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Public Involvement Network News

Note: EPA no longer updates this information, but it may be useful as a reference or resource.

Democracy Helpline:  Connecting Public Managers with the Resources They Need to Reach Citizens

by Matt Leighninger

Note: Due to funding, this Helpline is temporarily out of service, so none of the URL links function.

This page provides links to many non-EPA web sites that provide information on public involvement.

Beneath the national radar, democracy is undergoing a dramatic and critical shift in its development. Citizens are more educated, skeptical, capable, and diverse; they are better at governing, and worse at being governed, than ever before. Public managers and other leaders are tired of confrontation and desperate for resources. To address persistent challenges like land use planning, environmental protection, education, race relations, crime prevention and economic development leaders are trying to find new ways for people and public servants to work together.

Hundreds of these civic experiments have coalesced around a core set of strategies. Elected officials, federal agency personnel, school administrators and other leaders are recruiting large, diverse numbers of people and involving them in small, deliberative groups, big action forums and ongoing structures like neighborhood councils. They are creating new arenas where citizens can compare notes on their experiences, analyze different options, find common ground, make decisions and take action.

The proliferation of this kind of democratic governance (with a small ‘d’) has produced a wealth of new stories, lessons, tools and other resources. Partly because the growth has been so diffuse, it has been very difficult for new potential innovators and pioneers to find out what others have done. Many of these leaders have very little connection to the either the scholarly research or the national nonprofit organizations that focus on democracy.

The promise of the Democracy Helpline, a project of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium (DDC), is to help potential democracy-builders find the powerful stories, strategies and principles they need to be successful in their efforts. The Beta version of the Helpline can now be viewed on-line.

The DDC is a network of practitioners and researchers representing more than 30 organizations and universities, collaborating to strengthen the field of deliberative democracy. The DDC seeks to support research activities and to advance practice at all levels of government, in North America and around the world.

The idea for the Helpline first emerged at a 2003 DDC meeting. At that gathering, participants started talking about ways to deliver some of the key lessons learned by practitioners and researchers in a way that would help people ‘on the front lines’ who were just beginning to think about how to work differently with citizens.

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Democracy Helpline

Welcome   |   About   |   Register   |   Questions   |   Report   |   Library   |   Search

A resource for:

... who are tackling issues like:

Roles: citizens, public officials, educators, planners.

Issues: education, human rights, law enforcement, land use, public finance, and youth development — at the local, regional or national level.

Access a world of case studies, contacts, articles and guides to help you mobilize citizens,
gather input, overcome divisions and strengthen your community.

Use diagnostic questions
to create a custom report

See resources
or select a case study from the scrolling list


Helpline home page


The Helpline has also attracted support from a number of other national associations.  Several DDC Partners – including the National League of Cities, League of Women Voters, Grassroots Grantmakers, and National School Public Relations Association – have committed to featuring the Democracy Helpline link on their web-sites, and promoting the Helpline through their other internal communication vehicles, such as newsletters, e-mail bulletins and conferences.

The Helpline is now an unprecedented resource that people can access through the Internet (and, in the future, by phone). Stories are the essence of the Helpline: the most valuable way to inspire and prepare new organizers is to give them narratives of existing projects that give them inspiration and useful lessons. The backbone of the Helpline is a database of these kinds of narratives, along with deliberation-related publications and links to resource organizations all over the world.    NEEDED to have this ending make sense to me.  Is this what you meant?
Many of the resources were contributed by Pat Bonner and her colleagues at the EPA. Others were provided by the Policy Consensus Initiative, Public Agenda, Everyday Democracy, the Collaborative Governance Initiative and the National League of Cities.

On the Democracy Helpline section of the DDC web-site, users encounter some diagnostic questions that help them think through the specifics of their citizen involvement projects. Using the answers to these diagnostic questions, the site then offers a set of publications, organizations and program examples that matched their needs and interests. 

In the future, the Democracy Helpline will also have a more traditional side: a telephone number that connects callers with a knowledgeable resource person, the Helpline Manager. The Helpline Manager will use the same kinds of diagnostic questions to probe the interests and needs of the caller.  This initial conversation, coupled with continued use of the online database, might be enough to meet the needs of some callers.  For those with more complicated questions, the Helpline Manager will summarize the situation in a report to the DDC’s director and an expert panel of practitioners, who will evaluate the request and respond within a set number of days.

Some examples of how the Helpline works:

    1. A neighborhood organizer who wants to know how to mobilize residents around crime and trash pickup concerns is presented with how-to ideas and stories of what happened when neighborhoods in Yonkers, New York, and Delray Beach, Florida addressed these issues. 
    2. A high school student interested in working with her peers on intergroup tension finds about the way that youth leaders initiated school-based projects in Silver Spring, Maryland, and launched a community-wide effort in Kuna, Idaho.
    3. A city planner who indicates a desire to work with residents in low-income neighborhoods is presented with case studies like the Neighbors Building Neighborhoods process in Rochester, New York, and the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative in San Jose, California. 
    4. A parent who wants to help other parents work more constructively with the school their children attend learns about examples from school districts in Kansas City, Kansas and Inglewood, California.
    5. A federal official who shows an interest in involving citizens in complex science-based policy questions is given examples like the Danish Technology Boards, the engagement efforts of the Centers for Disease Control on pandemic influenza, and the work of the National Nanotechnology Initiative.

As a Beta site, the Helpline is very much a work in progress. Users can give their comments and suggestions by using an online survey accessible through the front page. In addition, the DDC is actively collecting more stories and resources; send your submissions to Matt Leighninger (mattleighninger@erthlink.net).

Matt Leighninger is executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and the author of The Next Form of Democracy: How Expert Rule is Giving Way to Shared Governance – And Why Democracy Will Never Be the Same.

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