Beginning in 1999, deliberative dialogue has brought citizens of Portsmouth together to reason through a variety of citywide issues:

  • Discussing and reducing bullying in schools
  • Creating a citizen-driven framework for school redistricting after the loss of one of four elementary schools.
  • Developing the cultural, environmental and land use values in the city’s 2003 Master Plan, and providing concepts for the sustainability and transportation elements of it
  • Resolving a political deadlock on whether to relocate or renovate the historic Portsmouth Middle School
  • Bringing residents together to work together on a city Sustainability Plan, sparking both grass roots and municipal efforts that worked harmoniously together
  • Engaging with election officials in a city budget dialogue during hard economic times. The budget the city adopted that year funded full school services while holding tax rates in check

How are citizens in Portsmouth able to deliberate together despite opposing viewpoints, and arrive at solutions?

The key has been a commitment to empanel citizens in small groups of 8-12 people, charge them with the responsibility of deliberating like a jury or policy board, and honoring their resulting conclusions. Portsmouth Listens has organized citywide dialogues in which anywhere from seven to 30 such groups have worked with the same question.

How Portsmouth’s versions of Deliberative Democracy work

Two principals underlie Portsmouth Listens public dialogues. First, when citizens have a free exchange of ideas with one another over many hours together, the best ideas rise to the top. The notion of “the marketplace of ideas,” expounded by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, underlies Portsmouth Listens’ profound trust in citizens deliberating in small groups to arrive at the best ideas for the community. Second, by creating a safe and respectful space for those with opposing views to reason together, and providing trained facilitators, citizens with opposing views can find common ground. This creates a space where participants are willing to modify their views for the overall good. The group’s final work reflects where and how differences were solved, and dissent was channeled into a better final idea or solutions/

A Typical Study Circle Dialogue:


Whether it’s creating a vision for the city’s Master Plan (2003) or resolving the dispute over renovating or relocating the city’s middle school, Portsmouth Listens dialogues follow a similar process.

  1. Portsmouth Listens volunteers and city officials form a Steering Committee drawing together stakeholders in the question or issue.
  2. This committee frames the dialogue question to be given to the study circles. For example, “How do we balance the tax burden and level of services needed to make Portsmouth the best place to live and work for everyone?” (Dialogue on FY12 city budget)
  3. Portsmouth Listens recruits and trains neutral facilitators and develops a study guide for the four two-hour sessions that the study circles will deliberate.
  4. Recruiting is done using posters, direct mail appeal, newspaper ads, even door-to-door canvassing (2003 Master Plan Dialogue). Citywide dialogues have involved from 60-300 participants.
  5. Small groups are formed to be as balanced as possible, and all groups attend a kickoff. City officials present relevant data on the question, and Portsmouth Listens and/or the city creates an online database contains a wealth of background materials.
  6. Citizens in the small groups or Study Circles deliberate for two hours a night over four weeks to answer the question.
  7. The individual Study Circles write their conclusions in a report, and present their findings. The reports are presented to relevant government bodies (city council, planning board, etc.) in person and their written reports are published in the newspaper.

Portsmouth Listens has also used other deliberative dialogue processes:

One-day community conversation:


Citizens are recruited, broken into small groups to deliberate on a question, and then report their findings to one another. The themes from each group are posted on hand-made charts, and all participants are involved in condensing themes into a final summary by “dot voting” — every citizen has five votes that he/she affixes to themes he/she views as most important. This rapidly summarizes the sense of the whole. Portsmouth Listens used this process to begin a city Sustainability Plan.

Candidate forums:


During October prior to elections, citizens meet in groups of 8-12 with 2-3 candidates at a time and discuss the issues.

phase2-iconDialogue to Action/Phase II dialogues:

After an initial round of study circles, such as the city master plan, Portsmouth Listens forms topical study groups to develop more detailed recommendations. Some groups from the Master Plan process were: Transportation, Arts and Culture, Natural Resources/Sustainability, Making the Rest of Portsmouth as Special as Downtown, etc. Phase II study circles also meet four times and create reports.


dialogue-iconDialogue both for and with city decision makers:

In 2011’s city budget dialogue, midway through their deliberations, citizen study circles invited city councilors to meet with them. The resulting discussions were valuable for both. A similar approach was used in a 2013 Transportation Dialogue.


magnifying-iconResearch study circles:

In a 2013 Transportation Dialogue Phase II, citizen study circles studied dozens of communities in the U.S. and around the world to find ideas relevant to the question, “What are the characteristics of a sustainable transportation system that makes Portsmouth the best place to live, work and play for all of our residents, workers and visitors?” Citizens gave the city hundreds of hours of free research that was used in formulating policy.

History of Portsmouth Listens dialogues