Could a civic engagement tool have prevented the surprises and agonies of Brexit and Obamacare?

Nadine Smith, global director of communications, leading our legitimacy work at the Centre for Public Impact, sat down with Deborah Devedjian, founder & chief citizens’ officer of, to discuss how governments can achieve legitimacy through civic engagement.


CPI: Welcome, Deborah. You’re an American who’s lived in London, and your expertise is in civic engagement. Looking at the UK now, what do you make of Brexit and the engagement we had on that decision?

D. Devedjian: I lived in London in the early 90s and travelled throughout the UK, so I wasn’t surprised by the Brexit vote. How many times did I hear Brits referring to Europe as “the Continent” or “they?” It was never “we”.

No-one was listening. And no-one was asking questions. At least not the right questions.

We need to listen to one another more often, and sometimes differently. Someone telling you “I’m not interested in that issue” may really be code for “I haven’t eaten a decent meal in three days”. Polls often ask the wrong questions, focusing on symptoms, not causes.

Similarly, the fact that many were surprised at Trump’s performance in the primaries and the presidential election showed a lack of interest in “other” or a denial of reality. It’s easy to remain in a cocoon. But you can’t maintain your comfort level when things around you are changing. Trump’s election was a wake-up call to both Democrats and Republicans.

CPI: But there’s so much noise, so much debate these days – are we not listening, or are people not speaking up?

D. Devedjian: You remember the computer expression “Garbage In, Garbage Out?” Well, that’s exactly what you experienced with Brexit and what we experienced with Obamacare. Many members of Congress even admitted they’d not read the 2,700-page bill that they voted to pass; questions as to what’s in the bill and its ramifications still outnumber answers, because we never laid out a clear plan.

During the debate on Obamacare, as on Brexit, there was too much unconstructive speaking and not enough listening or analysis. More importantly, there exist few trustworthy vehicles to present information in a cogent, accessible way and then process all the commentaries and feedback into something of value. And that’s precisely what TheChisel does.

An abundance of data and opportunities to engage online doesn’t mean people end up understanding or “hearing” one another better. Who’s engaged in these online sessions? Often it’s the rabid types, who don’t reflect the 70% in the “middle” who aren’t speaking up. Unilateral spewing is not discourse.

Unilateral spewing is not discourse.


CPI: So, are you saying that a referendum result is not the will of the people?

D. Devedjian: Absolutely not. I’m saying that the process leading up to the Brexit vote was flawed. And it was so fundamentally flawed that even if the vote had been reversed, there would still be all the handwringing and uncertainty and questioning and second-guessing. No-one was providing reputably-vetted information, and any legitimate information out there was inaccessible to the public.

Similarly, the 2016 US presidential election was fraught with bad information and badmouthing on both sides. Compounding the problem is the nomination process: 43% of the electorate can’t participate in the primaries because they’re not registered as Democrat or Republican, up from 33% three decades ago. That’s a lot of disenfranchised citizens.

Top 7 reasons why government fail their constituents

© 2018 Perfect Union, Inc.

CPI: That’s not healthy and undermines legitimacy for all parties. So, how does a government process gain legitimacy and trust?

D. Devedjian: First, a government needs to understand that the problem – as in the case of Brexit – wasn’t bad polling or the economy or immigration. Those were the lightning rods of a flawed process. A government gains legitimacy and trust by establishing a process that’s transparent, in which many can engage.


CPI: You say many, but what about those voices who feel drowned out, or whose views we don’t like to hear? Where can they engage without fear of being shut down?

D. Devedjian: Most platforms don’t want honest, constructive discourse. They want eyeballs. They want clicks. As I was told when we were launching TheChisel, people want emotion – they want rage or joy. Online sites, radio, and TV are slanted politically from the jump and lack credibility, but they get the clicks. They’re there to make money. They don’t care about long-term economic or social impact.

The Fourth Estate has surrendered its moral ground to the amoral whims of the Fifth Estate.


Years ago, I asked a media investor how networks felt able to replace news on real issues, like the economy or Iraq, with reality TV. “Iraq isn’t our problem. That’s someone else’s problem. We’re here to make money.” And now, we all pay the price that Facebook and its ilk have wrought upon the world. The Fourth Estate has surrendered its moral ground to the amoral whims of the Fifth Estate.

Many people claiming they’re being shut down are the same people shutting down others in a viral loop of vitriol.


Civil discourse is a two-way street. But most sites don’t encourage respectful dialogue and honest inquiry. Don’t forget that social media was created to be addictive, not constructive. Plus, many people claiming they’re being shut down are themselves shutting down others in a viral loop of vitriol.

CPI: How can you just trust information? Doesn’t trust have to be earned?

D. Devedjian: Of course it does. The proposals we’re posting are jointly developed by well-regarded groups or individuals on left and right. TheChisel plays intermediary: there’s lots of back and forth before we get both sides to agree. If subject-matter experts from major leftwing and rightwing thinktanks agree on the basic facts and a common solution, then we’ve stripped partisanship out of the discussion. The actual “debate” happens when the proposal is opened up to constituents, who then have the opportunity to ask questions, suggest improvements, and share their stories.

CPI: Can you give us a specific example?

D. Devedjian: Community members of a national US institution came to TheChisel to help facilitate a decision that would impact their institution for years to come. Its council had surprised the community by announcing – six months earlier – that it had signed a letter of intent to sell its prime real estate in Manhattan. Members were apoplectic. They’d been blindsided – no warnings, no rationale, no financial need, not even a plan to use the proceeds.

The council decided to delay the decision, and engaged with community members to develop strategic priorities and assemble a plan. Most importantly, it would establish transparency, accountability and trust for future decision-making.

CPI: What do you think the result will be?

D. Devedjian: Whether or not they ultimately sell, this process will have established greater legitimacy and trust for the board, and a decision that’s more acceptable to the community.

CPI: Wouldn’t town halls do the same thing?

D. Devedjian: The value of technology is that almost everyone with access to the internet can be heard; not just those who shout the loudest. The technology is another tool in the government’s grab-bag to reach as many constituents as possible. It’s a way to fuse high-touch and high-tech.

I served on a public board of education outside Philadelphia. Few people attend those public meetings – they’re often inconvenient (and boring!).

It’s a way to fuse high-touch and high-tech.


CPI: You mean it’s often just the usual suspects, the self-appointed community spokespersons?

D. Devedjian: Absolutely. And how do you attend if you have scheduling conflicts, or your mobility is limited? Technology allows citizens to participate in civic matters they deem important at 3 in the morning, or if they’re too shy to speak in public, or can’t afford a babysitter.

CPI: Could this really work though on the biggest problems? Something like Brexit?

D. Devedjian: There’s a difference between addressing the causes and symptoms of a problem. And most conversations, like those around Brexit, are about solving the problem – but we need to start by agreeing on our shared values. In our view, there are three steps to reaching consensus: the first is exploring shared values, followed by establishing common-ground facts and designing tactical solutions.

Recently, we assembled a bipartisan coalition of universities, media outlets, and public policy organisations to conduct a study of Americans’ values. The Left, Centre, and Right – together – helped shape the content and the questions. We’d stripped away the partisanship to focus on people and the issues.

What’s Your American Dream? addressed 34 issues, such as employment, immigration and education. We asked respondents to rank their goals for achieving “your” American dream in each category. With school education, for example, the answers from Left, Centre and Right were exactly the same: #1 students learn in a safe environment; #2 students develop critical and creative skills; and #3 students receive social support, healthy meals, and school supplies. That’s huge convergence on so fundamental an issue, but one that’s so vituperatively argued.

CPI: What were the results overall?

D. Devedjian: For 53% of the issues surveyed, Left, Centre and Right agreed on the #1 priority for achieving their American dream. In 74% of the issues survey, Americans agreed on their top three priorities. So, now we’ve explored shared values. And we can sit at a table, break bread together, and I can trust the other guy isn’t going to kill me.

CPI: What happens next?

D. Devedjian: Establish the common-ground facts. Gun control is a big topic in the US. Most people spout information based on emotion, and while gun deaths are incomprehensibly tragic, information is usually skewed or cherry-picked to suit an agenda. But you can’t fix problems unless you have good data almost everyone agrees on.
So, we create ChiselBits – infographic-intensive, quick-read backgrounders, written jointly with opposing factions. Working together can prevent mutually assured destruction.

CPI: How do we ensure “experts” don’t dominate a technology platform?

D. Devedjian: We address that in designing the tactical solution. The initiatives are developed by experts from both sides of the aisle. On corporate income tax, say, we had experts from Brookings/Urban Institute’s Tax Policy Center on the left and American Enterprise Institute on the right.

Smart experts recognise that their solution may solve 70% of a problem. The remaining 30% needs a reality check and sensitivity check. What happened? The experts’ initial plan reduced the statutory rate from 39.6% to 15% over a 10-year period – that would increase the national debt by US$1.5 trillion. Then we had online discussions between the experts and the community, which were earnest, substantive and constructive.

The process helped the experts crystallise their plan. The quality of feedback was high, and they were able to elicit ideas from people they’d never otherwise have contact with. As a result of public feedback, the experts changed their initial proposal to be revenue neutral (not incurring the added debt) while reducing the tax rate to 15%, thereby achieving consensus among different stakeholder groups and the voters.

Over time, experts and constituents learn from one another. And in the end, the best proposals get chiselled and improved – through crowdsourcing by constituents and curation by experts – to everyone’s benefit.

CPI: Anything to add?

D. Devedjian: Citizens have the right to information and respect, but also the responsibility to engage with integrity. Benjamin Franklin described democracy as “a Republic, if you can keep it.”

We have the tools to bring governments and constituents together. Our favourite inventor-statesman-scientist-publisher Ben would be thrilled to experience digital democracy – empowered by this collective wisdom for the benefit of all – but we all have to work for it, together.