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Designing Multi-Process Public Participation Programs (full text)

A version of this that's broken down into seven webpages is available here.

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.



As we know, means should be selected to serve ends. As we become more conscious and intentional about the outcomes of public participation programs, we can better choose processes and approaches that serve those ends (see, for example, Appendices A and B).

Widely diverse rationales exist for public participation programs. Sometimes there is a desire to inform the public or to get feedback on existing proposals. Sometimes there is a desire to help the public engage together in powerfully co-creative citizenship. I personally am interested in bringing latent community wisdom to bear on public policy.

Regardless of personal or situational preferences here, it is in everyone's interests to be able to consider a full range of possible outcomes in the very earliest stages of public participation planning. If outcomes are considered first, it is very likely that multiple process programs will be recognized as necessary to satisfy the full range of desired outcomes.

The initial list below is far from comprehensive, but I hope it will serve as a stimulant toward creating an expanding list of outcome options useful to everyone involved. Please wonder as you read it: What possible desirable public participation outcomes are missing here? Note your answers and add them to the dialogue about this..

Note that the categories into which I have clustered the outcomes are only a rough initial take on how these various potential outcomes might be grouped. So they, too, are subject to modification.


Input Outcomes

Citizens have given input to officials.

Officials know better what citizens think and feel.

Participating citizens have chosen from among options provided to them by officials.

Public judgment has shaped public policy, public opinion and/or public behaviors.

Participation Outcomes

There has been opportunity for all interested people to participate.

Interest groups feel their voices have been heard.

Lots of citizens feel that their voices have been heard.

Some citizens have had a direct and intense experience of citizenship.

Everyone involved -- including citizens generally -- feel the process has been fair.

The public believes there has been public involvement.

Social Consensus Outcomes

People have been educated about the issues.

Citizens have come to agree with the policies officials want to pursue.

Diverse sectors in the community are "on the same page."

The community is generally and broadly aware that a participatory process has been happening.

Thousands or millions of citizens have had a vicarious experience of intense citizenship.

The community feels like it has spoken, like "We the People" have spoken.

The process offers potential for ongoing collective learning by the whole community.

Diversity Outcomes

The diversity of the forum has been considered adequate by the community and/or the relevant stakeholder groups

Conflict in the community has been addressed and there is more mutual understanding.

The diversity in the community -- or around the issue -- has been used creatively.

Quality of Output Outcomes

The public is impressed with the quality of the solutions.

Realistic solutions have been chosen that can be readily implemented within the scope of existing institutions and players.

Recommendations have been developed that can demonstrate measurable results within a few months or years.

People have been motivated into actions or behaviors that will serve the common good.

Imaginative solutions and perspectives have been found that excite people to move beyond what has been done before.

Public policies and programs have resulted that prove to have long-term, broadly beneficial impacts acknowledged by the whole community.

The community's capacity for successful self-governance or self-organization has been enhanced.



There are many seeming trade-offs to consider in developing a dialogue and deliberation program -- especially when we are faced with choosing one process or another.

Although these trade-offs are often real -- given the usual constraints of funding, time politics, etc. -- it can be helpful to remember that often, these tough choices are not INTRINSICALLY mutually exclusive. Instead, they can be understood as being at the ends of a creative tension. The creative tension, itself, is a resource. Both ends need to be present to obtain optimal results.

If we realize, for example, that we COULD have both focused deliberations and open-ended explorations, we may be able to design programs that combine and modify processes to give us both.

This is important since many of the seeming alternatives can produce powerful synergies when used side-by-side or in a productive sequence.

For example: Public deliberations to evaluate pre-determined options or positions (e.g., a Citizens Jury or an AmericaSpeaks forum) may overlook promising but unforeseen options. Even if time and money do not exist for creative inquiry involving thousands of people, some online public dialogues and a few Dynamically Facilitated focus groups done early on, could inexpensively generate serious new options to add to the official list, increasing the odds that a high-quality outcome will emerge from the final AmericaSpeaks forum or Citizens Jury.

A number of these seeming trade-offs are listed below. Often a "both/and" approach can serve us well. Sometimes, for a given context, we may need to choose one especially appropriate option Sometimes there may be components or stages in our process, for each of which a different option may be most productive.

This list is only an initial draft. It could be expanded and revised, and guidelines developed for how to most productively use it. I have clustered the various elements into categories, simply for ease of readability. In fact, many of the sets of alternatives could fit within a number of different categories.


face-to-face dialogue AND/OR technology-mediated dialogue

people feeling heard AND/OR people listening so they can learn what they need to know

openness to all expressions AND/OR maintenance of order through behavioral agreements, agendas, time limits, etc.

focused study, deliberation and choice AND/OR open-ended exploration and creativity

ensuring short-term realism AND/OR evoking long-term wisdom

relationship-centered AND/OR outcome-centered

set aside conflict AND/OR resolve conflict AND/OR use conflict for learning and transformation

consensus decisions (co-created innovations) AND/OR negotiated decisions (compromise to achieve mutually agreeable solutions) AND/OR voting decisions (majoritarian or supermajoritarian) AND/OR no decisions (input or exploration only)


self-selected (open) participation AND/OR limited participation (invitational) AND/OR microcosm participation (e.g., selection for "whole system" or diversity criteria)

large numbers of people feeling engaged AND/OR high-quality conversations

direct participation AND/OR vicarious participation (esp. via media reports)


citizens central AND/OR stakeholders central AND/OR decisionmakers central AND/OR experts central

impact on participants AND/OR impact on public AND/OR impact on decisionmakers and officials

serves citizen-community interests AND/OR serves stakeholder interests AND/OR serves decisionmakers' interests AND/OR serves bureaucratic interests

opinion input from public AND/OR government partnership with public AND/OR public empowerment

support representative democracy AND/OR support participatory democracy AND/OR support deliberative democracy AND/OR support community or stakeholder self-organization


one-time events (e.g., address the issue for now) AND/OR ongoing process (e.g., community learning system)

affordability AND/OR quality outcomes

time constraints AND/OR quality outcomes



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.



As described in Essay 3, we can envision five functions that serve to generate and sustain community intelligence:

1. Community information

2. Community conversation

3. Community healing

4. Community engagement

5. Public judgment

6. Public reflection

(Underlying these functions are the resources, infrastructure and culture that support them. These include time, space, technology, facilitation, money, know-how, etc. I want to acknowledge here the vital importance of these factors, while leaving for later their analysis and incorporation into the model.)

Each of the functions 1-6 is described below in terms of its purpose and the general process patterns that characterize it. Also included are occasional notes and one or more examples of methods and approaches that serve the function being described. Several of the functions are broken down into sub-functions which are similarly described.

Occasionally a function description will include notes about activities that, though not always characteristic of that function, greatly enhance community intelligence when they are present. They are indicated by "(Enhancement)."

1. The Community Information Function

Purpose: To alert and inform the community regarding public conditions and issues, and the activities being undertaken to handle them.

The pattern that defines this function:

a. Welcome all forms, modes and shades of information and perspective.

b. Make sure relevant information is accessible and known.

c. Facilitate knowledge about information (assumptions, sources, biases, relativity, "media literacy," etc.).

d. (Enhancement) Generate high quality information (e.g., timely, accurate, balanced, relevant, clarifying, empowering, feedback, etc.).

Note: The community information function can include any one-way or non-conversational communication. To the extent communication is non-responsive (as is often true at public hearings), it is at best informational. Even Q&A sessions, if tightly controlled, would qualify primarily as informational. As soon as information begins to be exchanged back and forth responsively, it becomes part of the second function, conversation. Much "public participation" is informational only. Informational activities are vital to any program aimed at community intelligence, especially where there feedback is needed or where informational outputs from one process become informational inputs for another process.

Examples: Briefing materials, much email and web material, Freedom of Information Acts, Sunshine laws, libraries, novels and drama with social themes, instructional activities, whistle blowers, broadcast and print media -- especially civic journalism that provides balanced information and feeds the results and stories of dialogue and deliberation back into the community.

2. The Community Conversation Function.

Purpose: To connect people, share thoughts and feelings, learn together, coordinate lives and activities, and move information, insight and possibility through the community.

The pattern that defines this function:

a. Ensure freedom and safety to speak and associate.

b. People listen - the more fully, the better.

c. People speak - the more authentically, the better.

d. Help others do b and c.

e. (Enhancement) Provide resources, spaces, and opportunities for people to do b and c.

Note: A conversational "field" made up of all informal and convened conversations in the community provides the context within which all the other conversations listed in this study can flourish and benefit the community. To the extent a general conversational environment does not exist (e.g., where people spend all their time in front of their TVs or where there is public suppression), the specialized conversations that follow are limited in their impact. The conversational "field" interacts with the informational "field" generated by the community information function, above, with conversations generating, evolving or moving information, and new information informing the unfolding conversations.

Examples: Conversation Cafés, salons, potlucks, many seminars and educational activities, participatory listervs and online conferences, hang-out spaces...

3. The Community Healing Function

Purpose: To dissolve stereotypes, heal intergroup alienation, and build relationships

The pattern that defines this function:

a. Convene diverse citizens, partisans or stakeholders.

b. Help them hear and understand themselves and each other better.

c. (Enhancement) Help them clarify new ways to relate to each other.

Note: If the participants are leaders or networkers in their communities, they will spread their resulting experience and understanding into those communities, generating impact beyond the forum itself. This factor can be strategically designed in to a process and, since the community healing function is a part of most of the functions that follow (in the sense that those functions necessarily engage creatively with differences), this "leaders as participants" factor is also a factor in all of them.

Examples: Public Conversation Project, Commons Café, Intergroup Dialogue, various approaches to conflict resolution.

4. The Community Engagement Function

Purpose: To engage people in co-creating ways they can work together to improve conditions in their community or world

The pattern that defines this function:

a. Gather concerned citizens.

b. Help them understand the issues and each other.

c. Help them create or connect up with activities to make a difference.

Notes: This can feed into other community intelligence initiatives, as when participants decide to engage in policy-making or lobbying, or decide to draw other people into dialogue and deliberation. Participation in this type of process feeds people's sense of citizenship as informed, effective agents of change.

Examples: Study circle programs, self-replicating living-room presentations (e.g., Beyond War); see also below.

4A. The Community Engagement Function - self-organization

The pattern that defines this function:

a. Help interested people find each other and talk.

b. Let them take any actions together they want to.\

c. Repeat (a) and (b) fractally.

Example: Open Space Technology

4B. The Community Engagement Function - vision

The pattern that defines this function:

a. Gather stakeholders and/or citizens together.

b. Help them understand issues and each other by reviewing what's been happening.

c. Develop a shared vision or purpose.

d. Help them organize for diverse actions to serve that shared vision or purpose.

e. (Enhancement) Help them periodically review their progress.

Examples: Future Search, Community Vision programs

4C. The Community Engagement Function - collaborative management

The pattern that defines this function:

a. Convene key stakeholders across all relevant sectors, including government agencies.

b. Help them uncover and understand each other's interests and needs, capacities and resources, and relationship to the area concerned.

c. Facilitate their identifying and implementing shared management initiatives for the area concerned.

d. Help (a)-(c) become a self-organizing, self-managing, adaptive process.

Example: Collaborative Watershed Management Councils (EPA sponsored)

5. The Public Judgment Function

Purpose: To bring the diversity of the community together to influence the work of governance

The pattern that defines this function:

a. Convene a broad spectrum of people to consider an issue, option, candidate, etc.

b. Help them engage with a broad spectrum of information and perspectives about it -- including each other's.

c. Help them deliberate about it to a collective judgment.

d. Pass on their responses to the public, media and decisionmakers.

e. (Variable) Expect those findings and recommendations to shape subsequent policies and programs (or set up things so that they have impact automatically).

Notes: In step (c) a true consensus -- all parties co-creating outcomes that serve the whole -- is desirable. But if true consensus cannot be achieved, respectfully articulated differences and voting are preferable to compromises resulting in agreements that few like or that don't really deal with the issue. Also, as in the fourth function (community engagement), participation in this type of process feeds people's sense of citizenship, although this time through their sense of impacting their government.


5A. Public Judgment Function - Stakeholder Deliberative Councils.

Purpose: To address hot issues by developing less controversial proposals that diverse partisans can all buy in to.

The pattern that defines this function:

a. Convene a broad spectrum of partisans and/or stakeholders to consider an issue.

b. Have them share their views, concerns and expectations.

c. Help them deliberate about the issue to a collective judgment.

d. Pass on their recommendations to decisionmakers and possibly the public and media as well.

e. Expect those findings and recommendations to influence subsequent policies and programs, since they are politically safer than prevailing alternatives.

Note: If participating stakeholders are formally answerable to constituents, deliberations may be impeded to the extent participants are locked into previously authorized positions. However, the success of any agreements, policies or programs may be enhanced by participants caucusing with or getting feedback from their constituents before deliberations are complete.
     The more anyone has the power to implement or undermine any decisions, the more politically smart it is to include them in the deliberations, one way or another. If all partisans and sectors are "on board" implementation will probably be smooth.

Example: Consensus Councils

5B. Public Judgment Function - Citizen Feedback Forums

Purpose: To provide informed, thoughtful public opinion feedback on official proposals, both to guide public officials and to help the public feel it has been engaged.

The pattern that defines this function:

a. Convene a broad spectrum of citizens to consider an issue or set of options. Preferably select a fair cross section of the community, such as random selection or stratified sampling.

b. Introduce them to the issue or options. (Enhancement: Make additional info or expertise available.)

c. Help them share their diverse reactions with each other and do some deliberation.

d. Poll them on their responses to various options or approaches to the issue.

e. Summarize their responses for the public, media and/or decisionmakers.

Note: These processes tend to engage hundreds or thousands of people. This is particularly important to the extent they involve less in-depth study and deliberation than processes in 5C below. Especially in these circumstances, mass participation improves sampling validity, public visibility and public acceptance.

Examples: AmericaSpeaks, Deliberative Polling, Focus Groups, Televote audiences

5C. Public Judgment Function - Citizen Deliberative Councils

Purpose: To provide trustworthy public judgment on public issues, thereby advising official policy-makers and often the electorate.

The pattern that defines this function:

a. Temporarily convene a broad spectrum of citizens to consider an issue or set of options. Preferably select a fair cross section of the community, such as random selection or stratified sampling.

b. Give them balanced briefings about the issue and access to expert testimony in which citizens can cross-examine and/or dialogue with the experts.

c. Help them deliberate about the issue to a collective judgment.

d. Pass on their findings and recommendations to the public, media and/or decisionmakers.

e. Expect those findings and recommendations to shape subsequent policies and programs (or set up things so that they do).

Note: Public opinion can make or break public policies and programs, and most of the public won't have gone through the full deliberative process above. Therefore, the public may not adequately understand the outcomes in (d). If the citizen deliberative council dialogues with a representative group of the public (as in 5B) during their deliberations, they can adjust their statement to enhance its public acceptance. Pre-publication feedback from experts, stakeholders, and decisionmakers may also allow useful adjustments.

Examples: Citizen Juries, Consensus Conferences, Planning Cells

6. The Public Reflection Function

Purpose: To help the community see itself clearly on an ongoing basis and to find the wisdom it needs to guide itself (see also Appendix C)

The pattern that defines this function:

a. Watch what's happening -- particularly outcomes of the activities described above.

b. Seek out and make available what is not normally welcomed -- what is hidden, nuanced, paradoxical, repressed, emotional, novel, creative, dissonant, etc.

c. Help people fathom, clarify and develop their thoughts, feelings, values, needs, experience -- individually and collectively.

d. Engage them in conversations where they can do a-c repeatedly.

e. Use a-d to develop individual and collective insight.

f. Feed the insight back into a, b, c and d and see what emerges, over and over.

Notes: This process happens, more or less, in and around all successful dialogue and deliberation activities. It affects people's sense of citizenship more quietly than in the other functions, as a feeling of engaging meaningfully with their neighbors or others.
     Also note that particularly wise people and writings can serve this work as long as they are on tap, not on top of the emergent citizen wisdom. They need to be seen as grist for the mill of individual and collective reflection. To the extent any variety of external wisdom colonizes people's reflective activity, it will become harder to do a-e.
     Finally, note that specific reflective methods usually involve high-quality questions or inquiries to invite attention to potentially significant areas.

6A. Individual reflection (often done with help from others)

Examples: Clearness sessions, Strategic Questioning, some psychotherapies and dialogic spiritual practices such as Focusing

6B. Relational reflection

Examples: Nonviolent Communication, Radical Honesty, T-Groups

6C. Group or organizational reflection

Examples: Listening Circle (native Council), World Café, Group Silence, Dynamic Facilitation, Bohmian Dialogue

6D. Community reflection.

The pattern that defines this function:

a. Temporarily convene a broad spectrum of citizens to consider the state and direction of the community. Preferably select a fair cross section of the community, using random selection or stratified sampling.

b. Help them articulate and explore their community concerns, and let those concerns guide the flow of conversation. Help them speak from the heart and really hear each other.

c. Help them discover what they want to share -- as their consensus statement -- with the community at large about how it's doing and the directions it is (and could be) going.

d. Pass on their statement to the public, media and decisionmakers.

Note: As a feedback loop for the community to see itself more clearly, this process is most effective when officially mandated by the People, when done regularly (with a new group) every 3-12 months, and when carried out with considerable fanfare and media coverage. If this is all done, the process tends to increase the identity of We, the People as a self-aware living entity.

Examples: Wisdom Councils, Maclean's magazine 1991 "People's Verdict" process



Whenever we desire certain characteristics in a public participation program design, it would help if we had data about which processes or approaches had or produced those characteristics.

Public officials who are seeking public input have seldom had the opportunity to become aware of the nuances of what is possible in such programs and so haven't given much thought to what characteristics they want or how to produce them.

Creating a list of characteristics -- and the processes that have those characteristics -- might assist in clarifying the thinking of convenors and organizers about what kind of program they actually want, what is possible, and how to design multi-process programs to deliver what they need. It is possible that various survey instruments, interventions and consultations based on such a list could be developed to support high quality planning and outcomes.

Below is a first cut at such a list. It analyzes 14 processes in relation to 28 characteristics. It was originally developed as a grid, but has been reduced to text form to simplify transmission. Assignment of characteristics involved one person's subjective judgment of each process' special strengths, and giving each process/characteristic combination a yes/no evaluation. More nuanced and unbiased accuracy might be possible using a numerical rating system based on the votes of diverse practitioners and scholars.

The 14 processes included in this survey are

The 28 characteristics are listed below. They are sorted into non-exclusive categories for greater accessibility.

This analysis is naturally limited by my own individually limited knowledge, perspective, judgment-calls and biases. However, if this analytic approach were judged worthy by practitioners and scholars, the next obvious step would be to engage more people in correcting errors, expanding the list of processes and modifying and extending the list of characteristics. (This could be done continuously in an interactive online forum like a Wiki.) However, I believe the processes and characteristics selected here are sufficient for any interested practitioner to understand, evaluate and, if they wish, contribute to and use this approach.


Community Alignment Characteristics

Helps resolve stakeholder conflicts - Consensus Councils

Gets diverse sectors "on the same page" - Consensus Councils, Future Search

Helps resolve community conflicts - Study Circles, Commons Cafe, Wisdom Council, Open Space, Maclean's panel

Assists self-organized action - World Cafe, Open Space, Study Circles, Future Search

Relationship-building among people who tend to stereotype each other - Commons Cafe (and much other diversity work), Future Search, Maclean's Panel, Consensus Council (and also often Open Space, Conversation Cafe, and Study Circles)

Engagement/Participation Characteristics

Directly involves lots of people (so many feel engaged) - Conversation cafes, Study Circles, AmericaSpeaks, Televote audiences

Involves many people vicariously through media - Maclean's panel, Consensus Conference, Wisdom Council, AmericaSpeaks

Provides engagement opportunities for those passionate about the topic - Open Space, World Cafe, Conversation Cafe, AmericaSpeaks

Convenes "the whole system"
In the form of a microcosm of the whole citizenry - Citizen Jury, Planning Cells, Consensus Conference, Wisdom Council, AmericaSpeaks, Maclean's panel;
In the form of a microcosm of major stakeholders/roles - Consensus Council, Future Search. (World Cafe and Open Space are also often used that way.)

Open to anyone interested; makes space for the general public to engage - Conversation Cafe, Study Circles, AmericaSpeaks. (World Cafe and Open Space can be used that way.)

Involves a microcosm of the polity - Maclean's Panel, Citizen Jury, Planning Cells, Consensus Conference, Wisdom Council, AmericaSpeaks

Activates forum participants (and their networks) in issue-related action - Future Search, Consensus Council, Study Circles -- and usually Open Space and World Cafe.

Learning/Creativity Characteristics

Educates participants (through study) - Citizen Jury, Planning Cells, Consensus Conference, Study Circles, Televote Audiences (and often AmericaSpeaks)

Increases participant insight - All of the processes serve this function, but World Cafe and Wisdom Council are specifically designed for this purpose.

Makes participants into citizen experts on the issue - Citizen Jury, Planning Cells, Consensus Conference

Experts involved
On tap to citizens - Citizen Jury, Planning Cells, Consensus Conference, AmericaSpeaks;
Experts often included among participants - Future Search, Consensus Council

Fosters out-of-the-box learning and inquires - Wisdom Council, Open Space, World Cafe, Consensus conferences

On-going or iterative - All of them could be done that way, but Wisdom Councils and Conversation Cafe's are designed for that.

Input/Recommendation Characteristics

Provides coherent guidance for officials and the public - Citizen Jury, Planning Cells, Consensus Conferences, Consensus Council, Wisdom Council, AmericaSpeaks, Maclean's panel

Generates consensus statements - Consensus conference, Consensus Council, Wisdom Council, Maclean's Panel. (Citizen Juries strive for that but it isn't required.)

Process Characteristics

Participant-directed conversation - Wisdom Council, Conversation Cafe, Open Space, Consensus Conference, Maclean's Panel, World Cafe

Minor time commitment - Conversation Cafe, World Cafe. (Study Circles and Open Space can be.)

Simultaneous small-group interactions
In same space and time - World Cafe, AmericaSpeaks, Commons Cafe, Open Space, Future Search, Planning Cells;
In different spaces and times - Conversation Cafe, Study Circles

In-depth exploration of sub-topics by sub-groups - Open Space, Planning Cells, Maclean's Panel

Involves decisionmakers in peer dialogue with the public - AmericaSpeaks is strongest; Open Space and World Cafe can be easily designed that way; Future Search, Citizen Jury, Planning Cells and Consensus Conference often do.

Major use of computer/telecommunications technology - AmericaSpeaks, Televote Audience

Focused on a specific topic - all of them except Wisdom Council, Commons Cafe, Maclean's Panel, and often Conversation Cafe.

Logistical Characteristics

Inexpensive - Conversation Cafe, Commons Cafe, Study Circles, World Cafe, Open Space, Wisdom Council



A critical systemic dimension of public participation is community intelligence (see Essay 3 and Appendix A, above). As it deepens and broadens, intelligence becomes wisdom.

For my purposes here, I'm defining wisdom as the capacity to transcend limited perspectives towards greater and deeper understandings and broader, longer-term beneficial outcomes. Wisdom can also be knowledge, statements or solutions that arise from such understandings and envisioned outcomes Democratic wisdom emerges from creative interaction among diverse parties and perspectives, in co-creative service to the common good. To some extent it emerges naturally, as the compelling presence of diversity stretches people's perspectives to be more inclusive.

History is filled with democratic follies and catastrophes -- and with wisdom that has little impact on the lives of ordinary people and the fate of civilizations. We need to midwife a coming together of democracy and wisdom.

We need a democracy capable of generating wisdom grounded in the lives and perspectives of ordinary people and fully usable by them, which can simultaneously provide guidance on technical, obscure public issues that could make or break our survival as a species.

To that end, we need to clarify what kinds and levels of wisdom are available to and through democratic processes. So, just as we have various spectra of public participation (see Essay 3, above), I believe it would be helpful to come up with a spectrum of collective wisdom-generating dynamics.

I offer below a draft of such a spectrum. It attempts to clarify the dynamics through which wisdom can come about in various democratic processes, conversations and institutions. This presentation of these dynamics starts at more or less shallower levels of wisdom-generating power and proceeds to perhaps deeper, more powerful levels.

Some levels tend to include and transcend the levels below them, enhancing the sense of a hierarchy of levels. However, an actual process or conversation may well have elements from a variety of levels. Many processes characteristically specialize one level.

A Spectrum of Deepening Wisdom Through Democratic Process

1. BALANCED HEARING - Hearing all major viewpoints, or the views of a diverse group.

2. SOLIDARITY - Acknowledging differences and conflicts, while setting them aside to collectively pursue shared goals.

3. FAIR DELIBERATION - Hearing competing views regarding the leading alternative proposals and then collectively evaluating them to choose one.

4. NEGOTIATION - Working through differences to outcomes acceptable to all parties. This often, but not always, involves compromise.

5. FULL HEARING - Hearing all the relevant voices, ideas, information and stories -- especially those usually marginalized -- in a context where they are heard by each other, by the public and/or by relevant public officials. In the right circumstances, healing and/or creative outcomes arise naturally from this process.

6. CREATIVE CONSENSUS - Consciously using both differences and commonalities creatively* to come up with previously unseen possibilities that engage the life energy of all involved.

7. TRANSFORMATIONAL DIALOGUE - Bringing forth the underlying perspectives, needs and energies -- and discharging any of their destructive aspects while empowering their co-creative contribution towards broadly beneficial outcomes. This differs from creative consensus primarily in the depth of its shared inquiry into what underlies various reactions, beliefs and proposals.

8. COMMONS CONSULTATION - Finding collective guidance in the common ground that exists among the world's great Wisdom Traditions (e.g., the Golden Rule, respect for the Earth, etc., as expressed in such documents as "The Earth Charter" and "Towards a Global Ethic") as personally experienced and valued by those involved

9. HOLISTIC DIALOGUE AND DELIBERATION - Creatively integrating a full spectrum of perspectives with long-term needs of the whole (community, situation, watershed, world, etc.) -- while honoring the gifts, limitations and evolutionary nature of all the living systems involved. This usually involves some form of systems thinking or sensibility. The term "living systems" can include individual people, groups, organisms, ecosystems, communities, cultures, etc.

10. SPIRITUAL DEEPENING - Tapping into the deepest wellsprings of individual and collective wisdom, while still engaging creatively with any emergent unity or diversity.* This is particularly difficult in democratic forums because most techniques for spiritual deepening are associated with particular religious beliefs, practices or rituals shared by some people and rejected by others. Yet there is no denying the wisdom-generating capacity of such techniques. The challenge is how to usefully integrate a variety of such pursuits -- or to develop generic versions that are acceptable to widely diverse people and/or have no explicitly spiritual character.


* Diversity AND commonality can be used creatively OR destructively. For example, diversity can be used creatively for broadening understanding, stimulating creativity, and engaging greater resources. However, as we all know, diversity can also be used destructively through such dynamics as prejudice, domination and violence. Likewise, commonality or unity can be used creatively in such forms as life-affirming values, functional common ground (like shared language or experience) or a shared spiritual center ("that of God in every person"). But we have all seen commonality and unity showing up in destructive or dysfunctional phenomena like conformity, mob dynamics and cultural blind spots. Community wisdom can arise from brilliant engagement with these two factors.


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