New Strategies and Techniques

A National Approach to Public Engagement: Discovering Common Ground from Neighborhood to Nation

Institute of the Commons (

Submitted by co-directors, Kenoli Oleari and Marc Tognotti


A National Approach to Public Engagement: Discovering Common Ground from Neighborhood to Nation


We recommend a bold and far-reaching but simple and doable process for re-energizing citizenship across the country, connecting individuals and local vision, purpose and action to national and global vision, purpose and action. We imagine an inspiring project to unify our country and invigorate the concept of citizenship, a project with the inspiring symbolic power of Kennedy’s proclaimed goal of landing a man on the moon.


Institute a process to find and subsequently build on common ground at every level from our neighborhoods to the nation, as follows:




1. Start at the level of walking-distance neighborhoods to create networks of independent and autonomous neighborhood assemblies that agree to assemble the full diversity of perspectives in large numbers in order to:

a. let every view be heard to create a shared big picture in which everyone sees themselves acknowledged; do this with regard to: the past, the present, and dreams for the future, considering all levels: personal, the local community and the larger world;

b. engage the everyone together in exploring the whole before proposing action;

c. focus on discovering future goals and values supported by all – a shared vision for the neighborhood, the local town or city, and the larger world.

d. enable people to take individual responsibility for planning and committment to action;

To do this, use techniques drawn from large-group processes suited to the task (e.g. future search, open space technology, world café, whole-scale change, etc.).


2. Building on the outcomes, repeat the pattern at succeeding levels: cities, regions, states, at each step sending (from each lower level to the next above) teams of delegates that remain in ongoing dialogue with and accountable to the lower levels and ultimately to the neighborhoods at the ground level.


The outcomes include:


Identification of shared goals that can be acted upon, because supported by all, and that can be subsequently deepened and developed at every level of our nation: individual, neighborhood, city, region, state and nation. We are looking to create an engine for the progressive development of agreement, collective intelligence and trust in our culture, for the progressive coordination of action in the service of shared goals, for the gradual re-empowerment of local community to serve as a source of innovation and economic prosperity and a check and balance to power at higher levels.


A culture where there is true partnership between government and civil society, including appropriate division of labor between individual, community, public and private sectors, which also means a real rebirth and reinvigoration of the practice of Citizenship: again we will have individual citizens, groups and communities acting as citizens, citizens at every level and in every sector of individual and group identity.


In this way, we can create an autonomous, ongoing neighborhood-based participatory democracy infrastructure, a fifth independent branch of our republic, that will provide a stronger foundation for our representative democracy — something much like what Thomas Jefferson proposed in his idea for a “ward system,” an idea that has been revived from time to time by notable Americans, including, recently, Senator Gary Hart in his book Restoration of the Republic. At the Institute of the Commons, we have outlined approaches (legislative and otherwise) capable of getting the ball rolling on this vision through public or private funding (


(Full Version)


Institute of the Commons (

A "Trust the Process" Implementation Proposal for a National approach to Public Engagement


We need a plan for how to implement a national public engagement program, an implementation plan for building a network of public engagement across the country.


The most important thing we bring to the table is not our understanding of process, but our experience with process, i.e. what we know as a result of doing it. We have thousands of people around the world who have experience convening and implementing large groups of people using small and large teams of facilitators. There are a few highly visible examples of this, but there are many less visible examples which have built a huge community of skilled convenors. All of this energy can be brought into this project.


Here is a view of how this might happen. It could be much improved if a large group got together using some of our process skills to put all of our experience to the task. This is meant to inspire and to give a sense that something like this could be done.


We hear a lot about the fact that bold steps are needed. Well, bold steps can't be taken unless we can envision them. By their nature bold steps are out of the box. If we propose something that is like what is already going on, we will never get anything different than what is already going on. Personally, I'd rather be bold and fall short than miss an opportunity and spend the rest of my life doing something I didn't want to do and which doesn't work anyway. Besides, anything we imagine immediately begins to exist in the universe in some energetic form.


A bold imagining . . . and a practical suggestion to stimulate the imagination:


1. This network and all public participation has to be process and participation focused, not issue focused. It is not about getting together experts and advocates on an issue but about bringing together the full range of citizens, including experts, advocates and officials, to work together to find a collaborative response to whatever issue is on the table.


2. It needs to be a distributed network with the different nodes of that network, e.g. neighborhoods, communities, regions, states, associations, networks, any groupings of people interacting at higher and higher levels with each other. Some of this can parallel and interact with the distributed structure of contacts and operatives Obama created during his campaign. This is something he has already done! These groups don't need to be parallel or uniform. Because a high diversity of people will be assembled at every level, a self-organizing, coordinating and regulating process will evolve. More on this below.


3. A "Trust the Process" Network Process: At the core of this will be a "network process" by which the whole country can be engaged from the neighborhood to the national level through a series of assemblies, starting at the lowest levels (neighborhood, community, region) and connection through higher and higher networks (region, state, national, global). Some of the expected benefits and outcomes might include:


• Build capacity for convening large groups of people whenever and wherever needed on any issue.

• Inform decision makers on any issue being taken up across the country in real time (this actually feeds into local and state, as well as national government)

• Work at the local level to build cohesive communities that can network with each other and feed into networks of communities; (this can serve other purposes, like emergency preparedness, response to the economic crisis, community mutual support for unemployed, failed mortgage holders, distributed energy development, schools, health care.)

• Build more effective local state and regional government by supporting the capacities of constituencies to act on their own and interact effectively with governing entities.

• Expose a larger and larger circle of people to this kind of public process and begin skill development to widen the field of experience. (Eventually these skills will become more endemic than Roberts Rules of Order.)


4. The first network process: One way to kick this off is to put money into existing networks like NCDD, the future search network, the Open Space Network, the Center for Wise democracy, CII, the AI network, networks of local groups that provide mediation and facilitation services, the AS network, the IAF network, the ODN network, Institute of the Commons and more; (there are thousands, maybe 10s of thousands of such networks; I've only named a few I am connected with). This money will be used to start this process by modeling it in a test run which will be used to design and implement the network process itself. These groups will convene the first "Trust the Process" national network process by convening large groups (30 to thousands) of process people and other stakeholders (as always, full diversity) at each node to focus on how to build this national process network. These can be Open Space meetings, future search meetings, 20th Century town halls, Dynamic Facilitation, Whole Scale Change, A.I. processes, World Cafes, TOP stuff, any kind of effective large group engagement process that makes sense to those assembling, all feeding into each other. These can be hosted by networks of experienced process people and planned and convened by diversified planning teams of local stakeholders. This should be mobilized through the network process, NOT AS ONE BIG NATIONAL MEETING. It will follow the format of the network process, starting at the lowest level and networking between those nodes and upward, in this case, to the national level. The idea here is to:


• Include lots of experience process people (people who do public process, not heads of agencies who advocate for public process) along with other stakeholders

• Hone and vitalize the network process framework

• Provide a test run of the network process

• Set up some basic guidelines for the network process (see 11, below)

• Give people at every level, neighborhood, regional, state, national, experience with participative public process.

• Begin to identify coordinating mechanisms for the process aspect of this project (don't over do this one)

• Identify other potential process activities (like Wisdom Council, the British Columbia process, other) that might be taken up on a national (or other) level. (This should not dominate the process and might be a separate process.)


5. Whenever a "network process" is implemented, each node or assembly needs to act on its own authority, not be subsidiary to any centralized authority. Coordination as needed can be implemented as needed starting at each node. Then networks of these assemblies can convene likewise, to focus on the next level, etc., until we have a national network capable of convening citizens at any and all levels from local neighborhoods to national or even larger levels. There will be less need to start with national assemblies, as people can be assembled quickly at even the neighborhood level to feed into networks feeding up to whatever level is desireable (e.g. region, state national or higher). With a fully mobilized network in the wings, this can happen quickly, even in a matter of weeks or months.


6. Instead of setting any kind of central governance up for this process up front, any coordination functions can grow from this network as the need for coordination arises OUT OF THE ACTUAL ACTIONS of the network. It can arise and modify itself as needed.


7. It probably makes sense to keep these assemblies small (say, less than 1000, or even 500, people), especially at the lower levels so that they start out with face-to-face interaction and provide enough diversity of nodes, and are rooted in local walking-distance neighborhoods where people can be in regular contact and share a common, embodied rather than virtual, daily experience. If they are too large to begin with, the input from local nodes will be blurred. As the network expands, it will be appropriate to assemble larger groups (in the multi-thousand range). It is my sense that the nodes need to meet on their own, not as a part of a larger process that includes nodes. There is too much dynamic here for making the nodes subsidiary to the larger process. It also takes longer and more resources to organize a large multi-node event. Nodes can organize by themselves and then join in networks of nodes. This parallel organizing will speed things up and diversify the input at the next level.


8. On any issue, the network process can be mobilized. Whenever an issue comes along, a community, a local government, a state government, the Obama network, any entity wanting to engage the public or networks of these entities, can call on this network process as needed. It could be used for such purposes as an informing or authoring legislation, an environmental impact report, an economic development project, any project requiring public engagement, or any need requiring local and wider discovery and implementation of solutions. Many nodes will develop their own process and coordination over time to meet their own needs. Much planning at all levels may go on using sections of this network. How this will all be organized or coordinated can grow out of the network itself or sub-sections of the network.


9. It is important not to let this get into the hands of hierarchically-oriented structures like universities, "national" NGOs, government agencies, advocacy groups. It is important not to over-direct it from the beginning. This has to be established right off the bat. It has to be a de-centralized network based in autonomous units, ultimately, possibly, rooted in networks of independent autonomous neighborhoods, coordinating through function and process, not governance or hierarchy.


Of course this is the kind of thing that some national public process advocacy group will want to control because they know that is the only way it will be done right, some government agency will want to get funding to write rules for, some academic group will want to control because they are used to doing this, some business will want to turn into a commodity, or some consultants or others will want to get rich off of. Perhaps citizens will all want some authority to do it for them.


Our biggest hedge here is getting lots of diverse people involved from all levels of society so they all have a stake in making it work. Once they get a taste, they will never want to go back. This will be much more effective than any control strategy.


10. This can, in fact be a model for global organization.


11. The regulating and coordinating dynamics, as alluded to above, will grow from highly diversified participation and be built on the needs that evolve from the actual action outcomes at each node and network level. There is some reason to provide, from the beginning, some guidelines that would be useful to support a true self-organizing dynamic at every level. This is something I think needs to be developed by a large group of people (diverse, as well, but including a strong component of people with LOTS of process experience.). The first iteration of this could be established in the initial network process described in 4, above. As an example of the kind of thing I am suggesting, I can offer some of what has worked for us in this regard:


• A full range of stakeholders (I know there are various means for achieving this and they should all be used as appropriate) including functional stakeholders (peoples roles and experience in society) and demographic stakeholders (race, gender, wealth, ability, etc.)

• It would be useful to have some guides for determining this. As I have said elsewhere, the guides we use are: Those affected, those with the power or resources to hold things back or move them forward, people with the experience, knowledge, wisdom and skills needed. There are other methods, including random selection. With good planning at each node and network level, the appropriate method for doing this can be worked out. What is critical is that this is done in a way that does provide a way for a broad diversity of voices to participate.

• A planning process that involves a microcosm of the whole from the very start.

• Full inclusion.

• Focus on discovering common ground, not resolving conflict.

• All voices invited to uncompromisingly share their views, perspectives and feelings on the topic (understanding the whole by understanding the parts); create a shared picture of the whole in which all see themselves acknowledged

• A way to support the convergence of these voices to discover where their common ground lies

• Focus on action based on individuals making voluntary choices and public commitments (where people's energy shows up)

• Process that follows the energy rather than directing the energy.

• A planning process that involves a microcosm of the whole.


12. One way to start building this list is to bring together a mini-network of process people (plus, as always, other stakeholders) to set up some initial parameters (a list like the one in 11, above) to set the whole thing in motion. Obama did something like this to suggest how to assemble house meetings. Part of the task of the first larger network process (see 4, above) will be to modify this list as needed and develop an ongoing set of guidelines for generating a self organizing network.


13. There are going to have to be some cultural changes here in government. This won't work in a command and control environment. The actual functions of government don't have to change, but if members of government participate at every level, the outcomes of this participative network can be implemented organically through existing government structures. Oversight, control and regulation can continue in governmental realms. However, there are going to have to be some shifts in culture around this process itself. It is going to have to be built on a "trust the process" approach. The nodes and networks described will have to grow out of the process and results of that process at each stage. Controls on funding will have to be looser than in the typical government process, with power to utilize resources distributed through the network. This could possibly be achieved by instituting a grant program funded by government -- one possible route that we have developed at Institute of the Commons.


14. If full diversity is attained in this process, there won't be any need to give it any kind of statutory power, as people with statutory power will be part of the process, and because statutory power is ultimately answerable to the ultimate authority: the people themselves, through this process articulate themselves into networks with the capacity to think and act collectively in pursuit of common goals. The idea is a culture of true partnership between community or civil society and government, rather than a relation of dependency. The many involved will partner with those having statutory power in building visions which can be implemented through a partnership between all parties, including government entitites. Implementation will come through commitment, relationship, shared vision, common ground and collaborative action rather than statutory authority.


15. The academic community could serve a useful and important role observing, recording, providing historical context, disseminating information, etc., as well as sitting in the room with us and joining our conversations.


16. We can recruit (or rather Obama can recruit) both public and private funding for this process. The suppliers of both of these kinds of funding are going to have to learn "trust the process." Obama will have to be the first to learn this.


17. People need to be compensated for their work here. The network itself can contribute to an understanding of how to do this. Parameters can grow out of the process based on a shared understanding of what kinds of things need to be compensated.



65 votes
Idea No. 959