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Designing for Community Intelligence

ref: Designing Multi-Process Public Participation Programs



There is a widely noted "spectrum" or "ladder" of public participation, which I'll illustrate here with two of its most common forms:

a) the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2)'s "Spectrum of Public Participation" ranges through the following functions, from high power to low:






b) Sherry Arnstein's classic "Ladder of Public Participation" ranges through similar functions, from high power to low:

8 Citizen Control (Citizen Power)

7 Delegated power

6 Partnership

5 Placation (Tokenism)

4 Consultation

3 Informing

2 Therapy (Non-Participation)

1 Manipulation

I want to suggest that there is a further stage, which I am calling community intelligence. From the community intelligence perspective, the reason we need to inform, consult with, engage or empower citizens is to build the community's capacity to reflect and respond collectively, as a whole. To succeed we need to do all these functions and more.

The community intelligence approach looks at the society, itself, as the holonic unit and seeks to improve the capacity of the social whole as an organism. While it includes many of the functions addressed in public participation and empowerment, such as those listed below, it is not the isolated functions themselves that make the focus on community intelligence unique, but the recognition that all these functions need to be addressed together and in service to this larger community capacity. It is almost as if empowerment + systems thinking leads us to the idea of community intelligence.

Below is one model of community intelligence that looks at some basic functions that need to be served if a community is to be whole, alive, informed and thoughtful.

1. Community information - Alerting and informing the community about public conditions and issues, and the activities being undertaken to handle them. This includes official briefings, media of all kinds, formal and informal punditry, and other sources of information on public concerns.

2. Community conversation - Connecting up the lives and interests of the community's members through every type of conversation -- formal and informal; online and off; among citizens, stakeholders, experts and officials.

3. Community healing - Healing fragmentation and adversity among the community's diverse groups through full and deep hearing and often a search for common ground.

4. Community engagement - Helping members of the community find meaningful, coherent ways to work together to serve their community. This "coming together" can take many forms, such as networking, self-organization, collective visioning, collaborative management, etc.

5. Public judgment - Involving diverse members of the community in together shaping the governance of the community, identifying sensible policies and programs. This involves deliberation among stakeholders and/or members of the general public.

6. Public reflection - Generating the insight, oversight and wisdom (see Appendix C) needed to guide life in the community. This function watches the community, from the inside and out. It persistently delves into the underlying dynamics of what does or doesn't make sense, welcoming dissonance, emotion, honesty, and anything else that clarifies and "processes" what's going on. It involves various deepening activities by individuals, relationships, groups and the whole community.

Community intelligence will thrive to the extent that all these functions are being served. In Appendix A they are explored further, including notes about processes that serve them.

But for our present purposes, I want to now explore some of the kinds of thinking involved in designing for community intelligence. Again, this is a rough draft which could benefit from more co-creative development and "cooking." Hopefully it points in intriguing, potentially useful directions for further thinking.


A. BUY-IN: Partisan stakeholders, decisionmakers and the public can all play roles in implementing and/or impeding needed community solutions and initiatives. They will most likely be an asset to implementation to the extent they are engaged in the process -- from education and input at the beginning, through full co-creative deliberative efforts to understand the issues and craft solutions, to providing their reactions to proposals along the way and in the end.

B. UNITY/DIVERSITY: Community wisdom (e.g., high quality outcomes) is invoked by recognizing and nurturing both diversity (demographics, full-spectrum information, dissent, etc.) and unity (common ground, convergence, similarities, etc.). Of course, unity and diversity can also be destructive, appearing in such familiar forms as acrimonious divisiveness and stultifying conformity. In most cases, a process is helpful to the extent that it supports people in using both diversity and unity creatively.

C. HEARING: Defensiveness, assertiveness and withdrawal are all minimized when people feel they are really being heard. When people feel they've been adequately heard, they tend to ease up on their certainties and boundaries and to open up to people and ideas around them. Real co-creativity can usually get off the ground only to the extent people have felt really heard.

So the more diversity (of people, perspectives, information, etc.) we engage with and fully hear, the wiser our results will be, the more people will view the process as fair and legitimate, and the more cooperation we will get. The sooner and longer people are engaged and honored in the process, the more sense of ownership they will have in the outcomes. And the more effective the group process and facilitation are, the more our diversity will be engaged in a creative manner, which will generate better outcomes.

D. COLLECTIVE LEARNING: Learning is an ongoing iterative process, filled with informational feedback loops. Community intelligence is enhanced by ongoing engagements, with insights from one process feeding into another, and with real-world results of earlier insights, actions and policies being fed back into community conversations and deliberations. Although resource limitations are a real factor, one-time, one-process events are inherently limited in how much community health or evolution they can produce. (However, if community intelligence systems were applied to the subject of "lack of resources for community well-being," the chances are good that that problem would cease to be such a problem.)

E. DEMOCRATIC ROLES: We encounter many different assumptions about democracy when we design programs like this. One of the questions we might ask is: What are people's assumptions about the relative decisionmaking roles of the following categories of people?

  • the citizenry
  • stakeholders
  • elected officials
  • professional bureaucrats

Each group has gifts to bring to the table and legitimate claims to participation. But each group also brings limitations and problems. Below I've listed some roles characteristic of each class of participants. None of these lists are complete, but I believe they are sufficient to make the case that all four groups should be given significant but limited roles in both deliberation and decisionmaking.

  • The values, interests and majoritarian power of the CITIZENRY as a whole are by definition the foundation of democracy and there is vast untapped intelligence, creativity and concern in the general public.
  • STAKEHOLDERS collectively hold important information, expertise and passion, having very high "interest" in the issues they're connected with. Furthermore, some definitions of democracy suggest that those most affected by a decision should be most involved in making it.
  • ELECTED PUBLIC OFFICIALS are the primary empowered decisionmakers in our republican form of government and tend to have an overview of the larger landscape of issues and forces shaping the community.
  • PROFESSIONAL BUREAUCRATS tend to have vital knowledge of the ongoing constraints and demands related to issues in their domain and are usually the ones who have to implement the decisions of government.

At the same time, each of these groups is problematic as a decisionmaking power and participant in democratic dialogue and deliberation.

The effective contribution of CITIZENS to productive public dialogue and deliberation is often limited by

  • ignorance of important information related to any given issue
  • our adversarial political culture (which reinforces sides, positions, conflict)
  • the absence of opportunities and infrastructure needed to experience dialogue and deliberation
  • personal life factors (time, money, demands, distractions, etc.)
  • a cynical sense that government is inept, corrupt, etc.
  • vulnerability to manipulation through mass media and unhealthy social dynamics

The effective contribution of STAKEHOLDERS to productive public dialogue and deliberation is often limited by

  • our adversarial political culture (which reinforces sides, positions, conflict)
  • their intrinsic bias and positionality (defending their "stake" or "interest"), which can close their hearts and minds
  • the absence of opportunities and infrastructure needed to experience dialogue and deliberation
  • a cynical sense that the general public is ignorant and easily manipulated.
  • a cynical sense that government is inept, corrupt, etc.

The effective contribution of ELECTED OFFICIALS to productive public dialogue and deliberation is often limited by

  • media attention and bias in favor of conflict, scandal, etc.
  • our adversarial political culture (which reinforces sides, positions, conflict)
  • political turf and ego issues
  • a cynical sense that the public is ignorant, fickle, divisive, etc.
  • vulnerability to the manipulations and constraints of powerholders and wealthy supporters
  • a need to limit and shift their attention on various issues according to political winds
  • the absence of opportunities and infrastructure needed to experience dialogue and deliberation
  • legal constraints (e.g. sunshine laws) that inhibit openness and authenticity

The effective contribution of PROFESSIONAL BUREAUCRATS to productive public dialogue and deliberation is often limited by

  • bureaucratic turf and ego issues
  • a cynical sense that the public is ignorant, fickle, divisive, etc.
  • our adversarial political culture (which reinforces sides, positions, conflict)
  • the absence of opportunities and infrastructure needed to experience dialogue and deliberation
  • a tight web of laws, regulations, requirements, institutional arrangements, etc., feeding a general sense of constraint, fed by hard experience, that can impede openness and creativity

This suggests that no one of these groups should be central in designs for community intelligence systems and programs. It also suggests that their diverse strengths can be supported and their diverse limitations ameliorated in properly planned dialogues and deliberations (as well as institutional changes that shift distorted power arrangements).

So another basic principle might be

Healthy deliberative systems respect the gifts and limitations of the general citizenry, stakeholders, elected officials and bureaucrats. As a result, we need to include in the multi-process programs deliberations that empower each group, with the others on tap to them, AND, also, forums in which all of these groups are peers.*

For example, citizen deliberative councils empower citizens. The other three groups and other experts may testify to the citizen panel to ameliorate the citizens' ignorance. On the other hand, government briefings tend to empower officials -- and the citizens and stakeholders can ask questions and give input to clarify for officials the political context in which they're working. Consensus councils empower stakeholders -- and government officials and citizens may show up only as stakeholders. An Open Space or World Cafe can be designed so that all groups can participate as interested equal parties.

However, we need to keep in mind that the ongoing effective power is (in our current system) in the hands of the government officials and that public participation programs are primarily about giving citizens and stakeholders a greater and/or more deliberative voice. So the primary balance of power we want may be between the citizenry as a whole and the full spectrum of stakeholders.

F. ALL-STAGE ENGAGEMENT: In handling any social concern we can consider five main points in the process where voices can be heard, deliberations done, or power exerted:

· framing the issue (articulation, selection, analysis, prioritization)
· establishing guidelines for addressing the problem (values, principles, design criteria, etc.)
· creating, evaluating, and selecting options or solutions
· implementing selected solutions
· reviewing and evaluating the results

Ideally both the public and stakeholder groups would have a deliberative say at each stage (and sub-stage, such as creating AND evaluating AND selecting solutions). For efficiency, they could share power -- as in the famous division of labor in which Sandy cuts the pie and Martha chooses the first piece. For example, priority community problems could be identified by a citizen-based Wisdom Council. A Consensus Council could establish guidelines for addressing the problem and offer a stakeholder-derived consensus solution. This could be evaluated (and compared with other options) by a Citizens Jury. Their findings and recommendations could be worked over by an all-party Open Space Conference. Public officials could then suggest what they think will work politically and an AmericaSpeaks event could evaluate that. Etc.

_ _ _ _

Some other areas (among many) about which preliminary principles could be developed:

a) Role of information: Under what circumstances is certain information too little or too much or two biased or too left-brained or.... and what are the consequences of and solutions to those things... what is the role of the internet as a source of info in public deliberation... how do we include official and unofficial (or mainstream and alternative) info sources... etc.

b) The intrinsic value of small groups deliberating with privileged information access, time and process facilitation AND broad participation processes AND media coverage/broad public awareness. There should be feedback loops between these three kinds of activity for maximum community intelligence.

c) ......


* Experts are another important category which could be included in this analysis. Many people in the four categories explored here are themselves experts. However, outside of the four categories above, experts are properly seen as sources of information (on tap) rather than as legitimate active players in decisionmaking. The fact that they, like corporate executives and power brokers, sometimes make decisions that can affect the lives of millions is a subject for another essay. For our purposes here, their participation should be limited to supplying facts, insight into relevant dynamics, and a sense of the possible consequences of various options.

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