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Designing Multi-Process Public Participation Programs

What do we need to know to design
multi-process public participation programs?

by Tom Atlee
June 1, 2003

We face increasing complexity and scope in public issues and in the social and political contexts within which those issues are addressed. In this new environment one-time, single-process public participation* events, however sophisticated, are proving less capable of satisfying the needs of contemporary democracy. Neither citizens nor stakeholders nor decisionmakers are being adequately served.

I believe we are challenged to reframe the practice of public participation. I believe we need to deconstruct public participation practices and come to deeper understandings of how they work and, perhaps most importantly, how they can work together to better address the complexity we face.

This is an immense task. The immediate goal is to begin it well.

We might realize first of all that multidimensional public participation programs are already common, usually masquerading as individual approaches. Methods such as Future Search and AmericaSpeaks' 21st Century Town Meetings are composites of many elements that appear in other forms in other methods. And they are not alone.

So current efforts to develop multi-process public participation programs are part of a larger evolution of collective processes. We can expect (and hope) that as time goes on, we will become increasingly sophisticated, modular and adaptive in our process work. We will understand more about the value added by -- and the limitations of -- different process design elements. We will become less attached to particular multifaceted process designs as reified proprietary "methods." And we will become more intuitive, flexible and courageous in the design combinations we create to meet specific conditions and needs.

Even in the face of this expanding process technology, more of us may come to understand what the masters of the trade already know -- that all processes and methods are only containers and tools for human caring, foresight, relationship and communication. A convenor's visionary intention, a facilitator's quality of attention, a participant's heartful openness, a community's culture -- such factors will continue to play dominant roles regardless of the processes used.

Still, well chosen processes "make space" for different kinds of human aliveness to flourish. And the kinds of aliveness that flourish or die in public participation can make or break the health of a democracy. So it behooves us to become sensitive and wise about all these things.

To reveal some of my own biases and assumptions: My own sense of the need for multi-process public participation programs comes from my desire to improve community intelligence -- the ability of communities and societies to wisely deal with their complex and changing circumstances. Given that purpose, it has been clear to me from the beginning that individual processes could help or hinder that outcome, but that no single process could ensure it fully in all situations. Over time I came to see that it isn't a matter of which process is best for a given situation, but rather which processes together, in what order, with what links between them, can help us do the job well. It becomes a question of process synergy, in which the relationships between processes are as important as the processes themselves.

By its very nature, such questions never have a simple answer -- nor even one right answer. So asking them moves us into a permanent state of inquiry -- an inquiry best pursued together. Our combined experience, knowledge and creativity are vital to this. We are simply not big enough alone. So the question now becomes what tools and understandings might help us pursue this inquiry together more intelligently and successfully. And where do we start?

With those questions in mind, I have developed some initial frames of reference for pursuing this inquiry. Each frame provides a unique way of viewing the same territory -- the territory we're calling "multi-process public participation programs." Within each frame of reference, I've done some initial thinking, to illustrate directions we might explore together. Here is an outline of what's included here. Each part can be explored independently of the others.

Some Possible Considerations in Designing
Multi-Process Dialogue and Deliberation Programs

1. Possible Outcomes of Public Participation - A list of outcomes to inform our selection of processes -- e.g., "Citizens have given input to officials" and "Interest groups feel their voices have been heard" and "Imaginative solutions and persepctvies have been found that excite people to move beyond what has been done before." Many multiple-outcome programs will require multiple processes to produce the outcomes desired.

2. Creative Tensions as Trade-Offs or Potential Synergies? - A list of alternatives faced by public participation planners (e.g., "ensuring short-term realism and/or evoking long-term wisdom" and "open participation and/or invitational participation") to explore for possible synergies. Often those synergies will only be possible by creatively weaving diverse processes into the final program.

3. Designing for Community Intelligence: Embracing and Transcending the Usual Logic of Public Participation. The goal of "activating and increasing community intelligence" provides a more powerful, nuanced rationale for including diverse processes than do the traditional goals of "increasing public participation" and "engaging people in dialogue and deliberation." In fact, thinking in terms of community intelligence can help us understand the logic of multi-process programs even when our goals are more traditional. This essay describes six functions (e.g., "community information" and "public judgment") that serve community intelligence. It then explores six design principles (e.g., "help people feel really heard" and "use both unity and diversity creatively") to guide the creation of multi-process community intelligence programs.


A. Some Functions that Serve Community Intelligence and Some Processes that Support those Functions - A deeper articulation of the six functions noted in the third essay above, this Appendix clarifies the purpose of each function and suggests multiple processes that support it.

B. Functional Characteristics of Public Participation Processes - A list derived from an analytic grid showing which functions (e.g., "Directly involves lots of people") are characteristic of which processes (e.g., in this case, "Conversation Cafes, Study Circles, AmericaSpeaks, Televote audiences"). The 14 processes and 28 characteristics included in this list are just a beginning. This is raw analysis (without the "community intelligence" ideology in Appendix A) to help create multi-process programs that serve many functions.

C. Generating Wisdom Through Democratic Process - For those of us interested in eliciting wise counsel from The People -- or simply injecting more wisdom into our societies' decisionmaking processes -- it helps to know what factors support the emergence of wisdom in democratic process. Here is an initial list of ten factors (e.g., "full hearing" and "transformational dialogue").

These papers, like all such efforts, contain a mix of gifts and limitations. To the extent these papers are held ideologically (as "The Way To Go"), they may help temporarily but will ultimately trap us with their biases and limitations. I believe their full potential can only be reached if they are viewed as invitations: Invitations to see if they're useful. Invitations to revise and expand them. Invitations to find other frames of reference, other lenses, other ways to cut the pie. Invitations to co-create this whole new art and science of multi-process public participation programming.

These materials will be posted on my website, on the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation's website, and elsewhere. They will be posted both in their current form and in places where we can all comment on them and/or actually rework them and add new approaches as we see fit.

May what we discover, and how we use it, thoroughly revitalize democracy.


* In these papers I often use the term "public participation" because of its currency. I also use (and prefer) the term "dialogue and deliberation" because I believe high quality communication and collective reflection offer a more potent focus for our work than getting many people to "participate." In any case, the two phrases are used interchangeably here in the understanding that what we're talking about is public participation in programs involving dialogue and deliberation about public issues. Our individual preferences for one or the other of these phrases reflect competing (and potentially co-creative) worldviews whose debate informs the very substance of what is discussed in these papers. I hope the creative tension between them ends up serving us all, and the democracy we're all part of.

Note: The material on this page and all referenced pages is contained together on this page.

See also

Principles of Public Participation

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