Learning To Listen in Portsmouth, New Hampshire
By Mike McGrath
Thirty years ago, the main vehicle for citizen participation—other than voting—was the public hearing. Public hearings are well and good, but they often serve as little more than a steam-valve for irate citizens to vent. In fact, the very term “public hearing” is considered by many civic experts to be something of a misnomer.
Dan Kemmis, a former Missoula mayor and speaker of the Montana House of Representatives, said it best in this book, Community and the Politics of Place: “Out of everything that happens at a public hearing, the emoting, the attempts to persuade the decision-maker, the presentation of facts, the one element that is almost totally lacking is anything that might be characterized as public hearing.”
More and more communities are discovering new and betters ways of talking about (and hearing about) public issues. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for instance, an all-volunteer organization known as Portsmouth Listens conducts regular “study circles” on important local issues.
The study circles process works this way: The small group, consensus-based discussions of 8-12 people take place over a four-week period, meeting once a week. Then they produced a written report on their findings, which was published in the local paper, the Portsmouth Herald.
Portsmouth Listens began as a one-time effort to mobilize parents and students to deal with issues of bullying and violence in schools. Local attorney Jim Noucas and a group of citizens contacted the Study Circles Resource Center (now known as Everyday Democracy) to help put together a dialogue on the subject. More than 12 years later, the city is still using study circles for local dialogues, most recently, an extensive dialogue and report on the city’s budget challenges.
It was Portsmouth city manager John Bohenko’s idea to use the study circles process to review the city’s master plan, the document that guides policy on such issues as development, open space protection, affordable housing, transportation and infrastructure needs.
The master plan involved over 400 citizens over a period of two years. The process led to the development of a visioning statement and set of recommendations adopted by city government.
Portsmouth Listens has also held candidate forums using a dialogue-based roundtable to allow meaningful interaction between voters and candidates.
Portsmouth has a nine-member council with an average of 18 candidates running every two years. So the roundtables were divided into five groups of two or three and the voters into groups of 12-15. Each voter group was given 15 minutes to engage in a roundtable with the candidate groups. Each candidate was given three written questions and their answers are printed in the Herald. The questions were formulated by city officials, former council members and school board members.
Portsmouth Listens co-chair Jim Noucas says study circles have changed how the local government does business. The city is much more likely to consult the public on issues before evaluating the solutions, and the public is much more likely to support solutions that have been developed through deliberation. “It’s not just showing up and giving your opinion,” he says. “You have to be able to work with others, and people walk away with their opinions changed.”
The group is now working to organize a “New Hampshire Listens” to foster dialogue and deliberation on statewide issues and to get more communities in the state to conduct their own local study circles.
You can link here to read a longer article on Portsmouth Listens on the Everyday Democracy website.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.