Finding My Role (week of August 18)

I have finally figured out what my role is for the CIR, but alas it ended very late last night (got home close to 1am kind of late).  As I had feared, my role was not clearly defined with specific tasks and in a large staff of type A, get’er done type personalities it was difficult for the first few days to figure out what I was to be doing. However, now that it is all over I can genuinely say my role was to be the Moderator’s Assistant–maybe next time I will know to be that from the beginning!

In the first few days, I increasingly noticed that the moderators were essentially the masters of a three-ring circus and that from my vantage point I had a good eye of how to make the juggling just a little bit easier, so starting towards the end of day two I began taking ownership over some of the circus tent, things like maintaining the sticky walls (not a small job!), preparing groups for self facilitation, passing out all incoming information to both panelists and moderators, and just in general keeping an eye out for the welfare of the moderators.  Since I’ve never been good at minding my own business (and I was a bit bored during a process where idle hands are really a dangerous thing), I began embedding myself in the discussions of the moderators, particularly in their planning stages of how to work with the panelists best.  I was over-the-moon when they both old me how invaluable my insight into facilitating this group was becoming and how much of a natural I was at this sort of thing (second and third comment of this nature in the past few days!).

By the end of the first CIR, I was sitting in on the moderators-only debrief/planning for the next CIR to begin the next day.  I was overly suggestions to improve dialogue around some of the logistical issues we faced (color of dots is surprisingly important!), as well as talking through some of the theoretical issues that had been discovered with the increased role of the campaigns and the side-effect that had had on citizen empowerment.  Having finally found my role, I wish I could have stayed around for the next one or having the personal finances to go with the teams to either Colorado or Arizona, but alas my short time with Healthy Democracy is up… at least for now.  Despite the reality not being as rosy as I had hoped, I still believe in deliberative democracy and I still think this is an incredible avenue forward in creating more informed, more adaptive, and more responsive public policy–it just might not be the untarnishable silver bullet I thought it might be.  More importantly for me though I learned that I really can do this stuff (facilitation) in the real world, I am good at it–hell as three top facilitators told me this week, I’m a natural!  That is the most exciting and inspiring message I could receive after a long, hard, and expensive first year of graduate school.

Maintaining Neutrality (week of August 18)

In my first year of graduate work, I ended up spending a great deal of time researching the concept of neutrality. My findings have led me to believe that first, the absolute neutrality that “third party neutrals” supposedly have is a myth and is not humanely possible, and second, such robotic neutrality does not actually serve the interests of the parties seeking mediation or facilitation. Because of this I believe that I approach my future career with a co-partial attitude that, like the names of this blog, goes beyond neutrality.  However, add in a dash of campaign politics and suddenly the myth of neutrality is the unquestioned expectation.

I found that considering the eagerness of the campaigns to connive and misuse information (thus breaking the #1 rule of mediation to be there with good faith and good intent), that yes, an approach of absolute neutrality was necessary.  Everyday the moderators were evaluated by the panelists for their perceptions of bias through a survey done by independent researchers. By and large there were no appearances of bias, a true testament to the professionalism and experience of our two awesome moderators.  Experience I am still lacking, but gaining. Especially in the first two days, when I found myself with little direct tasks (idle hands being the work of the devil afterall), being fully unprepared for the whirlwind of the rush of campaigning (including seeing many from my past life), and finally starting to come to my own opinion about the measure, I was surprised to find myself having a difficult time remaining neutral.

Aside from my colleague noting that I was nodding my head in agreement but doing so equally with each side during an SME panel, I was never caught to be biased.  And that to me is an incredible achievement considering how non-neutral of a battle was rearing inside of me. It wasn’t just that I had made up my mind about the measure and how I would vote, it was more that I was so viscerally disgusted with the tactics of one of the campaigns that it was all I could do not to let that show through. Honestly, it wasn’t even the disgustingly-common-in-politics behavior of that campaign, it was the fact that this process which I so wanted to be inherently about such a corrupt world was still being shaped by it.

I was overjoyed when a group of panelists saw through this charade and crafted a series of their own well-articulated claims that more accurately described the measure. The moment they put this out there, I was reminded of why it is so crucial for facilitators to maintain co-partiality or neutrality: if we do not, we are saying we do not believe that another citizen is smart enough (or worse, as smart as us) to figure something out.  I think that the CIR process remains a work in progress and that the pendulum swing to include campaigns needs to be moderated in future CIRs, nevertheless, it still has me believing in the power of everyday citizens deliberating about the future of our democracy and that is undeniably powerful enough to help me keep my human biases in check.

Facilitating the Earthquake Exercise (week of August 18)

On the first day of the CIR, one of my jobs was to be a small group facilitator for a role play exercise that was designed to help the panelists start thinking about what makes for reliable information and to practice openly deliberating with one another. The role play is a seemingly innocuous scenario where an initiative is on a small town’s  ballot about whether or not to upgrade the City Hall to higher earthquake standards.

Like in the CIR, the group has been given a series of claims to evaluate. One of the claims which is there to help the group think through the reliability and appropriate use of value statements states, “It is unethical for the government to house its employees in an unsafe building.”  The group was deliberating quite well, taking very serious their roles as a jury for their peers when I asked them, “are there any claims here you believe to be fully reliable?” One of the panelists raised her hands and read out the claim about the ethics of unsafe buildings. I knew, as did many of the other panelists in my small group, that this claim with its value-laden premise did not fit the criteria for reliable, unbiased information that we had just decided on by a group. So with my mediation training shining through, I approached the situation with curiosity and sought to learn more about her reasoning for supporting that claim.  With tears welling in her eyes, she told the group about how she had lived through the San Francisco earthquake and had lost a family member in a collapsed government building.  With this background, the group immediately understood where she was coming from and why she felt this claim was reliable. It led to an incredibly powerful discussion about balancing reliable, scientific-esque factual information with value-driven positions that for many might be just as important.

Of the four groups, the other three all marked that claim as one of the least reliable. Our group marked it as semi-reliable, but important.  As the days progressed and the panelists began to put together their citizen statement, myself and the other moderators noticed that this panel was particularly against any type of value statement, even when it seemed that some of a citizen’s deciding factors for this measure would most certainly be value driven and therefore should likely be approached by these reviewing citizens.  All I could think is how I wish the full panel had been witness to, or better yet participants, in the heartfelt and hard discussion we had had during our intended-to-be-lighthearted role play.  On a personal note, I received a wonderful compliment about my natural style of facilitation from a long time facilitator observing from Colorado–it was not only a personal boost in the moment, but a highlight of my time working on the CIR.

Role of Campaigns (week of August 18)

One thing that has really struck me and has been potentially a bit disillusioning to my previous rosy perception of the CIR process is the role of the campaigns (the for and against campaigns of the chosen measure). I’ve been informed that in the past the CIR has come under criticism for not involving the campaigns enough in the process, however, judging by this experience, the pendulum has swung too far in an over correction of that issue.

As compared to past CIRs where the panelists created their own set of claims to work through and eventually use as the fodder for the citizen statement, this CIR has 30 claims (15 pro, 15 con) that have been written by the campaigns that are the panelists primary meat to wrestle with.  Basically all of these claims are they type of persuasive sound bite you would hear on a TV commercial.  In finding a better balance, I think campaigns could be better coached by the Healthy Democracy/CIR staff to avoid sound bites and to rather focus on statements of fact (or well articulated values) they believe support their position. This would especially help as the panelists are encouraged to focus on what makes information reliable, and thus many good points camouflaged in the weasel words of campaigns were thrown out with the proverbial bath water.  Moreover, the panelists desire for citations was immense. Citations are important; however, many of the citations provided were not great sources and if the panelists had taken the step to investigate the sources and not just taken the campaigns at their word for being good sources, I think we would have seen much different claims rise to the top.

In addition to claims, campaigns also have an increased power over the Subject Matter Expert panels.  These are panels that allow the CIR panelists to ask questions much like a panel of judges getting information from witnesses on the stand in a court of law.  Again in the past, the SMEs were recruited by the CIR staff and were brought forward in individual presentations rather than as a panel, in addition, the CIR panelists had the opportunity to call new experts to the stand if they were available towards the end of the then 5-day CIR.  Although I did not see past SME presentations/panels, it seemed to me that the creation of a campaign self-appointed expert panel made for more of political dynamic with “experts” put up that were there simply to pull on the heart strings on the CIR panelists like a bad paid media campaign ad or caused toxic he said-she said debate between the two sides. In only one panel was a neutral called in (they were at a conference and unable to come in person), but those two people were almost too neutral so that they couldn’t by their jobs (which they were constantly reminded of by one campaign) actually answer a number of the questions.

During these SME panels, the campaigns were able to provide written material to the panelists as additional supporting documentation for their positions.  One of the campaigns clearly had some high tech millenial who understood public relations as their information was always bright colored inforgraphics with catchy, sometimes (often) fear provoking sensationalized headlines, while the other was in comparison boring black and white plain text. Kudos to the first campaign for playing ball and really bringing their A-game, however, as I looked at their glossy info sheets all I could think is how is this any different than the paid media ads that find their way into the junk mail this time of year?  How does information presented in such a format actually help the deliberation of citizens? Isn’t this what deliberative democracy is working to replace?

Finally, the back of the room stunk with the ripe smell of campaigning. At a table set aside for the “advocates” there sat the members of the various campaigns–including the main campaign manager who somehow managed to sit right on a line of not being a registered advocate with us let alone officially the campaign manager and yet was undeniably the puppet master.  Despite the fact that no last names were released, the campaign had figured out everyone on the panel (and had done background research on each of us staff). Looking up facebook pages, LinkedIn accounts, white pages, and newspapers, they sat their much like Gene Hackmen’s consultant character Rankin Fitch in John Grisham’s Runaway Jury, they sat their deciding who “their man was” and how to present information that would play on the panelists freshly researched sympathies.  It was just like being back in a campaign headquarters, the conniving and exploiting of weaknesses to move the voters was once more the modus operandi of the room.  I became so intrigued and inspired by the deliberative democracy processes simply because they looked to get away from such tactics and after helping with numerous campaigns and having a partner who was employed by political consultants for years, I was eager for something that empowered our citizens to rise above the fray of such toxic campaigning.  Although the CIR panel did find their wings from time to time thanks to this process, I am still not convinced that this was the silver bullet I thought it was going in.

Moderator’s Training (August 16)

Today we went through an all-day moderator’s training in preparation for the Citizens Initiative Review that starts tomorrow.  It was an impressive gathering with four moderators (also known as trained mediators/facilitators) from Oregon and a host of guests from Arizona and Colorado as observers in preparation for their first ever CIRs.  We breezed through the 99-page agenda for the 3.5 day event noting the amazing detail of facilitator instructions that included a variety of little icons.  It is clear to see how this level of preparation will be necessary considering the high stress and political nature of these events.

I was particularly intrigued by the careful layout of how panelists will work with claims. Claims are those statements provided by the two campaigns to either support or oppose the measure in question.  They work to identify those that seem contradictory and then carefully sort them into topic categories to then form questions that they can ask the selected panelists. This forming of questions is much like the process of forming problem-identification questions that is used by some mediators, including as taught during our UO basic mediation series.  They also use these to write the final citizen statement.  With a set up front on a giant sticky wall (sticky walls are awesome!) and four small group sets for the break out deliberation groups, and some four or more activities where they use them with different annotations and colored dots, it looks like we will go through hundreds of pages of printed claims (timber!).  It will be interesting to see how all of this paper helps the panelists think, deliberate, and collaborate as a group.

After teaching this last term and learning the incredible value of “write-pair-share” as a teaching method, I find it super interesting the way the moderators help the panelists to think. Every day involves a host of self-reflection, paired sharing, small group work (both in sets of five and sets of ten), and large group deliberation. Each day moderators will switch up assigned seating in a mildly devious move to equip groups with various talents (good records, natural facilitators, different types of learners and thinkers, etc).  Seeing all of this in the moderator agenda makes me think of lesson plans and reinforces for me how similar teaching and facilitating really are.

Mid-Project Check-In (August 15)

Had a mid-project, or really more like pre-project check-in with Mari and Sarah today.  Since they as NPCC are basically contractors, they have less ability to direct the interns so wanted to check-in to see how things are going. Overall, aside from thinking we bought two wide of binders (ha!), things are going well and I am super excited for the upcoming Citizens Initiative Review.  I’m still not exactly sure what my tasks will be during the event, but I will be ready to jump in to anything.

The office store run to beat all others! (week of August 14)

The past few days have been spent up at the Portland Healthy Democracy headquarters helping to prep materials for the CIR this next week. Basically this has meant unbelievable amounts of paper, printer coordination fun, and going over the 99-page moderator manual, which is the most awesomely detailed daily agenda I have ever seen.  Carrie and I also volunteered to make the office run—we had no idea what we were in for!  Three shopping carts, a $1,500 check, and one very full new hatchback later, we had successfully pulled off the largest Office Depot shopping adventure of either of our student/teacher/crafter/etc’s lives!  In the end, I just wish we could have been more help. I think we are both kind of odd interns, working for a sub-contract system where we don’t actually have clear duties and it doesn’t help that we live two hours away so things like binder-prep and computer set-up (which are so desperately important) are not exactly easy for us to help with. After seeing the moderator manual and the dozens of reams of paper we will supposedly be going through next week, I am pretty excited to see just how this thing works.

Office supply packed little blue car