These skills foster participation efforts that give citizens more of what they want.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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 2: Building Coalitions and Networks
Part 4: Recruiting Participants
Part 6: Managing Conflict
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.