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The Davenport Institute Conference: "Deliberative Democracy in America"

On February 23-24, 2007 the Davenport Institute presented a very significant opportunity to explore important ways of furthering democracy in California. This conference - Deliberative Democracy in California - was cohosted with the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy, with additional sponsorship by New America Foundation.

Several opinion leaders around the state have come to believe that the tools of deliberative democracy may be the best hope for addressing the very serious long-term political problems facing California, especially the deep sense of alienation citizens feel toward governance in the state. The emerging field of deliberative democracy uses tools such as citizen dialogues, deliberative polling and citizen's assemblies to engage regular citizens in policy issues to break through partisan gridlock, overcome special interest domination, and rekindle a sense of civic ownership in the conduct of government. Early successes show great promise and we invited a number of civic leaders in California as well as experts nationwide, to join us in an examination of deliberative democracy and how it might be useful in improving public policy in the Golden State.

On Friday morning, February 23, we heard from several experts and practitioners about deliberative democracy. These included Dr. James Fishkin, director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, Dr. Carolyn Lukensmeyer, director of AmericaSpeaks in Washington, D.C., and Dr. Steven Rosell, president of Viewpoint Learning in California, all leaders in the field. We also received a report from Gordon Gibson regarding the citizen's assembly project in British Columbia.

On Friday afternoon, we invited a wide range of leaders of social, cultural, business, nonprofit and political systems in the state to comment on how they believe tools of deliberative democracy might be useful in California, and what limitations or challenges they may see. On Saturday morning, we carried out a deliberative exercise that would consider several specific approaches we might take in California.

We believe this conference led to wider understanding of deliberative democracy by policy makers and opinion leaders in California which, in turn, might lead to its wider application here.

Finally, California's budget crisis is forcing local leaders to make excruciatingly difficult decisions about what services their cities and school districts will be able to offer in the coming year. In the last few years, we have seen the growth in "participatory budgeting" efforts, as cash-strapped cities like Morgan Hill and Menlo Park have engaged their residents in the budget process during a deficit period. This year we are witnessing many more municipalities attempting to do the same thing. Cities from Brea to Salinas are considering similar projects. No doubt a few of these efforts will be lobbying efforts for higher taxes/fees, but the vast majority are being launched by civic officials who are desperate for the informed opinion of their residents.

How great is the desire on the part of municipalities and school districts to more deeply involve their residents? This past summer, the Davenport Institute conducted the 2008 Citizen Engagement Grant Program, in which we offered financial and consultative support to cities and school districts for legitimate engagement efforts. In about three months, with a tiny promotional budget, we received over 70 submissions (and many more inquiries) from around the state for civic engagement projects on subjects ranging from budgeting to school district visioning.

Civic engagement was once thought to be another attack of the "Goo-Goo's" - the name given to those in the early 1900's who fought for more transparent government. The factors enumerated here are pushing many of our state's leaders to intentionally, and legitimately, engage their residents in the difficult policy decisions before their cities and school districts. Seeking the input of the fully informed citizen has never been more important.