Providing Information and Options: Sequencing Discussions and Writing Discussion Materials

These skills foster participation efforts that give citizens more of what they want.

Ten Key Talents for Better Public Participation Part 8

Last week, we discussed issue framing, which helps leaders present information and describe options to participants. This week, we explore how to best sequence discussions and write discussion materials that foster productive, interest-based dialogue.

As we noted last week, these three skills foster participation efforts that give citizens more of what they want (problem solving, civility and community) and treat them like adults in the process.

Sequencing Discussions

Many participation processes require some kind of agenda or guide that establishes a helpful, flexible structure for addressing a particular issue or problem.

The formats vary by length: some of these processes bring participants together for only an hour or two, while others include a number of sessions that take place over the course of an entire day or multiple meetings spread over several weeks. For the most part, these processes require facilitation, a skill we’ll discuss later in this series.

From years of experimentation, a successful sequence has emerged for these kinds of guides and the discussions they support:

  1. An initial discussion or session that helps the facilitator get the group started, guides the group through the process of setting ground rules, provides discussion questions aimed at eliciting the personal experiences of participants, and sometimes includes scenarios or cases to help the group relate the issue to their own lives.
  2. One or more middle discussions that help the group explore the main arguments being made about the issue. The middle sessions are organized around more far-reaching questions such as: “What are the root causes of the problem?” or “What should our goals be?” Middle sessions often contain an outline of the main viewpoints about the issue, written in plain, jargon-free language. These views could include expert opinions or the main proposals of policymakers. They might also reflect the main answers being given to the question, voiced by citizens, experts and officials alike.
  3. A final discussion that helps participants develop their action ideas or recommendations and make some initial plans for implementing them. This session often includes brainstorming and prioritizing questions and a long list of action ideas that may be taken from success stories in other communities.

Getting through this sequence requires time. It is unrealistic to expect a group of people to move from sharing experiences to action planning in less than about three hours, and the more complex the problem or issue, the more time required.

Shorter processes can certainly be valuable, but participation leaders should be pragmatic about what a group can accomplish in the time available, and adjust their goals and expectations accordingly.

Writing Discussion Materials

Most participation leaders have strong opinions about the issue(s) they want citizens to address. However, they should keep in mind that they need a large number of people, with a wide range of ideas, to participate in their program. If the only people they recruit are passionate, like-minded activists, the project will probably fail.

Moreover, if participants do not get a chance to read and discuss all the main arguments being made about an issue, they will not learn enough to develop informed opinions. Therefore, discussion materials for participation should be as neutral and unbiased as possible. This does not mean writing a guide that contains no strong opinions or revealing information; rather, it means mean naming and framing the issue in a broad and compelling way, including a range of clearly labeled views, and making it clear that the guide is a tool for discussion, not a curriculum intended to “educate” participants.

There are some basic steps for presenting a range of views in discussion materials:

  • Read widely about the issue. This will help participation leaders identify some of the main arguments being made by academics, public officials and others It will also help prepare them to talk knowledgeably with these people.
  • Consult the ‘experts’ – and everyday people. Participation leaders should talk with academics, public officials and people who work in organizations dealing with the issue. They should also do some simple grassroots research by asking non-experts what they think about the issue, and pay attention to the language those people use to describe it.
  • Look beyond the ‘poles’ of the issue. Sometimes, the political debates surrounding controversial issues are dominated by people at the extremes, or poles, of the discussion. For example, the abortion debate is often portrayed as a stark choice between pro-life and pro-choice activists, whereas the views of most Americans fall somewhere in the middle.

There are also more participatory ways to assemble a range of viewpoints. MetroQuest uses an online process to formulate and test out views and options. In Winona, Minnesota, organizers used some of the main arguments made by participants in an e-mail listserv on educational standards to develop a session on that topic. In Northeast Connecticut, organizers used the transcripts from some focus groups held previously on the topic of school readiness to identify the arguments on that issue. They were able to use quotes from the focus groups to present views in the speakers’ own words. Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation use conversations with and surveys of a wide array of people to develop our issues guides.

In addition to including a broad range of views, the language of discussion materials should be as balanced as possible. There are two proven techniques for achieving this kind of balance. First, the title of each session – and perhaps the title of the whole process – can be stated in the form of a question. A question mark shows that participation leaders are asking for ideas and opinions rather than trying to persuade people on a particular point of view. Second, constantly remind the reader that the guide is a tool for facilitators and participants. Make it clear that the materials do not cover every possible view or action idea. Never list a range of views without inserting a discussion question that asks “Is there a view that is missing? What would you add?”

Read other blogs in this series:

Part 1: Ten Key Talents for Better Public Participation

Part 2: Building Coalitions and Networks

Part 3: Cultural Competence and Engaging Youth

Part 4: Recruiting Participants

Part 5: Communicating About Participation

Part 6: Managing Conflict

Part 7: Providing Information and Options: Issue Framing

Portions of this post were excerpted with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy by Tina Nabatchi and Matt Leighninger. Copyright© 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.


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