The Big Idea: Citizen Planners

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It was a spectacle to warm the hearts of democrats. Last July, about 4,300 New Yorkers gathered to deliberate over the future of the World Trade Center site. The organizers hired a recruiting firm to ensure as demographically diverse a group as possible; professional facilitators led participants, neatly arranged in tables of 10, in discussions of rebuilding priorities; staff recorded both individual and group preferences on computers and periodically projected them onto giant video screens around the auditorium–all with the goal of giving everyday citizens a say.

People at the forum, dubbed Listening to the City, later approvingly characterized their discussions as respectful and calm. As part of a follow-up study on the event’s impact, my colleagues and I interviewed 60 participants, and many said they rethought their views as a result of the discussions. One person, who described herself as from a higher income family than some of the people at the table, said she came to see the importance of putting affordable housing at the site, explaining, “You can’t ignore it when there is someone in front of you rather than just a statistic.”

People also described themselves as exhilarated by the give and take. “After a couple of minutes of seeing where someone was going,” said one person, “it opened my mind to a different point of view, and perhaps a more valid point of view than what I was holding.” Best of all, no one was “campaigning,” as one participant put it, and as many others added, the event wasn’t “political.”

These comments capture the promise of a new brand of citizen participation that has swept the country in the last decade, one that relies on carefully structured conversation among strangers to forge areas of unanticipated consensus. We can all identify with the characterization of politics as a kind of interest-oriented advocacy that so often leads to rigidity and stalemate–particularly given today’s increasingly polarized political environment. Proponents of what has been called “deliberative democracy” say forums like Listening to the City can rebuild the public’s damaged faith in the policymaking process.

But by providing the spectacle of democracy–the impressive numbers of people gathered in one place, the electronic tabulations of individual preferences, the presence of decision makers–and by carefully organizing contention out of the process, forums like Listening to the City risk restyling democracy as consultation. The people speak, but there’s no guarantee anyone is listening. The question, then, is: Must participants actually make a difference in the policies they discuss for these forums to have impact? The jury’s still out among researchers, but New York’s recent experience should make us both optimistic and cautious about the enterprise.


Asked by lower Manhattan rebuilding officials and civic groups to comment on plans for the redevelopment of Ground Zero, New Yorkers did so enthusiastically. Since 9/11, thousands of people have participated in public hearings, workshops and online deliberations. Listening to the City was to some observers the most striking, for both its scale and outcome: Participants decisively rejected preliminary plans and sent rebuilding officials back to the drawing board. It was, however, only the highest-profile example of the new civic dialogue.

This dialogue has taken diverse forms. Collaborative planning exercises, for instance, bring together competing stakeholders–developers and preservationists, say, or residents and small business owners–to preempt costly battles over development projects. The “deliberative polls” designed by political scientist James Fishkin recruit a demographically representative sample of the population to discuss issues like abortion, immigration policy, and campaign financing, first in small groups and then with candidates for political office. Visioning workshops invite residents to craft long-term plans for their regions. And foundations and civic groups now sponsor hundreds of study circles and issue forums, in which ordinary citizens debate hot-button political issues.

The scale, format and even purposes of these efforts vary. Some are oriented primarily to civic education, others to policy input, still others to conflict resolution. What unites them is the belief that improving the character of public conversation yields public decision making that is better informed, less polarized and more in tune with citizens’ priorities. Giving people the opportunity to reason together in an informed way and in an atmosphere of mutual respect opens up new possibilities for forging areas of agreement. Even if participants don’t reach consensus, the logic goes, they often gain an appreciation for views different from their own. That, in turn, makes them more likely to be satisfied with whatever decisions are eventually reached, even if they don’t match their preferences exactly.

In planning contexts, say proponents, deliberation can help avoid the familiar experience of gridlock, with interest groups dug into inflexible positions. In civic life more generally, participation in citizen forums can increase citizens’ trust in their political institutions. In fact, the participants from Listening to the City we surveyed were almost all enthusiastic about their experience, and it was the deliberative character of the discussions that hooked them.

The July 2002 forum was sponsored by the Civic Alliance, a coalition of civic and environmental groups, in partnership with the chief rebuilding organizations: the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the Port Authority. The sponsors hired AmericaSpeaks, a Washington-based nonprofit that runs “electronic town meetings,” to put it on. The LMDC and Port Authority ponied up for the event and weighed in on its agenda, but they committed only to listening to the exercise’s findings, not necessarily implementing them. AmericaSpeaks usually insists that decision makers commit to acting on forums’ recommendations, but in a context in which it was unclear just who would make the final decisions about Ground Zero, that endorsement was deemed sufficient.

When they signed up for Listening to the City, many interviewees expected a conventional public hearing, with people lined up behind a microphone to speak for three minutes–or “rant,” as more than one put it. Instead, they said, they found something very different. “The most amazing thing happened,” one person reported. “I was in this town meeting and no one argued, and I was listened to. It was a great day.” Thirty percent of our interviewees cited the discussions’ civility when asked what they liked most about the forum.

These individuals were by no means naïve about their likely impact on the rebuilding process. The participants wanted the Civic Alliance and AmericaSpeaks to force LMDC and Port Authority representatives to make a firmer commitment to honor the forum’s recommendations–to “strip them bare,” as one man put it. “They were still wearing their skivvies when they walked out,” he complained.

The skepticism was not without basis. Granted, by the following week, rebuilding officials announced that they were in fact shelving the original plans and launching a new design process. Surely, the vociferous public response gave LMDC planners the leverage they needed to press a resistant Port Authority to agree to a new design process. But subsequent news reports suggest that the governor’s determination to put his stamp on the process, and the degree to which particular architects were willing to alter their plans to satisfy the Port Authority’s original objectives, played much more of a role than did public input. Since the decision to shift gears was made, substantial alterations have been made to the Liebeskind design chosen from the second round, making it uncomfortably similar to a plan that was so roundly rejected by Listening to the City participants.


Proponents of the “deliberative democracy” trend have been criticized for their failure to specify just how it fits into the policymaking process. Before abandoning traditional mechanisms of citizen input–like legally mandated public hearings and, ultimately, litigation–critics say we must guarantee that citizen forums come with mechanisms for holding decision makers accountable. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that participants would feel more confident in government–one of the touted benefits–if they felt that their joint recommendations were being ignored. “If they back off and let them maneuver and manipulate this situation,” one Listening to the City participant said of rebuilding planners, “what we did will be null and void.” Yet, it is equally hard to imagine that decision makers would commit in advance to honoring forum’s recommendations unless they were to define its agenda very narrowly. In that vein, critics complain that the city “visioning” plans that have been launched with great fanfare around the country have too often ended with a set of vague–if admirable–principles, calls for more meetings and a return to business as usual.

But forums like Listening to the City also offer an interesting, if unintended, opportunity to counter that problem: Civic coalitions and advocacy groups can listen in, too. For groups representing priorities that they believe are getting short shrift, gaining approval for their perspectives during these deliberative forums can offer a powerful leveraging tool against intransigent policymakers. For example, when Oregon held a series of community meetings to solicit public input on health care priorities, the exercise produced not only a new health care plan but also a coalition of health care reformers and citizens dedicated to protecting the plan.

It is likely that as citizen forums continue to proliferate, diverse interest groups will mobilize to shape their agendas, choose who participates in them and impact what policymakers do with the outcomes. In fact, several groups managed to have an informal organized presence at Listening to the City: small businesspeople, Chinatown residents and a group lobbying for rebuilding the towers, among others. They came to get media coverage as well as to raise public consciousness about their concerns–and they were effective in doing so. In the following months, they invoked the forum’s findings to promote their agendas.

And that, of course, brings us right back to the contentious politics that the people we surveyed found so unappealing. This is the real challenge facing deliberative democrats. The idea of a space for political discussion that is removed from rough-and-tumble political contention is attractive–but virtually guarantees its political irrelevance. The task is to restore civility to public debate without quashing contention.

Francesca Polletta is an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University and is the author of Freedom Is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements (University of Chicago Press, 2002).

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