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Approaches to Community Engagement and the Generation of Community Wisdom

A companion document to
"Functions that Make Up Community Intelligence"
"A map of Community Intelligence and some of its important constituents"

There are hundreds of ways to engage citizens and stakeholders creatively in dialogue, deliberation, shared reflection and action to improve the conditions and capacities of their community. The 45 methods described below exemplify approaches that can improve the capacity of our community to generate collective intelligence and wisdom to apply to its own problems and dreams. Methods such as these are the seeds of wiser forms of democracy.

21st Century Town Hall
. AmericaSpeaks organizes large-scale forums engaging thousands of citizens -- both face-to-face and through telecommunications links -- integrated with laptop-computer and keypad-polling technologies -- to deliberate on public issues and provide input to shape government policies. Decision-makers are often included as regular participants in these day-long deliberations. See

Appreciative Inquiry. Instead of seeking to solve problems, we can inquire into “the best of the past and present” in our organizations and communities – and then share what we find in ways that “ignite the collective imagination of what might be.” See

Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD). Communities can grow stronger by exploring and organizing all the gifts that citizens and associations (formal and informal) can bring to their community life, rather than by treating people as problems and clients. ABCD gathers data about this and makes the connections. See

Canada's Maclean's experiment. "The People's Verdict". A dozen ordinary Canadians selected for their differences and meeting in the media spotlight for three days with one of the world’s top negotiation specialists, came up with a common vision for the future of their country. This one-time event, organized in 1991 by Maclean’s, Canada’s leading newsweekly, presages the potential for Citizen Deliberative Councils at the national level. See

Citizen Consensus Councils (CCCs). Diverse citizens are convened to seek, with the help of professional facilitation, shared understandings, solutions and wisdom about social concerns. Their unanimous conclusions are publicized to their entire community or country. CCCs are Citizen Deliberative Councils that operate by consensus. Examples include Consensus Conferences, Wisdom Councils, and Canada's Maclean's experiment. See

Citizen Councilor Forums. Officially registered volunteer citizens agree to gather, when requested by the public official in charge of their forum program, in small study groups in their homes, workplaces, or public gathering spots to study, discuss, and then offer advice to the government and community regarding the issue they deliberated See

Citizen Deliberative Councils (CDCs) are temporary, face-to-face councils of a dozen or more citizens whose diversity reflects the diversity of their community, state or country. Usually council members are selected at random, often with additional criteria to ensure gender, racial, socioeconomic, and other diversity. Convened for two to ten days to consider some public concern, they learn about it (often by hearing and cross-examining diverse experts), reflect on it together (usually with the help of a professional facilitator or moderator), and craft a collective statement which they then announce to the public and/or relevant officials and agencies (often through a press conference), after which they disband. Examples include Citizens Juries, Consensus Conferences, Planning Cells, the Canadian Maclean’s Experiment, and Wisdom Councils. (See also Citizen Reflective Councils.) See and Tom Atlee’s The Tao of Democracy: Using Co-Intelligence to Create a World that Works for

Citizen Panels. A popular name for Citizen Deliberative Councils, as explored by John Gastil in his book By Popular Demand, which describes five ways to use them to establish real answerability in electoral politics and the legislative process.

Citizen Reflective Councils. Another name for Citizen Deliberative Councils, which emphasizes the fact that some CDCs (particularly Wisdom Councils) tend to be more open-ended, emotional and creative than the word “deliberation” often implies. “Reflective” suggests both that they are reflecting about their community and that their members reflect (rather than politically represent) the diverse members of their community. See

Citizens Juries. The most basic and widely practiced Citizen Deliberative Council, with 12-24 participants. Pioneered in the U.S. See and Ned Crosby’s Healthy Democracy: Empowering a Clear and Informed Voice of the People. See also Citizen Panels.

Civic Journalism attempts to engage people in public life by finding out what they are concerned about, providing them with balanced information about the issues involved, getting them talking about those issues, and reflecting what they say back to the larger community in broadcast, print and online media. See

Community-Based Watershed Management Councils. Stakeholders from public, private and nonprofit sectors come together regularly to care for the watershed resources they all depend on. The EPA has sponsored a number of these. See for a local story and for national resources.

Community Quality of Life Indicators. Communities around the world have developed local statistics to measure their collective well-being, providing them with feedback about how they’re doing. See

Commons Cafes. Ten people are selected from four very diverse groups (e.g., an inner city church and a golf club) and convened such that one person from each group is at each of ten four-person tables. Each table has cards with questions about one’s life, which the participants answer, sharing their lives with each other. Designed to humanize the Other, across boundaries. See

Community Vision Programs. See Scenario and Visioning Work, below.

Consensus Conferences. Citizen Deliberative Councils that are much like Citizens Juries except (a) panelists participate more in selecting experts to testify before them, (b) testimony is taken in a public forum and (c) a panel’s final product is a consensus statement. Currently the only form of Citizen Deliberative Council institutionalized as a part of government – in Denmark, where it was pioneered to advise Parliament on controversial technical issues. See

Consensus Councils bring together the full diversity of stakeholders around a contentious issue to agree on recommendations to policy-makers. These have existed for several years in Montana and North Dakota, but a United States Consensus Council has recently been established. See

Consensus Process. A broad category of processes that endeavor to weave the actual diversity of the participants into understandings and solutions that make sense for all those involved. See

Conversation Cafes. Small lightly facilitated gatherings held regularly in a specific public place, usually an actual cafe, and open to the public. They usually start and end with a go-round much like a Listening Circle, with the body of the conversation being open dialogue. Normally convened around a topic. Often a city or town will have many conversation cafes people can attend. See

Deliberation, Public. This means that citizens are considering an issue carefully, hearing many sides and considering various possible outcomes and trade-offs, in an effort to come to useful public judgment about how the issue should be addressed. This is the core of deliberative democracy. See

Deliberative Polling. Hundreds of citizens are surveyed about an issue and then study it and deliberate about it. They are then polled again. Repeated demonstrations of this type have shown that people's views on an issue change when they have a chance to learn and think about all sides of it. See

Dialogue. Increasingly this term is used to describe conversation in which participants all feel heard so they can actually learn and/or accomplish things together. Another definition: Shared exploration towards greater understanding, relationship and/or possibility. See which, among other things, provides a useful list comparing dialogue and debate.

Dialogue, Bohmian. A form of dialogue in which participants attend to the assumptions behind their own and each other’s responses and thoughts. This approach, founded by quantum physicist David Bohm and spiritual teacher J. Krishnamurti, often shifts conversation from an exchange of ideas to a shared flow of meaning. See

Dynamic Facilitation (DF). An open-ended and highly creative process grounded in the power of people feeling really heard and following where their interest and energy take them, rather than a pre-established agenda. Groups are helped to wrestle creatively with difficult problems such that they often stumble into truly innovative insights and solutions together. DF includes a potent reframing of conflicts as concerns. It is most powerfully applied to community, state or national affairs in the form of Wisdom Councils. See

From the Four Directions. Leaders involved in making a better world have gotten together in an international network of self-replicating, intentionally diverse circles of support and learning, designed to empower their capacity as servant leaders. Organized by consultant Meg Wheatley. See

Future Search. Representative stakeholders are gathered together to review or co-create the future of their organization, community or situation. They look at their shared history, the forces currently shaping their shared lives, and the visions they can all buy into – and then self-organize into ongoing action groups to further the vision(s) they created together. See

Holistic Management. Draw together all the important people and resources relating to an issue to generate clarifying holistic statements of their desired quality of life. Take time to check all future decisions against that statement. See

Intergroup Dialogue. People from different social identity groups meet for a series of meetings designed to help participants gain a deeper understanding of diversity and justice issues. See

Let's Talk America. Local citizens join in a bridge-building conversation about democracy and civic concerns using Conversation Cafe and simple guidelines for hosts and participants. See

Listening Circle. A group of 3-30 (and sometimes more) people sit in a circle and take turns “speaking from the heart.” Usually the speaker holds an object (a “talking stick,” a stone, even a stapler) and, when done speaking, passes the object to the person on their left, who may then speak. There is no cross talk or interruptions. If a number of rounds are done, the dialogue tends to deepen. See

Listening Project. Trained interviewers canvass a community with questions designed to engage people with community or national issues. The role of the interviewers is to listen well. People change during the interviews, often getting involved in addressing the issues they discussed. See

Multiple-Viewpoint Drama. What does a public issue look like when you see all sides in their raw, dramatic expression. Anna Deavere Smith created two monologue docudramas acting out the actual statements of people she interviewed who were associated with riots in Los Angeles and New York City. This could make the human complexity of any issue more real to decision-makers and citizens in their deliberations. See

Natural Resource Leadership Institutes. Diverse stakeholders from all sectors -- many of them long-time opponents gridlocked over natural resource conflicts -- come together for six three-day sessions to explore how to creatively resolve such conflicts in their state. Their learning and their actions often bring about a shift. See

Neighborhood Councils. A number of cities have provided for their neighborhoods to get themselves organized and officially recognized and to provide themselves with a forum for deliberating about their neighborhood issues and maintaining relationships with other neighborhoods and with city officials and agencies. See for an example. These are also sometimes called neighborhood assemblies (– and much excitement has been generated recently about the neighborhood assemblies spontaneously formed in Argentina in response to their economic crises. See

Nonviolent Communication. A process through which one person can empathize with the needs underlying another’s reactions and seek ways those needs can be served that satisfy everyone involved. It can be done in group settings, but even that usually involves working one-on-one. See

Open Forums. Arny Mindell believes that the solutions to our conflicts and problems lie in the heart of the disturbances we try so hard to avoid, and we can find them there through a process that encourages all the voices involved to really speak to each other, and really be heard. See and Mindell’s The Deep Democracy of Open Forums.

Open Space Technology. An amazingly simple way for dozens or hundreds of people to get together and talk about a topic they're all passionately interested in -- and have it feel more like a coffee break than a conference. There is no agenda other than the diverse workshops and conversations that the participants create together at the beginning and then attend and modify as the conference continues. See

Participatory Budgeting. In Porto Alegre, Brazil (and more than 100 other cities), thousands of citizens and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) participate every year in deciding how their municipal budget will be spent -- and then overseeing the resulting public works projects. Deliberations are organized both by neighborhood and by topic (education, transportation, etc.). See

Planning Cells. Numerous simultaneous 25-person Citizen Deliberative Councils (cells), all addressing the same subject. Participants spend much of their time in five-person subgroups. The cells’ diverse final statements get integrated into one “Citizens’ Report.” Pioneered in Germany. See

Public Conversation Project. Pro-life and Pro-choice activists shared their stories, beliefs and concerns in non-polarized dialogues sponsored by some family systems therapists, and achieved remarkable mutual understandings. The method has since been used with polarized environmental stakeholders and other groups. See

Scenario and Visioning Work. A broad category of methods for creating shared visions or carefully considering different possible futures. Evidence suggests that looking into the future is one of the healthiest, most powerful things any group or community can do. See

Search for Common Ground. This process uses personal stories, reflective/active listening, genuine curiosity/real questioning, and searching for points of authentic connection and resonance between one’s own experience, values, and ideas and those of one’s adversaries. It helps adversaries focus on truly hearing each other and discovering problems and aspirations that both sides care about and can address together with shared action. See

Salons. Informal, often regular gatherings of friends (or people in someone’s network) for high quality conversation about things they care about, often over food and drink, or tea or coffee, often in someone’s home. See The Joy of Conversation: The Complete Guide to Salons by Jaida n’ha Sandra and the editors of Utne magazine.

Study Circle. Ordinary people get together once or twice a week to study public issues together, explore what they think should be done about them and, often, take action together. Study Circles are often woven into broadly inclusive community programs around issues like race, police relations, and so on, which sponsor dozens or hundreds of simultaneous Study Circles and bring together all participants at the conclusion of the program. See

Wisdom Council. An experimental Citizen Reflective Council using Dynamic Facilitation to explore whatever a randomly selected group of citizens feel is important to them and the community or country where they live. A new Wisdom Council with newly selected members is held – ideally with great fanfare -- every 3-12 months in that community or country. This ongoing process is designed to build a strong collective sense of We the People. See and Jim Rough’s Society’s Breakthrough! Releasing Essential Wisdom and Virtue in All the People.

The World Cafe. Dozens or hundreds of people show up for a conversation about a topic that matters to them. They sit around separate tables (4-5 to a table) and, after 20-40 minutes of talking, they move to different tables to continue the conversation. After a few rounds of this, a lot of interesting ideas will have arisen and moved around the room. Highlights can be harvested in a final session all together. See


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