Guest Post by Neil Wollman, Ph.D, Bentley University – “Facing Gridlock, A Bold Proposal for Democracy”

(The following guest post is by Neil Wollman; Ph. D.; Senior Fellow, Bentley Alliance for Ethics and Social Responsibility; Bentley University; Waltham, MA, 02452;; 260-568-0116 .)

Neil Wollman

I hope that the piece below will lead to good dialogue, political efforts, and finally to implementation of the suggested policy change. It is by projects such as the National Issues Forums (NIF) that we will have a public informed enough to make the proposed citizen initiative/referendum system work well. As a matter of fact, if citizens engage in such dialogue, maybe they have a right to more direct say in governmental decision making! It is encouraging that Congressman Jared Polis of Colorado recently decided to promote the establishment of a commission to study the feasibility of national initiatives. It is a good first step, but it will require informed  public discussion. See more information on citizens’ initiatives and direct democracy at and .  Neil Wollman, Ph. D.

Facing Gridlock, A Bold Proposal for Democracy Neil Wollman

In the face of government gridlock over the federal budget, let us consider a new way to make some policy decisions. What if citizens voted not only for candidates in presidential elections, but for policies that directly affect their own welfare—including budget priorities? A strong, definitive public voice on contentious issues could reduce government gridlock and perhaps even avert a government shutdown! Such “direct democracy” would be–true to Lincoln’s words–“government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

One advantage of such public referenda or initiatives would be giving legislators the political cover to cross party lines and get government working. Who knows, maybe legislators would start working together otherwise, not just when required by law. But beyond this, voter turn-out could increase and some measure of faith in the government might be restored as people feel their voices are heard. Voters in non-swing-states would have more say on national issues. Candidates for political office would be pushed to discuss policies that were up for a vote. Once elected, they would be more beholden to the public’s interests and have less claim to a policy mandate simply because they won (as after the 2012 election, when Obama cited the presidential vote and Boehner cited results leaving the House in Republican control).

In Colorado, ballot initiatives are now common practice, and they energize and engage the voting public. They did not turn the state government over wholesale to the public, as some feared; instead, they complemented the work of legislators. Over twenty years, Colorado citizens have supported measures like a strong ban on gifts from lobbyists to politicians, the first renewable energy mandate, campaign finance reform, increased K-12 funding, and term limits. This procedure could be adopted nationally, and citizens could give general direction on policy rather than vote on specific measures.   Many details remain to implement direct democracy on a national level. How many items should be presented, how would they be chosen, and in what elections would they be introduced? Should the closeness of the vote affect implementation? Should items involve very broad issues or relatively specific policies? Would the President and Congress be bound by a vote or be required to follow particular guidelines in considering voting results? Would there be “referenda” or “initiatives?” The latter are initiated by citizens, promote true democracy, and would likely cover wide ranging policy issues; while the former are introduced by legislators who typically are reluctant to give up authority, but who must introduce this system. Actually, this process likely requires a constitutional amendment, initiated by Congress or by a constitutional convention called by state legislatures (all amendments thus far went through Congress first). So, indeed, which groups and leaders must be brought on board before this system is approved?   Citizens’ groups, media, public interest groups, and others will need to pressure Congress to bring this proposal to fruition. A sympathetic president would surely help. A non-partisan commission, including both government and non-government constituencies, could work through the details and enlist those needed to implement the proposal.

This would not be a perfect system (none is). A “tyranny of the majority” might sometimes emerge. Forces concerned with private interests instead of the public good could sway public opinion. At times government officials will have more insight into a particular issue than the public. And, some will criticize the process when a vote does not go their way. But surely the influence of public opinion on legislation would be no worse than the current sway held by special-interest-groups or by narrow political interests. In the end, we have the courts to overturn measures that violate Constitutional rights or are otherwise problematic. Indeed, the whole system itself should be evaluated if general dissatisfaction emerges.

If you find merit in this proposal, discuss it with your neighbors, elected officials, and others. Interested organizations could collaborate to make direct democracy a reality. Many Americans are dissatisfied with our current political system. Let’s give real democracy a try. In the words of Founding Father James Madison, “The people were in fact, the fountain of all power, and by resorting to them, all difficulties were got over.” Let us test that proposition. Neil Wollman, Ph.D., Senior Fellow, Bentley Alliance for Ethics and Social Responsibility; Bentley University; 260-568-0116


Preventing Mass Shootings – How Should We Help the Public Work on this Problem?

by Patty Dineen

The December, 2012 shootings at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut re-ignited public talk about what “we” as individuals, and especially, what “we” as a society should do about it.  Can we do anything to prevent the next one?  Can we identify likely future shooters? Can we make public places safer without turning such places into prison-like settings?  Would we have to give up some cherished personal freedoms in order to get the results we seek?  These and many other questions are being asked, discussed, debated, and argued about.

This public issue–what can, and what should we do to prevent this kind of violence?–as we all know, is presently being framed by many entities; media, interest groups, government, experts, and individuals in all segments of our society.  You might think that would be enough, but we don’t think it is. The National Issues Forums Institute has a 32-year-long interest in a particular kind of issue framing; that is, framing a public issue in a way that can help people deliberate; or carefully consider a spectrum of approaches to dealing with the issue.  Deliberation also requires unflinching consideration of the possible consequences, costs, and tradeoffs inherent of each approach.

Some people who have found this kind of issue framing helpful in the past have expressed their desire for an NIFI issue framing that would help people talk about Newtown,and other mass shootings that have happened in recent years.  In response, there is a group presently working to produce such an issue framework.  Here is what Brad Rourke, executive issue book editor, Kettering Foundation, has announced about this work:

Many in the National Issues Forums network have asked whether there are materials available to aid communities in deliberating over the issues raised by the tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut. We anticipate making such materials available here (on the National Issues Forums website) shortly. For more information please contact Brad Rourke at

In the meantime the following are some presently available resources that may be helpful to those who would like to deliberate about violence, and/or to frame violence-related issues.

What do you think? We welcome your posting of links to other discussion guides or issue frameworks related to the issues raised by the Newtown and other shootings; and especially your thoughts and comments in the comment section.  As always, thank you.

Naming and Framing Issues to Make Difficult Decisions

Naming and Framing Local Issues for Public Deliberation

From the National Issues Forums Institute (NIF): Youth and Violence: Reducing the Threat

From the Mathews Center for Civic Life:  Bullying: What Is It? How Do We Prevent It?

From the Teaching Deliberatively Workshop in Des Moines, Iowa:  Bullying: How Should Schools Address This Growing Problem?

From the West Virginia Center for Civic Life:  How can we build safe and strong neighborhoods in West Virginia?

From the Oklahoma Partnership for Public Deliberation:  Intimate Partner Violence: What Can We Do?

From Everyday Democracy:  Confronting Violence in Our Communities

Watch Online, Sept. 4, 2012, Launch of a National Dialogue about Higher Education


Shaping Our Future How Can Higher Education Help Us Create the Future We Want?

Watch the launch online (A brief registration is required)

Join us online on Tuesday, September 4, 2012, to kick off Shaping Our Future, a year-long national dialogue on the future of higher education. Through this initiative, students, faculty, administrators, employers, and members of the general public will reflect on how colleges and universities might help the country tackle some of its most vexing problems. Shaping Our Future is organized by the American Commonwealth Partnership and the National Issues Forums. The kick-off event will include information about forums now being planned on campuses and in communities nationwide.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The National Press Club   Washington, DC 20045  

Presentation and Panel Discussion 9 to 11 a.m. Eastern Time, National Press Club

Speakers and Panelists:

Martha Kanter, U.S. Undersecretary of Education

Nancy Cantor, Chancellor, Syracuse University

Muriel Howard, President, American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU)

Bernie Ronan, Chair, The Democracy Commitment

Kaylesh Ramu, President, Student Government Association, University of Maryland Baltimore County

Scott Peters, Co-¬Director, Imagining America

Harry Boyte, National Coordinator, The American Commonwealth Partnership

Bill Muse, President, The National Issues Forums

David Mathews, President, The Kettering Foundation (via video)

Click here or on the link above to watch the launch online, September 4, 2012, 9 a.m. (ET) For more information contact Phil Lurie at or Jean Johnson at

The Making of a Public by Craig Paterson

from a blog post by Craig Paterson at Deliberative IDEAS

We all have a place and a role in the ‘public.’ This appreciation of an all-inclusive participation in a shared, human environment goes back at least to the Greeks as they pondered their common good and civic purpose. The Greeks had already recognized that an awareness of a ‘public’ as an entity in its own right…larger and more significant than just the accumulation of disparate individuals. Those of us who seek to hear the voice of the ‘public’ today are challenged with all the classical barriers to public conversation AND some modern barriers that are presenting themselves for the first time in human history.

The ‘public’ exists and functions without our awareness…it doesn’t need anyone’s permission to be powerful. But…our awareness and appreciation of the ‘public’ CAN have some significant benefits…as we solve problems together, as we organize together to maximize our effective use of resources, and as we build great communities together. We have learned through the years, however, that this ‘public’ awareness doesn’t happen by itself…it requires its own careful attention.

Several years ago, we identified ‘public-making’ as one of the most critical roles in any deliberative project…large or small. And lately…the need for intentional and effective methods in gathering people into deliberative settings has been the theme of many blog posts and articles throughout the dialogue and deliberation community. Just for your information, here is the link to the matrix our California NIF Network is using…as an expansion from the original work on deliberative roles of a Kettering Foundation workshop:

Deliberative Roles for Community Teams matrix

Building on this basic understanding of ‘public-making’ then, we can begin to identify some key variables in this practice. Some communities have ‘public-makers’ who seem to be completely natural in the role without any prompting or teaching…it’s in their genes! Other communities have people who can become effective ‘public-makers’ with some encouragement and practice. A wide range of variables can be considered, tried and evaluated through time, creating a continuous, upward-spiral in learning and doing. Here are some thoughts from last May on several of these variables… (read the full article)

Higher Education

National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI) director Jean Johnson suggested the following as a possible issue for development into a deliberative framework.  We welcome your comments and additional information about this issue.

I am proposing higher education as an NIF topic because I believe the country faces a number of important choices and trade-offs about its future, some of which involve core values about opportunity and fairness in our country. Although the U.S. higher education system has long been regarded as the best in the world, there are numerous signs that the system is under stress and that large numbers of Americans are asking tough questions about whether the system we have is the system that we need and want.

Here are some of the developments that make this topic so compelling to me.

  • According to U.S. government projections, “nearly 8 out 10 new jobs will require higher education and work force training” over the next decade.[1]
  • There’s a whole cast of government, corporate, foundation, and education leaders pushing for reform. Their criticisms circle around higher education’s costs, quality, whether the system is “accountable,” and whether its mission is suited to the world we live in now.
  • According to a forthcoming Public Agenda study of young adults, most young college graduates say it is very likely that they’ll be economically secure in their lifetimes, but only 36 percent of young people without degrees say the same.
  • The number of Americans going to college has been increasing, but dropout rates are stunningly high. Only 4 in 10 students who start four-year college programs graduate after six years.[2]
  • According to the ACT College Readiness Standards, 78 percent of students entering higher education are not adequately prepared for college-level reading, English, math or science.[3] This puts an enormous pressure on the system. It raises the question of whether college is the right choice for all of these students and about higher education’s responsibility for helping these young people catch up.
  • Despite broad calls for more college graduates in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), the United States is number 27 in the proportion of college students who complete degrees in these fields.[4] As of 2000, there were more foreign students in U.S. graduate engineering programs than there were Americans.[5]
  • Many are concerned about the rise of for-profit colleges. Some see them as providing a needed prod to traditional higher education, while others say these new schools profits off the aspirations of the most vulnerable Americans who are seeking to better themselves.

Public Agenda surveys of the public also show that more Americans are asking tough questions:

  • As recently as 2000, just 31 percent of Americans believed that a college education was essential to succeed in the American workplace. By 2009, a 55% majority had come to believe it—a stunning change in such a short period of time.
  • At the same time, more Americans worry that there are many qualified, motivated students who don’t have the opportunity to go to college.
  • Most Americans say students have to borrow too much money to go to college
  • 6 in 10 have come to believe that colleges are more focused on the bottom line than they are on their educational missions.

NIF would need to develop a compelling choicework for the higher education topic, and I am not sure what the choices would be at this point. However, I do think the issue raises interesting practical and values questions such as:

  • Is going to college a right or is it a privilege for those willing to work hard, save, and sacrifice to get a degree?
  • Has the system become too focused on what’s good for the institutions rather than what’s good for students and the greater society?
  • Do we want a society where people are rewarded based on how educated they are, and what are the implications of that decision?
  • Do we want a higher education system that’s geared to building a stronger economy or one that emphasizes citizenship, free inquiry, or the acquisition of knowledge for knowledge’s sake?
  • Are we putting too much emphasis on going to college? What do we owe to the young people who, for whatever reason, do not pursue college degrees?
  • Is American losing its respect for people who are not college graduates—people who work with their hands or have non-academic skills? How do we feel about that?

[1] White House Fact Sheet, Building American Skills by Strengthening Community Colleges,  2010.

[2] Public Agenda, With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them, 2009, Page 2.

[3]The National Academy of Sciences, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited:

Rapidly Approaching Category 5, Page 11, 2010.

[4] The National Academy of Sciences, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited:

Rapidly Approaching Category 5, Page 8, 2010.

[5] The National Academy of Sciences, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited:

Rapidly Approaching Category 5, Page 7, 2010.

End of Life Spending

National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI) director Chris Satullo suggested the following as a possible issue for development into a deliberative framework.  We welcome your comments and additional information about this issue.

The issue I’d recommend could be named, provocatively, “Do we have a duty to die?”

It’s generally agreed that one of the main drivers of government spending and deficits is health care.

It’s generally agreed that the most worrisome drivers of government health care spending are Medicare and Medicaid.

A little-recognized diver of Medicaid spending is skilled nursing care for the elderly, infirm poor (and, after some dubious finagling, the middle-class elderly).

A well-known driver of Medicare spending is the heroic, costly and usually futile care given to people who are near the end of life.

It is not unfair to suggest that our health care system has a bias for such futile spending on the very sick and very elderly over proper prenatal and early childhood care, over preventive, holistic care for adults, and for long-term care for those with chronic diseases and disabilities.

I have yet to speak to a public health or health economics expert who does not take the above statements as givens of the status quo.

But I have also never spoken to one who has any optimism that the American public is ready for the conversations, judgments and adjustments that would be required to shift health spending from end-of-life futility to public health logic.   Few have either the deliberative skills or the patience to figure out how to frame the issue for public consumption.

The experience of the Obama health care overhaul – and in particular the demagogic storm over “death panels” – has strongly reinforced the experts’ pessimism.    That brouhaha has pretty much turned this issue into a “third rail” of inside the Beltway politics.

A deep cause of this syndrome is the American reluctance to come to terms with a brutal fact: We all die.

We tend to ask the health care system and government to spend enormous sums to sustain the pretense that either our loved ones or ourselves can be exempted from mortality, or at the least guaranteed a quiet death in our sleep at age 99.

So we do not have the conversations with family members that we should have, to give them clear guidance if we are incapacitated by a life-threatening situation.  We do not prepare living wills or final directives. When it comes to other loved ones, we insist that medicine spend enormous sums on the off chance that a miracle will happen.

As a result of our clinging to pretense, the medical profession does not train or gird itself to have the kind of honest conversations with patients and families that could lead to a good, or at least better, death free of tubes, machines and unnecessary spending.  It shrugs, orders procedures and tests, and inflates the health care budget to no good end.

This is an issue that involves technology and finances, but that is not really technical or fiscal. It is purely about values, about family dialogue and community will, about professional values and individual understanding.

It’s a great and urgent topic for deliberation.

Among those I’ve discussed these issues with are Art Caplan, head of bioethics at Penn, David Grande, a health economist and doctor at Penn, David Nash, death of public health at Thomas Jefferson University, Rob Field, a health economist at Drexel, Harris Sokoloff of the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, and my wife, who is an oncology social worker who has guided many families through end of life situations.

Eating Ourselves Sick

National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI) director Frank Fear suggested the following as a possible issue for development into a deliberative framework.  We welcome your comments and additional information about this issue.

Food, Nutrition, and Health in Precarious Relationship

Many issues facing Americans today are imposed on them, such as the national macro-economic changes that are affecting families’ economic security. However, every day in this country Americans are doing something to themselves: consuming food—in type and amount—that has negative implications for their long-term health.

Read the rest of this entry »