by Kyle Johnson and Sue Mutchler

What Are the Benefits for a State Policymaker?

Although deliberative dialogue has been most widely used by communities and local levels of government, it may have important application for decision makers who work on problems at the state level. This may be particularly true for such issues as public education, where state policy frequently sets the direction and provides critical resources for local education reform.

While state policymakers generally are confident in their ability to decipher the will of the public through conventional methods of gathering public opinion, evidence is inconsistent regarding their success. Some studies show that legislators accurately determine major issues of concern in their districts, whereas others find they “often misread the public regarding its preferences for public policy” (Weaver & Geske, 1997, p. 316). Face-to-face, sustained dialogue appears to hold promise as a way state decision makers might better accomplish this task.

SEDL’s analysis of the 1998 interviews with state policymakers who had participated in deliberative dialogues identified positive effects in three specific areas. The first is an expected outcome of any good communication tool: access to new information. The second—enhanced relations—might be expected of this particular kind of communication method due to its personal, interactive nature. The third and last—increased capacity for sustained communication—suggests the potential for individual and even community benefits over time.


Many of the policymakers SEDL interviewed said that the structured, facilitated nature of deliberative dialogue afforded them insights into public viewpoints that are often lost in the “big-picture” tabulations of polls, surveys, and constituent letters:

...we got to dialogue with different people, got different feelings, got input from really all walks of life (Mutchler & Knox, 1998, p. 12).

Furthermore, after participating, many policymakers found themselves better able to understand what their constituents found valuable or important about a given policy issue. This knowledge of what ‘really matters’ to the public was expressed by one as:

Sometimes it is specific, tangible things that they really care about, or that interest them most, or that they want solutions to the most ... I think it is helping me to understand that better (Mutchler & Knox, 1998, p. 10).

The inclusive nature of the deliberative dialogue process has additional potential to bring policymakers into contact with those constituents who, for various reasons, tend not to use traditional means of communicating with policymakers. As one policymaker said:

[P]eople need to be heard and many people do not have that opportunity very often…. This approach certainly gives them a chance to be heard… (Mutchler & Knox, 1998, p. 12).


. . . facilitated discussion tended to quell partisan rancor and open participants' minds to alternative views.

By fostering an atmosphere where the relative merits and tradeoffs of policy options can be discussed with civility, deliberative dialogue may increase public appreciation for the efforts of policymakers themselves who must seek to balance competing interests in the process of making state policy decisions. One legislator described this change as follows:
People have a tendency to say ‘Why did you do that?’ [i.e., ‘Why did you make that decision?’] … because they never thought that there is a consequence for … doing something or not doing something. [Through the dialogue process] they begin to understand the difficulties of the job [and] what the legislator faces (Mutchler & Knox, 1998, p. 13).

Conversely, at least one lawmaker gained an enhanced perception of the public’s capacities after participating in the process. “I was surprised to find that people were more knowledgeable than I had believed,” he said. “They were very ready to listen to legislators, to understand better how the system works” (Mutchler & Knox, 1998, p. 13).

Overall, policymakers believed that face-to-face interaction with the public through dialogue resulted in their increased personal credibility with constituents and heightened public confidence in the policy initiatives that come out of the state decision making process. In the words of one legislator, “You begin to break down the barriers between citizens and their public officials” (Mutchler & Knox, 1998, p. 13). In the words of another:

… they begin to understand the consequences [of policy options] and you begin to find common ground … you can say, ‘This is something that I worked on with citizens’ (Mutchler & Knox, 1998, p. 15).

You begin to break down the barriers between citizens and their public officials . . . You can say 'This is something I worked on with citizens' "


Interview results suggested that individuals and even the entire community might reap longer-term benefits through the deliberative dialogue process. Several policymakers were struck by the fact that participants were engaged in considering solutions, rather than passively accepting someone else’s opinion. They perceived community members who engaged in deliberative dialogue as “committed to there being a workable solution” and ready to share information and experiences so they might work together to devise a solution to a local or state problem (Mutchler & Knox, 1998, p. 15).

While the dialogue program in which one policymaker participated addressed an immediate and specific issue, the spirit of mutual understanding and cooperation engendered by the process endured after that issue was settled. He related the following story:

It was not long after [the dialogue] that we had some race problems in our town, and members of the African American community and the Caucasian community were able to get together. And I think, because of the discussions, they were better able to communicate and understand each other than might ordinarily have been the case (Mutchler & Knox, 1998, p. 16).

Finally, one policymaker advocated the proactive use of deliberative dialogue as a way to galvanize the public into ongoing interaction about issues that affect the entire community, even though he cautioned against expectations of its effectiveness as a short-term problem-solving tool. “I would not want to fool legislators into thinking that there will be some immediate gain,” he admitted, but then went on to conclude:

There will be some gains that they [will] see in the short term, but it’s the long-term advantage—the long-term benefit it brings to the political process (Mutchler & Knox, 1998, p. 14).

Next Page: Is it Feasible for State Policymakers to Participate?

Published in Insights on Educational Policy, Practice, and Research Number 10, December 1999, Deliberating About Education: A New Policy Tool?