Citizen dialogue and decision-making processes can take many forms, depending on the objectives of participants, their place in the policy-making process, and the constraints within which they are working. Still, citizen dialogue continues to be thought of almost exclusively in terms of “debate”—of a contest to win favor for competing positions. One alternative to thinking about citizen dialogue in this way is to conceive of it as exploratory and developmental public discussion. IF’s exploratory and developmental discussions begin with a discussion of an area of concern.
The purpose of public discussion of an area of concern. Public discussion of an area of concern is intended to be useful both in itself and as the starting point for public discussion of contrasting conceptual possibilities.
As a type of public discussion, exploratory and developmental discussion of an area of concern can lead to discoveries of two different types. Citizens may discover new policy questions—or they may discover new ways to think about policy questions about which they were already generally aware. The re-discovery of familiar questions is probably more common. But even when citizens re-discover questions they have considered before, their views of the questions are likely to change, sometimes significantly. Re-discovery of “known” questions through exploratory and developmental discussion can lead citizens to a clearer and fuller understanding of any or all of the following:
- rediscovered questions’ moral (consequential) and ethical (prescriptive) content
- rediscovered questions’ conceptual content
- rediscovered questions’ limitations or boundaries.
Both discovery and re-discovery of this kind can be useful in themselves because they serve the goal of promoting citizens’ autonomy by engaging them in civic activity on the one hand and by clarifying and expanding their choices as individual citizens on the other. (Ultimately we might expect expanded civic engagement and enhanced citizen choice to improve the quality of public policy as well.) However, it should be remembered that since citizens already need to be stimulated and engaged if they are to get involved in serious public discussion, public discussion of an area of concern will perhaps most typically sustain, rather than create, civic motivation and citizen autonomy.
Both discovery and re-discovery during public discussion of an area of concern can also be useful because they provide a rich set of questions with which to begin public discussion of contrasting conceptual possibilities.
The process of public discussion of an area of concern. Public discussion of a selected area of concern is an interactive process of exploration and development—either of “new” concerns or of new ways of understanding “old” concerns.
Public discussion of a selected area of concern proceeds through these five conceptually discrete, but ultimately interactive, steps or moments:
1) Choice of a starting point
Public discussion of a selected area of concern begins with a minimal conceptual description of the area of concern and a short set of conceptual questions. These can be taken from public discussion reports like those produced by Interactivity Foundation or can be developed by the discussion facilitator.
2) Exploration: search for possible conceptual questions regarding the area of concern
Once underway, discussion of a selected area of concern shifts into a search mode. The searching that is at the heart of exploration of an area of concern is neither linear nor random. It is not linear because the “destination”—possible questions about the selected area of concern—is not known. It is not random both because it is oriented by the general nature of the concern that citizens have gathered to discuss and because those engaged in the discussion interact with each other and with what they find along the way. As discussants interact with each other and the material they are exploring together, the discussion moves along a path (and according to a logic) of its own (though again, that path would be nearly impossible to chart in advance).
3) Development: elaboration and refinement of possible conceptual questions regarding the area of concern
The questions that result from exploration are not “left alone” but re-examined to see if they yield variations, refinements, or additional questions. As thorough as this second stage may be, however, it can never be exhaustive. Different citizens will have different concerns; all citizens are limited. Hence the list of possible questions resulting from developmental questions will also be selective.
Taken as a whole, the questions in their developed form amount to a re-description of the area of concern. This new description can be useful by itself, for the reasons described earlier. Or it can be useful as the starting point for public discussion of contrasting conceptual possibilities.
4) Selection and exclusion of possible conceptual questions
Selection and exclusion during public discussion of a selected area of concern is informal rather than formal. Possible questions are not eliminated; nor are they “endorsed.” But as finite beings with particular individual and social concerns, citizens will choose to raise some questions and leave others unasked.
5) Conclusion of exploration and development pending choice or further discussion
Like most practical activities, public discussion of an area of concern —however deliberate its pace—must come to an end, either to face the necessity of choice (actual decisions or actions) or to await future opportunities for useful additional discussion, either of the same area of concern, of conceptual possibilities for addressing it, or of their possible practical consequences.
The place of public discussion of an area of concern in the policy-making process. A well organized policy-making process would ensure that exploration and development of citizens’ concerns occurred before other sorts of discussion ensued (such as debate, which is primarily a means of organizing and pressing for choices among already-formulated possibilities) and then gave way to actual decisions or actions.
Yet while exploratory and developmental discussion of citizens’ concerns makes sense in the early stages of policy discussion, in actual policy discussion it is almost wholly absent. Policy discussion tends to be used either to make decisions or ratify decisions that others have proposed or made in the name of those participating in the discussion. Hence while the conceptual place of public discussion of areas of concern is clear, as a practical matter it remains to be seen where and how it can actually be developed in the policy-making process
Encouraging exploratory and developmental public discussion of an area of concern. Exploratory and developmental public discussion of an area of concern (whether developed by a discussion facilitator or taken from a discussion report) will be encouraged to the extent that the facilitator helps participants focus on:
- concepts rather than technical problem-solving, debate, advocacy or efforts to develop a consensus
- the content of concepts rather than the language with which they are expressed
- contrasts between conceptual questions, since these are useful in moving “beyond” the familiar or conventional
- the flow of the discussion rather than external constraints such as schedules or deadlines.
* For an earlier, expanded, version of this essay, see essay T-2 at: https://www.interactivityfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Public-Discussion-paper.pdf