While dialog and deliberation techniques (America Speaks, Deliberative Juries, Open Space, World Café, etc) all have important roles to play in increasing public participation, their proponents may benefit from considering some additional working assumptions and principles.
Crowd wisdom principles
1. The wisdom of crowds is best evoked when we get beyond the pros and cons of any single policy alternative and consider the complex systems within which any policy must co-exist.
2. The wisdom of crowds is energized when the future is the canvas for co-creative thinking.
3. The wisdom of crowds is best channeled by combining rich objective data with informal and imaginative processes.
4. The wisdom of crowds is best expressed in stories about tomorrow, sometimes called scenarios.
5. The wisdom of crowds can be tapped through voting, but only after concrete and divergent visions have been expressed.
6. The wisdom of crowds provides the best lens for identifying truly alternative and actionable options.
1. Learning how complex the world is can be hard work. The general population is quite capable of learning to think systematically if they are supported by safe, information rich, informal processes that incorporate indirect learning as a side effect of engaging activities.
2. Stories are a key to both cognitive and emotional engagement. For most people, the ability to hold complex ideas in memory depends on whether those ideas are woven into a narrative that is compelling; one that is driven by recognizable characters and that has an internal logic and consistency.
3. Voting on a partial or incomplete story can be a helpful precursor to voting a policy alternative up or down. For example, participants can be asked “Do you think a particular event could happen, would it matter if it did, and under which version of the future is this event more likely to happen?” Answers to these questions spark discussion of possibilities without closing off alternatives.
4. Stories can be finer grained and more nuanced than policies. At the same time, they are ‘just stories.’ They don’t carry the weight and political consequences of a policy vote.
Who writes and edits public participation stories or scenarios?
Scenarios are compelling stories about alternative futures. Effective scenarios animate a large number of facts and considerations. Few members of the general public have the desire, interest, or skills necessary to write compelling scenarios from scratch. But most people directly affected by a policy have the desire, interest and skills necessary to discuss, learn from, and accept or edit elements of scenarios that are offered for their consideration.
Facilitator/authors can start the scenario process, creating initial stories from research and interviews and guiding participants through review and editing activities. Participants in an interactive scenario workshop analyze stories, add their own responses to questions, and develop a larger narrative that explains how the initial story could happen, the forces that would have to line up to help or hinder it, and the actions that would have to be taken between now and a future date to make the scenario happen.
The scenarios matter, but they are primarily a springboard. The real payoffs are the creative policy recommendations and the citizen empowerment that results.
Where have scenarios fostered public engagement and empowerment?
Scenario-based public engagement of has worked well in critical situations, most notably in South Africa at the end of apartheid
(http://gcp.aspen.grida.no/training/manual/module6.aspx). Diverse groups of stakeholders were engaged by encountering sharply different stories about the possible future of their country. The stories were not ‘top down’ predictions, they were invitations to have a structured exploration of what could happen, to learn how the complex elements of society interact, and to discover what could be done to encourage the best possibilities.
Calling this approach scenario planning understates its power. Peer-learning and community-building are important parts of its legacy. The citizen planners themselves come to share knowledge, skills, perspective and purpose. Graduates of a scenario deliberation workshop form a critical mass of scenario-fluent thinkers who can become valuable pro-active teachers and facilitators in their communities.
Closer to home, my colleagues and I have helped engage stakeholders in scenario projects by writing short newspaper stories that describe events that could happen by various dates in the future if present trends continue or if alternative policies are adopted. We do not ask people to accept our stories as true; we invite them to make that determination themselves in consultation with their peers. We also ask them to "finish" the stories since they are deliberately incomplete. Participants are asked to be reporters from the future, reflecting back creatively on their vision of what is possible between now and a future date. We ask them ‘report’ on how alternative policies and programs worked or didn’t, who was helped or hurt, and how opposing positions and the concerns of the most vulnerable were met.
Participants begin their engagement by choosing which future news stories come closest to their initial vision of the future. Their choices tend to provoke productive learning conversations as other participants seek to understand the reasons behind each other’s opinions. Unlike fixed beliefs that are grounded in the in the past, no one knows for sure what will happen in the future. A brief review of recent events is usually sufficient to gain agreement that no one’s personal predictions should take precedence. So the uncertainty and risk inherent in the future actually opens up the discussion. As facilitators, we compare responses and votes on news stories from different teams advocating or defending different future policies and feed this back to the participants so that it becomes an input to their overall deliberation.
Voting to discern before voting to decide
Citizens get to "try out” a version of their ideas or preferences and see how they compare and play out before getting caught up in the high-stakes debate. New and old ideas combine. Implications are uncovered and their validity tested. Voting about hypothetical futures and finding out how your opinions compare with others is engaging enough to motivate learning. At the same time, it is less contentious than a "final" vote or even a ranking vote on a list of issues or questions. None of the alternative future stories is taken as ‘given.’ Each is examined and then put aside to become a possible ingredient in a later new or modified scenario.