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
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
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
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
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
These materials will be posted on my co-intelligence.org website,
on the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation's thataway.org 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
* 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
Principles of Public