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
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
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
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
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
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
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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