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Possible “Public Discussion Partnerships” Concerns

A recent rich discussion series with representatives of faith-based groups and community organizations in Milwaukee, Wisconsin shed some possible light on the issues IF might face as it considers “partnerships” with other groups for purposes of discussion of IF-produced policy possibilities. Such partnerships might involve discussion of reports we have produced on our initiative or may involve agreement between IF and others to produce policy possibilities for their discussion purposes.

The recent Milwaukee discussions involved two evenings of conversation centered on Jeff Prudhomme’s Helping America Talk revised report (which worked very well in this setting). It turned out that this collection of individuals from various organizations was considering the development of some sort of public conversation series. They were not far along in their development and, as with many such efforts in this early stage of development, they had many questions and conflicting agendas. A discussion summary of the Milwaukee conversations is attached to my recent post on the IF Face Book group page.

As one might expect in this type of discussion environment, their conversations were not solely about report content. A discussion of this type gave them an opportunity to think about what they might discuss in their contemplated discussion program and how they might structure those discussions.

Those who know anything about Milwaukee might already know that it is a rust-belt city that has shed tens of thousands of good manufacturing jobs, a highly-fractured city with a history of segregation and questionable policing practices, and a city that has fallen a long way since its reform-minded golden age of progressive administration by German-American social democrats. Producing consensus about anything in such an environment certainly has its challenges and, in this case, the tension between those desiring public conversation as an organizing tool for political action and those wanting public conversation for trust-building and civic capacity was clearly visible.

Despite these tensions, I felt I learned some important things about how to size-up potential “partnerships” and how to explore the questions IF and the potential “partners” need to ask about developing a process-based sequence that leads to “helpful results”. The obvious lesson in this case would seem to be that the potential “partners” need to get on the same page about their goals. IF is ill-equipped to sort out conflicts. We might be somewhat more helpful in “strategic review” and exploring what might be helpful in a given setting. We would probably be even more helpful if those hoping “to partner” had a fairly well-developed idea of what type of “discussion products” we are capable of and if they could help review and test those materials along the way.

This leads me to the inevitable list of “bullet insights”:

  • Partnerships probably need some “match-up” in terms of scale and sophistication (if one partner needs to conduct an undue amount of organizational development for the other, it is probably a different sort of relationship and likely will be resource/energy-intense).
  • If “trust issues” loom large within and among partners that probably requires an altogether different starting point than the IF process contemplates (we might be able to “follow-up” conflict resolution in some cases or use our more conceptual materials to help “bridge over” disagreements about details that are obscuring common ground).
  • We may need to “adjust” our materials to be helpful in a particular discussion setting (matters of both scale and placement along the “deliberative continuum”—often relating to proximity to decision/action).
  • Clarity of expectations and limits between partners is helpful (no marketing b.s., no hidden agendas, and no subsequent blaming).
  • Partnership development probably best proceeds “organically”, without undue pressure of deadlines or quotas, and avoidance of “ill fits” simply to have a partnership.