A new pamphlet, ‘Connected Conversations,’ by the new economics foundation (nef), argues that tackling the biggest and most complex issues needs to start with small conversations. Conversation tools, such as Democs, provide participants with the information and format they need to deliberate over issues without large-scale organisation or facilitation skills. Existing community groups, students, families or neighbours can hold conversations in informal settings that are fed back to a project organiser who acts as a hub.
The approach poses some interesting food for thought for those running or commissioning public dialogues.
Implicit in this approach is that supporting connected conversations necessarily requires some ‘letting go’ of the process. However, where time, effort and money (particularly public money) has been invested, it’s still important to find ways of ensuring aims and objectives have been met, and the quality of conversations is high. Those acting as central organisers will need to find more flexible ways of evaluating from a distance, making sure that learning about process, as well as opinions on the content of dialogues, continues to be fed back to the middle.
‘Connected Conversations’ also challenges ideas about the relationship between dialogue and influence in policy making. Unlike many forms of public engagement, they are not about settling an issue or reaching consensus. As the authors put it “they are, in effect, talking shops – and we are proud to describe them as such”. This is a welcome departure from a model of public engagement in which members of the public come together to give their views and then go back to their normal lives, leaving Government to act. Civil-society organisations are the existing mechanisms for social action, and so the authors argue that they are able to support citizens to take action themselves, developing collective responsibility for tackling problems. This is particularly important for large, thorny topics, such as climate change or an ageing society, which are often intergenerational, international and complex.
However, there are few things that enrage participants more than feeling that their voices have not been heard or responded to, if they expect this to happen. As in any dialogue process, absolute clarity of purpose is paramount here, particularly where the aims of such a process may be different from those that the public is becoming used to.
Nef’s work is a welcome addition to the mix of approaches available. Some of its principles will be tested in Sciencewise’s latest project in partnership with the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s My2050, which explores our future energy mix. A toolkit is being developed to support community organisations and schools to run their own dialogue processes. This will be published soon.