One of the ideas that has been recently been under discussion within IF is the possibility that citizen or public discussions of the approaches developed within IF sanctuary projects (that are ultimately published as reports) could be used to further refine or “test” those approaches. This gives our reports a “living” and evolutionary character and makes them more “interactive”.
We have not fully explored the various ways that we might do this or the stages at which it might be most appropriate. I recently had an opportunity to experiment a bit with the idea through developmental citizen discussions of my first draft report from a recently concluded sanctuary project (Helping Out: U.S. Humanitarian Policy for Global Security). I held two separate discussion series on the draft in two different cities as “practice runs” for prospective panelists for a future sanctuary project. I was very open about the possibility of using their feedback for further development of the draft report.
These discussion series were reviewed as per IF practice in a “discussion summary” and there was a high level of participation in our surveymonkey.com questionnaire. While I am still in the process of evaluating how to use the developmental feedback from these discussions, I do have some initial impressions of advantages and disadvantages of using citizen discussions as a developmental tool for our reports.
- The “fresh eyes” of the citizen discussants creates an opportunity to move beyond the emotional attachments and unconscious “compromises” that may have occurred in a sanctuary project. Citizen discussants seem capable of identifying approaches that project panelists may have simply missed.
- Citizen discussants seem very sensitive to “jargon” and “insider thinking” that can develop during the course of a sanctuary project and which come to shape the subsequent report. They will often come up with alternative framings and wordings that help clarify possibilities.
- Citizen discussants usually form first impressions of a report that are closer to what we might expect of the general public. This sometimes means they will recognize possibilities that are “straw men” (half-hearted or filler possibilities that seek to provide more contrast, but do not always contribute to the vitality of the discussion if no one takes them seriously) or that are variations on other possibilities.
- Developmental discussions by citizens also contribute to a sense of a report as a living, evolving product, not a static list of concepts frozen in the time and context of the sanctuary project. Use of the feedback from citizen discussion could and should contribute to development of reports that stimulate more robust public conversation in more effective ways.
- Citizen discussion groups are not always as balanced in skills and experiences as project panels are likely to be. This is especially true where we recruit the citizen discussants through another group or event.
- Discussion of this type can become overly editorial and less conceptual than serves our developmental purposes. Citizen discussants need to understand their role in developing ideas and contributing new ones, so that discussion does not focus on narrow presentational issues.
- Citizen discussions of this type can become too focused on participant preference issues. If the discussant is spending too much time on “likes” and “dislikes” of possibilities instead of qualitative conversation about how a possibility moves discussion along, then it is not aiding the developmental cause.
- A single developmental discussion series is simply a “snapshot” of what six to ten people came up with in eight to ten hours of discussion. The impressions created by such discussion may not always reflect broader societal concerns.
A Final Note
There are goods reasons to continue on with our learning about how to use developmental citizen discussion as a tool in refinement of IF reports and the possibilities they present. However, we may want to give more thought to how we do this and whether it requires some additional evaluation tools. I would also add that project facilitators may want to exercise some caution in using prospective panelists in a pending sanctuary project as citizen discussants in reviewing a prior project report draft that poses some overlapping concerns. I have seen some evidence that participants caught between these tasks and expectations can become confused about their roles unless reminded by the facilitator. They can easily interject their thoughts about the upcoming project into their view of the prior project.