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| Guest Columnist | Harry M. Covert | Jason Miller | Ken Kellar | Patricia A. Kelly | Cindy A. Rose |


As Long as We Remember...

December 15, 2003

A Brave New World

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

No, I'm not rewriting popular fiction. I'm actually going to talk to you about deliberative democracy, a new movement sweeping state legislatures across this country.

So what is deliberative democracy? I'll give you an example. How many times have you read about the outcome of a piece of legislation during session and wondered how that happened?

How about the number of times you've read that a bill that deeply affects you was either approved or rejected and you felt you had no opportunity to express your opinion?

These situations are more routine than most people think. Your ability to affect the course of legislation is impacted by the way we deliberate and adopt bills in Annapolis.

We hold hearings during session in the standing committees. These hearings feature panels of experts and lobbyists, and sometimes citizens with a special interest in the bill.

These hearings occur in the committee hearing rooms in the Lowe House Office Building and the Miller Senate Office Building. They are scheduled for the legislatorsí convenience, not the convenience of the citizens of Maryland. They occur during the weekday, often beginning at 1 p.m. and ending whenever.

The trick you learn after your first trip to Annapolis is that while the agenda says 1 p.m., that really means whenever a majority of the committee bothers to show up.

Even if you make the hour plus trip, sit through the half hour plus delay in the start of the hearing, and sign up to testify, you may find that other bill hearings get moved ahead of yours.

Legislative courtesy dictates that other delegates and senators can bump ahead in line to get their bills heard first, ostensibly so they can go sit in THEIR committee and listen to someone else who came down to Annapolis.

This is where the concept of deliberative democracy comes into play. Instead of forcing citizens to respond to the actions of the legislature, this shift in thinking engages citizens early in the process.

Using a variety of tools designed to engage citizens in the policy discussion in the formative stages, deliberative democracy principles expand the scope of policy debate and expose legislators to opinions they wouldn't otherwise hear.

I've been involved in several similar efforts in my public service experience. Some were very successful (strategic planning in Brunswick), some not so successful (Aspire Frederick). The difference between the successes and failures relate directly to the commitment of political leaders to use public opinion to shape policy.

There is real risk to opening the process to more and earlier citizen involvement. First, leadership is perceived as giving up some measure of control over the process. I personally believe this is a myth, and that visionary leaders see the long-term benefit of encouraging public participation.

AmericaSpeaks is a groundbreaking approach to direct engagement of citizens in shaping government policy. Mayor Anthony Williams, of the District of Columbia, uses an instant feedback technology to ask several thousand DC residents to prioritize city services. Planners in New York City used the same methodology to solicit feedback on the design schemes to rebuild Ground Zero in lower Manhattan.

Locally, Mayor Jennifer Dougherty is using a similar technique with the Neighborhood Advisory Councils. Asking folks how the city is doing when it comes to meeting expectations is never a bad thing.

The Policy Consensus Initiative uses a structured, facilitated discussion process to solicit public feedback on contentious policy debates. Their method focuses on the real policy choices faced by legislative decision-makers, allowing citizens to see the dilemma when making their recommendations.

National Issues Forums are regional gatherings that pick one major policy issue, feature briefings by the experts, and provide breakout sessions to solicit the widest range of input possible. All of the methods I described above occur BEFORE the legislative body debates, deliberates, and votes on these questions.

Imagine how much more connected to the debate about slots you'd feel if you had a chance to hear the expert testimony, gather the evidence, and offer your input before the General Assembly took up the question.

Some argue that the job of a legislator is to make these tough calls, and we invite anarchy by broadening the debate to include more civic involvement earlier.

Only the most cynical, self-interested politician would argue that obtaining more feedback could be worse than the way we do things now.

I will be proposing to the House leadership that Maryland take a leading role in the deliberative democracy movement. Time will tell whether or not we're ready to risk asking people to tell us what they think before we decide what is best for them.

Woodsboro - Walkersville Times
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