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Public Conversation

Public conversation and/or individual discussion are informal consultations that allow you to talk to participants in a direct and personal manner. Informal consultation techniques such as these support more formalised consultation techniques by identifying key issues, attitudes, skills and knowledge.

The personal level of discussion of these tools is generally not possible under more formalized consultation approaches and a greater appreciation of project issues can emerge as a consequence. Such informal discussions allow a free-ranging discussion around the issues which may reveal issues or attitudes that would not come to light through more structured surveys which may begin with with a pre-conceived notion of who and what is relevant to the issue.

PCP LogoAs well, public conversations can be facilitated with a view to reducing polarisation on contentious issues. Such conversations have been categorised: Talking with the enemy (Boston Sunday Globe, January 28, 2001) where this technique was used to encourage both leaders who supported and opposed abortion to begin a dialogue with the intention of preventing further violence after the killing of doctors in the United States (see www.publicconversations.org/ for more examples of work done by the Public Conversations Project).

Environmental issues can also generate fiercely opposed factions which undertake violent or potentially violent actions like driving spikes into trees that are to be cleared. Through engaging the opposing factions in a series of ongoing informal discussions with professional facilitation some understanding of one another’s viewpoints can be established, and this can assist a more formal process of consultation by focusing attention on the issues rather than the actions or assumed misdemeanours of the ‘other side.’

Public conversations may involve lay and professional speakers.

Objectives:

  • To identify issues that are of relevance to community groups or members who are affected by or interested in an issue; this may include revealing the reasoning behind groups or individuals taking very polarised positions, with a view to finding ways for those who are polarised in this way to hear one another’s viewpoints and be able to work together

Outcomes:

  • Public conversations will reveal unknown issues and aspects of community views on a plan or project that will allow the plan to be improved or modified to take these into account. They can also reveal the thinking behind polarised viewpoints which provides the possibility for people to work together in a consultative process who might otherwise be disruptive or distract the focus from the desired outcome.

Uses/strengths:

  • Can help identify individuals and groups who should be consulted as well as how they should be notified or invited.
  • Can help gather information and understand people’s viewpoints prior to formalized programs.
  • Maintains and establishes good community relations.
  • Directly involves individuals.
  • Offers insight into issues prior to the development of a consultation program, or may suggest alternative approaches.

Special considerations/weaknesses:

  • Can be costly.
  • Can be time consuming.
  • Time and cost constraints can limit the number of participants.
  • Discussions may be difficult to incorporate into participation findings.
  • Opinions may not be representative.

Resources required:

  • Facilitator
  • Staff
  • Volunteers
  • Unobtrusive recording mechanisms (audiotape; notebook; computers)

Can be used for:

  • Engage community
  • Discover community issues
  • Develop community capacity
  • Build alliances, consensus

Number of people required to help organize:

  • Medium (2-12 people)
  • Individual

Audience size:

  • Large (> 30)
  • Medium (11-30)

Time required:

  • Medium (6 weeks-6 months)

Skill level/support required:

  • High (Specialist skills)
  • Medium (Computer & other expertise)

Cost:

  • High (> AUD$10,000)
  • Medium (AUD$1,000-AUD$10,000)

Participation level:

  • Low (Information only)

Innovation level:

  • Medium (Some new elements)

Method:

Individual discussions

  • Approach people that are potential stakeholders in the following ways:
  • On the telephone
  • On the street
  • At places of work
  • In public places.
  • Identify yourself and ask if the person is interested in discussing the issue.
  • Arrange venue, times.
  • Allow the participant flexibility in steering the discussion to areas of their interest
  • Take notes (or tape/type notes).
  • Use findings to modify a participation program and/or target specific stakeholder groups

Group public conversations

  • Identify the issue or issues to be discussed.
  • Advertise public meeting time and issue.
  • Hire a facilitator who can bring a non-adversarial approach to the discussion.
  • Record discussion points.
  • Write up and distribute a report of the discussions, acknowledging the differing viewpoints and highlighting areas of overlap and difference.
  • If such a discussion is part of a decision-making process, describe the final recommendations and reasons that come from the public discussion.

Reference:

Many of the resources in the “Participatory Practices” category originated in Coastal CRC’s Citizen Science Toolbox (www.coastal.crc.org.au/toolbox/). With permission, NCDD included the resource on our wiki so practitioners could expand upon the listing.

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