Portsmouth Listens

How do you get a City to pitch in and start to drive what happens in a community?  A group of dedicated folks have done just that in Portsmouth.  So here is a quick overview of who they are and what they are doing.  They are also very helpful when it comes to helping other cities emulate what they have accomplished.




            Since 1999, over 1200Portsmouthcitizens have committed over 10,000 hours of deliberative dialogue on issues critical to makingPortsmouththe best place to live and work for everyone.  Major dialogue issues have included:

  • Creating a safe and respectful middle school environment;
  • Elementary school re-districting;
  • Reviewing and re-writing the City Master Plan;
  • Educational dialogues about sustainability;
  • Renovating or relocating thePortsmouthMiddle School;
  • City candidate forums;
  • Creating a five year community sustainability plan; and
  • A City Budget Dialogue.


Deliberative dialogue brings together small groups of citizens 98 to 12 per group) with trained facilitators to address a specific issue facing the community.  For example, in 2007, it was whetherPortsmouthshould renovate its historic middle school near downtown or build a new middle school near thePortsmouthHigh School? Portsmouthhas generally used the study circle format that involves groups meeting two hours per week for four or more weeks of deliberation.  A “database” of relevant information is made available to participants who are asked to bring their personal experience, knowledge and views to the table.  Each study circle is a “marketplace of ideas” where all ideas are welcome and challenged with the best ideas rising to the top.  Portsmouth Listens has also used one day deliberations known as “community conversations”. 


Upon concluding their deliberations, each study circle group prepares a written report of its findings and conclusions.  Their reports are published in the Portsmouth Herald and each group has the opportunity to make an oral presentation to the decision makers (typically the City Council or School Board).  For examples of study circle reports, go to www.portsmouthlistens.org.  Study circles invariably have produced quality information to assist decision makers with difficult community issues, and generated substantial social capital forPortsmouth. 


            Because of the success of dialogues through the Master Plan review in 2003/2004, citizens wanted to sustain deliberative dialogue inPortsmouth.  Portsmouth Listens was incorporated as a voluntary not-for-profitNew Hampshirecorporation whose sole purpose was to be a neutral convener of deliberative dialogue on issues critical to makingPortsmouththe best place to live and work for everyone.  Portsmouth Listens continues to work with City officials, citizens and organizations to identify critical issues for future dialogues.


In Sustaining Public Dialogue:  Embedded Deliberation in Local Communities, researchers cite Portsmouth Listens work “as an exemplar” of  effective public engagement.  In 2011, Portsmouth and Portsmouth Listens were one of seven finalists in a world-wide Reinhard Mohn Competition to identify best practices for “vitalizing democracy”.  In August, 2011, Portsmouth Listens was awarded the Sarah Farmer Peace Prize by the Bahá’í Community of the Greater Seacoast Region in acknowledgement of the importance of dialogue and good listening to the resolution of problems and the building of peaceful communities.  In October, 2011, the Orton Foundation announced that Portsmouth/Portsmouth Listens is one of five communities selected for its Stewardship Case Study, “an analysis of what makes communities succeed in stewarding their values, visions and community plans over time. It’s a hot topic for Orton, which is seeking new ideas for extending the lifespan and effectiveness of local planning in the communities where it works.”


            Following Portsmouth Listens and other deliberative dialogue, the Carsey Institute at theUniversityofNew Hampshirecreated New Hampshire Listens.  New Hampshire Listens is assisting local communities in creating their own “listens” programs and facilitating regional and statewide dialogues. 


If you want to bring deliberative dialogue to your community, contact New Hampshire Listens at   www.nhlistens.org  or Portsmouth Listens through its Co-Chairs, Jim Noucas and John Tabor at jnoucas@noucaslaw.com or jtabor@seacoastonline.com.