5 March 2007
Richard K. Moore - email@example.com
Author: Escaping the Matrix: how We the People can change the world
Latest version of this document online:
We've lived so long under the spell of hierarchy – from god-kings to feudal lords to party bosses – that only recently have we awakened to see not only that 'regular' citizens have the capacity for self-governance, but that without their engagement our huge global crises cannot be addressed. The changes needed for human society simply to survive, let alone thrive, are so profound that the only way we will move toward them is if we ourselves, regular citizens, feel meaningful ownership of solutions through direct engagement. Our problems are too big, interrelated, and pervasive to yield to directives from on high.
– Frances Moore Lappé, “Time for Progressives to Grow Up”
There are many definitions of democracy, most of them based on elections and representation, and most of which do not result in governments doing what the people really want or need. This paper envisions a direct form of democracy, in which the people of a community decide together, on an inclusive basis, the major policies and programs of their community. It is quite reasonable to ask if this is possible, and if it is desirable: Is it possible for the people of a community to reach consensus decisions? If so, would their decisions be wise ones? And would people have the time to participate, given how busy everyone seems to be.
It would be foolhardy to claim outright that these questions can all be answered in the affirmative, and yet there is considerable reason to believe that this kind of direct democracy might be achievable – even when there are strong differences in the community. In the field of group process and facilitated dialog, there are proven methods that show remarkable results, as regards achieving agreement in very diverse groups and producing outcomes that are wise and sensible. There are even ways to solve the problem of available time! Can these processes be used in a community setting so as to enable the emergence of a sensible ongoing community consensus regarding local agendas?
The purpose of this paper is to suggest an experimental framework for investigating this question directly, by applying these known methods in existing communities (towns or neighborhoods). The framework suggested here has been developed through discussions with some of the leading researchers and practitioners in this field. We have tried to select those dialog processes that show the most promise for community awakening.
This framework could be described as ‘fostering dialog in the community’, but that refers only to the tip of the iceberg. The kind of dialog we are talking about here goes quite a bit beyond ‘sharing ideas’, and ‘achieving mutual understanding’. It is about going deeper, bringing out the most urgent concerns of the participants, and tapping their creative energies in addressing those concerns together. It is about awakening the collective wisdom inherent in a group, and facilitating the emergence of a sense of collective empowerment, a sense of We the People as an intelligent agency / actor in the community.
Most important, this kind of dialog is about inclusiveness. It is not about ‘bringing together the enlightened’ nor about ‘educating the unenlightened’. It turns out that everyone, regardless of their beliefs or philosophies, has a ‘piece of the puzzle’, a ‘part of the answer’. Our society encourages us to fear the ‘other’, and to think in terms of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’. But consider this: you don’t need to agree on religion to build a barn together. Similarly, agreement on worldviews is not needed to work together to create real community and to make it a better place to live. As in ecology, diversity adds strength and richness.
We’ve done our best in putting this framework together, but any real experiment will be breaking new ground, and we encourage any group pursuing such an initiative to remain open to whatever energy and direction emerges in their community as the experiment unfolds. Real democracy is not about a formula, but rather about the dynamic emergence of people’s participation in determining their own destinies together. This experimental framework is not meant to suggest the eventual form of that participation, but is intended rather to provide kindling to help ignite the emergence.
We hope this framework may offer new hope, and effective tools, to community activists and concerned citizens everywhere. We are all in this together, and it’s high time we begin working together from that consciousness.
“Choice-creating” dialog and Dynamic Facilitation (DF)
Jim Rough, of Port Townsend Washington, developed a very powerful method of facilitation while working as a consultant for corporate clients. He calls this method Dynamic Facilitation, and it is now being taught and practiced widely, in corporate settings, communities, activist groups, etc. The kind of dialog that occurs in a DF session is unique in its combination of benefits, and Jim has given it a special name, choice-creating dialog, to distinguish it from ‘deliberation’, ‘problem solving’, ‘consensus’, ‘debate’, etc.
Unlike many facilitation methods, which attempt to guide the conversation in certain ways, DF follows the spontaneous energy of the group. Rather than taking turns in any strict sense, the facilitator gives attention to whoever seems most in need of expressing themself at the moment. (Everyone does get their share of time eventually.) This process can seem very chaotic at times, and directionless, but at the end of the day following the energy turns out to be a very efficient way for the group to function. Efficiency, as measured by quality of outcomes per time invested, is one of the strong points of DF.
By paying attention to those who have an urgency to speak, people are encouraged to speak about what is most important to them, and to speak from their hearts. In this way the participants begin to see one another as fellow humans, rather than as just ‘speakers’, or as ‘allies’ or ‘foes’. Even where strong differences / polarization exists, people are able to get past that. Eventually, the perspective of the group shifts to a mode I refer to as harmonized dialog. That is, the participants begin to see things this way: “We are all fellow human beings, and each of us has valid concerns that deserve to be considered. Our shared task is to seek solutions to our problems that take everyone’s concerns into account.”
It may take a while to get to this stage of harmonization, and there may be backsliding at times, but when the group is operating in this way it is capable of doing some very creative work. When people are not using their energy to defend their position or argue for their side, that energy is released to creatively address whatever problems are on the table. When everyone is focusing on the same problem, with the same understanding of the concerns involved, then their combined creative energy and ideas add up to something greater than the sum of the parts. New synergies are discovered; ideas that seemed opposed can be arranged into new combinations and reveal new possibilities. This is what Jim means by choice creation. The outcome is that breakthrough solutions are often discovered in DF sessions for problems that seemed ‘impossible’ to solve – either because they were technically difficult, or because they embodied long-standing community divisions. DF helps to overcome both kinds of difficulties.
When a group creates a solution together in this way, their support for the outcome is much stronger than with standard ‘consensus’. They don’t just agree on a solution, they are typically enthusiastic about what they have achieved together. Unanimity is not identified as a conscious goal, but emerges naturally from the dynamics of the collaborative process.
For more information about DF:
The principle of the social microcosm
The legitimacy of the traditional jury process is based on this principle. Twelve randomly selected citizens are intended to be a representative social microcosm of the whole community (peers). The assumption is that twelve is a large enough number to ensure that most of the significant sentiments and concerns present in the community will be present in the jury as well. The requirement of a unanimous verdict is intended to ensure that none of these sentiments and concerns are ignored in reaching the verdict. The hope is that the jury will reach the same verdict that the whole community would have reached, if everyone had time to consider the case in depth – and time to reach agreement. The jury, by the way, is the oldest institution in the Anglo-Saxon-Celtic democratic tradition, pre-dating the earliest parliaments. And twelve, as a ‘good microcosm size’, can be traced back to classical times.
Consider then what would happen if twelve random citizens from a community were to engage in a Dynamically Facilitated dialog session. As with the jury, we can reasonably assume that most of the sentiments and concerns of the community would be present in the group. As DF enables the group to begin to operate in a harmonized way, all of those concerns will be taken into account as the group seeks creative solutions to some self-selected community problem, a problem that has urgency for the group, and presumably for the community as a whole. If the group succeeds in finding an agreed solution to that urgent problem, we can reasonably assume that the solution would make sense to the community generally, and perhaps even be received with enthusiasm.
This principle of the social microcosm addresses the time problem involved in public dialog and self-governance. If microcosm groups are able to inject sound ideas into everyday dialog, that could greatly accelerate the emergence of a shared community perspective. It is much easier to make progress and reach agreement in discussions, of whatever kind or size, if there are some good ideas on the table. We anticipate that a positive feedback loop could be expected to develop, where good ideas from the microcosm spark community enthusiasm & dialog in the macrocosm. This interaction between microcosm and macrocosm could then lead to a convergence of public understanding and agenda – an emergence of We the People consciousness in the community.
Whole-system dialog: Wisdom Councils
These considerations, about DF and microcosms, are what led Jim Rough to his remarkable invention, the Wisdom Council. Twelve (or a few more or less) citizens are selected at random and invited to participate in an extended DF session (a Council), typically 1-4 days in duration. Jim calls this whole system dialog, as the microcosm is dialoging on behalf of the whole system, the whole community.
If the Council event is publicized widely in the community, and its outcomes publicized – as called for in the Wisdom Council guidelines – that provides a channel for the good ideas to enter into everyday dialog. In addition, as part of the format, an open public gathering is convened following the Council session, where the participants tell their stories of their experiences in the session, and where the outcomes of the session are reported. The people are then invited to split up into breakout groups and discuss their responses to what they have seen.
Many Wisdom Councils have been convened, in different parts of the world, and the results have been very promising. Some participants have spontaneously chosen the phrase “We the People” to express the sense of collective empowerment they experienced. There is an emotional dimension to the experience, even a sense of personal transformation, and the enthusiasm revealed in the Council members’ reports tends to be contagious: the public gathering often gets enthusiastic about the potential of dialog, and tends to ‘get it’ about We the People consciousness. The public event serves as a channel into everyday dialog not only for the ideas generated, but also for the enthusiasm and sense of empowerment experienced.
So far, however, most of these Wisdom Councils have been one-off events. There has not yet a series of Wisdom Councils in the same community, and no chance for a micro-macro feedback loop to develop. The core proposal of this experimental framework is to move forward with the Wisdom Council concept, and convene such a series, with due care given to informing the community and promoting the post-session public gatherings. Newspapers, public radio stations, kiosks, flyers – and websites – all can be used as channels into everyday dialog, depending on the size and nature of the community.
For more information on Wisdom Councils:
Distributed dialog: the circle process
I’ve mentioned whole-system dialog and everyday dialog, referring to what happens in a Wisdom Council, and what might happen around the breakfast table, or in a lunchroom or pub. But consider this: if enthusiasm begins to emerge in a community, around empowerment and dialog, people are not going to be content for the dialog to be carried on entirely by proxy (microcosm groups), or in informal chats. People are likely to want to get together with others, perhaps in their homes or in cafes, and participate personally in meaningful dialog around the emerging issues.
The circle process is a simple meeting format, not requiring a facilitator, that can deepen conversation, encourage listening, and minimize unproductive debate. A token, or talking stick, is passed around the room, giving each person a turn to talk each time the token goes around. Whoever has the token speaks, and everyone else gives the speaker their full attention.
This process, though simple, may be difficult at first, as most of us are accustomed to chiming in whenever a response occurs to us regarding someone’s comment. It takes people a while to learn to still their minds and really listen. As people become comfortable with the process, a space of deep listening can be created. In this space, people begin sharing more deeply, from their hearts. When this happens the token can be set aside for a while, and people can speak when inspired to do so. If focus deteriorates, the token can be taken up again.
Another core proposal of this experimental framework is to encourage the creation of circle-process events in the community. Groups of people might meet together regularly, perhaps in their homes, or circle events might be scheduled in public places, open to whoever shows up. Neighborhood circles would make sense, as a way to build a sense of community at the neighborhood level. And here again the principle of inclusiveness applies: if a circle includes diversity, rather than just the like minded, it is more likely to contribute to the development of an inclusive sense of community, where everyone’s concerns are respected.
A more detailed discussion of circle groups and the circle process can be found on the co-intelligence website:
Open Space Technology (OS)
Open Space occupies a middle ground between whole-system dialog and distributed dialog. It is a way of enabling a large group of people to self-organize a conference, or a community gathering. Anyone can volunteer to host a breakout session on any topic they choose, and people then join whichever sessions they prefer. As with Wisdom Councils, the participants choose their own topics, but with OS any number of people can participate, and many topics can be pursued in parallel. OS could be used to create a democratically enlightened version of a town hall meeting, thus providing a very direct forum for participatory democracy.
In the standard OS format, the question of process is left up to each session host. We believe the effectiveness of OS might be enhanced by encouraging the use of the circle process in sessions, and by having facilitators on hand to help with more intensive sessions if invited to do so. Information about OS can be found on the web:
In order for an OS event to be effective in a community, there needs to be a large number of people in the community who are enthusiastic about participating. This is more likely to be achieved after some community convergence has been created by the Wisdom Council process and by whatever other dialog has been going on. When there is sufficient interest, OS can be a very effective way to accelerate the process of community convergence. As with Wisdom Councils, OS events are most successful when sufficient time is allocated, 3-5 days being optimal.
The investment of time required for Wisdom Councils and OS events might seem like a lot to ask, but that must be balanced against the kind of outcomes that can be expected. If long-standing community divisiveness can be overcome, and if chronic or acute problems can be addressed successfully, then the few days invested by the participants are negligible by comparison.
Other dialog processes
As stated earlier, this framework does not offer a fixed formula, but rather a starting point – kindling processes. As participation emerges in the community, we can expect process forms to evolve, and to be used in new ways. Besides those we have mentioned, there are many other processes that a community might want to adopt or adapt for various purposes. There are many kinds of facilitation and many formats in which they can be employed. A fairly comprehensive summary, with links to detailed information, can be found on the co-intelligence website:
Let me begin with an excerpt from our opening quotation: “The changes needed for human society simply to survive, let alone thrive, are so profound that the only way we will move toward them is if we ourselves, regular citizens, feel meaningful ownership of solutions through direct engagement. Our problems are too big, interrelated, and pervasive to yield to directives from on high.”
It is not that the system has problems, rather the system itself is the problem. Consider for example two of the symptoms: global warming and environmental degradation. In order to do anything effective about these symptoms, the whole basis of our economy would need to be transformed. Perpetual ‘economic growth’, as a paradigm, can only be achieved by continuing with high rates of energy consumption and the further devastation of our life-support systems. And yet there is no way that our political leaders could abandon the growth paradigm. It is built into the way corporations work, financial institutions operate, employment is provided, etc. etc. Our ‘leaders’ wouldn’t know where to begin making real changes, even if they were able to think in such terms.
In the world of computer software, there comes a time when an operating system outlives its usefulness, and a new one must be written from the ground up. That is the situation we now find ourselves in as a global society. If the world is to be saved, we need to create a whole new basis for society – a new way of making decisions, a new way of addressing our problems, a new kind of economics, a new relationship to our environment. This new basis cannot be achieved by reforming the current system; we need to rebuild from the bottom up, from the grassroots.
The achievement of democracy is not only about bringing power to the people, as opposed to wealthy elites. It is also about unleashing our collective creativity and resourcefulness so that we can begin the process of creating healthy societies. We the People are the only ones with the will and the capacity to undertake this necessary task. We have a responsibility to ourselves and future generations to address this task. Our first step is to find one another, to hear one another, to become a we, as a family is a we. Appropriate tools exist for coming together, and we need to begin learning how to use them.