Last week I flew to the US to attend a multinational research exchange at the Kettering Foundation, in Ohio. This was my third year working with the foundation – to explore and find ways to get ‘our’ democracies working as they should.
These exchanges are unique opportunities to connect with people from all over the world who are working to improve or strengthen their democracies. They are full of people curious to learn, keen to share and connect – to test thinking, ideas and practices.
This exchange had a particular focus that was very relevant to the work that we do at democracyCo – How can citizens come together in communities and work with government to address the challenges they face? How can government and other institutions come to recognize the critical work of citizens and align themselves to that work? How can citizens come to recognise their own assets and those of government to make sound judgements about how they might work in concert?
The exchange included people from over 30 countries around the world – a melting pot of people from South America, Africa, Europe, the UK, Australia, NZ and Asia.
Inspired by the work of Dr David Mathews (the President of the Kettering Foundation) we explored a range of topics from the ways in which citizens work with government, the role of the media, building economically sound communities, the role of information and the role of public officials.
I gained five key insights that I wanted to share:
- “We are the ones we have been waiting for”
First coined by poet June Jordan, then used by Alice Walker in her book about feminism, and more recently famously quoted by Barack Obama in his presidential campaign – this phrase represents the ultimate power, at time unfettered power, which is held by citizens, that governments largely ignore – especially in Australia. In this era of mistrust towards government and institutions, the only option we have as a public is to turn “to” each other – which we are seeing citizen groups do more and more – the school strikes for climate are a great example.
During the week we explored ways in which we can release the energy that resides in our communities to improve our democracies and our lives. Harnessing and using our collective intelligence to not only influence the work of government, but change the way in which government works with us – for the long term. We don’t need to wait to be asked!
Some of the ideas that we worked up during the week were:
- Create opportunities for citizens to talk with each other, as well as citizens talking with governments,
- Find ‘communities’ where energy exists around a problem – and start from there. By understanding what assets reside in a community and what they care about, we can mobilise citizens to act.
- Remember that human beings always form groups – and we need to take notice of what holds these groups together (which is usually the promises people make to each other, their covenants). Once a government understands why a group exists and how it is held together, it can effectively work with these groups to use their collective energy.
- Who’s disenfranchised? Who’s disgruntled? Who’s disengaged? – we need to engage them!
The greatest problem we have noticed in governments we work with, is how they determine ‘who gets invited’ and ‘who gets to say who is invited’. At democracyCo we have long talked about the value of our work in reaching a mainstream middle – and our week at Kettering reinforced how fundamentally important this is to a healthy democracy. We need to find ways to include and involve people who are disenfranchised – those who don’t even know they should care. We also need to find ways to tap into the unique wisdom and insights of those who are disgruntled – who might be impacted by the issue and frustrated that they can’t contribute – and we need to build bridges with those who are disengaged. These are people who have often had negative experiences in working with government or they simply don’t have time or space to get involved, whatever the reason we must find ways to get them to actively participate – when we do weunleash a greater collective IQ than what we can hope to tap into without them.
- The central importance of public judgement
When Jay Weatherill was the Premier of South Australia, he often referenced the work of Dan Yankelovich in his book “Coming to Public Judgement”. In his book, Dan talks about “awareness raising”, “working through” and “resolution” as the pathways to pubic judgement. We need to place more emphasis on the ‘human faculty for judgement’, as Dr David Mathews explained this week during his reflections on Day 3. We are comfortable with having a focus on science and facts, and while these are important we seem to have lost our ability to trust in our human judgement, and we haven’t learnt the skills to create public judgement. We need to get better at exploring the problem, looking at options, weighing the costs and consequences and deciding what we need to do. These skills are fundamental to deliberative practice and in order to re-energise our democracy, we must remind ourselves to trust (and use) our judgement for the public good.
- Rebuilding democracy needs to start from the ground up
In the closing plenary of our multinational exchange, Dr Mathews reflected on the new forces that are at play in our societies. With a great knack for theatre, Dr Mathews shared with us his fears that the rules that we had in place to establish our democracy are falling away – “…an assertive China, an explosion in populations in Africa, more and more wicked problems plaguing our lives and 40 years of eroding confidence in institutions of all kind”. His view is that we need to rebuild democracy from the ground up and we need to do this by:
- Making greater use of our collective intelligence and our collective EQ
- Expose ourselves us to the experiences of others – take a different vantage point to see what’s around us and broaden our perspectives
- Be better citizens. The driving force of our democracy is held largely by governments, and they should not have to carry responsibility for the health of our democracies on their own– how do we find ways to support citizens to step boldly into the role of citizenship?
- Finding ways to connect and engage with people who have core differences to us. We have too easily bought into the view that populism is bad – but what if we used difference as a catalyst to bring people together, discover what makes them tick and find ways forward that we can all accept?
- Creating the conditions where people come together not because they love each other, or care for each other, but because they need each other. How do we replicate the way our society comes together in a natural disaster, in our every day?
- Helping people learn to become better citizens – this includes encouraging critical thinking, questioning bias, learning with each other, being part of a community, developing a sense of empathy and building skills which support listening to understand (not just respond).
- We need a ‘with’ strategy
One of the privileges of being invited to Kettering this Spring has been that we have seen some early musings from Dr David Mathews new book, “With”. We were especially excited to see that this explores citizens and government working together in a ‘co’ way – a concept which underpins our work at democracyCo. Dr Mathews explores the benefits and many opportunities of citizens and governments working together alongside each other in exploring problems, considering the many options and trade-offs and dialoguing in a way which taps into the values, skills and capacities that both bring. The whole concept being that governments are not alone responsible for their governing – citizens need to step up to the plate, and we all need to work together if we are ever going to address the challenges of our time.
We can’t wait to read the book which is scheduled for release in 2020 by the Kettering Foundation.
Our time at Kettering is always insightful and challenging – what can be better than spending a week reflecting on how healthy our democracies are with people from all walks of life. On departing, a new colleague, Antonio Machado from Brazil summed it up nicely: “I am pretty sure that I am on the right path, building bridges between people, social organizations and the government, under the guidance of democracy. It is important to know where are we coming from, but it is most important that we know where are we going to.”
Emily Jenke is the CoCEO of democracyCo and has been invited to travel to Kettering every year for the last 3 years to participate in their exchanges on deliberative democracy.