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Deliberative Democracy and Change Management

by Will Friedman, Ph.D. and Alison Kadlec

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

Every two years, during the conference for the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, practitioners, researchers and advocates of participatory problem solving gather to share new ideas, explore challenges, and learn from each other, all to improve our practice and efforts in our respective fields. At this year's conference, in Seattle on October 12th through the 14th, we had the pleasure of presenting some of Public Agenda's ideas-in-progress to a large and lively group.

During our session, “Deliberative Democracy and Change Management,” we explored the intersection of these two domains. Both deliberative democracy and change management are designed to help people more thoughtfully navigate complex conditions—solving problems and negotiating change—and forge a better path forward.

We believe that each field has something to offer to and learn from the other. Our purpose in the NCDD session was to explore these possibilities and articulate how our work is being enriched by an investigation of the intersections and divergences between the two fields.

At the most basic level, deliberation is what should occur before a decision has been made and change management is what needs to occur after. This formula, however, only scratches the surface of how the two fields can enrich each other, and as yet there is a dearth of shared knowledge between them.

Deliberative democracy posits that anyone directly affected by an issue—be it, for example, patients, when it comes to health care cost control, or community residents, when it comes to transportation needs—deserves high-quality and meaningful opportunities to learn about and participate in charting a course forward on the issues that affect them. In practice, this work involves people talking together in authentic dialogue and deliberation, usually with facilitators and nonpartisan materials. When done well, deliberative democracy produces better and more sustainable solutions to our most difficult shared problems.

But even well-conceived decisions, derived from authentic dialogue and deliberation, do not implement themselves magically. Deliberation by itself doesn’t result in a map that tells us how to get from making a decision to taking action on that decision. This is where change management, along with the related offshoots of implementation science and improvement science, offer insights and practices that we find exciting and useful.

Change management, in the broadest sense, is about understanding and navigating the human side of change within organizations. Implementation science and improvement science, fields of inquiry emerging from health care, specifically focus on processes by which innovations or new insights get adopted – or fail to get adopted – in real-life complex environments like hospitals and communities. These bodies of research and practice share a focus on understanding the gaps that prevent great ideas from becoming real solutions.

Recently, these fields of research and practice around change management have been migrating from the private sector and the domain of health care to the public and nonprofit sectors. This migration brings promising opportunities to the practice of deliberative democracy.

What change management and deliberative democracy share is a fundamental recognition that real change cannot be effectively driven in a top-down fashion and that the people, as well as the micro-level practices that shape people’s lives, are the surfaces upon which change does and does not happen.

Not only do we think that the focused attention change management brings to the actual processes of change can be instructive for deliberative democracy, we also believe that the deliberative democracy movement brings to change management perspectives and practices that can foster the integrity and legitimacy of change efforts.

Deliberative democracy practitioners know how to create the conditions for effective deliberation and how to facilitate productive dialogue. This knowledge can be a great asset for change management efforts. We also have found that the profound respect for citizen/stakeholder voice and participation, along with the dedication to nonpartisanship, that come so naturally to deliberative democracy practitioners elicits the kind of trust that makes real stakeholder engagement during the change process possible.

One takeaway from our exploration of the relationship between change management and deliberative democracy is that progress in a field does not always come from digging deeper into the concepts and methods that you already know. Often, and increasingly so in our age of extreme specialization, it comes from creative cross-disciplinary exploration. That certainly has been our experience as we’ve sought to do our democratic work more effectively and efficiently. Time, after all, is of the essence when we’re dealing with problems that affect entire generations of students, our ailing economy, our health and the environment-- and we’ll take help wherever we find it.




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