.

One of the major themes that emerged out of today’s presentations was the relationship between representative democracy and deliberative democracy. Happily, the issue wasn’t framed in such abstract terms: we talked very specifically about how to help elected representatives recognize the opportunities as well as the challenges of deliberation and dialogue.

The process of persuading politicians to support deliberative processes too often revolves around convincing them that the outcome isn’t likely to be too different from what they would come to themselves. But participants in today’s summit were clear: deliberation necessarily involves some relinquishment of political control. That’s the bad news, as far as politicians are concerned – if you think politicians are interested in the pursuit and maintenance of power.

Now for the good news: deliberation can provide an entirely new kind of power base. As Carolyn Lukensmeyer put it, deliberation can be a very effective way of developing a sustained political constituency for policy change. When deliberation is done right – in other words, when it creates a transparent and recognizable source of legitimacy for a particular policy direction – it can actually strengthen a politician’s power base.

We had the chance to test out that argument by working in groups to prepare “elevator pitches” aimed at quickly convincing politicians to undertake large-scale public consultations. It was remarkable to see how convincing this gang of deliberation experts could be, in just a minute or two each. Any North American politician who steps into an elevator in the next month should be prepared!

Here in British Columbia, we’re already trying out the idea of making deliberation a central part of the political process. The final presentation of the day looked at citizens’ assemblies – a model that has been tried out locally in the form of the BC Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.

Why start with electoral reform – on a political agenda that is crowded with other pressing public issues, like health care, economic development, and education? A comment from John Gastil suggested one possible reason: citizen-based processes are most crucial on issues where elected representatives suffer from inherent conflicts of interest. Electoral reform – like campaign finance – is just such an issue.