Making Child Care Accessible through a Citizens’ Assembly

An interview with Harry Nathan Gottlieb and Matt Byrne of Unify America
April 15, 2024

This interview is part of a series spotlighting successful stories of co-governance models across rural, urban, and tribal communities.


Collaborative governance—or “co-governance”—offers a model for shifting power to ordinary people and rebuilding their trust in government. Co-governance models break down the boundaries between people inside and outside government, allowing community residents and elected officials to work together to design policy and share decision-making power. Cities around the world are experimenting with new forms of co-governance, from New York City’s participatory budgeting process to Paris’s adoption of a permanent citizens’ assembly. More than a one-off transaction or call for public input, successful models of co-governance empower everyday people to participate in the political process in an ongoing way. Co-governance has the potential to revitalize civic engagement, create more responsive and equitable structures for governing, and build channels for Black, brown, rural, and tribal communities to impact policy-making.

Still, co-governance models are not without challenges. The hierarchical and ineffective nature of our current governing structure is difficult to transform. Effective collaboration between communities and politicians requires building lasting relationships that overcome deep distrust in government. So far, effective models of co-governance tend to be local and community-specific—making it critical that we share stories of success and brainstorm ways to scale.

In this series, we share stories of co-governance in practice. For this interview, New America’s Hollie Russon Gilman and Sarah Jacob spoke with Harry Nathan Gottlieb and Matt Byrne of Unify America about their pilot Citizens’ Assembly in Montrose, Colorado.

The Citizens’ Assembly Pilot in Montrose, Colorado

The process of establishing Montrose’s Citizens’ Assembly began in 2023, when Unify America embarked on a nationwide quest to find a municipality willing to pioneer a deliberative assembly of residents to address pressing community issues. Montrose, Colorado, emerged as a prime candidate, with local leaders eagerly embracing the opportunity to tackle the shortage of affordable child care, a persistent challenge affecting families across the region.

During the early stages, Unify America facilitated a series of public presentations and discussions with various stakeholders, including elected officials, community organizations, and grassroots leaders. These engagements provided a platform for robust dialogue and brainstorming sessions to identify the community’s most pressing issues. These discussions and collaborative efforts already underway through the City of Montrose, Montrose County, Bright Futures, and the Uncompahgre Valley Alliance propelled the issue of child care to emerge as a focal point.

The decision to prioritize child care was informed by in-depth consultations with community stakeholders and guided by the principles of Unify America’s “Sovereign Model of Deliberative Democracy,” which emphasized the importance of creating a shared goal that resonated with the diverse demographics of Montrose’s community members. The shared goal for the deliberation was developed in consultation with more than 70 residents and leaders over about 10 weeks in the spring of 2023. The final wording for the goal was, “Every parent and guardian in Montrose shall have dependable access to safe, affordable, and enriching child care so they can work, attend school, or otherwise contribute to our community.” Terms such as “dependable” and “affordable” were carefully defined and incorporated into the deliberative process to ensure clarity and alignment among participants. Additionally, suggestions from community members and interviews with grassroots leaders helped identify actionable strategies to achieve the shared goal, laying the foundation for forming a solutions team of dedicated community members tasked with evaluating proposed actions.

With support from local organizations, the City of Montrose, Montrose County, and the Unify America team worked to create broad awareness across the community. After the initial outreach campaign, the team held a public lottery event to select the random, representative 64-person Assembly with individuals from various backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. Delegates were provided with comprehensive support, including financial compensation, technology resources, and child care assistance, to facilitate their full participation in the deliberative process.

Over 12 weeks, Delegates engaged in facilitated meetups, primarily online with one in-person event, where they delved into exploration, outreach, and deliberation phases. These sessions, structured to encourage open dialogue and collaboration, were organized into small groups known as “Trusts,” allowing Delegates to form meaningful connections and exchange ideas. Through structured exercises and the review of relevant materials provided weekly, Delegates navigated through different Trust groups, fostering a dynamic exchange of perspectives and insights.

During the assembly, the Delegates first reviewed eight actions, which local leaders synthesized from a pool of 62 ideas from the community. The Delegates also developed 16 additional ideas. Out of the 24 total proposed actions and ideas, five received over two-thirds support. Remarkably, three garnered over 70 percent support, and two exceeded 80 percent.

Like other deliberations, the pilot showed that a politically diverse group of citizens could come together, discuss a wide range of actions to achieve a shared goal, and find consensus. Delegates overwhelmingly reported feeling like they belonged in the Unify Montrose Assembly, feeling understood by those with different perspectives, and feeling comfortable discussing issues with those who disagreed. More than 90 percent of Delegates felt that deliberation should be used to solve political problems in the future.

During a February 2024 celebration event, local leaders publicly committed to work on building implementation plans for several ideas and continuing to research others. Plus, Delegates, community members, and Montrose leaders formed a new local nonprofit designed to support the implementation of the Assembly’s recommendations and continue developing opportunities for collaborative problem-solving.

Montrose, Colorado’s experiment with a citizens’ assembly on the topic of child care differs from other U.S. and European citizens’ assemblies in several ways: First, it was designed by a national organization, Unify America, which was looking for a community in which to test its model. Second, unlike other assemblies that began with just a topic or open question, such as how to use a piece of public land, Montrose’s began with a specific goal—universal access to affordable and dependable child care—leaving it to the assembly to identify means to achieve the goal and trade-offs they were willing to make. Lastly, the deliberation was almost entirely virtual. With the provided technology, Delegates were able to participate from their homes in just a couple of hours each week.

Q&A with Harry Nathan Gottlieb and Matt Byrne of Unify America

Can you tell us more about Unify America?

Harry: Unify America’s mission is to replace political fighting with collaborative problem-solving. Our team creates experiences that reduce political polarization, teach critical civic skills, and give people across the country a chance to make their voices heard. We offer civic skill-building like the Unify Challenge College Bowl, which has connected over 13,000 students across the United States for respectful conversations about hot-button issues, and civic engagement opportunities, like the Citizens’ Assembly in Montrose, Colorado, that bring communities together to solve their own local challenges cooperatively.

My background, and the background of a couple of our senior leaders, is in growing software and technology companies that have entertained and educated millions of Americans. So, we’re bringing that experience of innovation and scale to the democracy sector.

Why did you choose Montrose?

Harry: We were looking for a municipality with 15,000 to 50,000 people where we could run a pilot. Our team researched locations throughout the country, but the actual selection of Montrose was quite random. There is a big foundation in Colorado called the El Pomar Foundation. I was giving the keynote at their event, and I had dinner with the regional council, which included Montrose.

At the dinner the night before, I saw the relationship between a Republican and a Democrat, who were two members of the regional council of Montrose for the El Pomar Foundation, and they had a great relationship. They poked fun at each other and disagreed on many issues, but clearly wanted to work together and, like so many Americans, had a passion for making positive change in their community. They discussed the affordable housing problem in Montrose, and I asked if I could frame it as a goal rather than a problem statement. The goal sounds something like, “Everyone who works in Montrose should be able to afford to live in Montrose.” And they said, “Yes, that sounds great. Wait. What do you do?” Then I explained that we were looking for a small municipality to pilot in, and they said, “You need to come to Montrose.”

A couple of months later, they put together a place for us to do a presentation and a series of focus groups. After numerous meetings to understand their challenges, we concluded that this was the right community for our project. Over two trips and countless hours spent with 70 to 80 individuals, not once did politics dominate the conversation. Montrose, as I’ve come to learn after residing there for six months, is truly exceptional. Its leaders are deeply committed to improving the community and working together. Despite some initial skepticism from certain groups, we found most people were receptive once we engaged with them.

Source: Photo courtesy of Unify America, used with permission.

How did you ensure a representative and inclusive deliberation?

Harry: During the initial awareness-building stage, we wanted to educate the broad community on the process and the topic of child care. Then, to be sure we had a representative group, we got really targeted in our recruitment stage that followed. Working with an on-the-ground team and local organizations, we used direct mail, 35 community events, advertisements across local media (from newspapers and radio to TV and digital platforms), social media, email marketing, and door-to-door canvassing. Every week, we reviewed our applications and adjusted our outreach strategies to reach any demographics that might be missing.

To ensure that the Assembly would be random and reflective of the County’s demographics across six categories (age, race/ethnicity, household income, gender, political party affiliation, and local geography), Unify America leveraged Panelot to construct 1,000 panels of 64 Delegates, each panel reflecting the demographic diversity of Montrose. Following a rigorous and public selection process, a 64-person Assembly was convened, including individuals from various backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives.

We also had team members dedicated to supporting the Delegates, including helping them get their financial compensation, technology resources, and child care assistance.

Matt: In our selection process, we overrepresented the number of parents involved because the issue we focused on was child care. We overrepresented parents by 15 percent because, on the advice of Professor John Gastil from Penn State, you should have at least two people in each small group that reflect the shared experience of the topic: child care. We intentionally designed each Trust to have at least two parents.

Source: Photo courtesy of Unify America, used with permission.

Given that most of the deliberation happened online, could you discuss the in-person engagement part of the process?

Harry: The in-person event was fantastic. It was our second meeting. We wanted to give people an initial taste of the technology right up front, so we didn’t want to make it the first meeting. Making sure people feel a sense of belonging is central to our community engagement model, and we hoped that holding the in-person meeting early in the process would help build a sense of community. During the event, participants rotated in groups, engaging in conversations prompted by icebreaker questions, and the bulk of the time was spent ideating and crafting possible ground rules. In an online event that followed, the Delegates voted to adopt the ground rules that they created together.

This rapid, in-person connection-building was crucial for fostering trust among participants. We also explained the purpose of the citizens’ assembly: to harness collective wisdom from diverse perspectives through honest dialogue, which requires trust built on personal connections. This approach isn’t just nice—it’s essential for successful deliberation. Many attendees didn’t know anyone else in the room, so building those relationships was really important.

Matt: Technology plays a crucial role by lowering the barrier to entry. Instead of contending with the schedule juggling and logistics required to attend a weekend-long in-person event, Delegates can participate from their homes in just a couple of hours each week. It’s a stark contrast in terms of demands on participants and a potentially critical component to pave the way for a broader spectrum of participation.

While nearly all of our deliberations happened online, I believe there’s real value in having an in-person session at least once. Thanks to the excellent icebreaker questions, I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly people connected. While I was initially skeptical about the cost–benefit of in-person meetings, especially if our aim is scalability, I was convinced of the value of having an in-person bonding experience when feasible.

Source: Photo courtesy of Unify America, used with permission.

What challenges did you encounter?

Harry: We initially failed to communicate clearly that the Delegates would be working with existing ideas reviewed by local leaders rather than generating their own ideas entirely. Consequently, we amended the process to allow for both, which was beneficial. It raises the question of scalability, and it’s something we’re eager to explore further.

What were some of the significant findings from the pilot?

Matt: The pilot provided a lot of innovations and learning. We’ve detailed these in our report, which can be accessed on our website. Two pieces I’d like to highlight are the ways that we used online technology in the deliberation to address Delegate needs and concerns and the development of a local organization to further the work of deliberation in Montrose.

First, because we’re interested in scaling up deliberation for large numbers of Americans, we designed the Unify Montrose deliberation to take place primarily online. To ensure that everyone could have the opportunity to participate if they were selected, the pilot provided several accessibility resources, including webcams, computers, and headsets. We also had staff that were available for group and one-on-one training sessions.

Delegates accessed materials for the deliberation on a dedicated web platform and convened meetings on Zoom. Those digital platforms caused some challenges, as we all had to grow comfortable switching between the two platforms. In future iterations of online deliberation, it would be better to integrate the information into a single platform. Despite that challenge, the surveys throughout the process tell us that most Delegates could access the materials and found them helpful in preparing to deliberate.

The deliberation in Montrose provided various materials, including text summaries on our platform; video “Lowdowns” that reviewed facts, actions, and other essential information; a questionnaire designed to further highlight the critical information from the video; and a bulleted summary list for review. In addition to that, Delegates could access a “Full Homework” PDF that contained all the research and citations for a given week’s deliberation. Our post-survey found that over 70 percent of Delegates preferred the videos to the text material. Delegates generally found the Lowdowns to be understandable and trustworthy. So, the experience in our pilot suggests that using multimedia Lowdowns might be an important way of briefing Delegates in future deliberations.

A second piece we would like to highlight is the Catalyst Club. After months of local outreach, we wanted to continue engaging the community in the process and the broader mission of better public problem-solving.

We hosted a regular get-together, dubbed the Catalyst Club, with an open invitation to the public. At the first meeting, we had about 20 people and asked questions like “What values should the group uphold? How should it operate?”

The group continued to meet throughout the deliberation. Eventually, a group of Delegates and community members formed their own 501(c)(3) called Unify Montrose to advocate for implementing recommendations from the Assembly and the goal of more participatory local problem-solving.

The group also uniquely involves community leaders, experts, and government representatives. It’s not merely a citizens’ group petitioning the government. Instead, it’s a collaborative effort where they bring in community leaders who know about specific issues to help shape our collective goals. And having elected officials and community leaders involved from the outset fosters a sense of ownership among everyone, including those in government and leadership roles.

During our final community celebration, we recapped the deliberation process, highlighted key ideas, and showcased community leaders now taking action based on the results. Additionally, the Delegates leading Unified Montrose discussed how they wanted to structure the organization around three main areas: connecting people with resources, addressing more minor issues inclusively through structured deliberations, and tackling more significant problems like homelessness or affordable housing through a more comprehensive process, possibly spanning six months to a year from goal-setting to implementation.

Harry: So, in some conversations reflecting on what unfolded in Montrose and how the residents expressed their determination to keep the momentum going, it became clear that we should intentionally focus on building capacity. As a citizen, you have various avenues for engagement—you can vote, serve on a jury, and advocate for candidates or causes. If you’re interested in business, you join the Chamber of Commerce; for charitable work, there are nonprofits, churches, or Rotary Clubs. But when it comes to collaborating with fellow citizens on public problem-solving in a collaborative, inclusive, and respectful manner, where can most Americans go?

So now, as we’re crafting our strategy for the future, we’re asking ourselves: Can we introduce a similar capacity-building concept to communities or colleges, or even reimagine student government in high schools? Can we provide Americans with opportunities to engage in public problem-solving throughout their lives so they realize there’s a better way to govern ourselves? Returning to our mission, we don’t necessarily have to rely solely on political processes for public problem-solving; there’s an alternative approach: deliberative processes.

Related Topics
Citizens' Assemblies and Mini Publics