I really like this short essay from the Engaging Cities blog on the need for good structure for public discussion to work well–or at all.
“Our conventional way of doing public participation in this country tends to fall at one end of the freedom/constraint spectrum or the other. We either present people with a pre-determined, pre-endorsed plan (or a couple to make it look more like a choice), or we just throw open the microphone and say “what do you think?” I don’t know why we’re surprised when we get protest, or most likely apathy, in the first case, and crazy or irrelevant feedback in the second. With too much structure, we are squelching their ability to make the constructive improvements that they know they could if they just got the chance. With too little structure, we are throwing people on their own resources, which on certain issues might not be very deep or loaded with unconstructive, unquestioned assumptions. We stick them with a feedback method that requires them to operate by the seat of the pants about something they probably don’t know that much about. No wonder we get crazy, off-target and useless.”
And I would add discouragement–as many people won’t participate at all if they see that the discussion is unstructured and has no method for separating the wheat from the chaff.