Don Lenihan is a Canadian thought leader who has spent several years focusing on public engagement and open government . His 2012 book, Rescuing Policy: The Case for Public Engagement, provides a primer on public engagement, consultation and deliberation.
This year, he is publishing a series of three articles examining issues related to open government and public engagement. The first article, co-authored with Tom Pitfield, The Rise of Civil Analytics: How Big Data is About to Explode Policymaking As We Know It, developed the concept of civil analytics as “a holistic approach to data, the tools that can be used to analyze it, and the various people who should be engaged to examine it.”
The second paper in the series, “What is ‘Open Dialogue’ and Is It the Answer to ‘Post-Fact’ Populism?” looks more deeply at open dialogue and deliberation.
I think that Don’s papers are a must-read for anyone interested in understanding how government and institutions can engage the public in discussions of policies, values and public issues. It’s about much more than simply assembling and publishing facts. It requires a recognition of the value of lived experience and the power of narrative and storytelling, as well as a process to ensure transparency, inclusion and a sense of fairness.
Don agreed to sit down to discuss his papers with me. Among the things we discussed:
- Different groups of people coalesce around a concern for open data, open information and open dialogue. Each of these groups has a different set of objectives, interests and skills. We must bring these three groups together to realize the full potential of open government.
- Consultation is the simplest form of seeking public input. It draws in public views in a variety of forums. However, once the input has been provided, government makes the decision, often in secret, and then informs the public of the decision that has been taken.
- Open dialogue begins with the government asking the public for its input. However, instead of government deliberating and deciding on its own, it brings a representative group of people to the table to assist it to make decisions, in the open, in a transparent process.
- An open dialogue process will incorporate three stages: consultation, deliberation, and validation. Everyone gets to speak in the consultation stage. This sets the agenda for deliberation, which takes into account the issues advanced in the first stage. Deliberation will be conducted under a set of rules that everyone agrees to and that will yield an outcome that everyone can live with.
- And what of elected politicians and government decision makers? If consultation works, don’t do deliberation. If government can explain the decisions it made following a consultation and demonstrate that the decisions took into account the consultation input, then this may well suffice.
- Open dialogue is an effective mechanism to air differences in values and incorporate them into the thinking that contributes to decisions.
- We need open dialogue and deliberation in an age in which complex problems require tradeoffs that will not be seen as valid if made behind closed doors by a small group of officials. We need a representative group making decisions in a transparent, open and representative way in which the tradeoffs being made are perceived by the group as being fair.
- Evidence-based decision making must encompass lived experience as well as raw data and facts. Lived experience is conveyed in narratives, which bring facts, values, priorities and our lived experience together in a way that we can share with one another.
- For complex issues, we need to engage the public through a variety of mechanisms so that they can relate to the narratives being developed.
- A classic consultation process favours people who are “in the policy business” – business, lobbyists and those familiar with government and the consultation process. They know what government wants and they “talk the policy language.” Our first instinct is to educate the public to help them participate in this way. We should approach this differently. We should recognize that the public has different expertise, in priorities, values and the scenario-building about what they want their community to be. The vision that should shape our interpretation of the facts. We should create a narrative space to give citizens a real voice and the opportunity to shape the outcome based on the things they know and have views about.
- Digital is central to the future of public engagement. However, we have not yet become adept at scaling open dialogue involving deliberation. Today’s digital tools do support bringing people into the discussion to shape narratives. We should aim to make the digital tools better at supporting deliberation.
- We must design processes that show continuity and transparency in moving from the consultation phase through deliberation to decision. This will enable participants to see their views represented and understand how their input was dealt with. The acid test is whether both participants and observers judge that, even if their views did not prevail, they were considered and treated fairly.
- Is open dialogue an antidote to post-fact populism? It could be, if it is designed to incorporate narrative with facts. Narrative is powerful and moves people. Fact-based narrative would indeed trump fact-free narratives on which contemporary populism often relies.
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