On Saturday, June 26th, nearly 4,000 Americans from all walks of life participated in an all-day country-wide deliberation on the nation's fiscal future. Town hall meetings held in 19 sites occupied the main stage for the day, with smaller scale discussions in more than 40 additional communities across the country and online venues for participatory input as well. The event, organized by AmericaSpeaks had all the markers of political deliberation, American-style: electronic keypads and networked computers that lent a technologically updated verisimilitude to George Gallup's idea of palpating the "pulse of democracy" and, of course, lots of political contestation (more on this below).
Like participatory budgeting mechanisms elsewhere in the world, this one was about brass tacks and hard choices. Participants were charged with coming to a considered judgment on real policy solutions to the national debt (projected to soar to 90 percent of the U.S. GDP), matched to underlying values that anchor their policy recommendations, and aimed at changing the current debate over the deficit among Congressional leaders and President Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Unlike more institutionalized participatory budgeting mechanisms elsewhere (see, e.g., Anwar Shah's volume for the World Bank), however, the input was consultative, rather than an effort to achieve some form of co-governance.
Also unlike some participatory budgeting processes, organized groups (e.g., MoveOn.org, the "Tea Party" movement) set upon to "mobilize bias" in advance of the proceedings. There were also polarizing suspicions about the underlying motives of the event's funders (the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and, drawing the lion's share of ire and scrutiny, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation). In the lead-in to the day's events, many scholars, pundits, and policy advocates alike feared that the fix was in to manufacture public consent for deep cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
The outcome? Contrary to the views of elite, left-of-center naysayers and consistent with previous research by John Mark Hansen on the rationality of mass preferences over budget trade-offs and Philip Tetlock on the fallibility of expert judgment, the outcome of public deliberation was coherent and, importantly, fully compatible with the range of views on budget reform held by Beltway experts and the mass public as measured by serial cross-sectional opinion polls. On net, participants preferred raising taxes and cutting defense spending, rather than bowdlerizing long-standing entitlement programs. (Details from the initial evaluation are available here)
This initial result from the June 26th event has not been warmly embraced by all stakeholders. To the contrary, it has sparked a lively debate over what "public opinion" on budget reform is and whether deliberative mechanisms can access it (see, for a sampling of this lively debate here, here, here, here, here, and here). Some of this Sturm und Drang rests on philosophical differences about participatory democracy, political loyalties to particular approaches to fiscal reform, and methodological divides on the proper study of public opinion.
Some of it, however, also turns on unsettled empirical questions, for which good data on deliberation is rare. On this aspect, there is some promising research on the horizon. With generous support from the MacArthur Foundation, Kevin Esterling, Archon Fung, and I are undertaking a unique study of the processes and outputs of the June 26th participatory budgeting event. Elements of our study design include randomized assignment of participants to tables; pre-event, post-event, and 4-months' out follow-up surveys on participants; three sets of comparison groups interviewed roughly concurrent with the June 26th event and also 4-months' post (individuals who registered for the event, but did not show up; a general U.S. population sample, surveyed via telephone; a general U.S. population sample, surveyed online); participant observation from a small squadron of graduate students sent to all 19 town hall sites.
When all components of this study are completed, we believe this will represent some of the most comprehensive, systematic data yet available on participatory deliberation. Findings and further details will be up on our project website as they becomes available. Stay tuned!
Photo Credit: Flickr user jogoldman