AN EXAMPLE OF USING
THE WISE DEMOCRACY
THE WISE DEMOCRACY
To clarify the value of this pattern language as a resource, let’s use it to consider, on the one hand, a U.S. public hearing and, on the other, the practice of Civic Councils in Austria. Let’s start with our leading-edge innovation:
Civic Councils (also known as Wisdom Councils) were first innovated in the U.S. in the 1990s by consultant Jim Rough but have found their most supportive environment in Austria where dozens have been organized for over a decade, as thoroughly described here. Their success there has led to their more recent use in Austria and Germany and interest from elsewhere. Film-Austria / Film-Germany
In the Civic Council format one or two dozen ordinary people are selected at random and brought together for a few days as a potentially wise microcosm of their larger community. They are hosted using Dynamic Facilitation, a process that helps people feel truly heard and curious about their differences. After issue briefings from a multi-stakeholder group and several experts, Council members explore a public issue in a creative manner and come up with shared insights and recommendations. Then they share their outcomes at a large public gathering that includes ordinary people, issue stakeholders and public officials. After this report-out, that larger group engages in a free-wheeling conversation using World Café methodology which mixes them up in iterative small group dialogues. The results of all that are then turned over to a multi-sector “Responder Group” made up of officials and organizations who have power and resources to implement some or all of the recommendations – including engaging government, issue stakeholders and the public – and who then report back to the public on how implementation is progressing. (We chose this because in our view there are few public engagement initiatives that are as sophisticated and multi-faceted as this one.)
So now let’s look at it through the lens of the wise democracy pattern language and explore its strengths and weaknesses.
The Civic Council’s special strengths include (but are not limited to) the following:
Civic Councils tap the efficiencies of a microcosm by using random selection (aka sortition) to come up with a manageable group size that reflects the larger community. This approach gives that group a level of independence from special interests as well as legitimacy in the eyes of the community and public officials. Equally importantly it assures a level of diversity and multiple perspective views to enrich their conversation, a function which is also served by the engagement of both citizens and stakeholders. During the Council’s high quality deliberations, the views of experts are on tap, not on top of the citizens’ values and experience, and Dynamic Facilitation ensures that everyone feels heard and all diversity and disturbances are used creatively to address all concerns in ways that ultimately generate shared orientation and emergent proposals to address the issue. (Dynamic Facilitation is a form of generative interaction noted for utilizing life energy well rather than constraining it with linear process directions.) The Council’s subsequent report-out is not just a formality, but provides space for dialogue and collaboration and communal intelligence on the part of the citizens, stakeholders and public officials present. Engaging the Responder Group then draws powerful representatives of the whole system into the conversation and implementation activities using multi-modal power.
Image by Courtesy of
The Office for Future Related Issues in Vorarlberg Austria
Now let’s look at some Civic Council limitations that could be countered:
To improve the wisdom of Civic Council outcomes, the pattern language suggests that more explicit attention could be paid to facilitating big empathy, systems thinking, possibility thinking and multi-modal intelligence while engaging the distributed intelligence of the larger population as part of the process. And, while current Civic Council designs thwart major bias, more attention might be paid to providing (or helping Council members access) full spectrum information, including views from the creative fringes of society. Furthermore, regardless of the issue (since all issues influence and are influenced by sustainability factors), we should ensure the Council uses full cost accounting that puts Nature first within a deep time stewardship perspective; these are essential for real wisdom. Recommendations could and should consciously promote awareness – and engagement – of universal participation, social capital and self-organizaton that are grounded in meeting fundamental needs. All this may require experimenting with approaches that provide enough time and develop the capacitance of Council members (i.e., their tolerance of complexity and ambiguity).
Civic Councils are vital and inspiring innovations on the way to realizing wise democracy. Yet, still, more experiments could be done to help them reach their full potential and offer their tremendous gifts. Attending to patterns like those highlighted above could usefully guide such explorations.
But so much potential is lost in the exercise, even by the way it is designed:
People’s presence in the room demonstrates that there is a high level of caring and need – sources of profound life energy! It would be so good to engage everyone in generative interactions that use diversity and disturbance creatively, that use life energy well, and that metabolize polarization and nurture social capital (connections between people). That would involve more prudent use of power-over and nurturing a partnership culture – i.e., less distance between officials and the public and between the “sides” of the issue – as well as enough time (which can be a constraint on everyone involved!). From a serious democratic perspective, there’s definitely an issue of whether the voices in the room actually represent the whole community, for which we’d need a microcosm selected by sortition (random selection) or scientifically for the type of diversity that brings the whole system in the conversation, especially with attention to citizen/stakeholder balance. With these approaches we at least start to set the conditions for collective wisdom to emerge, although we face the same challenges faced by Civic Councils – the need for full cost accounting that puts Nature first within a deep time stewardship perspective – factors that are almost impossible to meet in a short open meeting, unless they are brought to the fore by sustainability-oriented experts (who, given the context and lack of deliberation in most public hearings, can be readily dismissed as representing special interests like “environmentalists”).
By attending to these factors we could design public hearings that engaged the public, public officials, experts and issue stakeholders in exercises that left all of them more aware of a bigger picture and greater possibilities than they were aware of before, and ready to take action – separately and together – to make a wiser difference in their shared world.
Much more could be said about both of these democratic examples, even within the limits of this initial version of the pattern language. But we hope this brief exploration gives you a sense of what it looks like to see the world through the lens of the wise democracy worldview. Similar exercises could be done by you individually or your group to explore the gifts, limitations, and opportunities for improvement in any effort at intelligent self-governance and communal resilience. It should be noted that we have created a pattern language card deck specifically to assist in such efforts. Those cards were used, in fact, in creating the analysis above.