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La situation délibérative dans le débat public

Bernard Castagna
Sylvain Gallais
Pascal Ricaud
et al.

Domaines de mise en œuvre

Bridging the Expert-Citizen Divide in Classrooms, Organizations and Communities

James T. Knauer et Keith Melville

Texte intégral

1This paper explores the growing relevance and achievements of the deliberative discourse model associated in the United States with the work of Public Agenda, the Kettering Foundation and the National Issues Forum Institute. The underlying theory for this model is based on a commitment to a more deliberative democracy with a much higher level of citizen action and shared responsibility – something along the lines of what Ben Barber (1984) has called “strong democracy”. A key feature of the NIF model of citizen discourse is the way it addresses the disconnect between citizens and experts, between citizens and officeholders, challenging the common assumption that on complex public policy questions average citizens are largely incompetent.

2In this paper the authors draw primarily on their experience with various aspects of this work. Melville was senior vice president at Public Agenda for 18 years and has written numerous NIF issue books, including the recent Terrorism (2002) and Americans’ Role in the World (2003). Knauer has organized community forums and has adapted the NIF model of deliberative dialogue for classroom use and as a foundation for student involvement in governance of the Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania Honors Program. He has also hosted web-based NIF forums linking students in different high school and college classrooms.


3Dan Yankelovich’s Coming to Public Judgment (1991) remains a classic source for the analysis of this expert-public disconnect and what he called the “culture of technical control.” On the one hand, expert opinion is often politically impoverished by its failure to address public concerns. On the other hand, public opinion frequently tends toward wishful thinking and inconstancy. The disconnect diminishes the society’s capacity for democracy. What is needed is a culture of expert citizen collaboration, a culture of deliberative public learning.

4Yankelovich describes the expert-public divide as culturally supported by expert socialization which inculcates a deep disrespect for public opinion as uninformed, vacillating and not up to the task of informing public policy decisions. “The gap is wide and deep. It covers not only differences in levels of knowledge but also in values, frameworks and modes of expression” (p. 91). This viewpoint is reinforced by the tendency of experts to live in an “elite subculture” that has “the outlook of a ruling class” (p. 91-92).

5Citizens, Yankelovich suggests, tend toward ambivalent views of experts. On the one hand, the “culture of technical control” places a high value on technical knowledge and teaches deferral to experts on matters within their purview. And as has been widely observed, a dominant social trend in the West over the past several decades has been increasing reliance on experts for problem solving in all arenas. On the other hand, citizens often see experts as arcane, arrogant and arbitrary. They speak in a private language that is impossible to understand. They don’t address the issues as citizens see them. And they frequently disagree among themselves. What good are they? The result is an ambivalent relationship that marries distrust and respect, alienation and dependence (p. 91-98).

6What is particularly interesting in Yankelovich’s analysis is his critique of the expert view of public opinion. Experts, including many public opinion researchers, see public opinion as deficient primarily because it is uninformed. Yankelovich argues that experts overrate the role of information in wise judgment. They are naturally inclined to do so, he maintains, since the effect is to increase the value of the information they possess and others do not. More fundamental than information, Yankelovich argues, is the deliberative working through of underlying concerns and of the realistic costs and consequences, tensions and tradeoffs involved in any public policy decision. In a sense, mere information has no value in itself. It acquires significance for decisions and social action only when it is used in this deliberative process.

7The chief deficiency of experts, Yankelovich maintains, is their isolation within expert-to-expert discussion and resulting failure to bring to their deliberations the concerns of the larger public. Thus expert positions on policy questions risk irrelevance and impracticality because of their failure to address what people care about.

8Yankelovich is especially sensitive to the deeply anti-democratic dimension of this culture of technical control. It teaches that citizens are incompetent to do for themselves in countless areas of life. It attacks the very notion of self-government. “The key to successful self-governance in our Age of Information”, Yankelovich states, “is to create a new balance between public and experts” (p. 11).


9The work of the Kettering Foundation with Public Agenda in getting the National Issues Forums started in the early 1980s was one of the earlier efforts in the wave of what some call the civic renewal movement – and it is still the most extensive, in terms of the number of local conveners in various communities across the country and in the variety of issues they have addressed (See Sirianni and Friedland, 2001).

10As Yankelovich made clear in Coming to Public Judgment, the point from the beginning (especially for Public Agenda, and to a lesser extent for the ΝIF, with which Public Agenda collaborated) was to close the gap between experts and the public. The ten “rules” Yankelovich lays out in chapter 13 of his book offer a good brief guide to what has been at the center of this work.

11Elements in that list include recognizing from the outset that experts and the public will have different starting points. On each issue we addressed (almost 50 issues to date) initial focus group work was done to determine the public’s starting point – i.e. its particular ways of framing an issue, often not in terms of its technical features but as a value choice. Indeed, the issue books framed by Public Agenda were initially conceived as the public’s version of an executive choice memo: they laid out distinctly different perspectives, each leading to different courses of action. It was important in each case not to predispose the presentation (or discussion) by labeling any choice as a particular partisan approach. We took care in each case to make the value elements of the choice apparent, to urge forum participants to be attentive to costs and consequences, so their judgment would rest on an even-handed and realistic assessment.

12More than anything else, the “choice frameworks” were (and are) a means of simplifying the presentation of different points of view and the facts that support them. The premise, as Yankelovich put it, is that “working through is best accomplished when people have choices to consider”, and when they know that someone is listening to the outcome (1991, p. 166). That was the point of including the pre-and post-questionnaires with each handbook, even when it was apparent, in many instances, that the differences between the views presented pre and post were not great.

13Unlike public hearings, debates or panels of experts, this neutral and nonpartisan model of deliberative public learning encourages participants to speak from their deepest hopes and concerns and to listen to each other tor understanding. Inspired by Yankelovich’s original insights and guided by the continuing research of the Kettering Foundation and others, NIFs are designed to bring out the dimensions of public thinking that experts tend to overlook.

14NIF books present an issue framework with three or four perspectives on the nature of the problem and desirable courses of action. Issues are always complex and value-laden (dealing with poverty, determining America’s role in the world) not narrowly focused on technical issues or specific decisions (Should the minimum wage be increased?). The bridging of expert and citizen perspectives is built into the process of creating an issue framework. The process begins with the tentative identification of a broad problem or issue. The use of focus groups at this early stage ensures that each perspective on the issue is rooted in citizen concerns, fleshed out with expert knowledge and stated in public terms, terms that capture what citizens see as most important. The frameworks encourage deep reflection on values and assumptions and on public goods. The aim of the NIF is not to make the public think like experts. However, extensive expert knowledge is incorporated in the frameworks to discourage wishful thinking by helping citizens see the costs and consequences, the tensions and tradeoffs involved in any course of action. For each perspective, both supporting and critical views are presented along with relevant evidence. The use of narratives as starters for each perspective helps set a tone which privileges the personal experience of participants and helps avoid discussion on a purely abstract level.

15To give one example, the recently published By the People: Americans’ Role in the World presents four approaches:

  • International Order: Using Our Power to Secure the Peace. Our military power needs to be the basis for world order, exercised unilaterally if necessary.

  • The Democratic Project: Ensuring People’s Rights. Greater security will result if democratic values are widespread, which will require increased foreign aid and other government and private programs to strengthen self-rule.

  • The Global Market Prescription: Lifting All Boats. Economic growth through expanded free trade will reduce the poverty that breeds unrest and hatred of the U.S.

  • Preserving Out Global Future: Facing the Hard Tasks. Only collaborative multinational efforts can address the many global problems, such as AIDs and pollution, which know no borders.

16The heart of public forums conducted on the NIF model is citizen-to-citizen talk in small moderated groups. Moderators are trained to be scrupulously neutral regarding the issue and the various perspectives while functioning as facilitators and advocates for the process of deliberative public learning. They will intervene in the deliberation to see that each perspective is given a fair hearing, that all voices are heard, that no individuals dominate and that in the reflection period participants consider tensions and tradeoffs, costs and consequences. Two-and three-day moderator training workshops are now offered at over thirty Public Policy Institutes around the country (see

17NIF forums may involve a dozen or a few hundred participants. Farger meetings typically begin and end with plenary sessions, still ensuring that most of the deliberative work is done in groups of 12-20. Whatever the format, the typical agenda can be divided into three parts. (See Mathews and McAfee, 2002).

18First, the issue is introduced, rules for deliberation are discussed and participants introduce themselves. These introductions, referred to as “personal stake”, often involve sharing personal experiences related to the issue. At most forums, a video introduction to the issue and the perspectives on it is used. These professionally produced videos are available for each NIF book.

19Second, each of the approaches is considered in turn. Moderators will prompt for both positive and negative factors regarding each approach. Participants may be asked to speak on behalf of other voices they have heard that are not present in the group and will be encouraged to consider tensions, tradeoffs, costs and consequences of each choice.

20Finally, the group is asked to reflect on its deliberation of the approaches, noting tensions and tradeoffs that have been identified and any individual and group learning that has occurred. This reflection process culminates in the attempt to uncover “common ground for action”. The common ground sought for consists of values and concerns that all or most of the group members share. Ways of enacting that common ground may run the gamut from influencing government policy to changing one’s own behavior. Common ground is not consensus. It can be established in spite of significant, even impassioned, differences. As David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation, has written, “deliberation does more than tolerate differences, it uses them” (1999, p. 236-37).

21Although successful public deliberation is seen as a preparation for action and as a way of increasing a community’s capacity to act, the forum model itself does not incorporate attention to actual strategizing and organizing. The NIF is intended to teach the habits of deliberation and public engagement, not so much to reach specific actionable steps as to demonstrate the power of public deliberation itself. The Kettering Foundation investigates the move from talk to action through its community politics program, and certainly many members of the NIF network are actively involved in moving from common ground to action (See Mathews 1999, ch. 12).

22Thought of in terms of bridging the disconnect between citizens and experts, the dominant NIF strategy focuses on empowering citizens to bridge the gap. However, other research programs of the Kettering Foundation, such as their early and influential interest in public journalism, have addressed the issue of how deliberative public learning might impact the practice of professions. Referring to one aspect of this disconnect, the relationship between citizens and officeholders, Mathews envisions a transformation of perspectives on both sides if officeholders were to become equal participants alongside other citizens in deliberative forums (1999, p. 242-43). His point is not simply that officeholders would get better information about citizen demands, but that officeholders as well as citizens would come to see their responsibilities in the relationship differently. Organizations and individuals in the world-wide National Issue Forum Network are involved in a wide range of activities touching on all aspects of the effort to build stronger democracy. Regular reports are published on The National Issues Forum Institute website (​news.html).

23A glance at two recent criticisms of theories of deliberative democracy (see Young 1996 and Sanders 1997) will serve to highlight two specific strengths of the NIF approach. One criticism alleges that deliberative theory has an overly narrow conception of reasoned deliberation and that in practice this narrow conception privileges abstract, formal argumentation and hence the modes of discourse typical of males rather than females and of privileged groups generally. While this criticism has merit as regards some of the writing on deliberative democracy, one of the strengths of the NIF approach is its very broad and culturally open conception of deliberative discourse, including recognition of the powerful role of narrative in human moral reasoning. NIF issue books introduce each approach to the issue with a story that captures the approach’s underlying concerns, and participants are encouraged in the opening, personal stake period of forums to share their own stories. It is not unusual in forums for some of these opening stories to become touchstones that are referred back to throughout the deliberation. Storytelling, which Iris Marion Young proposes as a needed supplement and alternative to formal argumentation, is an integral part of deliberation in NIFs. The understanding of deliberation underlying NIFs has always been much broader than the narrower conceptions Young and Sanders critique, the result of starting with public concerns and modes of thought rather than with the views of experts trained in formal argumentation.

24A second criticism formulated by Young is that deliberative theorists tend to assume an underlying unity of opinion that is either discovered (because it previously existed) or created through deliberation. The claim is that deliberative theory assumes all important differences are reconcilable. On the contrary, NIFs operate on the assumption that while deliberation will discover and create some commonalities, it can only be considered successful if it increases mutual understanding of remaining differences. Deep differences are assumed to be enduring; they make deliberative discourse necessary and possible. The project described below, Students and the World, has as a primary objective increasing the diversity of student perspectives in the classroom in order to make deliberative public learning possible.


25In order to address the question of how schools might teach for strong democracy using deliberative dialogue, it will be necessary to analyze the various dimensions of deliberative public learning. What follows is a preliminary effort in that direction.

26Helping individuals move from opinion to judgment. This involves learning more about the issue and thinking more deeply about it, which is fostered by looking at it from different points of view and gaining a greater appreciation for how it affects differently situated individuals. Of course this learning can occur on a purely individual level, simply as a result of deeper reflection that increases the awareness of tensions and tradeoffs and the costs and consequences of various courses of action. However, participation in group reflection can be a powerful stimulus to this deeper reflection as participants gain the advantage of new ways of seeing the issue.

27Perspective taking. A closely related but distinguishable kind of learning is coming to see the issue from another’s point of view. The immediacy of a face-to-face dialogue can be quite powerful in providing participants empathetic access to points of view they might dismiss out of hand in other settings.

28Group learning. The result of repeated perspective taking within a group, Mathews (1999) suggests, may be the creation of a group perspective on the issue that incorporates and transcends the points of view brought by individuals. As Mathews (1999) puts it, “deliberation does more than tolerate differences, it uses them. Rather than obscuring individual differences in a homogeneous amalgam, it incorporates and builds on each perspective to create an integrated view of the whole” (emphasis in original; p. 236-37). The new understanding not only draws on multiple perspectives, it is an understanding shared among the participants in the learning process.

29Process learning. Repeated experience with deliberative dialogue seems to foster the development of individual and group dispositions and capacities that support further deliberative learning. Positive experience with deliberative learning can help groups develop a level of interpersonal trust and openness that strengthens the group’s capacity for finding common ground for action. In time an organizational or community culture of deliberative decision-making and citizen action can result.

30Regard for the public good. While the notion of public good is implicit in the theory of deliberative public learning, it usually becomes a conscious part of the deliberative process only as this community culture develops. A lively awareness of shared interests, concerns and values – a shared sense of a public good – can be a by-product of deliberative public learning.

31Community self-knowledge. Finally, there can be an enhanced understanding of where the community stands – “a deeper understanding of other people’s reasons for their opinions on issues” (Mathews, 1999, p. 241). “Watching forums to find out whether and how opinions change soon made us aware that more was happening than discrete shifts in attitudes on policy issues. Citizens were creating a distinctive kind of knowledge in the forums, a knowledge of the public produced by the public” (p. 235). Such community self-knowledge can make political possibilities more apparent and, perhaps, increase the chances the community will adopt courses of action with the support required to make them effective.


32Two examples of the use of deliberative public learning in formal education settings are described below. One is based in curriculum and uses the internet to link multiple high school and university classrooms in deliberative dialogue. The second is based in a university academic program and seeks to use deliberative dialogue as a foundation for creation of a learning community with students as active participants in governance. Both are offered here as examples of efforts to teach for strong democracy using deliberative public learning. (For other examples see and

33In fall 2003 the Pennsylvania Center for Civic Life at Lock Haven University, in collaboration with the National Collegiate Honors Council, will host “Students and the World,” linking more than twenty college classes across the United States to study and discuss the NIF book, Americans’ Role in the World. The approximately 400 participating students will be placed in small online groups with students from other schools and joined by high school students, students in several other countries, and other American citizens – bringing these American classrooms into the world.

34The online small group deliberations will use an adapted NIF agenda. Deliberations will begin with introductions and personal stake, proceed to consideration of each of the four perspectives and conclude with reflections on the deliberations and what has been learned from them. Given the greater amount of time than is usual in public forums, the reflection process will be extended to include shared student reflection on the online experience as a new form of learning and on the relatedness of the issue to personal life decisions and to citizen responsibility. Because these online groups will provide a much greater diversity of voices than is present in any single classroom, they will augment classroom learning, especially as regards the broadening of vision students can be expected to derive from the process.

35The most innovative feature of the project website will be text-based deliberative dialogue using a layered issue framework. Grounded in the pedagogy of dialogic inquiry, the text-based dialogue will run concurrently with the small group deliberations to support and guide inquiry and to accommodate students from high school to advanced undergraduate alongside the general public. Unlike a traditional linear text, the online text will be formatted in linked levels of complexity, allowing users to probe more deeply into topics of individual interest. Each paragraph of the text will be linked to a discussion board where comments can be posted and discussed by others.

36The top text layer will provide an overview of the issue framework. The second will provide more detailed presentations of each of the four perspectives. The third will function much like substantive footnotes, providing more detailed discussion of specific points. Each section of the third layer will be linked from the second. In addition, throughout the second and third layers hyperlinks will connect points in one approach to contrasting treatments of the same point by other perspectives.

37This issue framework is designed to be used in succeeding semesters and to evolve through student contributions. At the end of each semester, student contributions will be reviewed. Selections from student discussions of the text will be moved into a fourth layer of text and preserved for consideration by future students. Selected student research abstracts may also be incorporated. Thus an entirely student-created fourth layer of the issue framework will evolve from semester to semester for consideration by future students. Presenting the issue framework itself as a work in progress and incorporating student-to-student discussion into the research process places dialogue at the center of learning. Students come to see themselves as cocreators of knowledge.

38Like problem-based learning, the pedagogy of dialogic inquiry organizes learning as student inquiry rather than as receiving knowledge (Wells, 1999). Research questions are not set in advance but emerge out of dialogue.

39Students themselves identify what they need to know to reach sound public judgments. ΝIF frameworks provide a powerful starting point for dialogic inquiry and, by feeding student learning back into the dialogue, they can provide a record of student public scholarship. With its evolving online issue framework this project creates an inquiry partnership linking past, present and future students. The fact that the dialogue is text-based provides a pedagogical bridge between dialogic inquiry and traditional text-based methods of instruction.


40For communities, organizations and schools, cultivation of a habit of deliberative discourse can overcome the expert-citizen disconnect through its potential to redefine the role of citizens vis-à-vis experts and the role of experts vis-à-vis citizens. In schools this may require a redefining of the roles of teacher and student; in organizations of supervisor and supervised. The key is the development of process expertise – a practiced capacity to contribute to deliberative public learning – on the part of citizens, public officials and experts. The new patterns of authority that deliberative public learning can create are informal not formal, embedded in civil society not government, cultural not legal. They reside in the creation of a public voice that brings its own authority into the arena of community and organizational action. Because this authority can strengthen communities and organizations for action in accordance with public voice it can, of course, be threatening to elites and to politics and governance as usual.

41In the Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania Honors Program the influence and scope of student public voice has attained real significance in governance. A consistently deliberative and participatory approach to decision making has nurtured student public voice in the service of program objectives. The Program’s mission to provide a transformative education for its students is achieved by bringing students into a citizenship role vis-à-vis the program.

42Of course, the program is not a member democracy. There is strong guidance and clear administrative authority at the top. Student leaders are selected by the honors director in consultation with current student leaders. While the honors director has the authority to act regardless of student opinion, guidance from the top is always open and in accordance with the principles of deliberative public action. All significant issues that come to the director’s attention are brought to student leaders for consideration. Other issues are raised first by students.

43When issues arise, the first question for leadership is who should be involved in consideration of the issue. Perspectives not present (faculty, staff, alumni) will be brought to the table. Often matters are referred to the Student Program Coordinating Committee (which is open to all students) and to the Student Assembly (with an average participation rate of 65%). In framing issues for discussion, attention is paid to often competing underlying concerns and to the costs and consequences of different courses of action. Through experience in the program, students have come to value and cultivate this mode of talk and action. They contribute to its nurturance. Usually the outcome of this process is a common ground for action that will garner the active support of nearly everyone. Even those who would prefer some other course of action usually accept and support the authority of public voice.

44In many cases the ultimate decision is made by the director. Coming at the end of the process of organizational deliberation (in which the director has been one voice at the table), it will usually be in accordance with student public voice. On those rare occasions when the director’s decision departs from that pubic voice, the reasons for doing so are communicated to all out of respect for that public voice. This authority structure is not democratic but it is, perhaps, one appropriate model for an educational institution in a strong democracy.

45The mode of discourse taught and nurtured in NIFs has contributed to our understanding of how citizens need to talk about public issues to strengthen democracy. The promise of NIFs lies in their cultivation of this democratic talk among citizens. It can strengthen the capacity of communities to act for the public good. It can also provide the lifeblood of civic education in the schools and of voiceful, participatory governance within organizations. Indeed, instilling the practice of democratic talk in all these arenas will be one key to the further development of strong, deliberative democracy.



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Professeur de Science Politique – Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania

Professeur - University of Columbia

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2004

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