Square Tables, Round Tables, and Public Health

May 4, 2008

This post is from Tom Workman, Co-Director of the UHD Center for Public Deliberation.

I’ve just spent the last few months working in several communities across the country who are trying to reduce high-risk drinking among college students, as well as attending several meetings with fellow colleagues working on the issue on a national level.  At the last meeting I attended — the Review Board for the U.S. Department of Education’s Higher Education Center for Alcohol, Other Drug and Violence Prevention, I had an epiphany. 

Actually, I had a re-epiphany, if that’s possible.  I think I knew this long before this month, but my beliefs have become much more confirmed in the past month than ever before.  I finally understood why a model that seemed so right from a Deliberative Democracy perspective was failing to show success in many parts of the country. 

The model is the use of campus-community coalitions, and the concept is that a group of stakeholders from both the campus and community could collaboratively assess and seek to change the aspects of the local community that was enabling or encouraging destructive alcohol consumption.  Many college towns are designed more for the heavy drinker than for anyone else, with lots of alcohol outlets surrounding the campus, many campus traditions and activities that have become centered in drinking or intoxication.  Meanwhile, campuses have traditionally maintained lax policies or enforcement efforts of underage drinking, drinking and driving, acute intoxication, or the many problems that often come with it such as vandalism, fights, and sexual assault. The idea has been that a campus -community coalition can ”team together” and make the necessary changes to these environmental factors, influencing a healthier set of behaviors. 

The model of a community coalition was recomended as “promising” by the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) College Drinking Task Force report published in 2002, and was the major requirement of all colleges who participated in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s “A Matter of Degree” program.  But the evaluation of that ten school, ten million dollar, ten year project by the Harvard School of Public Health was mixed.  Not all ten of the coalitions had the same degree of involvement, the same level of activity, nor the same amount of change.   I’d guess we could say the same of the hundreds of campus-communities also employing the model. Sadly, it hasn’t worked as well as everyone had hoped it would in every community, but ( and here’s where the epiphany comes in!) the problem isn’t the coalition, it’s how they operate.  The epiphany is that in many cases, coalitions themselves operate in “square-table” deliberation, as a small group of stakeholders tell the rest of the community what’s best for them.  

If you’re unfamiliar with “square-table” deliberation, it’s because the term hasn’t made it to the linguistic main-stage (yet).  It’s a term coined by Linda Major of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a brilliant community organizer who understands the role of collaboration and citizen involvement in solving community problems.  Square tables have clearly delineated sides. One sits on one side and one sits on the other.  Though both are “at the table,” they are disconnected. 

In my experience, I’ve watched many community organizers try to change environments that enable high-risk drinking among youth by becoming expert-advocates, making their own set of plans, policies, and solutions, and then dictating them to the rest of the community.  Expert-Advocates use science, statistics, “best practices” and public health models to determine what the community needs.  They are convinced that they fully understand the problem, and know the exact causes and the correct solutions.  Any other perspectives are dangerous and “diffuse” the cause; there can be no wavering, no negotiation.  Those who don’t agree with these plans, or have issues with the plans, or have other ideas, sit at the opposite side of the table.  They are the opponents.  The two never share space.  In fact, the expert-advocate is encouraged to use the media to support the correct position, and occasionally to show how wrong-headed the opposition actually is on the issue.  It makes for dramatic news, but does little to build consensus.

None of the approaches suggested by the expert-advocate are in themselves wrong — in fact, they may be exactly what is needed to create an environment that best supports low-risk alcohol consumption.  But in working from the square-table model, they can actually “win the battle but lose the war.”  The problem with having opponents is that they, well, oppose you.  The ”opponents” I’ve seen form in communities trying to address high-risk drinking among college students inc;lude bar owners, distributers, producers, occasional parents with different philosophies and attitudes about alcohol, and a host of others — not to mention the college students themselves.  These are all folks I’d rather have collaborating with me than opposing me.

The opposite of the square table is the round table.  Here, there are no sides.  Everyone sits in the exact same position to everyone else, which means that there’s an open flow of discussion — and deliberation — to determine the exact scope of the problem, to consider potential causes, and to find agreement on a variety of solutions.  We assume that we all have a shared responsibility for the condition of the environment – we all have a set of values about how we want to live, work, learn, and play, we all have a set of practices that we engage, and we all have some degree of agency in sustaining or changing the environment.

Most importantly, there are no opponents.  There are people with different perspectives, experiences, interests, values, and opinions, some of which seem miles away from what public health science says is “best.” In a round-table formation, we can talk it through, share perspectives, and find common ground.  We can invent our own solutions, or we can come to some understanding about what we need to give up in order to get what we want. 

I’m begining to realize that having a coalition doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a round table involved in the community.  In fact, many of the coalitions I’ve seen struggle have employed a square table, but rather than the expert-advocate, they’ve filled one side with a group of like-minded advocates they’ve called a coalition and have placed everyone else on the other side.  The results of this way of organizing haven’t shown much success, while the one experience of a coalition that employed round-table thinking — the NU Directions Campus-Community Coalition run by Linda Major at the University of Nebraska — has seen dramatic changes in their environment and in student drinking behavior.

True deliberation, then, may be more than a great idea for citizen engagement.  It may just be an important public health tool.   And it certainly is a “next step” in how we train coalitions to become more successful changing the environments, cultures, and public health practices around them.   


National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation Facebook Officer

April 21, 2008

I am pleased to accept the NCDD distinction as an officer. Fellow officers and board members listed with titles on our facebook group page are:

Leah Lamb (San Francisco, CA)
Queen of Arts-Based Dialogue
Priya Parker (UVA)
Coordinator of NCDD Mentorship Program
Tim Bonnemann (Silicon Valley, CA)
Online D&D Extraordinaire
Sandy Heierbacher (Harrisburg, PA)
Queen of all things D&D
Tokz Awoshakin (Dayton, OH)
Director of the African Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation
Avril Orloff (Vancouver, BC)
Deputy Minister for Colourful Dialogue
Leanne Nurse (Washington, DC)
Taylor L Willingham
Director of Building Excitement about Technology and Libraries
Lars Hasselblad Torres (Burlington, VT)
King of Peace Tiles and Deliberation Research
Windy Lawrence (Houston Downtown)
Networking Coordinator for NCDD 2008

I look forward to working with this group and the hundreds of volunteers – dozens right here in Texas! – working on the national conference to be held in Austin October 3-5. Stay tuned for more details.

Coming to Austin: National Coalition on Dialogue & Deliberation

April 21, 2008

Are you dedicated to solving tough problems through honest talk, quality thinking and collaborative action? Come join hundreds of others who believe that better communication is the key to solving many of the biggest problems facing our organizations, communities, and societies.

Join us October 3-5, 2008 in Austin, Texas for the fourth National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation: Creating Cultures of Collaboration.

NCDD’s dynamic conferences bring together leaders and future leaders in public engagement and conflict resolution to share resources and strategies, build lasting relationships, increase the visibility and effectiveness of their work, tackle challenges facing our nascent field, and initiate collaborative projects. Many people who have attended NCDD conferences have told us they’re the best conferences they’ve ever attended.

For more details, go to www.thataway.org/events/?page_id=6 or email ncdd@thataway.org. You can also…

– Learn more about registration (the early rate is only $300 until May 16!) at www.thataway.org/events/?page_id=136
– Propose a workshop, an “innovation,” or a networking topic at www.thataway.org/events/?page_id=119
– Read about the fabulous pre-conference workshops we’re offering on October 2nd at www.thataway.org/events/?page_id=87
– Look over dozens of quotes from conference participants at www.thataway.org/events/?page_id=13
– Learn more about dialogue & deliberation in general, or what NCDD has to offer, at www.thataway.org/?page_id=491

Hope to see you in Austin!

Texans are inviting change

April 17, 2008

[This report is being filed by Erin Kreeger, an advisory board member of the UHD Center for Public Deliberation, graduate of the Fielding Graduate University’s Certification in Dialogue, Deliberation and Public Engagement and a member of Texas Forums.]

On April 4th and 5th around 25 incredible people gathered at The University of Houston – Downtown Center for Public Deliberation for a powerful workshop on moderating and recording public deliberation forums. These forums are opportunities for people to join together with others to talk about difficult issues, gain new insights on ways to approach those issues and to choose ways to work towards creating powerful individual and group action, including influencing public policy. The workshop provided an opportunity for people who may not have done something like this before to learn from some seasoned experts, to learn from each other, to practice participating in two deliberative forums (one on the achievement gap in education and one of the energy problem), to moderate a forum, to record insights and themes from the forums and to begin building a community of practice. How great is that!

Though two day workshops can be challenging to design in a way that’s flexible enough to adapt to people’s needs and questions yet structured enough to end on time, this planning team did that brilliantly – keeping us engaged for the entire 2 days – including 7 hours of Saturday time. Here’s what participants had to say about what worked really well and what could be done differently next time.

What I’m taking with me/Keep It!

  • Role playing/Practice moderating forums
  • Intentional prep activities – not arbitrary
  • I was engaged
  • Power of communication
  • The workshop kept moving
  • Good to have to jump into activities
  • Having multiple instructors
  • The printed materials to read later instead of being read to
  • Applicable – can apply ideas right away
  • Great modeling of practices
  • Food
  • Strength of moderators and their stories

What I’m leaving behind/Drop it

  • Need clearer directions to get to the center
  • More vegetarian food options/easy to identify veggie food
  • More signs in building directing to room
  • Want video of the practice forum

At the end of the workshop, one participant said that she felt she had found her public deliberation family.  I find that feeling of community is inspiring and happens a lot in this line of work.  But what’s especially exciting to me about this particular workshop is that The University of Houston Downtown Center for Public Deliberation in partnership with Texas Forums has the skill, desire and dedication to provide those family member with the resources they need to stay connected and to convene, moderate and record public deliberation forums so that community members of all backgrounds have the opportunity to meet with each other in a public dialogue, to identify the concerns they hold in common and to create action on issues that are important to them.  That’s something I’m excited to be a part of.  It’s a great example of inviting change.

Trust, Communication, and Democracy

April 17, 2008

The following was written by Matt Leighninger Executive Director,

Deliberative Democracy Consortium (Washington, DC):

A report on the learning exchange between the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and the Democratic Governance Panel of the National League of Cities


Washington, DC

March 8th, 2008


At the National League of Cities spring conference in Washington, members of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium (DDC) joined the members of the NLC Democratic Governance Panel for a discussion of the overlapping interests and priorities of the two groups.


The intent of this learning exchange was to allow the local officials and the DDC contributors to share what they’ve learned about involving citizens in deliberation, decision-making, and problem-solving. Tzeitel Paras-Caracci (city councilwoman, Duarte, CA) led the meeting as Chair of the Democratic Governance Panel, and Carolyn Lukensmeyer (AmericaSpeaks) facilitated the learning exchange. Thirty-one people attended, including 16 local officials and 15 representing organizations in the DDC.


One of the first segments of the meeting was a candid conversation about the role of local officials, and of deliberation practitioners, in this work. Local officials were encouraged to air the preconceptions and stereotypes they held about the DDC participants, and vice versa. This was a very interesting discussion in which people on each side shared some of the frustrations they had with their own colleagues, as well as their concerns about those on the other side of the room.


“Masters of the Illusion of Inclusion” and the “Esoteric Theorists from Another Galaxy”

For example, both local officials and deliberation practitioners expressed the frustration that some local officials see democratic governance as “a threat to their power and discretion.” The Panel members see themselves as the “primary disciples within NLC” of this approach. As one official put it, “Too many electeds don’t understand” that the true role of local government is to “facilitate the implementation of a community vision.” There was also some criticism, both by Panel members and DDC participants, of officials who organize superficial kinds of public participation intended merely to make them look good. These officials were characterized as “Masters of the illusion of inclusion.”


There was also some frustration, both by Panel members and DDC participants, with practitioners in deliberation and democracy who are “out of touch with what really happens” and “naïve about the way government can and must function.” Some democracy advocates were criticized for advancing grand, “self-serving” visions of how citizens and local officials ought to deliberate. “Esoteric theorists from another galaxy” was the stereotype put forward (somewhat humorously) to describe these practitioners.


One of the conclusions of this discussion seemed to be that the democratic governance efforts of public officials could use a more rigorous, hard-headed analysis by deliberation practitioners, and that the proposals of deliberation practitioners could use a more rigorous, hard-headed analysis by public officials and other political veterans. In other words, efforts to engage citizens must reflect 1) an awareness of successful democratic principles and 2) an awareness of the political context and how the project will contribute to community change. 


The most popular topic of the meeting, however, was communications. Both the panelists and the DDC participants lamented the inadequate, outdated way in which officials and citizens communicate about public issues. “Communication is limited – basically one way – top-down rather than lateral or bottom-up,” said one participant. Several officials complained that journalists made the problem worse rather than better: “The media doesn’t adequately represent what we do.”


“The hook for public officials is that this work rebuilds trust.”

Democratic governance was seen as a kind of antidote to this lack of communication, but both the officials and the practitioners expressed great frustration with their inability to describe democratic governance in plain, compelling terms. Neither journalists nor citizens seemed to “get” this work until they had actually been inv lved in it.


For the local officials, the main motivating factor underneath these concerns was trust. Officials often mentioned their desire to “build an environment of democracy and trust.” Involving citizens in “hot-button” issues, they felt, wasn’t just important for dealing with key public problems: it was a means to the end of strengthening the relationship between citizens and their elected representatives. “The hook for public officials is that this work rebuilds trust,” said one panel member.


Two areas emerged that seemed to be new frontiers for democratic governance, where the meeting participants felt that not enough work had been done. The first was dealing with city staff, rather than just the elected officials. In some ways, officials seemed to see themselves as having more in common with their constituents than with local government employees – “we were citizens before we were elected” – and felt that staff were often an obstacle to democratic governance efforts. One DDC participant reinforced this concern and affirmed that the practitioners “recognize the larger challenge of working with staff and changing the way governments (as organizations) operate.”


Another frontier was the desire to “to go beyond single-issue engagement” and find more holistic, sustainable ways for citizens and officials to work together over the long term.


Four areas emerged as the “highest potential areas” for the Democratic Governance Panel and the DDC to work together:

  • Helping local officials to “understand why people mistrust government and how to mitigate/respond to it.” Some officials and practitioners seemed to feel that, while many officials felt the lack of trust on an emotional level, they didn’t necessarily understand where it was coming from. One participant felt that we need “a diagnostic that helps people assess the level and causes of mistrust in their community.”
  • Developing a more comprehensive “package” of “communications tools” to facilitate interactions between officials and citizens. Several participants mentioned online technologies as a potential asset. One official mentioned the need to “better communicate the importance of citizen input and what we value.”
  • Continuing to expand our “library of knowledge” on how to do democratic governance overall (including but not limited to communications), and make these tools and resources more and more easy to access. The DDC’s Democracy Helpline (http://helpline.deliberative-democracy.net) was mentioned as one vehicle for this work.
  • Developing a more compelling and prominent message about democratic governance. Local officials “need to describe in plain language how we see the new roles, responsibilities, and opportunities of citizens and government (including staff as well as electeds) – we need to say how we are doing government and governance differently, and explain what that means for you, the citizen.”


From the flipchart notes, and from participants’ recollections of the meeting, several key lessons seem to stand out (complementing or adding to the priorities mentioned above):

Potential lessons for DDC:

  • Pay more attention to the politics (what makes a DG effort politically smart, in addition to being inclusive, deliberative, and democratic)
  • Pay more attention to trust and the emotional aspects of the relationship between officials and their constituents

Potential lessons for the Democratic Governance Panel:

  • Approach online communication as a potential asset and not just a complication
  • Recognize that the practitioners are sympathetic to their situation and are trying to understand the restraints and challenges that officials face

We need to say how we are doing government and governance differently, and explain what that means for you, the citizen.”

Roster of participants:

Robin Beltramini, city councilwoman, Troy, MI

Scott Brook, mayor, Coral Springs, FL

Bob Carlitz, Information Renaissance

Nancy Carter, city councilwoman, Charlotte, NC

Mary Clark, mayor, Camden, SC

Henrietta Davis, city councilwoman, Cambridge, MA

Doug Echols, mayor, Rock Hill, SC

Kevin Frazell, Minnesota Municipal League

Tomiko Gumbleton, city councilwoman, Ferndale, MI

Sandy Heierbacher, National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation

Chris Hoene, National League of Cities

Gail Leftwich Kitch, By the People

Matt Leighninger, Deliberative Democracy Consortium

Peter Levine, Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement

Mark Linder, former assistant city manager, San Jose, California

Carolyn Lukensmeyer, AmericaSpeaks

Phillip Lurie, Kettering Foundation

Susanna Haas Lyons, AmericaSpeaks

Leanne Smith Nurse, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Katie Ogden, student representative, Tualatin, OR

Lou Ogden, mayor, Tualatin, OR

Tzeitel Paras Caracci, city councilwoman, Duarte, CA

Bo Perkinson, vice mayor, Athens, TN

Reemberto Rodriguez, NeighborWorks America

Donald Rosen, city councilman, Sunrise, FL

Gloria Rubio-Cortes, National Civic League

Donald Saunders, city councilman, Bedford, OH

Bill Schechter, Collaboration DC

Ben Shute, Rockefeller Brothers Fund

Joanne Ward, mayor, Hercules, CA

Georgette White-Moon, city councilwoman, Tuskegee, AL


United Way hosts Peter Block

April 7, 2008

I am planning to attend the Nonprofit Leadership Collaborative’s 2008 Forum being sponsored by United way, “community leadership – a new conversation” featuring Peter Block on May 6, 2008, from 8:30 to noon. The cost is only 25 dollars and its for Houstonians interested in making our community more engaged. You can register at www.unitedwayhouston.org –  Check out the description from United way:

Much has been written about the loss of social capital: We no longer know our neighbors; we text message rather than talk; we connect via My Space rather than face-to-face. Our ability to relate seems to be disintegrating before our very eyes. Is it too late to restore those connections that are essential to strong communities?Noted author and consultant Peter Block will challenge Houston to recreate the conditions required for community engagement. Learn what you can do as a community leader to build an alternative future built on inclusiveness and hospitality; and to initiate conversations that alter the way we bring people together.

 Change is possible. I


We held our first moderator training workshop

April 6, 2008

The University of Houston – Downtown Center for Public Deliberation held our first workshop with some outstanding participants. You can check out what happened at our two-day workshop and also look at some of our photos (thanks to our Texas Forum friends who blogged on the event).