The public deliberation component of the Open Governance Lab at the Clinton School of Public Service breaks down into three dimensions:

  • Group deliberations
  • National surveys
  • Multi-state partnership

Group Deliberations

One setting for public, group deliberations is the Partnership for Democratic Practices in Arkansas, a series of dialogues that are held in-person and virtually, and in partnership with the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute and Central Arkansas Library System.

The dialogues use the National Issues Forums discussion guides, which explore divisive topics by breaking them down into distinct options and exploring the pros and cons of each approach. Most of the facilitators for these dialogues are Clinton School students, and multiple dialogues have been conducted in Spanish to allow for participation from Spanish-speaking Arkansas residents.

“We have some theories about why people participate in public deliberations, what happens to people when they deliberate together in groups, and some of the consequences of those discussions,” said Richards “We’ve been testing those theories in a number of settings.”

Originally organized through the Kettering Foundation, the program has grown beyond its initial pilot period into its current form — a series of facilitated dialogues on issues relevant to Arkansans.

In these free facilitated dialogue sessions, participants do not debate each other — quite the opposite. In small, randomized groups led by trained, nonpartisan facilitators, participants evaluate and discuss three options related to a topic or issue. Past topics have included addressing concerns over water resources in Arkansas, the partisan divide in the United States, and how to jump-start our economy in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Issues Forum Guides provide a safe and structured experience for participants that lasts no longer than two hours.

“Dialogue participants are asked to share their personal opinions on each option and the experiences that led to those opinions,” said Richards. “It is not structured as a debate but as an honest exploration of why each participant feels a particular option will or will not work.”

Washington Climate Assembly

Park, Richards and then Clinton School students Katerina Noori, Maria Calderon, and Aaron Kennard, along with Dr. John Rountree of the University of Houston-Downtown, conducted an evaluation of the Washington Climate Assembly in January-February 2021.

The assembly was a collection of 80 Washington residents selected through a lottery process to learn about, discuss, deliberate, and recommend climate change solutions for consideration by their State Legislature in Olympia, Wash. In short, the group of residents worked together to reach a consensus on how to mitigate the effects of climate change in Washington.

The Washington residents deliberated online for seven weeks, starting January 12, 2021 and ending February 27, in a facilitated and structured process about how climate change impacts people in their state. The Assembly participants wrote a set of policy recommendations for the Washington State Legislature about how to address the impacts of climate change in Washington. The recommendations were publicly released on March 1, and the assembly’s final report was released on March 19.

The Clinton School group and Dr. Rountree used a mix of quantitative and qualitative research, utilizing surveys, observations, and interviews to evaluate the Assembly.

At the conclusion, Park, Richards, and Noori delivered a presentation to members of the Washington State Legislature on their evaluation of the Assembly. The group offered an independent, comprehensive evaluation of the climate assembly process.

During the group’s presentation, Noori delivered preliminary findings on participants’ improved engagement and investment in the process as the Assembly’s meetings continued into February. Park discussed preliminary findings that showed a decrease in sensitivity to polarization, and a willingness to work together by groups with different viewpoints and political identities.

“This is a nice example of our research on citizens’ participation in governance, applied to a novel form of citizen engagement and a very current policy issue,” Richards said.

Oregon Citizens’ Assembly

In March 2022, Park and Richards along with Dr. Justin Reedy from the University of Oklahoma, published research articles related to the group’s research surrounding the Oregon Citizens’ Assembly Pilot on COVID-19 Recovery, a partnership between Healthy Democracy and Oregon’s Kitchen Table, a program of the National Policy Consensus Center at Portland State University.

The Oregon Citizens’ Assembly Pilot on COVID-19 Recovery, which was held in July and August 2020, included 36 voters from across Oregon who worked together to develop recommendations for a fair and equitable path forward beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. The citizen panel was composed of randomly-selected Oregonians from all walks of life, meant to reflect a microcosm of the state in terms of age, gender, location of residence, race and ethnicity, political party, educational attainment, and level of political engagement. The assembly’s recommendations were released on August 27, 2020.

The first accepted publication from Richards and Reedy was “Convening a Minipublic During a Pandemic: A Case Study of the Oregon Citizens’ Assembly Pilot on COVID-19 Recovery.” The article was published in Digital Government: Research and Practice, a journal that focuses on the potential and impact of technology on governance innovations and its transformation of public institutions. The article compared survey data from the Citizen Assembly pilot with past Citizens’ Initiative Reviews and provided analysis and recommendations to improve the design and execution of future online assemblies.

The second article from Park, Richards, and Reedy was published in Public Performance and Management Review, which publishes research on the performance of public and nonprofit organizations, and is titled, “Assessing Emergency Information Sharing between Governments and the Public during the COVID-19 Pandemic: An Open Government Perspective.” This article assesses the sharing of information between the government and public during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Citizens’ Initiative Review

Robert C. Richards, Jr., is a member of the research team, led by John Gastil of Penn State University, that studies the Citizens’ Initiative Review, a citizen-deliberation process that aims to improve the quality of information available to voters in ballot-initiative elections. 

The Citizens’ Initiative Review – which is part of Oregon’s official ballot initiative process – gathers a stratified random sample of 20 to 24 citizens, in the months before an election, to gather information, hear from witnesses, and deliberate about a ballot initiative that will appear on the upcoming ballot. 

The members of the Review then write an evaluation of the measure, featuring key facts and the strongest arguments for and against the measure. That evaluation is then printed in the state’s official voter’s pamphlet, which is distributed to every registered voter in the state, to help the electorate deliberate about the measure before they vote.

Richards’ research article, “Making Policy Information Relevant to Citizens: A Model of Deliberative Mini-publics, Applied to the Citizens’ Initiative Review” was published in the July 2018 edition of Policy & Politics.

“This article is part of a larger research project that explores how ordinary citizens use information to make sense of political issues in the context of deliberating with family members, friends, and neighbors,” Richards said.

A second research article, “Deliberative Mini-publics as a Partial Antidote to Authoritarian Information Strategies,” was published in the fall edition of the Journal of Public Deliberation.

The article shows how authoritarian and proto-authoritarian regimes control a growing number of states throughout the world. Among the information strategies that these regimes use to gain and maintain support are the dissemination of false or misleading policy information and the use of manipulative policy frames. The article illustrates how deliberative mini-publics can partially counter those strategies by distributing accurate policy information and employing non-exploitative policy frames that affirm the dignity of members of the polity as free and equal citizens.

National Surveys

The Open Governance Lab is currently in the process of conducting a national survey of ordinary citizens across the United States. The survey seeks citizens’ input on the last meeting that they participated in to discuss a public issue.

The survey will test the same theories and variables as those in the public deliberations sample, but will be applied to a nationally representative sample.

Multi-State Partnership

The Open Governance Lab has a multi-state partnership as it works with colleagues from the College of Charleston and University of Oklahoma.

The partnership allows the Open Governance Lab to design studies for residents of different states and regions to participate in public discussions on the same topics. This research allows for comparison across the three states.

“Through our in-state processes, our nationwide survey research, and these comparative studies between regions, we’re able to do applied research, testing these theories of public deliberation against real-world experiences of ordinary people,” Richards said.