PhD Candidate Aims to Bring ‘The Art of Democracy’ to Communities


“When stakes are high, let us help you bring stakeholders and policymakers together.”

That is the overarching mission statement of The Art of Democracy, a startup co-founded by Michael Arnold-Mages, a PhD Candidate at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design, Tim Dawson, a PhD Candidate in Rhetoric at CMU and Selena Schmidt, a social, civic and private sector entrepreneur. The Art of Democracy offers consulting services to organizations that need help planning and facilitating high-stakes conversations in civic, commercial or non-profit communities.

“When you think about the traditional setting of a community or town hall meeting, what you hear most at these meetings is not conversation that addresses the problem at hand, but complaints or arguments”, said Arnold-Mages. “People need help to efficiently evoke their true needs in a constructive way.”

So how exactly can The Art of Democracy help dealing with this issue?

“When a client tells us that they want to initiate a community forum to hear people’s thoughts, we identify what the client wants to learn from the attendees, and what actions the client can take after receiving that input,“ said Arnold-Mages. “We then design engagement services for the forum to help the clients connect with a broad group of stakeholders, and thoughtfully direct the meeting conversation toward actionable goals.”

One key strategy that The Art of Democracy follows in designing an engagement plan is to move the load of information-processing off of the people attending a public meeting, and on to the organization hosting the meeting. For example, if the forum’s topic is about improving public facilities within a specific budget, they focus the meeting on what improvements people want to see  and prioritizing these improvements, not the details of the budget itself.

“Traditionally, this type of meeting might spend time comprehensively explaining a budget plan, which directs people’s conversation toward the details of budget planning. When this happens, participants don’t have the conversation that they need to have – the conversation about what their community or neighborhood needs. They run the risk of missing the point of the meeting,” added Arnold-Mages.

To avoid inefficient conversations, the consulting team works with the client to convene a broad group of stakeholders, conducts interviews with community members and identifies potential areas of interest for discussion. The team then works intensively with the client organization to research and create highly focused background information that is related to the areas of interest. They help the client organization prepare this material in the form of a presentation and briefing materials for participants. By doing this, the participant will only have to consider the information that is most relevant to the discussion, thus avoiding unnecessary explanations or misunderstandings of irrelevant issues. The background materials also provide information that allows meeting attendees fully understand the potential constraints and the scope of possible solutions, so that they can have reasonable expectations of the meeting outcome.

Another part of the engagement plan is to increase the quality of discussion during the community forum. Strategies include involving a trained moderator at each table to ensure mutual understanding and encourage rich participation, inviting experts to the forum to answer attendees questions, and a post-forum survey to collect participants’ considered opinions and evaluate the performance of the engagement plan.

Arnold-Mages credits the School of Design for providing him a great environment to pursue what he considers meaningful design.

“I was very interested in designing for communication”, continued Arnold-Mages. “before coming to CMU, I worked with several online communities, and I wanted to do deeper research to understand the implications of how the material environment might serve to facilitate conversations that are normally very challenging for participants.” 

“Although you work within the School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University has many opportunities to meet people from other departments and disciplines.”

Michael met Robert Cavalier from Carnegie Mellon’s Department of Philosophy, who studies the theory and practice of deliberative democracy, which, along with transition design approach, serves as the foundational framework for the work of The Art of Democracy.  Cavalier also introduced him to his co-founders, Tim Dawson and Selena Schmidt. 

“The three of us were working with Robert, Don Carter and Steve Quick from the Remaking Cities Institute on re-designing a new experience for Route 51 commuters” said Arnold-Mages. “That was really the start of our consulting practice. Many of the people who have worked with us wanted to do similar things in their meetings.”

The Art of Democracy has successfully worked with many organizations, such as The Heinz Endowments, The City of Pittsburgh, MyVA Communities, the Environmental Charter School and the White House’s My Brother's Keeper Initiative, by offering effective engagement services designed by the team.

“The City of Pittsburgh adopted our proposal for a series of planning meetings conducted by the Affordable Housing Task Force. We were able to identify key problems, and produce focused recommendations from almost 500 residents, using 4 two-hour meetings,” said Arnold-Mages.  “Using the city’s old model, it would take at least 25 hours to engage the same number of people.”

With its continued success, The Art of Democracy looks toward developing design strategies around facilitating difficult conversations on topics such as: issues of equity, the problems of gentrification. The Art of Democracy is currently working with WQED’s Think! initiative to facilitate conversations and community engagement surrounding the topics of Guns in a Free Society, and Equity and Opportunity in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

To learn more about The Art of Democracy >>

Date Published: 
Wednesday, March 8, 2017
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