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Obama and public engagement

by Tom Atlee


The Co-Intelligence Institute does not endorse candidates. But we do work with transformational energy that shows up in the cultural field we are part of. There is a lot of transformational energy bubbling around this presidential election campaign right now, especially around Obama's

Obama's campaign slogans are "We want change" and "Yes, we can". He says that change must come from the bottom, and that he can't do it alone.

He obviously wants public engagement. So far, so good.

But the next question -- which I haven't heard anyone ask him so far, nor he, himself, address very well -- is: What exactly does public engagement look like to him, if he were President of the U.S.? And, perhaps more importantly, what does the possibility of public engagement mean to US, the people who are aware of what's possible? What does it look like to Obama's supporters? to other candidates? to ordinary Americans? to current power holders?

Here are four possibilities. Public engagement* could look like:

1. A MANDATE FOR HIM: His supporters become a movement that supports his agenda in Washington, as represented by his existing platform.

2. OPEN GOVERNMENT: He will open up the decision-making process so citizens can see more clearly what's going on, offer input on proposals and legislation, and more effectively do activist advocacy work.

3. DELIBERATIVE DEMOCRACY: He will help We the People come together to develop our own wise solutions and policies -- and he will be the person On Top that supports our bottom-up process and agenda.

4. SYSTEMS CHANGE FOR WISER DEMOCRACY: He will mobilize the country to INSTITUTIONALIZE our capacity to govern ourselves more wisely and directly.
These are all transformational approaches. I've listed them in order of increasing transformational potency.

Like Clinton and McCain, Obama has made it clear he would love to have a mandate (see 1, above). He has also pledged to develop a more open government (2, above).

Regarding (3) he has suggested that he would hold meetings of stakeholders to design policy (e.g., for health care) -- noting that he is very skilled at bringing divided people together to achieve a shared goal. He spoke of this in his talk to Google last fall (note what he says especially at 54 minutes and 60.5 minutes into the video).

However, Obama has not clarified how such future stakeholder-dialogue-developed policies relate to the policies he has put in his current platform (for example, his controversial health care plan). Nor has he clarified the role of ordinary citizens in such a stakeholder-based process.

There is an important distinction here: Citizen deliberative councils and other citizen deliberation methods are MADE UP OF CITIZENS WHO USE STAKEHOLDERS AND EXPERTS AS SOURCES OF INFORMATION. There is a difference between having diverse stakeholders or diverse ordinary citizens in the deliberative, decision-making role. The stakeholder approach of "resolving the conflicts among interested parties" is very different from citizen-centered approach of "helping diverse citizens figure out what is the best policy for their community or country." Ideally, ways would be found to integrate both approaches, such as having a conflicted stakeholder dialogue develop a consensus solution that is then turned over to a citizen deliberative council for consideration as one of several possible solutions. And then if the citizen council is leaning toward a different solution, they can talk with the stakeholders (who are "on tap" not "on top") before making their final decision. There is no sign yet that Obama has this kind of sophistication in his thinking about public engagement.

We could help him and other candidates think about doing more governance this way, engaging citizens in deep dialogue and deliberation. Among those reading this letter are people who are one or two degrees of separation from one or more candidates and/or their close friends or advisors. There is transformational potential there.

Finally, Obama is totally silent regarding systems change for a wiser democracy (4, above). He has probably never even thought about it. He doesn't seem to have gotten beyond the (very advanced) approach of "ethics in government" and "bringing people together." But a vision of "institutionalizing a wiser democracy" is, in my opinion, the most important form of public engagement there is. Because any candidate can only serve so long before they will be replaced. And any candidate who proposes profound change may be serving a shorter time than someone more mainstream.

We the People can't afford to put all our eggs in the basket of temporary leaders, no matter how inspiring they are. We need to have the continuity of established institutions that actually work to bring greater vitality and wisdom to democracy. We need a sustainable COLLECTIVE CAPACITY TO MAKE WISER CHOICES THAT MAKE SENSE TO THE VAST MAJORITY OF US -- and the capacity to change those choices when they no longer make sense.

THAT would be a profound legacy for any president (or governor, or mayor) to leave behind. And once We the People become accustomed to that, it will be hard for someone to take it away or degrade it.

We need that capacity -- and we need it soon -- to wisely meet the immense challenges we face. Individual candidates are too limited and vulnerable to provide the kind of dependable guidance we need over the long haul. But they can provide the impetus -- in a possibility-filled moment in history like this one -- to shift our whole system in wiser, more sustainable directions.

And whether they do THAT depends totally and utterly on us.


* For a more detailed exploration of public engagement see "Principles of Public Participation" and "Designing for Community Intelligence"

For a vision of how a public-dialogue-based election campaign and administration might be organized, see the story of Pat and Pat.

For more on co-intelligent wise democracy, see Co-Intelligent Political and Democratic Theory


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