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Jeffrey Abelson Headshot

Crowdsourcing for the Common Good

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CROWDSOURCING CITIES
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Have you ever dreamed of aliens from outer space invading and forcing us to grow up as a democracy? Sometimes it seems like that's the only way we ever will.

In the midst of extreme economic crisis and a withering of the American Dream, the symptoms of our national disease are everywhere. America is deeply polarized. Conflict between political tribes burns at a fevered pitch. Our leaders seem unable to communicate or cooperate effectively across divides. Progress on solving our biggest problems is mired in gridlock. Danger looms on every front.

Where is this all headed?

Abraham Lincoln put it bluntly: "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

Yet we can't deny we have serious political differences. And they're not going away.

They must be reconciled. The alternative is unthinkable. But how?

What if there were a way to neuter ideological extremists, and zero out the oversized influence of lobbyists and big money and all the corruption that follows? And do it pretty damn quick.

Trail blazers in the field generally referred to as Deliberative Democracy point the way. But the path forward is not through politicians alone, but through a new breed of citizens working in a new kind of collaboration with truly representative public officials.

Deliberative forums are run by and for citizens. Politicians are not invited. The purpose is for ordinary citizens, with different views and interests, to gather with members of their community -- to learn and deliberate about a given issue that they identify as important to them. They are assisted by trained facilitators using proven transpartisan techniques to establish trust and mutual respect, to keep things civil and productive -- so that together they can design solutions, and spark public policy changes.

What's really stunning is that they often result in conclusions and action plans that 80% of participants end up agreeing on, regardless of their political persuasion at the outset -- and even though most of them had never before spent any time listening and responding to the views of people whose political opinions were diametrically opposed to theirs.

Imagine an America where 80% of Americans and 80% of politicians agreed on policy priorities.

Well run deliberation forums hold enormous potential to generate an authentic voice of the people on any given issue -- enabling citizens to provide elected representatives with the kind of bullet-proof mandates they need to get the big things decided on, and implemented.

Participants love them, are empowered by them, and become permanently active citizens as a result.

Politicians love them because they can truly get in sync with their constituents, and govern in ways that helps the community, the country -- and their re-election prospects.

Imagine the possibilities if citizen deliberations were to become a regular fixture of self-governance.

Everywhere. All the time.

But people can't embrace what they don't know about. Notwithstanding the field's many success stories, it still functions well under the radar of the mainstream media and national consciousness.

It needs a sustained push from everyone concerned with increasing active citizenship, and everyone interested in upgrading the efficiency and performance of government (regardless of whether you like your government big or small).

Citizen deliberations are as close as we'll ever get to a magic bullet. It's about applying to politics, and self-governance, the same sort of distributed wisdom frameworks that forward-thinking businesses, scientific research projects, and other enterprises are thriving with in the digital era. To grow up as a democracy, we urgently need to harness the wisdom of the crowd for political decision-making. But the crowd at the moment is way too small.

But if the American people were to start hearing about this proven method of consensus-building, they would respond enthusiasitically, just like they have in hundreds of pilot programs around the country. We could then collectively paint a new picture of American politics -- a high performance democratic republic -- driven by informed, decision-making citizens singing in harmony with truly representative leaders -- solving our biggest problems with true wisdom provided by a true crowd.

We need to stop blaming and demanding, look in the mirror, and get creative.

To learn more, check out the wealth of resources at the website of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Democracy.

And here's a pretty informative video I did with one of the leaders in the field.