Posted by: Ken Homer | March 21, 2008

Three limitations to public engagement in decision making

Most people I know would like to be more involved in the democratic process.

Perhaps it is different in your network of friends, but in mine there is nobody who thinks things at the level of public policy are going well, or that staying the current course will bring about the kind of future they want for their kids and grandkids. Nearly all agree that change is needed, but what kind of change and how to affect it is not at all clear.

It must be admitted also, that many in my network are either too busy or too burned out to do much when it comes to participating in the decisions that shape public policy. They want to be more involved, but have trouble finding ways that feel like they actually make a difference.

At the Deliberative Polling training last week, Stanford professor James Fishkin gave us moderators an interesting lecture on some of the challenges citizens face when getting involved in public policy and decision making. He mentioned three in particular. Let me say openly that I am guilty of the first and third more often than I care to admit.

1. Rational ignorance: This is when we know an issue is important and we should take the time to inform ourselves about it. At the same time we experience feelings of near helplessness or extreme frustration because we know that our lone voice and choice may not have much effect when it comes down to the decision that will be enacted.

For some it is cynicism about backroom deals, decided and  sealed before the public ever gets to vote. For others it is seeing special interests move measures to the ballot that would be more effectively dealt with in the legislature.

Whatever the reason, we rationalize the withdrawal of our participation due to our ineffectiveness – real or perceived – at making a difference.

2. Phantom opinions: (Pollsters take note!) What do you think about the public policy reform act of 1996? What do you think about its repeal? None of us likes to show up as ignorant and rather than say, “I don’t know” many of us will wax rhapsodic about things we know nothing about or, as in the case above, things that don’t actually exist.

Pollsters have had fun with such things by posing the question about how the democrats are behind the repeal in some interviews and the republicans in others.

Bottom line: People make stuff up that they really shouldn’t.

3. Selectivity of sources: Most of us tend to get our news from sources that reflect our basic stance toward things.

Sure the op-ed page runs a point counter point column format, but rarely do we see in depth coverage of the many sides of issues.

Likewise we tend to talk about issues that matter to us with people who hold similar views. If we have someone in our network who has a strong counter position, chances are good that we change the subject and talk about issues and topics that do not generate too much heat.

This is a generalization to be sure, but it holds up across the spectrum.

The internet may actually be making this worse. Quick, do a mental check of  the websites you regularly visit. How many of them reflect the diversity of views likely to be held by your neighbors? 

So what do we do about these things?

First: Cultivate community. Things are so complex these days that no one individual can stay on top of everything.

Talk to your friends about your concerns.

Locate people in your network of friends and associates who have the time and inclination to do the research and invite them to present their findings. Make sure you have multiple generations in your circle of friends. Often students and elders have time and interest to become informed on issues and would love the opportunity to share their findings and opinions with others.

Do this over dinner, at picnics, block parties or other informal settings – don’t make it onerous by scheduling a slate of meetings that nobody want to attend. Organize a World Cafe or a Conversation Cafe.

Second: Admit you don’t know.

There is tremendous power in admitting you don’t know something. It is humanizing, it makes you vulnerable, and if you are among friends vulnerability is much more of an asset than a liability, it is an invitation to allow someone else to help you. 

Third: Expand your circle of sources.

If you always watch Fox news switch to CNN or vice versa. Get to know what “the other side” thinks, look not at why they are wrong, but what common concerns you share with them.

Google news is a great source for gathering a wide angle look at events, you can find thousands of media outlets here.

If you really want to have your eyes opened, look  for news sources outside of the country. How many of you have ever checked the Al Jazeera site?

No one is asking you to believe what is presented to you as the one and only truth, just to consider it as yet another perspective held by people.

Finally: Get involved. Take one step.

True your efforts may not result in seeing the measure you support actually passing, but the effort you put forth, the relationships you’ll make and learning that comes from doing something will help you build the capacity to do more while enriching your life in innumerable ways.



  1. […] my post about limitations to public policy participation I mentioned that sociologists have identified the phenomenon of “selectivity of […]

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