The quest for civil discourse

13 01 2011

Last week Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and Lt. Gov. Greg Bell announced an initiative to foster civil discourse in Utah. The timing of this announcement right before the unexpected tragic event on Sat., Jan. 8, in Tucson, Ariz., makes it all the more relevant. What I have found most interesting in the aftermath of the assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is the discussion about the downward spiral of incivility in political discourse.

The trend is highlighted in a piece on international news coverage of the event for PRI’s The World (the second clip in the story from the UK was particularly interesting to me). Bloggers from all walks of life and backgrounds are taking up the issue of civility in the wake of Saturday’s shootings. Here are links to posts from a social media strategist, an educator and a sports commentator. And President Obama addressed the theme of civility in his remarks at the Jan. 12 memorial service.

My primary question regarding civil discourse is where do we see it modeled? The Internet and social media allow us to spout off opinions that are often reactionary. Political pundits who have gained notoriety on radio and cable television only fuel the fire of “us” against “them.” I have been amazed in the past couple elections what passes as “political discourse” … it sounds more like trash-talk from the sports locker room!  If our political leaders cannot model appropriate civil discourse, no wonder citizens struggle as well.

Civil discourse is not flashy, dramatic or violent. It can be confrontational. It should be well-researched. And civil discourse requires listening, not just talking. It includes an attempt to understand other points of view. But we prefer to listen only to like-minded people who share the same values and beliefs. It takes work to get out of our comfort zone and truly seek to understand other perspectives.

As P2 practitioners, we should be proponents of civil discourse and design processes that help people engage in thoughtful consideration of a range of issues and respectful dialogue.


Transparency and Open Government

27 04 2010

Another trend in public participation to watch is initiatives to improve transparency in government. Administrations at all levels of government (federal and local) have indicated a commitment to open processes and access to information. This is necessary to combat the extremely low levels of public trust in government as well as the increased accessibility to information via new media.

Leadership that endorses transparency establishes a tone that public involvement has a significant role to play in today’s government. However, public skepticism abounds when it appears that decisions are made behind closed doors with political influences and interests taking precedent over the ways in which a decision might impact people or improve their lives.

Policies on paper won’t necessarily be fully implemented overnight, but I suggest the following commitments as a starting point:

  • Be transparent about the decision-making process, including who, when and how a decision will be made
  • Be transparent about what points in the decision-making process public input can influence the outcome
  • Be transparent by providing access to information about various points of view and implications of the decision-making options
  • Be transparent by providing information relevant to citizens using plain English and explaining the potential impacts of a decision on various stakeholder groups

There is still much to do in terms of building trust and credibility among elected officials and government agencies. Transparency is key to winning back the public’s confidence. What commitments or practical steps would you expect from administrations promising transparency in government?