Tom Attlee’s culture of deliberation

We are republishing an important contribution from P2P News 104, in which Tom Attlee brings a summary of the evolution of deliberation, from simple dialogue, to complex decision-making processes.
Tom Attlee’s analysis brings together two strands, the emergence of new practices of dialogue and deliberation, and the spread of holistic philosophies and spiritual practices. The latter is an often forgotten part of social reality. While the left was reeling under the neoliberal onslaught of the 80s and 90s, and some social gains were lost in the unprecendented era of growing inequality; an important section of the Western population did not sit still, but actively created new practices of life: new educational philosophies for the children, new non-mechanistic medicines for our bodies, new ecologically friendly lifestyles, fair trade commercial practices, and in fact, new modes of governance, i.e. the new practices of dialogue and deliberation. While the old left was defending the gains of the past (a necessary thing), and the postmodern new left was developing its micropolitics born out of the defeated macropolitics of 1968, the spiritual left took up the task of actually changing daily life, human relationships, and the connectedness with the natural world. Through its development of what in fact were the new modes of `peer’ governance, it is now ready to merge into the broader peer to peer and open source movements.

In our second section Tom Attlee offers an evolutionary account of such methods, in seven stages, and we wonder if an eight stage is not missing. If we look at representative democracy, our current system, it started with the representatives being advisory bodies to the king, and then a fundamental change occurred, they themselves became the sovereign bodies. Perhaps Attlee stops at that stage, seeing peer governance only as as an adjunct to representative democracy, not seeing that it might one day also become the primary mode?

1. Tom Attlee

Tom Attlee: “The increasing sophistication of dialogue and deliberation methodologies over the past two decades, combined with increasingly sophisticated communication and knowledge-management systems, as well as the spread of holistic philosophies and spiritual practices, suggests that we are rapidly increasing our ability to generate collective intelligence and wisdom through well-designed communications. We now face the task of bringing that capacity into the public trust and into official practice.

To clarify part of that developmental trajectory, we can map a spectrum (below) that reflects the growing empowerment and legitimization of citizen dialogue and deliberation. We can start with a category that embraces all types and qualities of such conversations and public engagements — the ecosystem, if you will, of democratic discourse within which diverse species of dialogue and deliberation interact and evolve. As the more complex, sophisticated, energy-demanding forms evolve, we find there are fewer of them than of the simpler forms — just as a forest has more fungi, ants and flowers than it has deer, owls and people. To maximize sustainability and productivity, there need to be rich interconnections between the simpler forms and the more complex forms — in fact, among all the forms. In this vision of democratic dialogue and deliberation, we find that the most coherent and powerful forms demand a higher level of energy, resources and attention than the simpler forms. So, whereas the simple forms tend to be (at least potentially) cheap, numerous and inclusive of anyone who wants to show up, the more complex forms are more expensive, fewer, and directly involve fewer (and more carefully chosen) people who are given privileged access to a level of information and facilitation help that allows them to generate greater collective intelligence and wisdom.

If we focus merely on mass participation, we cannot afford these more complex and wisdom-generating forums which are too expensive to engage hundreds of thousands of people. However, if we focus only on the complex and potent forms, we get a kind of elite collective intelligence and wisdom which, although still grounded in the citizenry, has not been informed, digested and owned by the broader population, generating a sort of democratic elitism much as has happened with the evolution of representative democracy. To prevent both of these extremes, we need to synergistically weave together simpler, more widely participatory modes with the rarer, more potent and demanding modes of citizen deliberation.

The collective intelligence of the population as a whole needs to be in constant conversation with the wisdom generated by groups of citizens selected to work with especially high quality information and deliberative tools. Thus, the ideal “culture of dialogue” will include forums at all levels of the spectrum outlined below until we reach the most developed stage, where a true cultural shift has happened — away from fragmented battles, towards collective intelligence and wisdom — at which point many of these distinctions will become obsolete.

The spectrum below attempts to lay out a progression of forms from the simplest (1) to the more complex and powerful (6), before breaking through to a new culture (7). Note that this spectrum is centered on CITIZEN dialogue and deliberation. Not mentioned, but not excluded, are other forms of dialogue and deliberation, particularly stakeholder dialogues and legislative deliberations. They play significant roles in this vision of a wise democracy, but (from this citizen-centered perspective) the locus of power and collective intelligence is firmly established in the dialogue and deliberation of CITIZENS. Stakeholder dialogues and legislative deliberations serve to augment the collective intelligence generated by citizen discourse.”

2. THE SPECTRUM (with examples)

1. Citizen dialogue and deliberation (of any and all kinds) (e.g., conversation cafes)

2. Citizen dialogue and deliberation with a coherent outcome (i.e., whole-group statements, actions or outcomes) (e.g., deliberative polling)

3. Citizen dialogue and deliberation with a coherent outcome that plugs into policy-making and decision-making (usually in an advisory role) (e.g., National Issues Forums)

4. Citizen dialogue and deliberation with a coherent outcome that plugs into policy-making and decision-making where the citizens are selected to reflect the diversity of the community (e.g., citizen deliberative councils)

5. Citizen dialogue and deliberation with a coherent outcome that plugs into policy-making and decision-making where the citizens are selected to reflect the diversity of the community and the whole process is officially institutionalized (e.g., consensus conferences)

6. Citizen dialogue and deliberation with a coherent outcome that plugs into policy-making and decision-making where the citizens are selected to reflect the diversity of the community
and the whole process is officially institutionalized and empowered such that it drives policy-making
(e.g., B.C.’s Citizens Assembly)

7. A democratic political and governance system that is grounded in 1-6 above at least as much — or more than — in the competitive lobbying, voting, litigating modes of politics.

In other words, we can have communities filled with study circles, intergroup dialogues, future searches, conversation cafes, world cafes, and all the other amazing processes listed on such sites as the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation wiki (1-6, above). These can generate a powerful background hum of conversations through which people are connecting up, exploring and learning together, and doing good work together. Some of them help public officials take the pulse of the community on important issues, seeing how citizens think about them. Arising from that hum of powerful democratic conversations are some special conversations among people selected from the community to embody the community’s diversity, charged with deliberating or reflecting on particularly important community issues and reporting back to the community (4-6, above). These conversations are sometimes given not just an advisory role, but real power to make decisions.The more all these fit together into a coherent whole, the closer we get to a wise democracy.”

See also Tom’s map of Community Intelligence

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