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Developing a national dialogue infrastructure

Please use the comment field to add your thoughts on civic entrepreneur John Spady‘s Idea Incubator post!  NCDD has been talking to John about this idea, and we’re excited to engage NCDDers in these questions leading up to (and at) NCDD Seattle this fall.

Occasionally I’ll hear or read about someone, somewhere, who says, “We need a national dialogue about X…” — where X might be “race relations” or “immigration reform” or “the national debt” or (insert your own issue here) — a list of issues that is indeed long and important.

While the issues are important, what I personally think about is how can we even do it? How might we design an organizational infrastructure for a coordinated and practical national dialogue? This is a topic I want to cover during our NCDD conference in Seattle this October. But first, I’d like to invite my fellow NCDDers to help me think about this concept further.

Let me start with what I think our goal should be:
To create an adaptive and collaborative infrastructure that enables any participant to learn about, and respond to, selected national issues; and to form a confederation in support of a National Dialogue Network Infrastructure.

And the general values that I think such an infrastructure should possess, are:

  • that it is Distributed – it engages as many grassroots participants and organizations as possible.
  • that it is Collaborative – that in helping others it helps itself. Building trust and goodwill will bring increased participation overall.
  • that it is Anonymous – Information gathered in a survey, is always reported in aggregate form and never used in a way that could identify individuals. The planning board would need access to monitor lists, content, and response data but would never share, sell, or rent personal data to anyone for any reason.
  • that it involves a Coalition/Confederation – It can do more with others than it can do by itself. It supports and encourages diverse methodologies among participants.
  • that it is Nonprofit and Cost Effective – Monies or services received go primarily to build out the infrastructure and cover related costs. Accounts are transparent and open.

I think it should have oversight and accountability from a trusted national scope nonprofit organization (so it can receive tax deductible donations) but that operational and day to day management would be a coalition or confederation of collaborating individuals from national scope organizations (a planning board) who understand the value of working together to achieve what is harder for any one of them to accomplish alone.

I am also thinking that while issues are determined and advanced by the planning board that it would also be critical to have a pathway for issues from outside the planning board to be received from the general public. If public and published criteria are met then it should be incumbent on the planning board to formally respond to an issue request and make a decision to adopt the issue or not.

And I want to talk about funding ideas… should funds come from only a single source (for example, one helpful foundation), from multiple donations contributed by the organizations making up the planning board, or from strictly public contributions (individuals and/or multiple foundations)?

The simplest mental image I can think of to describe all of this is that of a tree with twinkling lights. Each light represents a community scale organization talking about its own issues and so each light is different. But each light decorates the national tree, and occasionally (when the need calls for it), all the lights glow with the same color because all the organizations are asking their members to talk about the same important issue. Supporting community scale efforts creates an infrastructure for national scale issues. And I think it will require more cooperation and less competition.

I hope this is enough for now to give people an idea of what I’m trying to propose. I welcome any and all thoughts and comments. Are we ready (and willing) to collaborate?

John can be reached on these social networks:

Twitter: http://twitter.com/jspady
Facebook: http://facebook.com/jspady
LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/jspady

This post was submitted by a member of the NCDD community. NCDD members are leaders and future leaders in the fields of public engagement, conflict resolution, and community problem solving. You, too, can post to the NCDD blog by completing the Add-to-Blog form at www.ncdd.org/submit.

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  1. John Backman says:

    Hello, John,

    I love your thinking on this. My instinct is to be wary of big ideas–I’ve seen too many of them come to naught–but this feels like a significant contribution, a practical (though massive) proposal to improve the public square.

    On the detail level, two questions come immediately to mind:

    1. Anonymity. I see the need for anonymity in certain dialogues and contexts, but I’d hesitate to make it an overarching principle. Better, I think, to invite people to encounter one another (face-to-face or virtually) on a personal level.
    2. Undue influence. What could we do to prevent advocacy groups (i.e., those interested less in dialogue and more in staking out their positions) from trying to “pack the court” and thus exert undue influence over specific national dialogues carried out through this infrastructure?

    Great idea, John. Thank you so much for putting it forward.

  2. David Kimball says:

    for this to be a national tool to be used by anyone/everyone, then I would like to scope of it to include responding to memes. This would require fast action/reaction in setting up the logistics of such a dialogue. The scope can include other, long-term projects, but I feel for it to be considered a public tool, it should address memes.

    By addressing memes, it should have some kind of wiki database of FAQs, discussion threads, and possibly a data warehouse of facts.

    An example might be the Teyvon Martin case. A dialogue presenting both sides without emotions should have been provided. Also, if someone has a specific question, they should be able to research it. An example here would be to identify Zimmerman’s actual role wih the Neighborhood Watch. I read early on that he had previously been a member but wasn’t at the time of the incident. I heard that the Neighborhood Watch program does not allow loaded firearms and that people are supposed to go on their rounds in two’s – accompanied by another. Although I heard this at the beginning, I never heard it afterwards, and all I did hear was he was a part of this Neighborhood Watch. Where could I go to verify this and bring it into the discussion?

    • John Spady says:

      David wrote:
      >for this to be a national tool to be used by anyone/everyone, then I would like [the]
      >scope of it to include responding to memes. This would require fast action/reaction
      >in setting up the logistics of such a dialogue. The scope can include other, long-term projects,
      >but I feel for it to be considered a public tool, it should address memes.

      Thanks David… I confess I had to go to wikipedia to try and get a handle on the word “meme” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meme) and I’m still not sure I understand. Can you explain more about what you mean by the term and give an example of what a “response to a meme” might look like in print?

      And yes, I’ve been wondering too how an infrastructure for national dialogue might operate when a fast action/reaction might be called for. I imagine that scenerios could be prepared before hand that can be quickly reviewed, updated, and distributed. But I also believe that national dialogue is a process that requires time and contemplation — free of emotional content (?) — and so perhaps then not appropriate in times of urgent national emergencies? When emergencies or urgencies happen we look to our neighbors and first responders from our local and regional communities.

    • John Spady says:

      In further follow up to David’s posting, I located a useful definition of “meme” from an article in “World Future Review: A Journal of Strategic Foresight”, Volume 2, Number 2, April-May 2010, by Executive Editor (and World Future Society President) Timothy C. Mack in his own journal article, “Memes in Foresight: Response to the Black Swan.”

      Mack writes:
      I use the term “meme” to refer to any ideational concept that has some “contagious” quality, that makes it very likely to be passed from person to person and, in the passing, to inspire action, and change the beliefs of its recipients, transmitters—or both.

      Mack continues:
      A good study of the success factors of memes is “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Other Die” (2007) by Chip and Dan Heath. They find that the most effective concepts are: Simple and Concrete (to allow ease of retention and understanding); Credible and Emotional (to build trust and bonding with the concept); Unexpected (to assist in grabbing attention among the modern storm of white noise) and Motivational (to encourage passing the concept on).


      Are there other readers on this page who have further insights into David’s post and the use of memes in their own fields of work?

  3. It seems to me that something important is lost with anonymity. I suppose in national debates there are enough ulterior motives that not being anonymous might be dangerous. However, it seems like real authenticity comes from showing up openly as who you are.

    The Occupy Cafe group has been conducting phone dialogues that seem to be adding up to meaningful conversations on important issues. Maybe something can be learned from that effort.

    While it would be difficult to set up a national face-to-face component of this, I think a self organizing face-to-face component could contribute a lot. Move-on has some experience with this as well as an effort some years back where software was developed for face-to-face Conversation Cafes. Perhaps something in this area could be learned from these efforts.

    –Kenoli Oleari

    • John Spady says:

      In response to Sandy’s feedback on Kenoli’s posting on April 26, Kenoli replied with these additional thoughts:
      -John

      Sandy — What you are describing (below) is very different from what floated to the surface for me in what John Spady proposed in his post. I think the clarification you are offering is that this “infrastrucuture” would not create software per se, but encourage people to use what is our there. It does feel a bit imposing, however, with values and organizational structure that will clearly have a big influence on what happens.

      I have some concerns about the structure proposed and the assumptions about where the real capacity for doing something like this in a way that does more than re-create the status quo lies.

      Spady proposes:

      > To create an adaptive and collaborative infrastructure that enables any participant to learn about, and
      > respond to, selected national issues; and to form a confederation in support of a National Dialogue
      > Network Infrastructure.

      I think it should have oversight and accountability from a trusted national scope nonprofit organization (so it can receive tax deductible donations) but that operational and day to day management would be a coalition or confederation of collaborating individuals from national scope organizations (a planning board) who understand the value of working together to achieve what is harder for any one of them to accomplish alone.

      There are so many ways that the national organizations have missed the boat on real participative engagement. My sense of the national groups is that they are more about control, following the money and the latest trend in dialogue than in truly creative and effective community engagement.

      Much of the cutting edge work on this is being done by local groups and communities. How would the deep experience of these groups be built upon since the proposal here would not bring them in any way into the center of creating this “infrastructure.”

      Spady says:

      > I am also thinking that while issues are determined and advanced by the planning board that it would
      > also be critical to have a pathway for issues from outside the planning board to be received from the
      > general public.

      It will be familiar to be once again to be in the position of providing input that those really in charge can decide what to do with. And this speaks only to issues to be discussed, not the real design and implementation of this project; I don’t see a place there for those not in a “national scope” nonprofit.

      It sounds like once again, those with the resources will be letting “the rest of us” know where we can fit into what they create.

      I don’t think this is really where I want to put my primary efforts, but I think it is worth paying attention to what those doing this work propose to create. A critical hole here is that there seems to be no place in the design of management of this project for those outside of the “national scope organizations.”

      Because we have so deeply internalized existing reality, we do tend to reproduce those things that we purport to want to change. I’m sure whatever happens will be a positive addition to the world; we might also think about how we might do something that is both effective and that brings something truly new to the table.

      Those are my thoughts.

      –Kenoli

      On Apr 26, 2012, at 9:15 AM, Sandy Heierbacher wrote:

      Hi, everybody! Before we run away with this line of thinking, let me clarify that I don’t believe John’s proposing setting up an infrastructure for national dialogues to occur online. Rather, we’ve been talking about what it would take to create a national, decentralized online infrastructure that supports online and in-person dialogue and deliberation efforts to take place.

      In other words, we’re wondering how we might use online technology (like a combination of google maps, social network software, and survey tools) to connect existing and potential convenors/hosts/facilitators of dialogue and deliberation programs so we can more effectively do things like this:

      – encourage people to share details about the D&D programs they’re running, in order to inspire others to do the same

      – provide people with easy ways to find others in their city or region that they can collaborate or coordinate with

      – provide people with easy ways to identify who else is focused on an issue they plan to tackle (and see what materials, methods, etc. they may be using)

      – periodically encourage people to host dialogues that address an issue of particular import or timeliness (i.e. encouraging everyone to host dialogues in their community on racial disparities or disaster preparedness after an event like Katrina)

      – establishing a standardized feedback mechanism that allows people to report on their program, without limiting their choice of methodology

      – enabling groups that are hosting their own national dialogue (like AmericaSpeaks, NIF, or the YMCA) to tap into an existing network of receptive practitioners periodically

      We’d want to get as many networks as possible involved, so that members of NCDD, IAP2, IAF, etc., facilitators in the AmericaSpeaks network, NIFI network, etc., and community leaders involved in organizations like the YMCA, the League of Women Voters, the Tea Party and Occupy movements, etc. would all be included.

      This is a big project, but maybe one who’s time has come. I’m curious about what people think about the idea. What would a successful infrastructure look like? What would this need to include in order for you to be involved?

      Sandy Heierbacher

      • John Spady says:

        Bruce Waltuck responded to Sandy’s posting above:

        On Apr 26, 2012, at 12:39 PM, Brucew wrote:

        Thanks Sandy. I greatly appreciate your clarifying message [...]

        Perhaps we can collectively add value by dialogue about what features such a national system might/should have. Your points [...] reflect this. I would add, for example, ways to harvest, tag, and make searchable, the ideas and outcomes of ongoing dialogues. Baseline and trend data could be tracked and analyzed against community, national, and even global patterns.

        Again, my thanks as we journey through this topic together.

        Bruce

        Bruce Waltuck, MA, C C & C
        Freethinc . . . For A Change
        @complexified on Twitter

      • John Spady says:

        Ben Roberts commented through the NCDD-DISCUSSION list — Thank you Ben…


        This inquiry is tapping into something that is extremely vibrant right now. I hear more and more people speaking to the possibility (hunger?) for a quantum leap in the power of dialogue, via new forms of collaboration and aided by our expanded technological capacities.

        Sandy’s list indicates that there are many different angles that can be pursued under the general rubric of “infrastructure.” The possibility that I am hearing at the core of this inquiry, and that most inspires me, is the idea that we can link together dialogue that is distributed across many venues and uses many different processes, as well as both face to face and virtual modalities, in way that allows a coherent and generative national, or indeed global, conversation to emerge.

        I see at least five possible components to the online/virtual aspect:

        1. A convening/coordinating function that launches an inquiry and provides all the distributed hosts with the context/framing that allows their conversations to work as part of the greater whole.

        2. Use of multiple existing venues for asynchronous dialogue, e.g. online communities, forums, email list-serves, blogs, etc. (note that there is a challenge and opportunity here, in developing processes that produce quality conversation rather than a disconnected series of rants—this is cutting edge territory for our work and convening these events would be a great opportunity for developing our capacity)

        3. Use of synchronous virtual conversation processes that employ phone, VOIP and video-based tools to convene real-time dialogue among geographically diverse participants

        4. The distribution of a toolkit for convening small group conversations, a la MoveOn (mostly face-to-face, but perhaps also virtual, using widely available video-conferencing tools like Google+ or free conference calling platforms)

        5. A harvesting, synthesizing and reporting function that not only supports posting of output from all of the various distributed conversations that occur but also employs a core team to make meaning from that harvest. The final output might take the form of a written report, video or perhaps even a wiki.

        These virtual components could support and synergize with a diversity of face-to-face gatherings that tap into the vast reservoir of talent and energy our community holds for such work. The result might be something entirely new and powerful as a means of engaging people, tapping collective intelligence, and illuminating both the common ground we share and the fault lines we must confront.

        I wonder if there is a foundation that might support an initial foray into this terrain, perhaps with a specific conversation that is directly relevant to its mission? A version of this idea could be pulled together using existing and fairly inexpensive tools. The cost would be in the work of the primary designer/conveners, and perhaps in a budget for a number of experienced hosts to convene face to face events. We would learn a great deal from such an engagement, and it would be much easier to propose something more durable having gone through an initial iteration.

        Ben Roberts
        Principal: weDialogue
        Co-founder: Occupy Cafe

    • John Spady says:

      Kenoli wrote:
      >It seems to me that something important is lost with anonymity.
      >I suppose in national debates there are enough ulterior motives that
      >not being anonymous might be dangerous. However, it seems like real authenticity
      >comes from showing up openly as who you are.

      The anonymity I was speaking of is in the collection of data — survey responses with opinions and values.
      I had been thinking of the value and the anonymity of public voting. Someone can know that I voted but they are not supposed to know HOW I voted. That’s the anonymity that I was thinking of.

      I personally think that comments (like these in this list) are best made publicly — people see our name, perhaps our picture, and come to know a bit of our thinking on a topic. So I think I am in agreement with you on this Kenoli. Anonymity has its place but authenticity is nurtured in the clear light of day.

      Kenoli wrote:
      >The Occupy Cafe group has been conducting phone dialogues that seem
      >to be adding up to meaningful conversations on important issues. Maybe something
      >can be learned from that effort.

      Absolutely! At this point in my thinking I’m expecting that any and all useful methodologies that people and organizations are already comfortable with can be utilized locally. The action happens at the grassroots and so they are the ones in control of how responses eventually get collected.

      Kenoli wrote:
      >While it would be difficult to set up a national face-to-face component of this,
      >I think a self organizing face-to-face component could contribute a lot.
      >Move-on has some experience with this as well as an effort some years back where
      >software was developed for face-to-face Conversation Cafes.
      >Perhaps something in this area could be learned from these efforts.

      My own experience with the face to face component is with the models I have been working on for many years — most recently with the Community Forums model at different scales: a county focus (http://KingCounty.gov/operations/auditor/CommunityForums/topics), a statewide focus (http://CommunityForumsNetwork.org) , and soon a city focus with the City of Bellevue.

      Like I imagine you do too Kenoli, I believe in the power of numerous small groups meeting face to face when they can. Self organizing when it’s practical but also scheduled and facilitated for people who may prefer that kind of experience.

      Finally… I’d just like to restate that these are just ideas I’ve been thinking about for awhile. I’ve wanted to talk about this for some time and I’m grateful to everyone for their thoughts. We all have different mental models surface for us and I hope this is an interesting opportunity for people to imagine together.

    • John:

      As for the third general value you list, it appears what you’re getting at is data privacy and the protection of personally identifiable information. So unless you’re actually proposing that participation in these national (online) dialogues be anonymous, I’d probably rephrase it.

      One interesting aspect to this idea is that within a national network of dialogue hosts a variety of flavors could exist side by side, including multiple ways to balance identity, privacy, transparency etc.

      • I agree with you, Tim. Anonymity in the online realm tends to refer to participants not using their real names when they participate in a discussion (which has some benefits, but also some major drawbacks in the quality and civility of discussions). So clarifying that the principle of anonymity is specifically focused on protecting people’s privacy relating to survey data is a good idea.

      • John Spady says:

        Hi Tim,
        Yes, I agree too. I did not mean to imply that the infrastructure be anonymous but that any opinion/survey data returned and used in reports not be associated with any single person. When comments are left online, during a discussion, then I am a fan of real names… like how we do it here on NCDD.

      • When it comes to online identity, there’s actually a whole spectrum of options available (and, in many cases, necessary) between the two extremes of real anonymity one the one end and verified identity on the other. We should invite Kaliya to give a primer on the subject some time.

      • Good idea, Tim. I love Kaliya! She’s so busy, but maybe she’d be interested in providing some sort of quick primer for the blog and listserv. She’s a member. Want to ask her??

  4. John Spady says:

    This message came to me directly from Terry Steichen, Founder and Editor of TopicCenteral.com — I’m reposting it here to try and keep all messages together for everyone to consider. Thanks Terry… I truly appreciate your wisdom and insights!

    Also, I am watching all the comments and thinking about my replies… I’ll be responding soon.
    -John

    John,

    I read with interest your NCDD blog post “Developing a national dialogue infrastructure.” It’s clear that you’ve been thinking pretty deeply about not just the desirability of such a dialogue, but the specifics of implementation.

    I suggest that you start with the functions you want to be performed. And I further suggest that there are three such basic functions:
    (1) define the topic areas to be addressed;
    (2) flesh out each topic area into issue-level details
    (3) discuss the issues
    The first function would be a board-level activity, probably bolstered by simple polling to produce a composite ranking of the topics. And it would include a process for others (particularly discussants, as mentioned below, to submit ideas for new topics or changes in existing topics).

    The second would focus on going inside each topic to extract the specific points where disagreement lies, and what the main competing arguments are on each. This would also encompass a process for defining the positions of key stakeholders, and a way to identify the common ground (if any) between these positions.

    The third function would be performed via a variety of (probably online) discussion mechanisms. using forums and various forms of social media. These conversations would be based on the issues developed in the second function above. From these conversations, some refinements of issues (function 2) and/or new topic suggestions (function 1) would be developed and submitted. Keeping the implementation of this function flexible, would allow full scalability and adaptability. IOW, you could start as modestly as you need to, and then expand as much as you want, smoothly.

    As far as funding goes, I would imagine that some grant support would be needed, at least to get things started. But then I would suggest you consider ways of generating revenue from the process itself (provided, of course, this can be done without compromising the content). For example, the content could be used to develop comprehensive opinion polls for a variety of constituencies and from a variety of sponsors (some of which might be quite willing to pay for that).

    I would structure the human effort required (particularly for function 2) so it is widely distributed. I would seek to engage the stakeholders and use their own self-interest to motivate their participation (assuming the use of a collaboration system that will preclude any one stakeholder from exercising any singular influence).

    I have designed an online tool to facilitate the accomplishment of the key function 2 above. If this approach has potential appeal to you, I will make this tool available to your effort at no cost whatsoever (and with my support included).

    I think your idea has great merit and an implementation of that idea is sorely needed. If I can be of any help, please let me know.

    Regards,

    Terry Steichen
    Founder and Editor
    TopicCentral.com

  5. John Spady says:

    This listserv posting came in from Cheryl Honey:

    On Apr 26, 2012, at 7:12 AM, Cheryl Honey wrote:

    I appreciate John’s contribution to advancing the field of dialogue and deliberation not just for social justice and public policy issues, but to bring peace between people. I’ve found over the years that the best way to develop an infrastructure is to “uplink” to existing national networks with facilitators that are successful at bringing people together not only to talk about the issues, but to take action when necessary. The idea of on-line dialogue excludes a lot of people who are computer illiterate, don’t have access to the internet and don’t’ have the time to engage in conversations. It takes time to write these comments and I need to be disciplined in how I spend my time.

    Some groups come to mind: Everyday Democracy, America Speaks, MoveOn, Moms Rising, LivingRoomConversations, Circles Groups (there are many), Community Weaving, Art of Hosting, College Students.

    The Community Forums Network is an exemplary process that I’ve experienced and it works! It brings people together from all socio-economic & political backgrounds to learn together and share their opinions which are converted into data public officials CAN USE to support their arguments for or against public policy issues. This process augments what these groups are doing. and collaborating strengthens efforts.

    Years ago John worked with Jim Rough who facilitated a Dynamic Facilitation with high school students. That collaboration steeped students in the practice of participatory democracy and instilled a belief that being heard was possible. There’s a lot of apathy in America today from those who feel disenfranchised and that their voice doesn’t matter and won’t make a difference. Our experience shows people are making a difference every day by getting involved. I see this effort as a way to engage more people in a national dialogue about things that matter to them. It will educate them on what they can do to be heard.

    The NCDD might consider sending out an invitation to many groups inviting them to partner and engage their constituents in online dialogues. Decide on the topics on a quarterly basis and then conduct webinars to train facilitators. I know some of our Community Weavers would be excited about participating in this type of effort and would engage Good Neighbors in their communities. I hope in creating an on-line infrastructure that it would foster meaningful and on-going relationships to build social capital.

    Let’s start a list of groups that already exist on a national scale that could engage their constituents in participating in national dialogue.

    I’ll be glad to forward any information about this effort to the Community Weavers who will disseminate it to the Good Neighbors. We have 1,500 in our network.

    Looking forward to seeing this come to fruition and participating in the conversations.

  6. John Spady says:

    Patrick Dufor wrote to me directly and I am reposting it here… Thank you Patrick:

    John et all

    Since about two years now I am developing a platform which, I believe,
    could help small or larger organizations involved in public dialogue. The
    idea is to create a confederation of analytical tools allowing to collect
    data and information, and analyze and publish the results in visual form.

    A change agent would be able to add pre-formed pages on his/ her web site
    seemingly managing the process under his/ her own identity; the pre-formed
    pages are designed to collect information and data according to his/her
    own plan; data are analyzed and a visualization of results is created;
    results are pushed on the pre-formed pages for public view. During the
    process the change agent has access through an Extranet to the information
    container, and can manage the process with others if he/ she wishes.

    The technology is here as support of a process or methodology. A change
    agent can choose an online, or face-to-face, or blended (part
    face-to-face, part online) process, data input can occur through web site,
    mobile or tablets, data can be texts, numbers or geo-data.

    I guess you get the idea.

    When I first started the project I was thinking about a cooperative
    (members have control) and worked for a while with a cooperative institute
    here in Massachusetts. But I soon realized it was more important to start
    working on the concept, and on the technology part, and …, and ….

    If it helps, I am ready to put the project on the (virtual) table and be
    part of the conversation

    My comments on the general values:

    >that it is Distributed – it engages as many grassroots participants
    >and organizations as possible.

    Analytics is a large merging field and a lot of tools are out there;
    engaging many participants is key to select the right tools;

    >that it is Collaborative – that in helping others it helps itself.
    >Building trust and goodwill will bring increased participation overall.

    Technology is one part but processes are more important; without
    collaboration this project like many other will go nowhere

    >that it is Anonymous – Information gathered in a survey, is always
    >reported in aggregate form and never used in a way that could identify
    >individuals. The planning board would need access to monitor lists,
    >content, and response data but would never share, sell, or rent personal
    >data to anyone for any reason.

    Nothing is really anonymous on Internet but change agents should [own]
    their data and have the possibility to delete them (in respect of the Law!)

    >that it involves a Coalition/Confederation – It can do more with
    >others than it can do by itself. It supports and encourages diverse
    >methodologies among participants.

    I suggested a cooperative because both my grand-father and father worked
    for a cooperative in France!!!

    >that it is Nonprofit and Cost Effective – Monies or services received
    >go primarily to build out the infrastructure and cover related costs.
    >Accounts are transparent and open.

    yes

    Patrick Dufour
    107 College Street
    South Hadley, MA 01075
    ph: 413-538-5569
    http://www.linkedin.com/in/patrickdufour

  7. Tom Flanagan says:

    What would a “national dialogue infrastructure” look like?

    In response to NCDD’s consideration of a “national dialogue infrastructure,” precedents exist for blending idea gathering and consensus discovery with dialogue among remotely located participants.

    One example is a dialogue which we have called ObamaVision [http://obamavision.wikispaces.com/], named in homage to aspirations voiced by with the enthusiasm of a newly elected president.

    This model might someday be scaled to support a national forum – if commitments were made to learning as we go.

    Learning will need to be directed toward [at least] six dimensions for coordinating the operation of a national dialogue infrastructure:
    1. a mechanism for deciding what topics to discuss
    2. a means of collecting up brief (“digital”) situational ideas
    3. a means for recognizing important digital situational ideas
    4. a way to see how digital situational ideas are similar to each other
    5. a process for defining patterns which display connections among situational ideas
    6. a mechanism for overlaying proposed actions onto a structure of digital ideas about the situation

    [http://globalagoras.org/]

    • John Spady says:

      Thanks for your contribution to this topic Tom. Your references are noted and will be explored!

    • John Spady says:

      I have cross posted your blog article on Global Agoras. Thanks for contributing your insights.
      http://globalagoras.org/archives/471

    • John Spady says:

      For the record on this page, here is Tom Flanagan’s complete article from his May 2, 2012, post at:
      http://globalagoras.org/tag/national-coalition-for-dialogue-deliberation-ncdd/

      —-
      The director of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation recently asked listserv members for responses to the concept of a “national dialogue infrastructure.” The goal was to gather some input for an NCDD summit to be held in Seattle in the fall of 2012, and the request called attention first to the “values” that might be expected of such an infrastructure. 1) inclusive access (“distributed”), 2) collaborative intent (“helping others”), 3) personal safety (“anonymous expression”), 4) integrated operation (“coalition / confederation), and 4 transparency / sustainability (“cost effective nonprofit’).

      John Spady provided an initial vision in the form of a metaphor: “… a tree with twinkling lights. Each light represents a community scale organization talking about its own issues and so each light is different. But each light decorates the national tree, and occasionally (when the need calls for it), all the lights glow with the same color because all the organizations are asking their members to talk about the same important issue”. Operational considerations included open questions with respect to how “issues are determined and advanced by the planning board” and how “situational ideas” are funded.

      Even as we were considering how we might respond to the request, we were watching comments posted to the NCDD blog cautioning about effects of special interest influence and about overly imaginative structures. In simple truth, we felt that early responses were divided either in the hope of managing a massively scaled up version of familiar face-to-face dialogues using the Internet or in compiling an encyclopedia of like-minded local level dialogues within a Google-like index. While we see both extremes as praiseworthy, we felt that a rare opportunity might be emerging for experimenting with a new way of managing dialogue. Precedent exists for blending idea gathering and consensus discovery with dialogue among remotely located participants. One example is a dialogue which we have called ObamaVision, named in homage to aspirations voiced by with the enthusiasm of a newly elected president. This model might someday be scaled to support a national forum – if commitments were made to learning as we go.

      The first challenge for any group process is coordination. This means a focus of thinking and a measured flow of exchange of situational ideas. Anything less is going to be noise from a crowd. The big challenge is not in getting people to shout out an situational idea. The larger challenge is in structuring what is being raised for consideration in a way that makes sense to those of us who haven’t been blessed with a Mensa IQ. A “national dialogue infrastructure” will need to have coordination and focus on several stages.

      The first stage. The first stage for a national dialogue infrastructure would be a mechanism for deciding what topics to discuss. Many folks will be drawn to first talk about the merits of different types of “solutions” to complex situations. In our early educations, we all probably been reminded to first “read the question” before we start to “provide the answer.” This isn’t the way that our dialogues typically unfold for us today, however. Today we most frequently find ourselves in debates rather than exploratory dialogue. Today we are too frequently victims of the collisions of good intentions, each of which might be framed with a different understanding of a complex situation. But, we are getting ahead of ourselves. First, we need to have some form of public auction whereby we decide what complex situations deserve our focus first. This auction should be based on situations to explore … such as municipal infrastructure … rather than options for solving complex problems … such as pension reform. Yes, complex problems can give rise to a cascade of specific issues, each of which can then give rise to a cascade of deeper issues, and all of which can be used as a framework for identifying options for action … but first the focus.

      The second stage. Once we have “somehow” agreed on a complex situation worthy of our collective focus, we need to have a means of collecting up brief (“digital”) situational ideas that will help us understand the elementary structure of the complex situation. The digital sound bites will need to be explained. For example, we cannot say only that “parents don’t understand what is going on inside their schools” without explaining how we understand this specific issue to be true. Explaining a digital situational idea will be very difficult if we seek to co-author this situational idea. Without an individual ownership of an situational idea, the situational idea itself can melt and blur across multiple voices. For this reason, the means that we create for gathering digital situational ideas must preserve the author of the initial statement, while also offering opportunities for others to author new and related digital situational ideas which they identify as carrying distinct meaning. How will the presence of a distinct meaning be discovered? You have to ask, and the important feature of a mechanism for gathering digital situational ideas will be to have a means of checking in with the original author of a digital situational idea to see if their situational idea does or does not carry a specific meaning which emerges as the situational idea is explored by others. There may be multiple ways to gather and clarify digital situational ideas, however the format of the blog might not be too far from what could work for us. The principal situational idea would be to limit the blog post to a specific “digital” situational idea rather than to allow the post to attempt to connect the situational idea to a whole system of thought prematurely. One way to limit dragging a digital situational idea into a systemic context prematurely would be to limit the word count for the post of the digital situational idea. This would encourage us all to spare our readers from digging through pages of words.

      The third stage. The third stage would be to help each other recognize important digital situational ideas. We could do this by recording “likes” for digital situational idea posts. Digital situational ideas with a lot of likes could rise to the surface for the broadest possible consideration. In highly complex situations, we might find ourselves confronted with many highly “liked” digital situational ideas. This preliminary preference must be understood to represent situational ideas which feel important before those situational ideas have been joined together in a system of connected interaction. We should also be sensitive to the fact that situational ideas which feel important may overshadow other digital situational ideas which are of a very different flavor. For this reason, we need to understand our set of digital situational ideas in terms of their distinct flavors. To do this we need another step in our national dialogue infrastructure.

      The fourth stage. We need a way of understanding how our set of digital situational ideas are similar to each other and distinct from each other. In essence, we need to cluster our digital situational ideas into affinity groups. We can do this if we can agree to identify situational ideas which we feel are highly related to other situational ideas. Hypertext linking might allow us to connect pairs of situational ideas. If we were to gather up our collective decision of which situational ideas are related to which other digital situational ideas, we would be able to see clusters of related digital situational ideas. Why is this important? Knowing situational ideas which are and are not judged to be closely related helps us scan across many types of situational ideas and leads us to explore types of situational ideas which we feel are different and perhaps less familiar to us. This helps us take in a “balanced view” of the range of situational ideas. When our most highly preferred digital situational ideas are assembled into clusters, we can then ask ourselves if we were to take a few of the situational ideas from each cluster and then vote on individual situational ideas again – trying to spread our voting across all of the clusters – we will get a different view of what we collectively feel to be of most importance. Why? The view will be different because we have asked ourselves to be open to all types of situational ideas and because we will have learned more about the system of digital situational ideas that related to the complex situation we are exploring together.

      The fifth stage. When we have a balanced view of the range of digital situational idea types relating to a complex situation, and when we have identified our most highly preferred situational ideas, we can then begin to define patterns which connect these situational ideas. This can be done by collecting responses to a “generic question” such as “Suppose we are able to address idea A, will this SIGNIFICANTLY help us to address idea B.” Responding individually, we won’t be able to discuss our reasoning at first; however, when we have collect up preliminary responses, we can show ourselves a map of how the important ideas are connected in our situation. This will open up specific and focused discussions of specific relationships, and we can capture this in a thread of contrasting ideas. Connections which attract a lot of discussion can be opened up to be “re-mapped” with a survey using the same “generic question” once again.

      This mapping and remapping might seem like a messy process at first, but consider the alternative. We can only map the ideas because we have first digitized them. And the ideas are judged to be worth mapping because we have recognized them as being important and also as spanning the range of types of ideas that inclusively define our situation. So getting the relationship between the ideas right is worth a few iterative cycles. And in the process, we are inventing a graphic language together that helps us understand how the critical situational relationships interact.

      The sixth stage. Understanding our situation prepares us for the next level of dialogue …. a dialogue to discover possible ways to respond to the distinct ideas that collectively define the situation we are trying to resolving. Because we have co-constructed an understanding of our situation, we will start on the same page. If we don’t agree that we see the situation the same way, we cannot agree that we will understand proposed responses in the same way. This second dialogue will essentially unfold the same way as our situational dialogue.

      The NCDD question is profoundly important. I don’t want to suggest that an answer will be easy, but I hope that I did illustrate one possible answer. There are some missing fine points that I haven’t mentioned here. In essence, the online approach is modeled after “structured dialogic design.” In face to face gatherings, structured dialogic design supports co-laboratories of democracy. Our hope is that some of this power can be used in a national dialogue infrastructure. The model that I described happens also to meet your criteria of being Distributed, Collaborative, and (potentially) Anonymous – meaning that an original contributor of a situational idea can use an author name that they select to anchor the meaning to their understanding while not forcing a disclosure of their actual real-world identity. The model supports building coalitions for action and, if implemented wisely, can provide an otherwise unreachable outcome within reachable budgets.

      • John Spady says:

        Ben Roberts commented though the NCDD LinkedIn group about Tom’s blog post:
        (I have [EDITED] certain words below to properly reference Tom’s contributions and Ben’s ask for an example -John)

        —-
        Thanks, John, for continuing to drive this forward. [Tom's] piece is thorough and thought-provoking. A few comments…

        Regarding [TOM'S] “Stage One,” I think the stage one challenge of deciding on a topic is easily met. What might be more difficult, though, is framing that topic in a generative and inclusive way. This is where the skill and experience of the D&D community might play a key role, whereas a process of simply crowd-sourcing might fall short.

        The term “situational ideas” that defines [TOM'S] proposed “second stage” of this dialogic process is new to me. [HE] write:

        “[W]e need to have a means of collecting up brief (“digital”) situational ideas that will help us understand the elementary structure of the complex situation. The digital sound bites will need to be explained. For example, we cannot say only that “parents don’t understand what is going on inside their schools” without explaining how we understand this specific issue to be true. Explaining a digital situational idea will be very difficult if we seek to co-author this situational idea. Without an individual ownership of an situational idea, the situational idea itself can melt and blur across multiple voices.”

        I get the idea of individual ownership, which strikes me as a very important insight. But the distinction between an idea that is “situational” and one that is not might be fleshed out a bit. Can [ANYONE] give some examples of these explanations of “how we understand [a] specific issue to be true?”

        Finally, I want to toss out the generic concern that we be alert to our instinct to map face-to-face processes into the virtual realm in too literal a fashion. Virtual offers different opportunities and requires new thinking about ways to apply basic principles and patterns that we are perhaps more comfortable with in a face-to-face context. Ultimately, what most inspires me is a process that blends these two together into something new and much greater than the sum of its parts.

        As I mentioned in my NCDD list-serve post, I think producing an iteration of this distributed national dialogue idea with tools more or less at hand would be an excellent strategy. We would learn an enormous amount, and have something tangible to ground our theoretical conversations with. I suggest we think about what organizations might be interested in funding such an initiative. Perhaps one that has a thematic focus we could productively explore and another than is interested in that larger project of developing this infrastructure might collaborate (or we might find one that has both aims).

        One more thought… How might we support a “heart-centered” context for such dialogue, grounding our conversations in a frame of caring and empathy and a sense that we are all in this together? To me, this is crucial in this age of divisiveness, to dialogue that is deeply generative and healing.

  8. John Spady says:

    From a Facebook posting on April 28, 2012, Dennis Boyer writes:

    I guess I’d like to tease out the various levels and scales. John, you’ve had more experience with infrastrcuture development than most of us. So where do we start: citizen juries, “deliberation days”, or things already embedded in civil society?

    • John Spady says:

      Hi Dennis, I’m seriously suggesting an “all of the above” strategy.

      The most basic elements of 1) counting opinions (using a survey mechanism) and 2) communicating with participants (using an email/CRM service) should be common to all the different methodologies that can be used by people.

      Working with a collaboration of organizations and individuals, I envision standardized materials can be prepared and distributed (online and physical) that can be used by the different methodologies of choice. But in the end, a common survey harvests all opinions and values for evaluation and reporting.

      What do you think?

      • John Spady says:

        Dennis wrote in response on May 7:

        I think that’s a darn good start! Since I tend to work the “front end” of deliberation, I have a special interest in the process that prepares the standardized material with an eye on contrast and a range of options. I get worried when a process seems “massaged” toward binary options (A or B) too early in the discussion. But I think your basic approach can address those concerns through initial rounds of exploration.

  9. John Spady says:

    I lifted the following text from another organization (citation given at the end). It resonated with my desire that a national network infrastructure ought to be as “diverse” (in form and constituency) as we could make it. I know I started this conversation with my own vision but I acknowledge, and trust, that our vision, together, will ultimately be what rises up.

    —-
    Build Diversity Into Your Organization from the Start

    Take care in developing the group that will form the core of a new organization: making contact with people beyond your own circle and being willing to spend sufficient time in the development stage can pay off in the long run. Because our culture restricts our vision, it is important to actively reach out to the community to acquire diverse opinions and perspectives. Strive to create dialogue around how the goals of the organization will change as it is enriched by a variety of people bringing new opinions to the table. Expect resistance inside yourself to this process. When we passionately wish to begin a project, we are likely to be attached to our own vision of the goals, our methods and the contribution we make. This can make it hard to open up the process and collaborate, but doing this can lead to better responses to complex issues.
    (http://movetoamend.org/toolkit)

  10. Ben Roberts says:

    Thanks, John, for collecting all these comments into one place. A fractal, perhaps, of the challenge this concept seeks to tackle!

    Do we have critical mass here for a synchronous conversation to consider these ideas in more depth and build some more collective energy around them? I would be glad to offer weDialogue’s services to host a MaestroConference-based world cafe if the consensus is that we’re ready for it (or whatever format we all decide would work best). I think that format works well for something that is still in a formative and exploratory state. We might use one or more of these “questions for all seasons:”

    –What do we know so far/still need to learn about this concept?
    –What assumptions do we need to test/challenge in our thinking?
    –What’s the next level of thinking we need to address?
    –What would it take to create the critical mass necessary to launch this project?

    • John Spady says:

      Thanks for the follow up Ben… and thank you too for offering your services to host a MaestroConference call on this. I think I’d like to talk to you about this further and think about how we could include others who would like to be in on that conversation. We are definitely still in the “formative and exploratory” stages and getting a broader conversation “on the record” at this stage should be helpful. Please write me and let’s schedule some time to talk further.

    • John Spady says:

      Upcoming NCDD Confab on July 12… Ben Roberts has set this up for the NCDD community to more deeply explore the important conference topic of civic infrastructure.

      Sandy’s posting about the Confab:
      http://ncdd.org/8747

      And registration for the Maestro Conference call-in on July 12, 2012:
      http://myaccount.maestroconference.com/conference/register/U54NYCTPL68W0CAV

      Did you attend the call? Do you have any additional insights or comments? I’d like to know what’s on your mind… Thanks.
      -John

  11. John Spady says:

    Here is a recent article from the Knight Foundation by Paula Ellis referenced recently by Peggy Holman on the [NCDD-DISCUSSION] list. One particular sentence from the article resonated strongly with me because I have talked about large scale collaboration in this thread about constructing a national dialogue network infrastructure, quote:

    “Large-scale transformation requires the engagement of all sectors in a community, nonprofits, businesses, philanthropies and governments all pulling in the same direction through collaborative efforts.”

    Here is the link to the primary article:
    http://www.knightfoundation.org/blogs/knightblog/2012/7/2/finding-ways-better-describe-measure-and-replicate-community-engagement/

    Thanks for the link Peggy!
    -John

  12. John Spady says:

    After a great NCDD 2012 national conference in Seattle, I am gearing up to seek continued collaboration for this idea as a Catalyst Award proposal at http://ncdd.civicevolution.org/proposal/10096

    I have created a short video that explains my initial concept of the concept as I currently understand it. I welcome your comment to the video in this message thread. Thanks.

    http://www.screencast.com/t/u7SnOFcq5D5

  13. John Spady says:

    With Sandy’s help I am administering a new NCDD-sponsored discussion list about a National Dialogue Network infrastructure. Please click on my name in this message or visit this address to subscribe. If you have any questions about the new discussion list then please reply to this message thread. Thank you.

    http://lists.thataway.org/scripts/wa-THATAWAY.exe?A0=NATIONAL-DIALOGUE

  14. John Spady says:

    Please review the results of the first of five cycles that we recently completed:
    http://ncdd.org/11527

    The topic ranked highest from among 415 random and self-selected participants was “Poverty/Wealth in America”. It now becomes the inaugural topic for national conversations starting in September, 2013.

    Our team of volunteers now begins “Cycle 2″ to further frame and focus on the core materials and national survey that will be utilized during “Cycle 3″ national conversations.

    You are invited to contribute your opinions on the topic of “Poverty/Wealth in America”. Until the end of June, 2013, you can respond as often as you wish to three important focus questions — or provide us with more details and help influence the development of the core materials.

    Visit this link ASAP before it closes: http://tinyurl.com/ndn-cycle2-2013

    Thank you! -John

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