AmericaSpeaks

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AmericaSpeaks was a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization whose mission was to "engage citizens in the public decisions that impact their lives." AmericaSpeaks' work is focused on trying to create opportunities for citizens to impact decisions and to encourage public officials to make informed, lasting decisions. AmericaSpeaks has developed and facilitated deliberative methods such as the 21st Century Town Hall Meeting, which enables facilitated discussion for 500 to 5,000 participants. Carolyn Lukensmeyer is the President and Founder of AmericaSpeaks. Its partners have included regional planning groups, local, state, and national government bodies, national and international organizations. Issues have ranged from Social Security reform, the redevelopment of ground zero in New York and rebuilding New Orleans.

History[edit]

AmericaSpeaks was founded in 1995. Since then, it has engaged over 130,000 people in over 50 large-scale forums in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.[1] AmericaSpeaks aims to bring citizens together to deliberate about critical policy issues. The conclusions from these meetings are then brought to the attention of decision-makers in the hopes that citizen input will influence policy.

In 1994, after more than ten years of service in the public sector, AmericaSpeaks president Carolyn Lukensmeyer had grown concerned that citizens were increasingly being shut out of public decision-making processes. Carolyn traveled the United States and held vision meetings to conceptualize a model for large-scale citizen engagement forums, and a vision for how these forums could be used in national dialogues on key public policy issues.

AmericaSpeaks’ mission is to create innovative mechanisms through which citizens can enhance their voice in local, regional, and national governance, and to renew democracy through the development of a national infrastructure for democratic deliberation and citizen engagement.

On January 2014, AmericaSpeaks closed its doors.[2]

21st Century Town Meeting[edit]

AmericaSpeaks’ 21st Century Town Meeting is intended to create engaging, meaningful opportunities for citizens to participate in public decision making. This process attempts to update the traditional New England town meeting to address the needs of today’s citizens, decision makers and democracy. Unlike most of New England's town meetings, however, it is not a formal legislative body, and therefore none of the decisions are binding.

The 21st Century Town Meeting marks a departure from traditional public participation methods, such as public hearings. The 21st Century Town Meeting focuses on discussion and deliberation among citizens rather than speeches, question-and-answer sessions or panel presentations. The purpose of the Town Hall Meeting is to gather diverse groups of citizens who will participate in round-table discussions (10-12 people per table) and deliberate in depth about key policy issues. Each table discussion is supported by a trained facilitator to keep participants on task. Participants receive discussion guides that present further information about the issues under consideration.

Technology collects the individual table discussions and the results are compiled into a set of collective recommendations. Each table submits ideas using wireless groupware computers and each participant can vote on specific proposals with keypad polling. These two pieces of technology allow for real-time reporting and voting. Results from discussions are presented to participants within minutes and polling results within seconds. The entire group votes on the final recommendations to submit to decision makers. Before the meeting ends, results from the meeting are put into a report, which is distributed to participants, decision makers and the news media as they leave.

21st Century Summit[edit]

The 21st Century Summit was created to help organization leaders tap into the collective wisdom of their constituents and stakeholders through large-scale meetings. During discussions, participants identify shared priorities and develop recommendations on essential policies and plans. At the meeting, AmericaSpeaks attempts to help attendees explore key issues, weigh critical trade offs, and deepen their connection and commitment to next steps. AmericaSpeaks has more than a decade of experience with engaging large numbers of members, employees or stakeholders – 50 to 5,000 at a single meeting – in a strategic, outcomes-oriented discussion.[3] The method integrates recent technology with facilitated dialogue, and provides the tools to enable groups to examine important options and identify mutual priorities.

Notable examples[edit]

AmericaSpeaks meetings address local, state and national decisions.

Americans Discuss Social Security[edit]

"Americans Discuss Social Security" was a 1998 non-partisan effort funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, that directly engaged a diverse sample of Americans in a dialogue about Social Security reform and recommended that the United States Congress support legislation that reflected citizen preferences. Over fifteen months, the project engaged nearly 45,000 Americans in every state in direct discussions on Social Security reform and reached more than twelve million through the project’s media and public education efforts.[1]

Citizen Summits in Washington, DC[edit]

Beginning in 1999 and lasting until 2005, Mayor Anthony Williams partnered with AmericaSpeaks in an attempt to restore Washingtonians' faith in the government and gather recommendations for budgeting allocation. Over 13,500 citizens participated in seven 21st Century Town Meetings.[4] Because of the Citizen Summits, millions of dollars were budgeted to areas over which citizens voiced concern, including: an additional $270 million for education; $10 million for senior services; 1,000 new drug treatment slots; an additional $25 million for a housing trust fund; $2 million for citizen involvement; and nearly $20 million for more police and juvenile-related initiatives.[4] Also, the mayor's office created and implemented the Office of Neighborhood Action, which is responsible for ensuring that citizens have a voice in shaping the city’s priorities.

Redeveloping Ground Zero[edit]

Listening to the City was held at the Javits Center in New York City in July 2002 to involve 4300 local citizens, who closely reflected the demographic diversity of the region, in the planning process for Ground Zero's future.[1] Decision-makers from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the Port Authority co-sponsored the meeting and incorporated it into their official public engagement process. After a day of intense deliberation, participants determined that the original plans for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center failed to meet the needs of the city. Within a week of Listening to the City, decision-makers announced that the plans would be redrawn in accordance with public priorities. A two-week online deliberation and dialogue reached another 800 New York City residents who reviewed the site options in small cyber groups.[5]

2005 World Economic Forum[edit]

The 2005 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland featured a Global Town Hall Meeting by AmericaSpeaks’ international arm, Global Voices, where 700 world leaders prioritized and addressed some of the toughest issues facing the global community. Poverty and Equitable Globalization were voted the two top priorities.

Voices & Choices[edit]

AmericaSpeaks partnered with the Fund for Our Economic Future to organize a series of town meetings and public forums across northeast Ohio to enable thousands of people to come together to create a strategic plan for revitalizing the region's economy. One of the largest public deliberations convened, Voices & Choices combined a variety of approaches for mobilizing the region’s citizenry, including one-on-one interviews, online forums and two large-scale 21st Century Town Meetings. Over 20,000 participants identified the region’s strengths, identified and prioritized its most important challenges and brainstormed solutions.[6]

Citizens' Health Care Working Group[edit]

AmericaSpeaks worked with the Citizens' Health Care Working Group to engage thousands of Americans in a national discussion on health care reform. 21st Century Town Meetings were held in Los Angeles and Cincinnati. Smaller forums were held in other cities throughout the nation.

Unified New Orleans Plan[edit]

AmericaSpeaks partnered with the Unified New Orleans Plan to bring together nearly 4000 New Orleanians in two large-scale public meetings to develop and review elements of a city wide-plan for recovery.[1] The December 2006 and January 2007 Community Congresses were multi-site meetings that connected participants over geographical distances using satellite video and webcast. In conjunction with the City-Wide meetings, citizens were engaged in district planning meetings, through a 1-800 number, and the UNOP website.

Community Congress I (October 28, 2006) was held in the Morial Convention Center. AmericaSpeaks did not assist with the outreach for this meeting. The agenda for the meeting was to brief attendees on the state of city recovery. The first Community Congress drew attendees who were 75% white, and 40% of whom had incomes above $75,000, while the pre-Katrina demographics the city were 67% African-American and only 2% of New Orleanians had incomes above $75,000. The meeting was criticized for its unrepresentative participants and for some of its conclusions, which included backing a smaller footprint, and advising that funding should be concentrated on already recovering neighborhoods [1].

Community Congress II (December 2, 2006) and Community Congress III (January 20, 2007) were both held simultaneously in New Orleans and other American cities with the large numbers of Katrina evacuees (New Orleans diaspora). AmericaSpeaks partnered with the Unified New Orleans Plan to design, recruit participants and implement these meetings. When polled at the meetings, the participant groups closely approximated the pre-Katrina demographics of New Orleans: In pre-Katrina New Orleans, 67% were African-American and 37% had household income under $20,000; at Community Congress II, 64% were African-American and 25% had household income under $20,000; at Community Congress III, 55% were African-American and 24% had household income under $20,000. Renters, however, were significantly underrepresented - prior to Hurricane Katrina, 54% of the population were renters, while they made up only 29% of the participants [2]. The meetings connected New Orleanians at home with friends and neighbors who have not yet made it home through the use of Internet webcast technology or closed circuit television. Unfortunately, ambiguously worded scenarios at the second Community Congress, particularly those that pertained to "areas of greatest need," caused some of the discussion results to be disregarded [3]. Community Congress III presented the draft plan to citizens, incorporating many of the recommendations from Community Congress II, and 92% of participants expressed support for the Plan to go forward.

In late May 2007, $117 million in federal block grants was released for infrastructure repairs when the Louisiana Recovery Authority board accepted New Orleans' citywide recovery plan. The money is the first step toward financing a city recovery plan officials say will cost $1.1 billion. When releasing the money, The Louisiana Recovery Authority board recognized that the Unified New Orleans Plan was a citizen- driven recovery vision developed with "unprecedented participation and representation from every part of the city."

CaliforniaSpeaks[edit]

Nearly 3,500 Californians gathered in eight cities on August 11, 2007 in an interactive forum on health care priorities called California Speaks, and 82 percent advocated major changes.[7] The project was created and led by AmericaSpeaks.

The most popular suggestions called for putting people before profit, prioritizing wellness and prevention, and making health care affordable and accessible to everyone. The statewide conversation was created to enable ordinary Californians to tell state lawmakers what they think about the current health care reform proposals.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, Senate President pro Tem Don Perata, Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines and other Republican and Democratic legislators attended the event. Each of the lawmakers emphasized his commitment to passing health care reform in 2007.

The real-time, nonpartisan health care discussion blended small-group dialogue with cutting-edge technology. Satellite television, webcast, simultaneous television broadcast, groupware and individual voting keypads were used. Forums were held in Sacramento, San Diego, Eureka, Fresno, Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo, Oakland-San Francisco and Riverside-San Bernardino.

Our Budget, Our Economy[edit]

On June 26, 2010, AmericaSpeaks: Our Budget, Our Economy brought 3,500 Americans together to come up discuss how to create a sustainable fiscal future and a strong economic recovery. The event took place in 60 different cities, including 19 primary meeting sites hosted by AmericaSpeaks and more than 40 smaller volunteer-led conversations. All sites were linked through the use of technology, including satellite-based live webcast and individual voting keypads. The priorities that emerged from the discussion were to be presented to Congress and President Obama, as well as the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform and the Bi-Partisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force.

The AmericaSpeaks: Our Budget, Our Economy was politically neutral, which they tried to accomplish by assembling a diverse group of funders, a diverse National Advisory Committee, and selecting participants that were demographically representative in terms of race, age, income, and political orientation. Despite this, the event received criticism from both the right and the left. Dean Baker, a left-leaning blogger, wrote that Our Budget, Our Economy materials would "guarantee" large cuts to Social Security and Medicare, while Fox News reported that the event was slanted toward raising taxes. There was also support for the national discussion, including this post from Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, as well as a piece from Harvard Professor Archon Fung.

The preliminary results of the June 26 discussion differed from Baker's predictions. In a blog post, AmericaSpeaks President Carolyn Lukensmeyer detail the results presented to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform for its public meeting on Wednesday, June 30, 2010. Some highly supported proposals included a raise tax rates on corporate income and those earning more than $1 million, a reduction in military spending by 10 to 15 percent, and a carbon tax and a securities-transaction tax.

Advancing the Field of Deliberative Democracy[edit]

AmericaSpeaks is dedicated to advancing citizen deliberation and aims to one day create an infrastructure in the United States that deeply incorporates citizens into the decision-making process. The Democracy Lab for Innovation and Research [4] is AmericaSpeaks’ think tank on deliberative democracy and citizen engagement. The Democracy Lab develops methods to advance and sustain citizen engagement in the public policy process. AmericaSpeaks formed the Democracy Lab in order to: Improve democratic processes and institutions by creating a new governance mechanism that will regularly convene diverse groups of Americans on key policy questions and incorporate citizen voices into policy making; Enhance and improve AmericaSpeaks’ approach to citizen engagement, such as developing new models for sustaining citizen participation and turning initial participation in deliberation into long-term citizen engagement and action; Evaluate the impact of AmericaSpeaks’ citizen engagement initiatives; Strengthen the deliberative democracy field by disseminating knowledge gained by AmericaSpeaks through its projects and research. AmericaSpeaks routinely brings together leading scholars and practitioners from the field of deliberative democracy to develop insights into and solutions for key questions in the field of citizen engagement.

See also[edit]

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