An article of mine was published in the latest addition of the International Journal of Public Participation (IJP2), titled Taking our Work to the Next Level: Addressing Challenges Facing the Dialogue and Deliberation Community. The article outlines our learnings in two of the five challenges we focused on at the 2008 NCDD conference in Austin: The “Framing Challenge” (How can we talk about and present D&D work in ways that are accessible to a broader audience?) and the “Systems Challenge” (How can we make D&D values and practices integral to government, schools, and other systems?).
I want to make sure the D&D community sees and benefits from this article (it was a lot of work! – plus I quote and mention many of you)… so I plan to share segments of the article here on the NCDD blog every few days for the next month as food for thought. Feel free to add your thoughts and reactions using the comments field. I would love for the article to spur more conversation in our community about these critically important issues.
You can download the full article from the IJP2 site. Note that the current edition of the Journal also includes great articles from NCDD members David Campt (on using audience response keypads), Janette Hartz-Karp and Lyn Carson (on the Australian Citizens’ Parliament), and others.
Now for blog post #1…
The Framing Challenge: Presenting dialogue and deliberation in an accessible way
Oftentimes, people’s assumptions, fears or reactions to dialogue and deliberation have much more to do with framing than with the processes themselves. Subtle cues in how we talk about and present this work can put people on the defensive and turn them away. In this challenge area, we explored how public engagement processes can be made more accessible to more communities—not by radically changing the practice itself, but my making sure the “packaging” is as welcoming, accessible and compelling as possible. The crux of this work is to provide the space for people with a wide variety of perspectives and experiences to solve problems together, and the ability to draw in people of all educational levels, ages, income levels, and political perspectives is vital.
Our leader for the “Framing Challenge” was Jacob Hess, a young social conservative who says he has “found a home in the dialogue community.” The first time he was invited to a dialogue at his college, Jacob saw how the ways we talk about, portray and frame dialogue can strongly affect whether diverse groups feel comfortable participating. Conservatives are just one group for whom this challenge matters, but the NCDD community has been particularly concerned about attracting more conservatives to this work since the first National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation in 2002 – when keypad polling showed that a surprisingly low number of conference attendees had voted for President Bush in 2000.
This is troubling for a field that embraces inclusion as a core principle, so we decided to address this challenge head-on at NCDD Austin. One of the things that significantly informed our learning in this challenge was a sub-plenary session we held on the second day of the conference called Walking our Talk: What the D&D Community Can Learn from Conservatives. A huge hit at the conference, what became known as the “Conservatives Panel” featured conservative leaders who support public engagement work discussing, among other things, why certain language is off-putting to those on the right side of the U.S. political spectrum.
Panelists included Joseph McCormick, Director of the Transpartisan Alliance and Co-Founder of Reuniting America; Grover Norquist, Founder of Americans for Tax Reform; Michael Ostrolenk, Co-Founder of the Liberty Coalition and the American Conservative Defense Alliance; and Pete Peterson, Executive Director of Common Sense California. Dave Joseph of the Public Conversations Project skillfully moderated the session.
We also devoted special energy to another group that tends to be underrepresented at our conferences: youth. Knowing that professional conferences can seem inaccessible to young people, and that young people aren’t always attracted to dialogue and deliberation as it is commonly framed, we worked with Deborah Goldblatt and the Rockrose Institute to run a Youth Dialogue Project (YDP) at the 2008 conference. YDP’s goal was to ensure that the voices of young leaders are included in creative and innovative ways, and we held two workshops and a sub-plenary session to this end. The sessions were co-designed and hosted by young leaders.
Of course, the concept of “framing” itself poses some challenges. A key component of deliberation work is framing the issue so people with different perspectives on the topic are attracted to participate, and so multiple viewpoints are presented fairly in discussion materials. The term “framing” in the political world, however, is often used to mean spinning — carefully shaping political arguments to influence people (often with emotional triggers) in a particular direction. Here we focus on the former use of the term.
Here are some of the themes that emerged at the conference about how this work can be framed to be more broadly accessible.
1. Develop a common language of practice with more universal appeal
Tom Atlee and Peggy Holman invited NCDD attendees to begin creating a “pattern language” for dialogue and deliberation practice in their pre-conference workshop. Atlee, Holman, and other thought leaders in this work are calling for more careful examination of both the common and distinct elements across dialogue settings so a basic “grammar” or pattern language of essential/universal elements can be developed. According to Holman, “As we articulate D&D in more ordinary language that most people can understand from their own experience, it will be more likely to go viral.”
In the online dialogue, planning team member and CivicEvolution.org creator Brian Sullivan suggested we develop a concise set of principles for dialogue and deliberation – “a basic floor of understanding beneath our feet which will allow us to have consequential interaction with the public (and each other) instead of continually re-establishing what D&D means.” As illustrated above, the field has made huge strides since the conference in the critically important work of developing a set of basic principles for dialogue and deliberation work.
In addition to the attention to pattern language and basic principles, some also emphasized the importance of developing a theoretical framework for dialogue and deliberation. In their workshop, Will Friedman and Alison Kadlec of Public Agenda emphasized how a well-articulated theoretical framework would enable practitioners to communicate about their work in a clear and compelling way to funders, public officials and communities. Another session, led by Philip Thomas and Bettye Pruitt, focused on exploring our theory of change for public engagement work. Similarly, Maggie Herzig and Lucy Moore’s workshop outlined a new, dynamic theoretical model that reflects the systemic and cyclical nature of dialogue and deliberation—going beyond a simple linear view of the work.
Some conference attendees with visual arts backgrounds encouraged their peers to develop a common language that is colorful and evocative. Avril Orloff, the leader of our 5-person graphic facilitation team, even suggested we translate some basic concepts of dialogue and deliberation into graphic form, using “images that have emotional pull in people’s minds.”
Clearly, more work needs to be done to help practitioners frame dialogue and deliberation work in ways that are welcoming and accessible. A recent thread on the NCDD discussion list explored the different definitions of the terms civic engagement, public engagement and public participation – terms which have distinct meanings to many people in the field but which blur together or elicit blank stares from those outside our field of practice. Add terms like multi-stakeholder engagement, democratic governance, public policy dispute resolution and deliberative democracy and it’s obvious that being clear and compelling even when we talk amongst ourselves is a challenge.
Whether a public engagement program is accessible and welcoming to people of all backgrounds depends on much more than how we talk about and present the program. But in a field of practice where innovation and leadership have emerged from so many different disciplines, each with different lexicons for this work, agreeing on effective ways to frame the work to community leaders, public officials, funders, and the general public is particularly challenging.
One key strategy is to reach out to those outside our field – and those who do what we would consider “dialogue” and “deliberation” work in communities but do not use those terms. We need to find out how they frame this work, and what terms resonate with them. As one conference participant said during a workshop, “We need to get real and bring down [our work] to a level where people can relate—bring it down to where people live.”