research & articles

Results of D&D Practitioners Survey are Available    

Dialogue session at NCDD 2008If you haven’t yet, be sure to check out the site sociologists (and NCDD members) Caroline Lee and Francesca Polletta created at http://sites.lafayette.edu/ddps/ to display the results of the 2009 Dialogue and Deliberation Practitioners Survey. You can also download the full survey results here.

The survey was conducted online last Fall for the purpose of academic research on the deliberation field by the researchers. Francesca and Caroline felt that the field of public dialogue and deliberation has been growing so dramatically that no one fully knows what the field looks like. They sought to answer questions like:

  • Who is doing public dialogue and deliberation work?
  • What forms is their work taking?
  • What common challenges do they face?
  • How they would like to see the field develop?

The data they collected is extraordinarily valuable for our field, and you are encouraged to site it and utilize it widely. On the site, you can download or browse the survey results, ask a question of the researchers, or join a discussion about the findings.

Here are some of the results I found most interesting/useful from NCDD’s perspective:

Participants were asked to rate the importance of the 5 challenges facing the D&D community that were identified by NCDD conference participants:

  • 34% identified the Systems Challenge as our most important challenge (making D&D integral to our public and private systems).
  • Three of the challenges were seen as most important by 20% each:  the Framing Challenge (framing D&D work in a more accessible way), the Action & Change Challenge (strengthening the link between D&D, action and policy change), and the Evaluation Challenge (demonstrating to powerholders that D&D works).
  • Notably, only 6% indicated that the Inclusion Challenge (addressing oppression and bias) as the most important challenge facing our field.

When asked who should take the lead in advancing dialogue and deliberation in the U.S., “professional associations” like NCDD and IAP2 was selected most often (62%), followed by an “alliance of experienced local organizations” (51%), the White House Office of Public Engagement (48%), “national D&D facilitation organizations” like AmericaSpeaks and National Issues Forums (47%), foundations that support D&D (47%).

57% of respondents prefer the term “community of practice” to describe the people and organizations currently leading D&D efforts, compared to 16% who prefer “movement” and 11% who prefer “profession.”

Of the 4 engagement streams (exploration, conflict transformation, decision making and collaborative action), conflict transformation was the only one selected by less than half (38%) of respondents indicating the type of D&D work they practice. (more…)

Levine Article on Obama’s Failure to Engage the Public, So Far    

peterlevinePeter Levine had an important article published on the Huffington Post yesterday titled The Path Not Taken (So Far): Civic Engagement for Reform. The article outlines the Obama Administration’s failure-so far-to engage the public in our great national challenges.

In his article, Peter writes…

Candidate Obama argued that positive change comes from organized social movements, not from the government alone. Social movements should be broad-based, not narrow groups of people who all agree with one another. They should promote discussion and collaboration across lines of difference-including ideological difference.

As he said in May 2007, “politics” usually means shouting matches on TV. But “when politics gets local, when the person talking to you is your neighbor standing on your front porch, things change.” In that speech, he called for dialogues in every community on Iraq, health care and climate change.

Later, on Obama’s executive order on transparency, participation and collaboration, Peter writes…

“Transparency” came to mean feeding information to organized interest groups, reporters, and a few independent citizens who have deep interests and skills in particular areas. Participation and collaboration have not been part of the agenda since Inauguration Day.

Service and transparency are not nearly “edgy” enough; there is no fight in them. People are angry – from the Tea Partiers to MoveOn. When citizens try to solve serious social problems, they identify enemies. They do not just hold hands and serve together; they strike back at those whom they perceive as threats. “Active citizenship” reduced to non-controversial “service” or downloading government data completely loses touch with the legitimate anger of the American people.

An expanded version of the article is posted here in Peter’s FaceBook and here on his blog.  What do folks think of Peter’s article?  Do you agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to comment here.

Article by Tim Bonnemann on Limits of Crowdsourcing    

A commentary was published by NCDD member Tim Bonnemann at Federal Computer Week yesterday, titled The Outer Limits to the Crowd’s Wisdom. His timely commentary outlines the limits of “crowdsourcing” techniques in government decision-making and policy creation. Crowdsourcing, which Tim explains as “the concept of applying open-source principles to fields outside software,” is a popular topic right now in conversations about new public participation requirements in the Open Government Directive.

Tim points out that crowdsourcing projects like the online Open Government Dialogue so many NCDDers participated in, which are useful for such tasks as brainstorming and idea generation, tend to fail to live up to some of the basic principles of public participation, like inclusion and collaboration.

Tim writes, in a nutshell, that “there is more to public participation than crowdsourcing alone can deliver.”

New IJP2 Issue on the Practice of Public Meetings    

The latest issue of the International Journal for Public Participation (IJP2) is out, and articles are available for free downloading at www.ijp2.org.  The January 2010 issue is a special issue on “The Practice of Public Meetings.” This unique issue highlights the research of a team of communication scholars examining different aspects of one public meeting. The meeting being explored was convened in Omaha, Nebraska in a predominantly African American neighborhood to reveal the local Chamber of Commerce’s plans to improve economic development. One unique feature of this issue is a web video that gives readers the rare opportunity to view the same public meeting data under examination.

The articles in this issue showcase an approach to studying communication called Language and Social Interaction (LSI).  This approach, often used in communication research, provides tools to help scholars look closely at the interactions that occur in public meetings.  In this public meeting, members of the audience challenged the public officials and raised issues of trust, race and community membership. The articles in the IJP2 issue ask questions about how public participation is done in practice, and they disclose how challenges with this meeting are manifested in communication.  Each article in this issue takes a close look at some aspect of the communication that happened during the meeting, including the question and answer session, personal stories, nonverbal communication, discussion of race and community, and framing of the meeting goals. The special issue closes with a summary of findings from the individual articles and implications for future public participation research and practice.

(I learned about this issue from a post by Moira Deslandes to IAP2’s FaceBook group. If you’re on FaceBook, check out the IAP2 group here, and be sure to also visit and become a member of NCDD’s facebook group. As of January 3rd, the NCDD group has over 1650 members!)

IJP2 Article Part 8: Establish your own definition of success    

In many ways, the Systems Challenge overlaps with the Evaluation Challenge and the Action & Change Challenge (these are three of the five challenges we focused on at the 2008 NCDD conference). Embedding dialogue and deliberation in our government and other systems is next to impossible if we are not able to assess the effectiveness of these processes, and to show how they lead to concrete outcomes. Since there are many types of outcomes of this work and much of what is being done today is still experimental, practitioners can and should identify and clearly communicate what “success” means to them.

In the online dialogue we held at CivicEvolution.org before the conference, planning team member Joseph McIntyre wrote about his experiences with the Ag Futures Alliance project, which focuses heavily on dialogue to drive change in food systems. He emphasized how important it is for local Alliances to identify their own concepts of success, as numerous impacts and outcomes can usually be demonstrated. McIntyre listed a number of outcomes the Alliances have produced, from creating farm worker housing to new laws being enacted.

McIntyre pointed out that although the project can boast numerous outcomes, if someone asked him if they were closer to a sustainable food system, “I’d have to say no.” He continues, “D&D is simply plowing the field and planting the seeds that will result in the changes needed. In my case, D&D is part of an evolutionary change.”

DD Goals GraphicIn a new occasional paper published by Public Agenda (2009) titled “Beginning With the End in Mind: A Call for Goal-Driven Deliberative Practice” (Summer 2009), workshop presenter Martin Carcasson outlines three broad categories of goals for deliberation. Carcasson points out that although the “first-order goals” like issue learning and improved democratic attitudes are often discounted as we focus on our primary goals related to concrete action and impact on policy, those first-order goals still impact the big-picture goal of increasing a community’s civic capacity and ability to solve problems.

Note: The text in the graphic pictured here is a slightly adapted version of the paper’s “Goals of Deliberation” figure. Click on the image to see a larger version, or click here for more detail on why I created the graphic and why I feel practitioners should familiarize themselves with Carcasson’s framework.

In his 2008 book Democracy as Problem Solving (MIT Press), Xavier de Souza Briggs shows how civic capacity—the capacity to create and sustain smart collective action—is crucial for strengthening governance and changing the state of the world in the process. Valuing shorter-term goals (first-order outcomes) and the overall development of civic capacity may be more practical—and satisfying—than solely emphasizing second-order goals like collaborative action and policy change, since such goals usually depend on many decisions and factors outside the scope of any one project. Practitioners should consider all three types of goals when determining measurements of success.

Even funders at the 2008 NCDD conference emphasized the need for practitioners to (1) own the definition of success and then (2) demonstrate their success. At a breakfast John Esterle and Chris Gates hosted for a cross-section of NCDD leaders to discuss funding challenges and opportunities for this work, Esterle, Executive Director of The Whitman Institute and board chair of Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE), implored those present to empower themselves regarding impact. “Let funders know, ‘this is how we measure our success.’” Be proactive and able to articulate your impact in a compelling way.

Next section (coming soon): Cultivate and support public engagement practitioners

Note from Sandy:

SandyProfilePic80pxThis is my eighth blog post featuring content of an article published in the latest edition 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 “Systems Challenge” (How can we make D&D values and practices integral to government, schools, and other systems?) and the The “Framing Challenge” (How can we talk about and present D&D work in more accessible ways?). You can download the full article from the IJP2 site.

IJP2 Article Part 7: Build on and learn from what’s already in place    

In order to build the “joint ownership” described in the previous section posted about the “Systems Challenge,” a necessary step in many communities is to convene and connect the various groups and leaders who are already mobilizing people locally around issues and problems. Our challenge leaders suggest that community foundations and others who tend to play convening roles should bring these local leaders together to talk about what’s currently being done and by whom, and to start thinking and talking about a) how they can work together better and b) what barriers to collaboration need to be overcome.

hands200pxDuring our “Reflective Panel” plenary session, a conversation among four leaders in the dialogue and deliberation community, panelist Carolyn Lukensmeyer (President of AmericaSpeaks) emphasized the need for practitioners to understand and work within the existing political structures in their communities. She advised practitioners to:

  • Develop relationships with the people in the agencies and government sectors you want to influence to do this work regularly, such as city managers, key leaders in agencies that have some resources, and elected officials.
  • Coordinate your efforts with the predictable cycles of decision making, such as with budget cycles.
  • Know where there is a felt need to link public will to political will, and seek to understand the issues related to this felt need.

Some workshop presenters focused on the importance of learning from and building on processes that have been embedded in government for decades or centuries. Woodbury College faculty member Susan Clark’s workshop, Direct Democracy in the Mountains, explored what can be learned from Vermont and Switzerland’s long-running town meetings. “For centuries,” Clark says, “town meetings have involved citizens from all income and education levels and political perspectives in the ‘public talk’ at the heart of this decision-making institution.”

Another example of long-standing embedded processes that are certainly worth learning from is neighborhood assemblies and neighborhood council systems. According to Matt Leighninger (2009), “the history of these neighborhood governance structures offers a rich legacy of successes, mistakes, strengths, and weaknesses that can inspire and inform democracy reform at every level of government.”

HalSaunders200pxSeveral workshops focused on creating or capitalizing on what Archon Fung and Elana Fagotto (2009) call deliberative catalysts – “centers that promote deliberation and assist organizations that seek public input or want to increase civic engagement.” One workshop focused on establishing university and college centers as platforms for deliberative democracy. Across the country, a diverse network of university-based public deliberation programs focused on practical scholarship and hands-on deliberative activities has been forming in recent years.

Another workshop, led by Taylor Willingham (LBJ Presidential Library) and four of her colleagues at various libraries across the country, urged public engagement practitioners not to overlook libraries and university extensions programs, since they are “the people’s university, the public’s forum for dealing with contentious public issues.” Extensions educators provide problem-solving expertise in every county in the U.S., and libraries are ideal venues for public forums. As the co-presenters pointed out, there are more libraries in the U.S. than there are McDonald’s restaurants.

Other workshops recognized individuals and government agencies championing the systematic use of public engagement processes in our institutions. One workshop highlighted the innovative Citizen Councilor Network of King County (Seattle area), which has gotten local government to actively promote and support the formation of numerous small dialogue groups that meet to discuss on an ongoing basis important regional and societal issue.

Newer efforts that build on existing structures were highlighted at the conference as well, e.g., Vets4Vets, a program which trains Iraq-era veterans to facilitate dialogue among new veterans. Working closely with the Veterans Administration (VA), Vets4Vets’ goal is to build an international peer support community using local groups, phone and internet connections among the growing number of vets who have served in the global “War On Terror.”

Next section (coming soon):  Establish your own definition of success

Note from Sandy:

SandyProfilePic80pxThis is my seventh blog post featuring content of an article published in the latest edition 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 “Systems Challenge” (How can we make D&D values and practices integral to government, schools, and other systems?) and the The “Framing Challenge” (How can we talk about and present D&D work in more accessible ways?). You can download the full article from the IJP2 site.

New Book on Online Deliberation (Free Download!)    

ODBook-site-logoTodd Davies sent an announcement to the main NCDD listserv tonight about the new book he and Seeta Peña Gangadharan edited, titled Online Deliberation: Design, Research, and Practice. This looks like a great resource for the field, and I’m so glad they’re allowing people to download the full book at no charge! You can also order the book from the University of Chicago Press for $25 or download individual chapters here.

Here’s the book description:

Can new technology enhance local, national, and global democracy? Online Deliberation is the first book that attempts to sample the full range of work on online deliberation, forging new connections between academic research, web designers, and practitioners. Since the most exciting innovations in deliberation have occurred outside of traditional institutions, and those involved have often worked in relative isolation from each other, research conducted on this growing field has to this point neglected the full perspective of online participation. This volume, an essential read for those working at the crossroads of computer and social science, illuminates the collaborative world of deliberation by examining diverse clusters of Internet communities.

IJP2 Article Part 6: Share ownership of programs and structures widely    

Now that I’ve finished posting about the “Framing Challenge,” it’s time to move on to the “Systems Challenge.”

Most recent experiments in dialogue and deliberation have been temporary and somewhat isolated programs that lead to few long-term changes in the way people and institutions interact. For the “Systems Challenge,” we explored how we can make public engagement values and practices integral to government, schools, and other systems, so our methods of involving people, solving problems, and making decisions happen more naturally and efficiently.

At the conference, we focused most on institutionalizing public engagement in governance—an area often referred to by scholars (perhaps a bit awkwardly) as “embeddedness.” According to Fung and Fagotto (2009),

Embeddedness is a habit of deliberation among citizens. When that habit is embedded in a community’s political institutions and social practices, people frequently make public decisions and take collective actions though processes that involve discussion, reasoning, and citizen participation rather than through the exercise of authority, expertise, status, political weight, or other such forms of power. (p. 3)

MattLeighninger200pxFive themes emerged in discussions about this challenge area…

1. Share ownership of programs and structures widely

Public problems cannot be solved by government alone. Community assets like volunteers, businesses, churches, schools and nonprofit organizations must be tapped to address most complex problems. According to Systems Challenge co-leader Matt Leighninger (pictured), one problem with some of the existing systems for public involvement is that they were established purely as government entities, like the neighborhood council systems created during the “War on Poverty” in the 1960s and 70s.

“Starting in the early 1970s, local governments in places like Portland, Oregon, Dayton, Ohio, and Saint Paul, Minnesota created neighborhood council systems as a way of engaging residents in public decision-making and problem-solving” (Leighninger, The Promise and Challenge of Neighborhood Democracy: Lessons from the intersection of government and community,2009). Because they were designed as miniature versions of city councils, they have had to deal with many of the same dysfunctions and problems as government—but with less resources and authority with which to work.

Leighninger asserts that our focus should not be on making government bigger, but on creating structures and processes that are jointly owned by whole communities. In his draft report on a Democratic Governance at the Neighborhood Level meeting held in November 2008, one of four main conclusions drawn from the meeting is that “this work has to be jointly ‘owned’ and directed.” Meeting participants seemed to agree that in communities where public engagement is embedded in governance, “a broad array of neighborhood and community organizations and leaders, along with public officials and employees” all have some significant degree of ownership and authority within the system.

That said, the importance of involvement and buy-in of political leaders cannot be overemphasized. In their paper Sustaining Public Engagement, Fung and Fagotto (2009) identify “political authority” as one of three conditions necessary for public engagement principles and processes to become embedded in government systems. Although nonprofits and civic entrepreneurs often initiate public engagement efforts, they are more likely to impact policy and endure over time if local politicians and decision-makers also support them. Hawaii State Senator Les Ihara (an NCDD 2008 attendee) is an example of a public official who has tirelessly promoted National Issues Forums and other deliberative initiatives with legislators for years.

2. Build on and learn from what’s already in place

Coming soon…

Note from Sandy:

SandyProfilePic80pxThis is my sixth blog post featuring content of an article published in the latest edition 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 “Systems Challenge” (How can we make D&D values and practices integral to government, schools, and other systems?) and the The “Framing Challenge” (How can we talk about and present D&D work in more accessible ways?). You can download the full article from the IJP2 site.

IJP2 Article Part 5: Cultivate the ability to adapt framings for different audiences    

woman200pxAt the October 2008 NCDD conference in Austin, Texas, one thing people seemed to agree on related to the “Framing Challenge” was that dialogue and deliberation practitioners need to cultivate the ability to adapt framings for different audiences.

How practitioners should emphasize potential action outcomes depends, in part, on whom they are trying to reach. It may not be necessary to attract people from every group to every program. Talking in terms of social justice, social change and racial equity may work well when recruiting people of diverse ethnic backgrounds to a dialogue on racism, while focusing on learning about an issue may welcome conservatives into a conversation about the separation of church and state.

Once we understand how various framings play out with different groups, we can adapt our language to different audiences. On our Reflective Panel, David Campt emphasized the need for practitioners to be able to tailor both their language and their practice to distinct groups.

How the topic of discussion is framed is potentially more important than how the program or process is framed. On the “Conservatives Panel,” Joseph McCormick mentioned framing a discussion on global warming as a dialogue on “energy security and climate change” to draw more conservatives. Theo Brown spoke of a similar multi-partisan initiative that abandoned a “gun control” framing for one centered on “reducing violence.”

The point here is not to encourage practitioners to become masters of “spin,” but to use language that people from potentially underrepresented groups can relate to, while remaining open and honest about the purpose of the program. Whether a program is designed to inform the mayor’s policy decisions, encourage citizen action on race issues, or build understanding among conflicting groups, it is important to be clear about the program’s aims from the start.

It should also be said that although collectively and individually, we seem to be developing more sensitivity to the impact language has on different groups, we try to encourage NCDD attendees not to shame or lecture each other, or worry overly about offending. As Jacob Hess said in his report on the Framing Challenge, “I came to NCDD San Francisco (2006) a ‘closet conservative’ – with most people ignorant of my background. I experienced so much warmth, optimism, and spirit there, that I had no chance of feeling unwelcome.” One of Hess’ personal conditions of good dialogue is the old Biblical emphasis on “being not easily provoked” (1 Corinthians 13) and we should all be a bit forgiving in our use of language.

Note from Sandy:

This is my fifth blog post featuring content of an article published in the latest edition 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?). You can download the full article from the IJP2 site.

This is the last segment from the section on the Framing Challenge.  Here’s a quick overview of all 5 segments:

1. Develop a common language of practice with more universal appeal
Can we identify common yet compelling language that represents the work we do in dialogue and deliberation? Can we get clear on our theories of change?

2. Consider how different framings affect different groups
Some terms we use in this field turn people away because they are too “new-agey” sounding; others because they are too academic or jargony, or because they have negative connotations or implications for certain audiences. Practitioners are acquiring and cultivating greater sensitivity to the ways that distinct language ‘plays out’ for different groups.

3. Understand the specific concerns of conservatives
Progressives seem to be more drawn to public engagement work than conservatives. Understanding and acknowledging conservatives’ concerns about this work is key.

4. Frame in terms of general goals and desired outcomes
While no single framing works for all audiences, practitioners are finding success in focusing on the purpose or potential outcomes (in general) of engagement rather than focusing on process.

5. Cultivate the ability to adapt framings for different audiences
How practitioners should emphasize potential action outcomes depends, in part, on who they are trying to reach. We must use language to which people from potentially underrepresented groups can relate, while remaining open and honest about the purpose of the program.

Master’s and doctoral theses on group facilitation    

Stephen Thorpe, board member of the International Association of Facilitators (IAF), shared a link to his doctoral thesis on online facilitation on the IAF Forum on Friday, as well as a link to an older post listing (mostly) downloadable masters and PhD theses on facilitation. Add details about your own thesis using the comment field, and I’ll make sure Stephen gets the data to add to his list.

Ball, Dianne Lesley (2004). Facilitation of action learning groups: an action research investigation. Unpublished PhD thesis, School of Industrial Relations & Organisational Behaviour, The University of New South Wales, Australia.
http://unsworks.unsw.edu.au/vital/ac…y/unsworks:871

Butcher, Martin (2007). Participatory Development: Methods, Skills and Processes: A design framed action research thesis. Unpublished PhD thesis, Southern Cross University, Australia.
http://epubs.scu.edu.au/theses/77/

Cook, Susan (2000). A personal description of small group facilitation. Unpublished masters of education thesis, Malaspina University College, Acadia University, Canada.
www.collectionscanada.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk1/tape3/PQDD_0003/MQ58421.pdf

Fisher, Lynn Patricia (1974). Small group facilitation of participant goals: the participants’ views. Unpublished PhD thesis, Ohio State University.

Hunter, Dale (2003). The Facilitation of Sustainable Co-operative Processes in Organisations. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Western Sydney.
http://arrow.uws.edu.au:8080/vital/access/manager/Repository/uws:482

Hogan, Christine F. (2001), The makings of myself as a facilitator: An autoethnography of professional practice, Unpublished PhD thesis, Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Western Australia.

Jay, Leighton (2008). An analysis of the critical contingency factors influencing the use of group facilitation in organisations. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia.

http://theses.library.uwa.edu.au/adt-WU2008.0069/.

Martin, M. A. (2003). The nature of the lived experience of co-facilitation: A phenomenological approach. Unpublished PhD Thesis, School of Management, Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Western Australia.

Roberts, Gerard Michael O’Brien (1997). Action researching my practice as a facilitator of experiential learning with pastoralist farmers in Central West Queensland. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Western Sydney. www.scu.edu.au/schools/gcm/ar…roberts00.html

Schuitevoerder, Ingrid Rose (2000). Process-oriented dialogue : an inquiry into group work and conflict facilitation. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Western Sydney, Australia.
http://arrow.uws.edu.au:8080/vital/a…sitory/uws:349

Sheehan, Michael James (2000). Learning and implementing group process facilitation: individual experiences. Unpublished PhD thesis, Faculty of Commerce and Management, Griffith University.
www4.gu.edu.au:8080/adt-root/public/adt-QGU20030228.154255/index.html

Thomas, G. J. (2007). A study of the theories and practices of facilitator educators. Unpublished EdD Thesis, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.
www.latrobe.edu.au/oent/Staff…ral_thesis.pdf

Thorpe, Stephen J. (2009). Enhancing the effectiveness of online groups: an investigation of storytelling in the facilitation of online groups. Unpublished PhD thesis, Auckland University of Technology, Auckland.
http://hdl.handle.net/10292/778

Wardale, D.V. (2006). Managers’ and Facilitators’ Perceptions of Effective Facilitation Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Western Australia, Perth.
http://theses.library.uwa.edu.au/adt-WU2007.0010/

IJP2 Article Part 4: Frame in terms of general goals and desired outcomes    

At the October 2008 NCDD conference in Austin, Texas, one theme that emerged in the “Framing Challenge” was the idea of framing dialogue and deliberation in terms of general goals and desired outcomes.

2women200pxMany times, the potential for concrete outcomes or results needs to be underscored in big, bold letters. This often means identifying language that explicitly connects the public engagement process or program to solving a particular problem people are facing. In the online dialogue we held before the conference to explore the five challenge areas, Judith Mowry described learning that an especially effective “way to bring people to the table” is to make clear for them “what’s in it for me?”

Citizens, community leaders and elected officials tend to talk in terms of solving problems and addressing issues, and think in terms of outcomes and content rather than process. Several conference attendees reported more success in drawing people to the table when they framed public engagement work in such terms. Theo Brown mentioned much greater drawing power for AmericaSpeaks events when they are able to highlight concrete action and policy outcomes. Facilitator Lucy Moore described “lofty policy goals” as key in bringing many stakeholders together for her dialogue about Grand Canyon issues.

Of course, it can be tricky to promise even general outcomes like “citizen action” or “impact on policy” for programs designed, by their very nature, to allow the participants themselves to identify specific action or recommendations. In their workshop, Virtuous and Vicious Cycles: Beyond a Linear View of Outcome and Impact, Maggie Herzig and Lucy Moore noted that overly defining outcomes from the start can undermine participants’ ownership of their efforts and underappreciate the possibilities that were unimaginable before the initiative began.

Herzig and Moore pointed out that for some groups, an overly-defined outcome is enough to turn them away. People with more conservative political views, for example, can be quickly turned off by talk of “social change” or “community organizing” that seems inherently progressive. Talk of influencing government policy can also be a red flag for conservatives like panelist Pete Peterson, Executive Director of Common Sense California, a self-identified “communitarian conservative” who would like to see public engagement efforts focus more explicitly on empowering citizens to take responsibility for community problems themselves rather than turning to government for help or demanding government action.

Peterson emphasized the importance of not allowing a more deliberative democracy to replace self-reliance. After all, government is not the answer to many of our problems, and we cannot expect it to be. Similarly, panelist Grover Norquist stated frankly, “I don’t like it when 12 people or 12,000 people get together and tell someone what to do.” Peterson, Norquist, and others on the “Conservatives Panel” suggested framing public engagement around more traditional values like “voluntary, civic solutions to problems” (rather than only political solutions) and “individual responsibility in addition to collective responsibility” in order to attract more conservative participants.

PhilipThomas200pxWhile there may not be a single framing of public engagement that works for all audiences, practitioners are increasingly finding success in focusing on the purpose or potential outcomes (in general) of engagement. Specifically, framing in terms of problem solving and identifying and working towards a desirable future seems to resonate with broad audiences. In the online dialogue, Joseph McIntyre described his efforts to frame public engagement work in a broadly accessible way:

We frame our work leading wisdom circles in sustainable agriculture as reinvigorating local democracy and specifically we create “citizen think-do” tanks that attempt to bring perspective and the common good back into the center of our communities. For us, the call to represent “our best hopes and aspirations for a future worth having” resonates strongly with both the rural conservative and urban environmental members of our alliance.

It is also helpful to consider the way organizations like NCDD member Everyday Democracy (which reinvented itself recently by changing its name from the Study Circles Resource Center) talk about the work they do in communities. Everyday Democracy’s website states simply that “we help your community find ways for all kinds of people to think, talk and work together to solve problems.”

Note from Sandy:

This is my fourth blog post featuring content of an article published in the latest edition 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?).  You can download the full article from the IJP2 site.

IJP2 Article Part 3: Understand the specific concerns of conservatives    

A major theme in the Framing Challenge at the 2008 NCDD conference was the need to understand the specific concerns of conservatives.

menatconf_200pxThe public engagement field and related fields struggle with the fact that many more progressives than conservatives are attracted to this work. The vast majority of practitioners are politically progressive, and it is typically more challenging to recruit people with more traditional or conservative views to participate in dialogue and deliberation programs.

During the conservative panel sub-plenary on the second day of the conference, panelists Joseph McCormick, Grover Norquist, Michael Ostrolenk and Pete Peterson mentioned several words that can turn conservative communities away from public engagement: grassroots, organizing (“I don’t want anyone to organize me”), consciousness and enlightenment (“something you have and I don’t?”).

In their workshop, Attracting Conservative Citizens to Dialogue Events: Liberal-Conservative Campus Dialogue & Mormon-Evangelical Interfaith Initiatives, Jacob Hess and Reverend Greg Johnson explained some of the sources of wariness of dialogue by many social conservatives. One is the fear of being asked to give up truth or absolutes, as dialogue can seem to assume that all truth is relative.

One participant wrote this reflection about Hess and Johnson’s powerful session:

“I had a big, big revelation [during your session]. At 64, I have thought my whole life that to be open-minded, all accepting, non-judgmental toward different people, beliefs, and values was an absolute good thing. How could it be bad to be tolerant, embracing, accepting all beliefs as valid? Wouldn’t everyone appreciate that attitude, since it includes everyone? What I heard from you is that having an absolute truth is fundamentally, critically important to you. It is the most important thing. It may be easier for you to deal with each other, or with others who have conflicting versions of the truth, than to do deal with someone like me who doesn’t seem to advocate any particular truth, but sees it all as relative.”

Others shared similar realizations after this workshop. Often, dialogue is said to bring people together whose viewpoints and experiences contribute important “pieces of the puzzle” for making progress on issues like racial inequity, education reform, and youth violence. But framing dialogue in relativist terms may backfire for some audiences. According to Hess and Johnson, it may be important to reassure conservatives that “truth Capital T is still welcome” – as long as they also agree to be open to learning more.

Another concern brought up in Hess and Johnson’s workshop is the fear of a hidden [liberal] agenda. Pete Peterson confirmed this on the conservatives panel, suggesting people with more traditional views might respond better when dialogue is framed as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. When dialogue is seen as a “tool,” the question arises from all sides “What is the hidden agenda? To change my mind so I agree with you? To challenge my beliefs or values?”

Peterson’s comment echoed another concern Hess and Johnson explored in their session: the fear of being changed. Dialogue can be seen by people with deep-rooted belief systems as something that might require them to compromise their beliefs somehow. Consider how a conservative Christian might feel when asked to participate in a dialogue on gay marriage aimed at “finding common ground” or moving forward in ways that “work for all” among people with disparate viewpoints. Panelist Grover Norquist, Founder of Americans for Tax Reform, likewise pointed out latent fear among some towards events seeking common ground.

There are many theories as to why progressives have shown more interest than conservatives in public engagement work, but the fact remains that the outcomes of public engagement projects cannot be easily categorized as serving left-wing or right-wing agendas. Participants sometimes recommend tax increases or new government programs to address the issue at hand; other times they call for business or nonprofit groups or take over tasks that had been the responsibility of government. Often, they call for citizens to take more direct responsibility for solving community problems.

Note from Sandy:

This is my third blog post featuring content of an article published in the latest edition 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?).  You can download the full article from the IJP2 site.

IJP2 Article Part 2: Consider how different framings affect different groups    

Another clear theme in the Framing Challenge at the 2008 NCDD conference was the importance of understanding how different groups of people respond to the various ways public engagement is currently framed. In the online dialogue and at the conference itself, many pointed towards acquiring and cultivating greater sensitivity to the ways that distinct language ‘plays out’ for different groups.

conversation_croppedblogThe concept of blind spots in our language – terms and phrases that dissuade or confuse without our realizing it – was discussed in the online dialogue. Susan Partnow, a leader in the Conversation Cafe movement, remarked that she had been surprised in the past when her efforts to be inclusive and welcoming fell short. She proposed a need to “assume you are making a lot more assumptions than you think you are.”

“Different language pushes different people’s buttons,” stated Avril Orloff, who led our 5-person Graphic Recording Team for the conference. While many cringe at “touchy feely” terms like heart-work, wholeness, and consciousness, “others [like me] sigh over bureaucratic-sounding language like multi-stakeholder engagement, whole systems change and the dread empowerment.” Kai Degner, Mayor of Harrisonburg, Virginia and founder of the OrangeBand Initiative, summed it up well when he said that people in the dialogue and deliberation community often talk about the work they do in ways that are “either too new-agey or too ivory tower.”

Many anecdotes were shared of instances when blind spots in language unintentionally dissuaded people from participating. Erin Kreeger related how some clients talk in terms of decision making but cannot relate to the term deliberation – “even though their processes are what many of us would call deliberation.”

Another colleague of Kreeger’s “would never use the term democracy because it’s too loaded and manipulative when used in the contexts he works in.” Jim Driscoll, who co-led a workshop with several Iraq-era veterans on his program Vets4Vets, shared how a donor reconsidered a large gift “because the organization had used the word democracy in the proposal… he thought it must be a ‘feel good’ organization and he is a hard-nosed conservative.” Irene Nasser related how even the concept of collaboration can turn people away from participating in Jewish-Palestinian dialogue, since potential participants often see each other as the enemy and have no interest (yet) in working together.

As Framing Challenge leader Jacob Hess wrote in his report on this challenge, the degree to which we can “surface ways in which different terms play out differently across different communities, we can move forward more deliberately to accomplish what we really want in drawing diverse communities together…. The aim is to be mindful about the language we use, being aware that different words that really resonate with us may need some explaining, translation or upgrading for another setting.”

Note from Sandy:

This is my second blog post featuring content of an article published in the latest edition 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?).  You can download the full article from the IJP2 site.

Also, see NCOC’s 2008 Civic Health Index (p. 17-18) for a fascinating summary of people’s reactions to terms we often use to describe public engagement work: democracy, citizenship, civic engagement, service, social entrepreneurship and community organizing. 13% of survey respondents responded negatively to the word “democracy” when asked to share the first thing that came to mind. 20% cited some kind of right or duty, such as voting. 12% mentioned rules of decision-making, such as majority rule, and 9% cited the government. www.ncoc.net

IJP2 Article on Framing and Systems Challenges    

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.

framing_graphic_200pxNow 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. (more…)

Report on Online Town Hall Meetings from the Congressional Management Foundation    

online-town-hallsBe sure to check out Online Town Hall Meetings: Exploring Democracy in the 21st Century (2009, Congressional Management Foundation), which tackles the lack of information out there about how the internet might facilitate and enable conversations between citizens and Members of Congress.

The report is based on 20 online town hall meetings facilitated in 2006 with U.S. Representatives and one event in 2008 with a U.S. Senator, with a total number of participants in excess of 600. The “online town halls” were not remarkable process-wise; the Member of Congress and moderator spoke over VOIP (internet phone, like Skype) and constituents typed in questions and comments online (yep – online versions of the typical town hall meeting). But the research is solid, and if you’re looking for data to help you convince a Member of Congress to engage their constituents using basic online technology, look no further.

Researchers found that:

  • The online town halls increased constituents’ approval of and trust in the Member of Congress.
  • The online town halls increased constituents’ approval of the Member’s position on the issue discussed (in this case, immigration was the most popular issue discussed).
  • The town halls attracted a diverse array of constituents-including those not traditionally engaged in politics and people frustrated with the political system.
  • The town halls increased engagement in politics (voting, following elections, persuading others to vote).
  • The town halls increased the probability of voting for the Member.
  • The discussions in the town halls were of high quality (quality of information, use of accurate facts, respect for different points of view, etc.).
  • The sessions were highly rated by constituents; participants wanted to see more of these types of sessions.

What do folks think of these findings (from the Executive Summary)? How can we build on this data to make an argument for higher-quality forms of online engagement?

© 2003-2010 National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation.
Learn more about us or explore this site.

###