How we tackled “Civic Infrastructure” at NCDD 2012

I’m preparing a little presentation for our partners at CommunityMatters on how NCDD tackled the concept of civic infrastructure at our last national conference, and thought I’d write about it here on the blog to gather my thoughts.

Our convening question (kinda like a theme) for NCDD Seattle was:

How can we build a more robust civic infrastructure in our practice, our communities, and our country?

In our conference guidebook, we described our challenge to attendees this way:

NCDD 2012 Guidebook CoverOur hope is that this theme takes us to a deeper level of discourse and inspires us to begin making real progress together on one of our field’s greatest challenges.

Dialogue and deliberation are powerful communication processes that help people bridge gaps, understand and tackle complex issues, resolve conflicts, influence policy, and make better decisions. We talk a lot about our methodologies, and about how they lead to outcomes like citizen action and policy change. This year, we’re focusing in on the bigger picture of our work – how we all contribute to creating the underlying structure needed to help ensure people can come together to address their challenges effectively (which is what we mean when we use the term “civic infrastructure”). How are we each creating this infrastructure, how are we building on what each other creates, and what can we do together that we just don’t have the capacity to do on our own?

To help inspire you to think about these questions, we’re excited to be running a unique awards program in conjunction with the conference, and invite all of you to participate. The NCDD Catalyst Awards are two $10,000 awards for collaborative projects that launch our field forward in two critical areas: civic infrastructure and political bridge building. Groups will form and hone their ideas at the conference and online at

Since our conference brought together 400 people with different goals, interests, and levels and types of experience, we designed the conference to allow people to dig into the concept of civic infrastructure at three levels:

  1. Individual level: How might individuals develop their practices with an eye to building civic infrastructure?
  2. Community level: What might a robust civic infrastructure look like in my community?
  3. National and field level: What is happening in this realm at the leading edge of the field? Where are the breakthroughs? What are the challenges? What is the latest research? What are our next steps as a field?

DSCN0588Our opening plenary session on the first day of our three-day conference focused on FRAMING the conference’s theme and goals. I gave a rapid overview of where we’ve come as a community/field over the past 10 years (it was NCDD’s ten year anniversary after all!), and shared why I felt the conference theme was critically important — not only to the future of our field but also to the future of our society.

Attendees did some networking and introductions using the new Group Works Card Deck, and we used keypad polling (thank you, Daniel Clark and Martin Carcasson, for the keypads!) to get a sense of who’s in the room.

One of the polling questions posed by co-Emcee Susanna Haas Lyons was “This conference focuses on civic infrastructure. How comfortable do you feel with this term?” The most popular answer was “I think I know what you mean” (36%), with those who chose the option “I totally get it!” close behind with 30%. 15% were pretty sure they knew what we meant, 17% were not so sure, and 3% indicated they “had no idea” what we meant.

Our featured speaker for Day 1, Eric Liu (Founder of the Guiding Lights Network) helped orient attendees by posing questions about our capacity to help communities address their challenges, and our willingness to meet people where they are. You can watch Eric’s presentation here.

“We’re at a moment right now, where either this democracy is going to live up to its promise or it’s not — and it will to the extent that we, as a network, do our work with purpose and passion,” noted Eric.

“This is a room full of incredible super-carriers. Nodes of networks, catalysts… carriers of an incredible potential” but he cautioned the group to think in not just in terms of “D&D” (dialogue and deliberation), but also in terms of “B&G” (blood and guts). People are primal, tribal, and often motivated more by fear than hope, and suggested that for this movement to be absolutely viral and contagious, we must appeal to what’s going on in people’s guts and channel that energy into our efforts to engage people. According to Eric, concepts like dialogue, deliberation, and civic infrastructure promote a certain kind of civil, logical discourse, and we must also attend to an “infrastructure of the heart.”

After Eric’s speech, planning team members Peggy Holman and Susan Partnow led an Appreciative Inquiry exercise. Attendees were asked to think of a time “when they were part of a group, a team, or a community that was able to constructively engage with each other on a complex challenge. A time when all the critical elements came together and the group was not only able to move forward on the immediate issues, but perhaps also left a legacy in the community that enabled people to more effectively come together to approach challenges in the future (in other words, build civic infrastructure).”

Attendees shared these stories in pairs, focusing on the unique factors that led to success. They were asked to “Consider what the group’s immediate impact was on the issue at hand, AND in what ways it left a long-term legacy in the community.”


Everyone then got back into their table groups and discussed what key themes and patterns seemed to stand out from their stories. Each table jotted down key insights about “what is needed to cultivate strong civic infrastructure” on sticky notes to feed into our graphic recording wall. Our nine-person graphic recording team used that input to get started on a huge conference-wide mural on civic infrastructure.

The next day, after people had experienced a fantastic Showcase session and several workshops, we started off our plenary session on Day 2 with small group dialogue on the following topics:

  • What have we heard that’s promising or working well, and needs to be nurtured?
  • What are some recurring challenges or obstacles to building and sustaining civic infrastructure at various levels (local, regional, national, global)?
  • What could we create together to overcome these obstacles and barriers and move us forward?

NCDDSeattle-2guyssmiling-outlineThe results of this activity were quite expansive, with many dozens of sticky notes being sorted into broad categories like research, communication in the field and with others, online tools and technology for engagement, the importance of storytelling, cultural readiness for dialogue and deliberation, and more. Some common themes included:

  • the need for more funding and resources for this work
  • the appreciation for increased collaboration in the field among people with different approaches
  • the persistent gap between research and practice
  • the need to capture learnings (success stories, learning from failures / “failing forward”, learning from quick projects that react to crises)
  • hopefulness about programs that are being embedded in governance, like Oregon’s citizen initiative reviews and participatory budgeting
  • the need to recognize and utilize community champions for engagement
  • appreciation for the power of storytelling (from the plenary exercise)
  • the need for more physical and online spaces for dialogue and listening to be nurtured in communities
  • the challenge of practitioners being overworked and overwhelmed (no time to create long-term civic infrastructure)
  • inefficiency in the field, including multiple groups doing the same work from scratch rather than building on each other’s work or working together

These sticky notes were themed by a dedicated group of volunteers and then were incorporated into our graphic recording wall. At the end of this plenary, our graphic recording team leader, Timothy Corey, reported on the themes they saw emerging and how they were being interpreted graphically.

Seattle Oct 2012 276Our featured speakers on Day 2 were Pete Peterson, Executive Director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University (now running for Secretary of State in California), and Carolyn Lukensmeyer, founder of AmericaSpeaks and now Executive Director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona.

Pete’s presentation focused on innovations and challenges in building civic infrastructure at the state and local level, leading into Carolyn’s presentation, which focused on our field’s challenge to build national infrastructure for engagement, and what might be possible going forward.

Pete outlined what he considers to be a “quiet revolution” in local governance, and provided valuable insight into what works when talking to public officials about public engagement. He made a compelling and concerning argument that, despite the fact that deliberative public engagement is becoming more and more common among legislators, public sector officials approach the task of engaging the public from a place of fear. Without “understanding the fear — that is very well founded based on bad processes — we will not move forward.” Watch Pete in action here.

If you don’t get that one of the real problems that public sector officials have in engaging the public, is that they’re coming from a place of fear–based very legitimately on past bad experiences with engaging the public–we’re never going to move this field forward.

Carolyn’s speech transitioned us to the national level and focused on what might constitute a national infrastructure for civil discourse. Despite many successes, deliberative public engagement in the United States remains largely episodic and sporadic. We’re a long way from institutionalizing this work so that this is how the public’s business is done, and Carolyn outlined seven infrastructure elements needed to support a healthy democracy:

  • NCDDSeattle-GRs-borderlegislative support for engagement
  • skilled human infrastructure
  • trusted organizational infrastructure
  • accessible physical space
  • technological skills and broadband infrastructure
  • a fact-based media system
  • robust civic education

The “human infrastructure” needed to support a healthy democracy is “the element we’re the furthest ahead on in the United States,” as it includes networks of facilitators and skills in democratic processes and conflict resolution. Watch Carolyn’s speech here.

Carolyn ended her speech with a challenge to our “tribe”:

Every time you do a citizen engagement effort, consciously ask yourself, “how can we add one brick to the foundation of one of these elements of infrastructure that will be there, and capable of being run by the community even if we’re not there?” Add that to your charge to yourself, because if we don’t build the infrastructure, no matter how good the results are that we produced in that, we haven’t helped the community be capable of self-governing, democratic behavior.

Both of these speeches were top-notch and extremely informative, and are well worth watching if you weren’t able to join us at NCDD Seattle! Visit this link to peruse all the videos created at/about the conference.

Catalyst AwardsThroughout the whole conference, we were also encouraging NCDD members and attendees to hatch and organize around projects they could work on together that would achieve goals they can’t reach alone. Our Catalyst Awards project, which offered two $10,000 awards for team projects in the areas of civic infrastructure and political bridge building, was integrated into the 2012 conference in a variety of ways.

The project, essentially, was a Participatory Budgeting exercise for our community. Our members proposed projects at the conference and also at, organized teams to flesh their ideas out, voted on which qualifying proposals they preferred, and ultimately selected two projects to win the awards:


Voting was conducted after the conference so teams would have more time to organize and so all members of the NCDD community could get involved, and numerous projects were launched at the conference and presented during our plenary session on Day 3.

During that final plenary, our speakers John Gastil of Penn State University (also co-Emcee at NCDD Seattle) and Fran Korten, publisher of YES! Magazine, helped us reflect on the progress made and insights gained over the past three days. And as a group, we identified key priorities and strategies for moving forward in our individual practices, our communities, and as a community of practice.

In additional to all of these rich activities, a number of our concurrent workshops focused on issues related to strengthening civic infrastructure, including:

  • When Governments Listen: New Models for Public Engagement, Civic Infrastructure, and Slow Democracy (which covered New Hampshire’s developing statewide infrastructure for engagement)
  • When Governments Listen: New Models for Public Engagement, Civic Infrastructure, and Slow Democracy
  • The Art of Engagement: What is Journalism’s Role in a Civic Infrastructure?
  • Building Civic Infrastructure Through Local Government (sharing AmericaSpeaks’ long-term work with DC’s Mayor Williams)
  • The Oregon Citizens Initiative Review and the Institutionalization of Deliberative Democracy
  • Engaging Diverse Communities in Online Neighborhood Forums
  • One Person, One Vote – Bringing Deliberation into the Public Budgeting
  • Statewide Civic Engagement Initiatives
  • Learning from Practice: Imagine Austin (on the 2.5-year process that engaged thousands of residents in preparing a vision and comprehensive plan for a sustainable future for Austin)
  • Supporting College Students as Key Resources for Civic Infrastructure
  • A Survey of Funders’ Innovative Civic Engagement Activities (with Grassroots Grantmakers’ Janis Foster Richardson)

One of the most insightful summaries on how we took on the theme of “strengthening civic infrastructure” came from one of our attendees, Janice Thomson. In a post on U.K.-based Involve’s blog, she shared some useful insights she gleaned at the conference about how a sustainable civic infrastructure might take shape.

See the full post for her exposition of these themes:

  1. Social capital serves as both the foundation and lubricant for a robust civic infrastructure — i.e., knowing and trusting one’s neighbours, public officials, and others with whom one must cooperate.
  2. Deliberative public engagement seems to be most sustainable when it is a process (not a project) that the community itself owns and which government officials trust.
  3. Engage politicians as politicians to support deliberative public engagement.
  4. Politicians in states with direct democracy (initiatives and referendums) appear to be more supportive of deliberative public engagement than politicians elsewhere.
  5. Citizens must stop behaving like demanding consumers and take responsibility for their decisions.
  6. Courage is needed to engage a divided public on a growing number of contentious issues.

I’ll end this overly long post with one of my favorite quotes from the conference evaluations:

“This was my first NCDD conference and the best conference I have ever attended (and I have attended so very many!). The theme, building a more robust infrastructure in our practice, communities and country, is timely and in need of continual attention and collaboration. I have wanted to attend the bi-annual NCDD conference since the first one, but my schedule didn’t permit. Now, this conference will be a priority in my life and I will do my best to schedule other important activities around it!”

Manju Lyn Bazzell, The Co-Intelligence Institute

See more conference feedback here. We hope to see you this fall at the 2014 National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation in the DC metro area (October 17-19 in Reston, VA)!

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