Social Security

Engaging 45,000 Americans in a National Dialogue

citizens at a discussion table

The views of citizens from across the nation helped shape the social security debate.

Over 15 months, Americans Discuss Social Security (ADSS) engaged 45,000 Americans in 50 states in direct discussions on Social Security reform. More than 12 million were engaged through the project’s media and public education efforts.

Although Congress was eventually not able to agree upon a reform package, the outcomes of the public discussion impacted the policy debate by altering the perception of what the public would and would not accept.

A New Approach to Citizen Engagement

AmericaSpeaks introduced its innovative approach to citizen engagement as part of the Americans Discuss Social Security (ADSS) project in 1998. ADSS, a non-partisan effort funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, directly engaged Americans of all walks of life in a national dialogue about Social Security reform and urged Congress to support legislation that reflected citizen preferences. The outcomes of ADSS demonstrate that citizen engagement efforts can and should be an essential component of any critical policy-making process.

citizens at a discussion table

Moderators Dr. Carolyn Lukensmeyer and Susan Rook were broadcast to all meeting sites.

Before ADSS was launched, the informed concerns and priorities of the public about Social Security’s future had not influenced policymakers in Washington. Opposing special interests had polarized the debate on reform options, and the conventional wisdom in Congress held that any attempt to reform the system would spark citizen outrage and a backlash against lawmakers. Within this political climate, ADSS reasserted citizen voices into the debate by informing Americans about the reform options and engaging a diverse group of people in the dialogue about the system’s future.

ADSS Executive Director and AmericaSpeaks founder Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer developed a first-of-its-kind national deliberation that integrated the following elements:

Public Education

  • Non-partisan, balanced public education materials distributed to public deliberation participants and disseminated widely over the Internet and through community organizations

Public Deliberation

  •   Two 10-city teleconferences (1,000 participants each)
  •   One five-city regional teleconference (1,000 participants)
  •   Five town meetings (500-750 participants each)
  •   One seven-week online policy dialogue (15,000 participants)

Grassroots Engagement

  • Home discussion kits
  • Frequent legislative updates
  • Links to national and local advocacy groups

Public Opinion Polling

  • Innovative polls measuring public attitudes towards Social Security reform conducted by Princeton University’s Research Survey Center; Results were published in the report Making Hard Choices: Public Opinion on Options for Social Security, 1999

Media and Advertisements

  • Widespread cable broadcasts of teleconferences and public deliberation meetings
  • A PBS Fred Friendly Seminar on Social Security developed in conjunction with ADSS
  • Advertisements placed in opinion-leader publications disseminated results of public opinion polls and public deliberation


National and Decision-Maker Participation

Over 15 months, the project engaged 45,000 Americans in 50 states in direct discussions on Social Security reform and more than 12 million through the project’s media and public education efforts. Participants reflected the rich regional, ethnic and generational diversity of the country. Special efforts were made to engage seniors and young adults – the populations most significantly impacted by the reform options.

map of ADSS meeting locations
The project directly engaged formal and informal decision-makers at every stage of the process. President Clinton and 120 members of Congress actively participated in town meetings and teleconferences, giving them a unique opportunity to discuss the issue with a diverse group of constituents. Key stakeholder groups, think tanks and advocacy organizations representing all major perspectives on the issues participated in the ADSS Advisory Board. This group reviewed all ADSS public education materials to ensure balance and accuracy.

Citizen Opinion Impacts the Debate

interview from Boise, ID

Citizens shared their views across meeting sites.

ADSS had an immediate and direct impact on the Social Security debate. The project demonstrated the intense public interest in the future of Social Security reform and showed that Americans had more of a “middle ground” approach than special interests or lawmakers had believed. For example, contrary to insiders’ expectations, participants overwhelmingly supported raising the cap on payroll taxes. These results were considered credible because of ADSS’s neutral stance on the issue, the diversity of participants, and lawmakers’ direct involvement in the process. Eventually, each of the major reform proposals being considered by policymakers included raising the cap on payroll taxes.

ADSS demonstrated the value of citizen voices and the positive impact citizen deliberation can have on public decision-making. Although Congress was eventually not able to agree upon a reform package, the outcomes of the deliberation altered the perception of what the public would and would not accept. Further, the ADSS methods revealed that citizen deliberation efforts can re-connect decision-makers and constituents, break the deadlock created by special interests, and inform thousands of citizens of important public matters.