Rather than issues or problems, IF public discussions focus on what we generally refer to as an “area of concern.” This isn’t a mysterious label, but it is meant to signal one of the distinctions between IF’s approach and that of other discussion processes.
An area of concern is a relatively brief description of a phenomenon or trend and some of the possible governance concerns to which it potentially gives rise. Areas of concern thus involve matters citizens might really care about. They are broad, open-ended, and are presented in such a way that they can evolve during public discussion. They provide a source or stimulus for exploring and developing further possible conceptual questions and answers and for public discussion of their possible practical consequences.
Areas of concern evoke matters citizens might really care about. These also tend to be either:
- emergent (i.e., just becoming actual or “visible”)
- perennial (e.g., fairness, welfare, security, freedom, the environment)
- un-addressed in current public discourse; and/or
- highly complex.
Areas of concern are broad. Breadth is a second aspect of an area of concern. The term “area” is meant to evoke a field rather than anything particular, specific, or pre-defined: broad concepts rather than facts, general descriptions rather than absolute definitions, an arena rather than comprehensive or conclusive analyses.
Areas of concern evolve during discussion. Most forms of public dialogue stray only slightly from their starting point. Not so public discussion based on an area of concern. An area of concern will continue to evolve as it is subject to citizens’ exploration, often to such an extent that the new description will by itself represent a useful contribution to further public discussion.
Usefulness of Areas of Concern in Public Discussion. Areas of concern have the qualities they do because those qualities tend to prove useful in public discussion.
- Because they focus on matters of potential citizen concern, areas of concern provide sufficient focus to begin a discussion, but due to their breadth and evolutionary quality, they are able to do so without at the same time pre-determining public discussion’s content.
- The breadth and the evolutionary quality of areas of concern also encourage conceptual discussion. In particular, these qualities mean that as a starting point for public discussion, areas of concern will tend to be conducive to the exploration and development of contrasting conceptual possibilities (as opposed to debate).
- All of the aspects of areas of concern described earlier help ensure that public discussion’s flow is the result of the interactivity of citizen participants rather than choices imposed by the facilitator.
- All of the aspects of areas of concern also enable lay citizens to avoid being overawed or silenced by the “authority” of experts.
Areas of Concern Contrasted with Other Starting Points for Public Dialogue. Beginning a public discussion with an “area of concern” may not seem unusual. But doing so may be as unconventional as the kind of public discussion to which their use is so well suited. As illustrated by the following list, most public dialogue and deliberation begins from starting points which lack one or more of the key aspects of an area of concern:
- “Agendas” tend to be relatively rigid, not only with respect to content, but also with respect to the order in which matters are discussed. They may even manage in some cases to ignore citizen concerns altogether.
- “Debates” (such as those that feature so prominently in parliamentary or legislative processes) tend to be highly structured, allowing discussion of only a very reduced number of “options” rather than the exploration and development of multiple conceptual possibilities. As debates proceed, these beginning options are usually narrowed still further into the opposing positions of “winners” and “losers.” In practice they also tend to feature experts and cast lay citizens in the role of spectators.
- “Hearings” tend to solicit “input” on one or at most a few courses of action, already selected by officials.
- “Town meetings” tend to focus on coming to a decision about a “problem” or “issue” that has already largely been defined prior to the discussion. As important as dealing with “issues” and “problem-solving” can be, they tend to be more effective if proceeded by the kind of exploratory discussion that areas of concern are designed to initiate.
* For more extensive discussion of this topic, see essay T-1 at: https://www.interactivityfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Public-Discussion-paper.pdf