May 23rd, 2012

Why I’m Watching the Delta Dialogues


A big part of my job as a journalist and think tank fellow is to talk about why California’s budget and governing systems don’t work. So about 50 times a year, I explain to audiences around the state how we got into our current mess, and I outline all the policy options for fixing our system.

Each time, someone inevitably stands up and asks, “So I accept your explanation and love all the different ideas for fixing things, but how can you ever possibly get enough people and interest groups in California to come together and agree on any fix?”

And my only reply is: “I have no idea how you do that.”

Mine is an honest answer. And also an unsatisfying one. Which is why I agreed to serve as storyteller for the Delta Dialogues. I want to know how we might progress in getting California out of its crisis.

This is a personal and professional concern. This is my home state. I’m fourth generation Californian and grew up in the San Gabriel Valley. I’ve spent the past 12 years as a reporter and editor here, first for the LA Times, then with the think tank New America, and most recently with a fast-growing magazine called Zócalo. I’ve written two books. Virtually all of my work has involved explaining why California’s politics and government don’t work.

Despite all of this, I’m a strange choice for a storytelling role in a Delta-based project. I live in Southern California, hundreds of miles from the Delta (though I do appreciate the water we receive). I don’t farm or fish or design waterworks (though in the past, members of my extended family have done those things). And, for all my writing and research on California issues, I’ve always avoided the subject of water.

It seemed way too complicated. It was a wicked problem, and I was already consumed by different California wicked problems: our broken budget process and our giant mess of a constitution.

But over the past two years, my outlook and my work has changed. I’ve been trying hard to move beyond describing the budget and governance crisis and to spend time thinking about how we Californians could come together and fix it.

In my search for solutions, I’ve been intrigued by efforts around the world to create deliberative processes with small groups of citizens to resolve very complicated problems. The exact methods vary, as do the specific problems and the locations. (I’ve encountered these processes in Australia, British Columbia, Brussels, Brazil, and Texas.) But in each place, the goal was to bring together stakeholders faced with big, complicated problems, and find some way to understand, cooperate, and compromise.

Of course, reading about such efforts is one thing. Seeing one in person is another thing entirely. And so when I was offered the opportunity to observe a deliberative process like the Delta Dialogues, I couldn’t refuse.

I don’t know if the Delta Dialogues will be a success. I know from my reading that many deliberative processes fail. And I’m very cynical (journalism does that to you) about the ability of people to come together and make progress. But if the Delta Dialogues create a shared understanding of how to address the Delta’s challenges, I’d like to be there to see for myself how the breakthrough happened.

Because if the stakeholders of the Delta succeed in these dialogues, their example could offer lessons for how we might solve all sorts of California problems.