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Characteristics of Public Participation Processes

ref: Designing Multi-Process Public Participation Programs



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

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