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Practical Tips for Citizen Discussion of Possibilities: Part II- Starting the Discussion

In my previous installment on practical tips I looked at recruitment of citizen groups. The who, what, and where of that first step of gathering the bodies exerts considerable influence on how you might want to initiate discussion of policy possibilities.

We will start with the assumption that you want to engage the participants, make the ideas accessible to them, and leave them with both a favorable impression of and appetite for this type of discussion. It almost goes without saying that achieving those goals demands that you develop a plan not only for presentation of the material, but that also anticipates their level of likely understanding and engagement.

When I presented a citizen discussion trial run of the regulation report to a neighborhood group I planned for a discussion set up that gave them a history of the project. I also accumulated some stories describing how the possibilities might play out in some of the very local-scale issues of interest to them. I took an entirely different approach, however, in a day-long discussion of the same report with government lawyers.

IF’s fellows, associated faculty, and contract facilitators have asked and answered many questions about this matter of where to start. Here are some of the items from their responses that grabbed my attention:

  • The facilitator needs to develop her own feel for the report and the possibilities. This might involve getting in touch with the report editor or developing a comfort level with the subject area covered by the report.
  • A decision must be made about where to start the discussion. The reports are usually not arranged by any sense of priorities or sequence (though we are discussing the matter of whether “gateway” possibilities are helpful). Where does your group need to start so that curiosity is provoked and interest is sustained?
  • It might make sense to use a general discussion of the topic as a prelude to discussion of the possibilities. Such a general discussion can give an adaptive style facilitator a chance to spot “openings” that mesh with one or more possibilities and modify his discussion plan accordingly.
  • The facilitator needs to think about how to use the report in the discussion. We at IF are still learning about what makes for a good and useful report. We hear quite a bit of response that reports are too long. Yet there have been highly engaged citizen groups that have followed the reports and were hungry for even more detail. Some of our contract facilitators have found the reports useful as “manual” on the topic and the possibilities and keep their explanations to citizen participants down to a summary scale. You need to decide how much material your participants can handle.
  • Time and scheduling issues are also a large part of your discussion plan. In general it seems that the closer in time for meetings the better. We have seen some very high-energy discussions held on two or three successive nights and even a few successful marathon one-day discussions. But your challenge is to either recruit to your notion of a good schedule or adjust your plan to the schedule of those available to you. If there are long breaks between meetings allow for recaps and other memory aides.

The most important piece of advice that I can give you about where to start in discussion is to simply consider the options, have a plan that allows you to respond to both obstacles and opportunities, and let yourself breathe. We have had remarkably few fatalities in this work.

When I first started I was definitely a “paint by numbers” facilitator. Now I am starting to see the channels and the flow in the river. I still get wet on occasion. I apologize for the mixed metaphors.