Diversity and Democracy

Addressing Wicked Problems through Deliberative Dialogue

During the recent election year, the American public expressed unease not only with both candidates running for president, but also with our political institutions. According to surveys conducted by Gallup in June, just 36 percent of respondents had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the institutions of the presidency and the Supreme Court, while only 9 percent thought similarly about Congress (Norman 2016). These figures contrast markedly with respondents’ opinions when the question was asked in 1975. At that time, respondents’ confidence in the presidency stood at 52 percent, in the Supreme Court at 49 percent, and in Congress at 40 percent (Gallup 2016). In other words, even in the aftermath of Watergate and Vietnam, American political institutions fared better than they do now, some forty years later.

Not only are we losing confidence in our political institutions; we also are losing confidence in each other. Gallup poll results show that Americans have the lowest levels of trust in their fellow citizens since polling on this issue began in the 1970s, and these levels have been declining precipitously, dropping 30 percentage points since 1974 (Jones 2016). The American public has become increasingly disillusioned, cynical, and apathetic, while problems continue to fester and grow. Meanwhile, many voters feel that elected officials are either incompetent, impotent, ignorant, or in someone’s pocket. Sound bites and thirty-second ads reign supreme, and the twenty-four-hour news cycle magnifies the immediacy of issues while failing to provide those issues with background and depth.

Community Colleges as Democracy Colleges

Community colleges have a special role to play in educating for democracy. On December 5, 2016, community college leaders affirmed this role when they met to celebrate the fifth anniversary of The Democracy Commitment, a national initiative focused on restoring the civic mission of community colleges. The initiative was born as a recommitment to the recommendations of President Truman’s Commission on Higher Education that “the first and most essential charge upon higher education is that at all levels and in all its fields of specialization, it shall be the carrier of democratic values, ideals, and process” (1947, 102). Joining together around the central theme of “working across differences,” community college presidents, campus leaders, students, and media professionals gathered on the fifth anniversary to reflect on the role of community colleges in bridging the chasm of politics that has come to separate Americans.

Community colleges are truly democracy colleges, reflecting our country’s democratic values by opening the possibility of a college education to members of groups that, for most of the country’s history, have been excluded from college. More importantly, community colleges serve democracy because they educate large numbers of students who come from and remain within the communities where these colleges exist. In that sense, they are stewards of place and uniquely able to influence the way democratic politics play out in their communities.

Grappling with Wicked Problems

Because of their role as democracy colleges, community colleges are uniquely positioned to help shape a different approach to the challenges facing society, including seemingly intractable differences among individuals. Bridging these differences means grappling with fundamental questions about how democracy functions. The problems we see in our democracy are most likely problems of rather than problems in democracy—that is, problems with how democracy is currently functioning rather than with the specific policy issues that democracy addresses (Thomas 2015). Partisan posturing, party gridlock, and a lack of civility in Washington among representatives from different parties reflect an adversarial style of politics, wherein politicians and members of the public alike seek to be right rather than to achieve understanding. They talk rather than listen.

This kind of politics is ill-suited for the problems contemporary America faces. In their seminal work, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Rittel and Webber argue that “the professional’s job was once seen as solving an assortment of problems that appeared to be definable, understandable, and consensual” (1973, 156). While America once faced a variety of technical problems that could be solved by experts in public policy and engineering, today’s problems have become what Rittel and Weber call “wicked problems” (160). Wicked problems are those that are difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: (1) incomplete or contradictory knowledge; (2) the number of people and opinions involved; (3) the large costs of solutions; and (4) the interconnected nature of any individual problem with other problems. Wicked problems have no definitive solutions by standard technocratic measures of success, because their solutions cannot be measured in terms of efficiency. The problems themselves do not have any definitive definition, and their solutions are neither good nor bad, true nor false, but instead give rise to spillover effects in other areas (Theis 2016).

Drawing from Rittel and Weber’s work, Carcasson notes that although “wicked problems cannot be ‘solved,’” “the tensions inherent in wicked problems can certainly be addressed in ways that are better or worse” (2013, 38). Because wicked problems are value laden, tackling them requires adaptive changes rather than technical solutions; adaptive changes require much higher levels of buy-in than technical changes, and thus must be approached differently. Wicked problems therefore reflect a basic reality of modern democracies: the need to involve a broad range of people and perspectives (Carcasson 2013). Addressing these problems will require shifting from the current partisan approach to an approach rooted in deliberation.

Benefits of Deliberative Dialogue

Deliberative dialogue offers a means of addressing the problems of democracy. In deliberative dialogue, “citizens come together and consider the relevant facts and values from multiple points of view, listen and react to one another in order to think critically about the various options before them, and ultimately attempt to work through the underlying tensions and tough choices inherent to wicked problems” (Carcasson 2013, 41). Deliberative dialogues allow people to address wicked problems productively, working across their differences to find mutually satisfactory approaches to policy issues. Among the results is an improved political discourse.

The National Issues Forums offer issue guides for deliberation; these guides can help dialogue moderators frame the issues at stake using multiple perspectives and encourage participants to discuss associated trade-offs before moving toward action. Each issue guide frames a problem from at least three perspectives. A trained moderator helps participants look at the various perspectives with a special focus on underlying values and the tradeoffs involved in related potential actions. Participants examine areas of agreement and divergence in these perspectives in order to find common ground.

Deliberation allows individuals to truly hear others’ concerns, worries, and perspectives. It provides a way for people to begin talking through difficult issues without the assumption of a win/lose scenario. Deliberative dialogue organizers hope that participants will leave a dialogue with a greater understanding of the ways in which they agree or disagree with others, having identified areas that bode well for cooperation, as citizens seeking to tackle the problems confronting their communities.

Dialogue moderators, too, experience important benefits from participating, despite their difficult job. They must guide the conversation in a way that allows all voices to be heard but also allows all participants to feel safe expressing their perspectives. They must ensure that multiple sides of an issue are represented, frequently by asking questions that probe the root of an issue and why a speaker feels strongly about it. They also strive to move discussion along, and to refocus conversation and address misinformation without coming across as taking a side. As students develop their moderating skills, they experience robust opportunities for learning and skill development that tend not to be part of traditional classrooms.

Dialogues at Community Colleges

With support from the Citizenship Under Siege program—organized by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and The Democracy Commitment as part of the Humanities in the Public Square initiative sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)—several community colleges have begun hosting dialogues and forums focused on wicked problems. Describing the Humanities in the Public Square initiative, NEH Chairman William Adams noted that “the agency’s enabling legislation … speaks eloquently of the need to attend to ‘the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life,’” and noted that NEH’s “new grant program seeks to fulfill that mission in a very concrete way by bringing together scholars and their wider communities to examine how the humanities help us understand the challenging concerns of our time—from the implications of new technologies for public and private life to the modern experience of war and military service” (NEH 2015).

Two community colleges, Lone Star College in Texas and Mount Wachusett Community College (MWCC) in Massachusetts, have trained students, staff, faculty, and community partners to moderate dialogues that engage entire campuses and the communities they serve in deep discussions about wicked problems and their roots. Both Lone Star and MWCC are participating in Citizenship Under Siege and in the Economic Inequality Initiative organized by the American Democracy Project and The Democracy Commitment; both intentionally focused their deliberative dialogues on wicked problems with underlying, if not overt, relationships to economic inequality. Indeed, economic inequality is a thread that runs through many wicked problems—from voter participation to the opioid crisis, from immigration reform to education reform.

Lone Star and MWCC have implemented a train-the-trainer approach to dialogue moderation, ensuring the sustainability of these kinds of conversations both on and off campus. Over one or two days, potential moderators are trained at the colleges and learn about the differences between dialogue and debate; what wicked problems are; what effective public engagement looks like; how to convene the public in an inclusive and strategic way; how to moderate and record public forums; and, finally, how to move a group from discussion to action. After moderators are trained, the sponsoring organization selects a wicked problem with current relevancy for discussion within the greater community.

In fall 2016, MWCC student moderators coordinated two of four dialogues focused specifically on voting and the election. These student leaders, feeling discouraged by the apathy of their peers about the US presidential election, decided that opportunities to engage in dialogue about the issues would allow different voices from the college and greater community to be heard and would ultimately move people to action. The October 5 forum, “Why Vote,” engaged participants in conversations about barriers to voting, the electoral system, and election issue awareness. Conversations bridged political viewpoints, differences in age, and cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, and allowed participants to think about the implications of voting using information beyond their own experiences.

At Lone Star, different campuses have hosted forums on economic inequality, immigration reform, mental illness, and campus carry of firearms. Despite holding divergent perspectives regarding how to solve various problems, participants have come to realize that they are all concerned about the issues and could address problems by working together. When reflecting on the experience, most participants recognized that participants shared many areas of common concern even if they did not always completely agree on the best means of having an impact on an issue.

Changing Conversations

The conscious move to create opportunities for deliberative dialogue on community college campuses has opened up conversations among students, staff, faculty, and members of the greater community. By providing opportunities for students in particular to be trained as moderators, our colleges have begun to change how conversations about wicked problems happen in our communities. By providing similar opportunities to community partners, we have begun to partner with community organizations in very different ways. Students, nonprofit organization staff, and community members—some from disenfranchised populations—are now working side by side to engage in dialogue and move toward solutions together. Faculty have also begun to use facilitation skills in the classroom, engaging students in dialogues that are active, respectful, and solution oriented.

It takes a community whose members are open to hearing dissenting voices and finding common ground to begin addressing wicked problems, including the incredible stratification that economic inequality has created within our regions. Ensuring that community college students, staff, faculty, and community partners are skilled in the techniques of deliberative dialogue can lead to more open and transparent conversations in our communities while helping students gain the agency to create change. Community colleges can play a pivotal role in shaping the future landscape of politics, as our students live, work, and raise families in the communities where their colleges are located. The long-term impacts of positive political experiences through deliberation cannot be underestimated. As attitudes from the 2016 election show, partisan politics reinforce the divisions that make it difficult to constructively deal with wicked problems. Deliberation promises an avenue toward fixing the problems of democracy by addressing the problems in democracy.


Carcasson, Martin. 2013. “Rethinking Civic Engagement on Campus: The Overarching Potential of Deliberative Practice.” Dayton, OH: Kettering Foundation. 

Gallup. 2016. “Confidence in Institutions.” http://www.gallup.com/poll/1597/confidence-institutions.aspx.

Jones, Jeffrey M. 2016. “Americans’ Trust in Political Leaders, Public at New Lows.” Gallup, September 21. http://www.gallup.com/poll/195716/americans-trust-political-leaders-public-new-lows.aspx.

NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities). 2015. “National Endowment for the Humanities Announces New ‘Humanities in the Public Square’ Grant Opportunity,” April 27. https://www.neh.gov/news/press-release/2015-04-27.

Norman, Jim. 2016. “Americans’ Confidence in Institutions Stays Low.” Gallup, June 13. http://www.gallup.com/poll/192581/americans-confidence-institutions-stays-low.aspx?g_source.

President’s Commission on Higher Education. 1947. Higher Education for American Democracy.  Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

Rittel, Horst W. J., and Melvin M. Webber. 1973. “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” Policy Sciences 4: 155–169.

Theis, John J. 2016. “Political Science, Civic Engagement, and the Wicked Problems of Democracy.” New Directions for Community Colleges 2016 (173): 41–49.

Thomas, Nancy L. 2015. “The Politics of Learning for Democracy.” Diversity & Democracy 18 (4): 4–7.

John J. Theis is Executive Director of the Center for Civic Engagement for the Lone Star College System. Fagan Forhan is Assistant Dean of K–12 Partnerships and Civic Engagement at Mount Wachusett Community College.

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