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Cultural cognition and the Oregon Citizens' Initiative Review

On a weeklong visit to Salem, Oregon, I find myself reflecting on the recent postings about ideology, motivation cognition, and the ability to process information in an unbiased and reflective way. I’m not here to enjoy the Pacific Northwest but to observe an anomalous public deliberation process, the Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review.

The recent postings on the Cultural Cognition Project blog have reaffirmed my conviction that (1) ideologically biased information processing happens in all political camps and (2) rising above that remains possible, but it may require unconventional circumstances.

The Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR) process was piloted in 2008, made a provisional state process in 2010, then made a permanent part of Oregon elections in 2011, with its official state commission being established earlier this year. In a nutshell, they bring together a representative random sample of 24 Oregonians to analyze a ballot measure for a full week then write a one page Citizens’ Statement that appears in the official state Voters’ Pamphlet.

The idea is that this small deliberative body, which gets to hear from and query issue advocates and opponents, can offer insight to the average voter that helps them make more reflective choices when they complete their ballots. I led a research effort in 2010 that found that for many of the 42% of Oregonians who learned about the CIR process, it had exactly that effect. On one issue, for instance, reading the CIR Statement moved the public from roughly 2/3 supporting to 2/3 opposing a mandatory minimums initiative. (Read full report here.)

While I write, I am watching the 2012 CIR process unfold. The panelists are in the first of their five days of deliberation, and this day is devoted to process training and an overview of the issue. That’s followed by two days of studying the issue, in the company of advocates and other witnesses, with the last two days devoted to writing the Citizens’ Statement, a process that includes regular feedback from advocates and opponents.

One of the veterans from the 2010 process testified earlier today that she found the process exceptional and believed it would work well to address any range of problems, political or otherwise. Perhaps so, but it’s not an inexpensive process. It is certainly cost-effective for a large state, in which the intensive deliberation might help a mass public make decisions that have profound implications, such as the fate of millions of dollars in state revenue/spending. Consequently, interested parties from a few other U.S. states will be observing the second round of these deliberations Aug 20-24 in Portland.

The process has won praise from many citizens and media, but there was a disheartening development this past week that underscores that the CIR represents a break from conventional ways of messaging and campaigning. At least some prominent members of the group Our Oregon chose to launch a quasi-boycott of this first week of deliberation, which studies an initiative they support (one that has implications for how the State of Oregon collects/spends corporate taxes). The critics’ public argument was that they didn’t have the time to inform the judgment of 24 people who won’t have any impact, and they cited the report I co-authored in 2010; I’ve since posted an August 7 op-ed in the Oregonian explaining why the opposite’s the case. In that earlier round of CIR panels, critics from the political right also tried to discredit the CIR, though they did so only after being willing and full participants in the weeklong process.

The points here, as they relate to this blog, are twofold:

  • There are many successful public deliberation processes, and the Oregon CIR represents a newer kind that aims to use small group deliberation to inform the discretion of a mass public. My colleagues and I will continue studying it—this year with help from the Kettering Foundation—to see how well it does this. So far, the evidence is encouraging: With enough care and resources, one can create an intensive deliberative process that appears to get lay citizens past both crude heuristics and more elaborate, but ideologically-motivated reasoning.
  • Those who work in political communication professionally are right to be concerned that processes like the CIR operate beyond their control. This year, as in 2010, I suspect we will see capable advocates and opponents make their case to the citizen panelists, but the outcome will hinge not on the balance of ideological bias (which is roughly even in Oregon) but on the quality of argument, reasoning, and evidence presented. 

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