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To end the shutdown, Dayton and Legislature should use Citizens League’s ‘Common Ground’ process

Outrage among the public continues to mount as the Minnesota state government shutdown continues, yet our outrage seems to be coupled with a sense of helplessness.

Outrage among the public continues to mount as the Minnesota state government shutdown continues, yet our outrage seems to be coupled with a sense of helplessness. We send scathing letters to our elected representatives and to local media, but we don’t seem to have clear advice for what will break this stranglehold of entrenched positions.

 I’d like to offer an idea: our governor and our legislative leaders should use the Common Ground Principles recently published by the Citizens League, a highly respected, nonpartisan Minnesota civic organization that has a decades-long track record of tackling thorny public policy issues through a well-honed framing and deliberation process.

 An important feature of the Common Ground process is to bring elected officials into dialogue with citizens. Therefore, my recommendation of using the Common Ground process means Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders should sit down not just with each other, but also with a council of citizens (picked by the Citizens League) with balanced perspectives who can help guide our decision-makers toward “common ground for the common good.”  I think the Common Ground process is exactly the tool we need to get us unstuck from this terrible state government shutdown quagmire.

The excerpt below is taken from the Citizens League website. It is a quick summary of the principles, but I’d recommend reading the full report (25 pages) to fully appreciate how the process works.

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For the last five years, the Citizens League has been defining the gap in expectations between government officials and citizens in how public decision-making processes play out through government agencies. Through the Minnesota Anniversary Project (MAP150), the Regional Policy Workshop and the recently completed Central Corridor case study, we have been developing and testing ideas on how citizens and governments can better collaborate in ways that we have recently referred to as Common Ground Principles. We believe that the following principles will have a transformative effect when applied to decision-making processes and result in better results for citizens and government.

“Common Ground Principle #1: Everyone “steps back” to ensure that all who have a stake are represented in the process.

“Common Ground Principle #2: Ensure that all who have a stake are heard from at an authentic point in the process.

“Common Ground Principle #3: Use an inclusive, interactive process that gives everyone the tools to understand the bigger picture and the trade-offs involved.

“Common Ground Principle #4: Expect citizens to be problem-solvers, not complainers, and set up processes that put forth that expectation.

I personally experienced the Common Ground process in 2008-2009 as a member of the Citizens League water policy study committee. That experience changed me dramatically. Not only did I learn a great deal about our state’s water policies and the state of our waters, perhaps more important, I developed democratic dialogue and deliberation skills and learned how to move from a position of self-interest to one of common, community interest.

I also learned that citizens, when given the right group structure and process, can problem-solve very complex issues and come up with thoughtful and innovative solutions that everyone “owns.”  I think our governor and our legislators could benefit greatly from the wisdom of fair-minded citizens and from the problem-solving skills they will hone through the use of the Citizens League’s Common Ground Principles.

 Janna Caywood is a St. Paul resident and Citizens League member.