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Creative Deliberation

Hello.  New NCDD blogger Tom Atlee here.  I’m founder of and research director for the Co-Intelligence Institute, interested in how high quality D&D can be used to catalyze a wiser democracy and more conscious evolution of humanity’s cultures, social systems, and technologies.  I’ve been collecting, promoting, critiquing and weaving together dozens of diverse processes for two decades, and I’m very interested in their underlying dynamics and mutual synergies.  I live in a co-op house in Eugene Oregon.  I’m happy to share my thoughts about all this with you and I look forward to your comments.

Creative Deliberation

Many (most?) citizen deliberative methods take deliberators through some version of the following steps:

  1. Review briefing materials that summarize arguments for and against the 3-5 main options being discussed in the public debate on the subject, hopefully covering 80-90 percent of the spectrum of opinion.  (Sometimes — as in a Citizen Initiative Review — the deliberators simply evaluate whether or not an existing proposal should be supported.)
  2. Hear expert testimony, get expert answers to questions, and/or cross-examine diverse experts. (Some methods skip some or all of this step.)
  3. Deliberate in the group, weighing the merits and trade-offs of the presented options.  See how much of a consensus can be achieved and, if not, report out the distribution of opinion in the group.

This general approach tends to restrict the considered options to what is already being talked about in mainstream discourse, rather than invoking the creativity of the deliberators to come up with something better than the mainstream options.  In contrast, other methods like brainstorming or Dynamic Facilitation may focus on creativity, but may not take the time to adequately deliberate on the feasibility and potential problems or consequences of what the participants create.  In between these are various half-way approaches such as allowing or encouraging deliberators to mix-and-match aspects of various options to see if they can improve on the mainstream presented options.  Or sometimes deliberators simply revolt and say they want something that isn’t one of the choices they’ve been given.

It seems that a process that is both open and creative and also rigorously deliberative would offer higher quality results than any of the above.  I would love to hear about any citizen deliberative approaches already out there that attempt to do that.  Just to invite imaginative dialogue, I offer the following model as a possible approach.  It would definitely be a multi-day deliberation (involving preferably a random cross-section microcosm of the population), along the lines of citizens juries, consensus conferences, or citizen assemblies, but with some added creative bells and whistles…

  1. Review briefing materials that summarize arguments for and against the 3-5 main options being discussed in the public debate on the subject, hopefully covering 80-90 percent of the spectrum of opinion.
  2. Get diverse expert answers to questions and cross-examine those experts.
  3. Deliberate in the group, weighing the merits and trade-offs of the main options and seeing if there’s consensus on any one of them or a recombination of them, and specifically inviting any other approach that might have more benefits and fewer trade-offs.
  4. Split into web-surfing teams for a couple of hours to see what other hot information or options are available on the web.  (Perhaps make it a challenge: Who can find the best stuff?!!)  Come back together to share what was found.
  5. Repeat deliberation as in (3) but including the new information and options found.  Note any new questions or potential favored options that show up or which the group, itself, wants to create.  Include Dynamic Facilitation here if the conversational energy is hot, to help it move toward an emergent breakthrough.
  6. Consult (perhaps by phone) with experts who can answer any new questions and/or provide input on the feasibility or likely consequences of any new options the group is considering recommending.
  7. Repeat steps 5 &  6 until agreement is reached or a clear set of majority/minority recommendations solidifies.  Whichever happens, articulate clear rationale for the recommendations presented.

Do you have any thoughts on this approach, or on other approaches that combine full-spectrum information, high levels of creativity AND rigorous deliberation among diverse perspectives and options?

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Tom Atlee
Awed by the evolutionary challenges and opportunities we face as a civilization, Tom Atlee researches and promotes dialogue, deliberation, and other resources for collective intelligence and conscious evolution. Tom founded The Co-Intelligence Institute in 1996 and wrote The Tao of Democracy in 2003.

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  1. Hi Tom,

    I very much appreciate your raising the question, of how to invite more creativity into deliberative processes. Given the kinds of challenges we face, my sense is that this is essential.

    I do have a quibble with you, about your mischaracterization of Dynamic Facilitation as somehow not taking time to adequately consider the feasability, potential problems, or consequences of the ideas that are generated in the process. In fact, one of Dynamic Facilitation's strengths is that it welcomes BOTH creative AND critical thinking, by making space for any and all concerns that participants may have about any proposed "creative solutions".

    To help create a "safe incubator" for participants' creative ideas, while at the same time supporting critical thinking, we ask participants to "aim" their concerns about an idea to the facilitator, rather than "at" the person who has just proposed the idea. Along with the highly active listening role of the facilitator, this strategy helps concerns to be surfaced and "overheard" by all of the participants, while still protecting each individual's creative space.

    In practice, I've found this approach to work well. Whenever I've used DF, I find that participants engage in in-depth trouble-shooting, deconstructing, and tweaking of the various creative ideas that emerge, in order to come up with sound and actionable proposals.

    with all best wishes,

    Rosa

  2. This comment appeared first on the NCDD listserv on December 6, 2010 in reply to Tom’s original post there. I am reposting it here with a few minor edits.

    Hi Tom,

    Great to see your writing here!

    I find the information piece particularly challenging (and a more iterative approach like the one you outline seems helpful).

    Most issues that warrant deliberation are so hugely complex to the average participant that they require extensive education efforts. Meaningful participation is impossible as long as participants lack a basic understanding of the issues at hand. Traditionally, there seem to be at least three problems:

    1) Inadequate learning design

    Rarely is learning ever adequately designed into the process (it takes more than just “briefing materials”).

    2) Lack of trust

    While conveners are under an obligation to provide “complete and unbiased information” (see post), they aren’t always trusted as a neutral source. Participants who for whatever reason don’t trust the information they are being given can cause a lot of friction (see the recent “Our Budget, Our Economy” project).

    3) Top-down approach

    The process of informing the participants is usually a one-way street. It assumes that the convener alone can provide the best possible participant briefing (both in terms of content and process). There is little to no opportunity for participants to improve, customize or otherwise take ownership of their learning experience.

    Learning should play a key role in citizen deliberations. And participants should be enabled to take on the role of researcher, interviewer, fact checker, curator, editor etc. (see post) in collaborative ways that help educate the group as a whole (something your steps #2, #4 and #6 hint at). This doesn’t replace the need for subject matter experts nor does it diminish the convener’s overall responsibility to provide the best information possible.

    Your approach is multi-day, but that may still be fairly limited. At every deliberative event I’ve attended or observed, a lot of time was spent on activities that could have well been handled prior to meeting face-to-face (particularly education/learning). That’s why I strongly encourage the use of (online) technology to complement any in-person activities.

    Cheers,
    Tim

  3. Tom Atlee says:

    Tim – Great points. I like your focus on “participant learning” as something to be mindful of in organizing citizen deliberations. And I think that citizen deliberations intended to create public policy or directly influence policy or the electorate MUST be multi-day, simply because issues ARE so complex. However, shorter, less rigorous citizen deliberations can be extremely valuable as (a) educational experiences for the participants and (b) as informational input for official policy-makers. I think of such short deliberations more as enlightening focus groups than reliable, decisive decision-making enterprises.

    Rosa – Thank you for the correction. I should not have said, “taken the time”, because it isn’t a matter of time as much as the disciplined direction of the participants’ attention to specific areas (e.g., consequences, costs, feasibility, trade-offs, etc.). Also, a related factor is who the participants are. If the participants are expert stakeholders involved in the issue, then the information they need probably exists among them in the room; they just need to tap it. The amount of briefing and direction required for such a group is minimal and DF would handle that well. However, when the group involved is a randomly selected bunch of citizens who may know nothing about the issue, they would tend to be very sloppy in how they dealt with factors like consequences, costs, feasibility, trade-offs, etc., if left to their own devices — whereas a good deliberative facilitator would probably direct their attention to such factors.

    I may be misinformed, but I don’t know what in DF allows a facilitator to direct the attention of a group to areas the group energy is not naturally moving. Perhaps in Creative Insight Councils DF is applied differently than in situations I’m familiar with — and a creative solution that the group came up with (which none of them had any concerns about) would nevertheless be subject to critical examination for feasibility and consequences as would be done in a rigorous deliberation? I’m very interested in how this would work in DF.

  4. Ted Heinz says:

    Hello Tom, Tim, and Rosa
    I am curious how you might see communication to and from the general public before, during and after a creative deliberation.

    It seems to me that the most important part of this process would be how much the community as a whole feels that they are participants and the effect that that might have on building a stronger and more creative community.

  5. Tom Atlee says:

    The ideal scene in a “microcosm” deliberation like a Citizens Jury is that the public is involved with the issue before, during and after the deliberations. Unfortunately, this very seldom happens.

    In Denmark, the Parliament convenes “consensus conferences” of randomly selected citizens to deliberate on technical issues. The panel take testimony from experts and stakeholders in a public conference format, with public, media, and stakeholders present in the audience.

    In Canada in 1991, Macleans magazine convened 12 citizens especially chosen to represent the diversity of Canada and had them deliberate for three days under the facilitation of Roger Fisher (co-author of Getting to Yes), to a remarkable result. The 40 pages of coverage given by Macleans (the Time magazine of Canada) and the parallel 1 hour CBC documentary constitute a sophistication of coverage I’ve never encountered anywhere else (described in chapter 12 of my book The Tao of Democracy and fully available in pdf form at http://www.co-intelligence.org/S-Canadaadvrsariesdream.html). The fact that they gave a description and photo of each of the deliberators (so the public could pick who they liked and didn’t like) and then described the blow-by-blow account, page after page, allowed the public to vicariously experience the whole thing. What would happen if that was done with all major deliberations?

    And the Citizens Assembly on democracy in Australia had much online participation before, during and after.

    It may or may not make much difference in the quality of the deliberation itself, but it can make a profound difference in the understanding, impact, and buy-in of the population re the outcomes of that deliberation, as well as the general sense of community.

    I’ve also heard experiments where the deliberators showed up halfway through their deliberations on community TV and shared where they’d gotten to so far, and the public could call in a selection of phone numbers to show their support for this or that option, which the deliberators then took into account.

  6. Jonathan says:

    Wow, I am really excited about new ways to deliberate! I’m wondering how I can help get these ideas to different parts of the US and finally into the national government. Any ideas?

  7. Jim Rough says:

    Tom, I’m just catching up here but I struggle with the concept of “creative deliberation”. To me the combination of creativity and deliberation is a prescription for disaster. Combining creativity with judgment in any form can be traumatic. That’s why brainstorming, for instance, defers judgment. Having said that, however, people brought into a field of deliberation will sometimes create a new option. It arises from frustration at being stuck weighing limited options that don’t meet the needs. Rather than staying with deliberation or trying to juice deliberation up with creativity, they shift to another form of thinking entirely. This form of thinking is choice-creating (not dialogue).

    In a related point you say that “Macleans magazine convened 12 citizens especially chosen to represent the diversity of Canada and had them deliberate for three days under the facilitation of Roger Fisher.” I think the Macleans process is not well characterized as “deliberation.” The group was essentially a representative body, each of the twelve chosen for his or her demographic connection. The facilitators were skilled in negotiation and that was the intended thinking process. The key moments where the group came together were in off-line conversations, which I would characterize as departure from negotiation into choice-creating.

    Jonathan, I have a suggested idea to answer your question about how this nation might shift its thinking process. I put it in a book, “Society’s Breakthrough! Releasing Essential Wisdom and Virtue in All the People” (See http://www.SocietysBreakthrough.com). But it’s not about deliberation. In fact, I think our focus on deliberation is taking us away from the quality of thinking at the heart of democracy. That quality is what I call “choice-creating,” where people face the really important issues authentically, creatively and collaboratively, seeking answers that work for all.

    Rosa. I enjoyed reading your points about DF.

  8. Tom Atlee says:

    Jim: As you know, I fully support the power of choice-creating conversations, but am less happy with the wall you imagine between it and deliberation, a word which has a less constricted (and constrictive) sense for me than it does for you.

    The main contribution of deliberation, in my view, is thoroughness of consideration of options. ANY process that serves that purpose can be called deliberative. Each option's feasibility, costs, benefits, underlying values, supportive evidence, arguments against, etc., are, in ideal deliberations, thoroughly considered and compared. There is NOTHING about that that excludes any old or new options from being so considered.

    Do nonlinear choice-creative conversations that DON'T include rigorous testing of options (i.e., ensuring that all aspects of their workability and advisability are covered, based on facts, knowledgable advice, and solid reasoning) do as well as more linear deliberative processes? This point is arguable, but could only be truly resolved by comparative experimentation of the two approaches addressing the same issue, with the results evaluated by actual implementation of the resulting recommendations.

    In the absence of such unlikely experimentation, I would rather see us all experimenting with processes that consciously use choice-creating to generate breakthrough possibilities, alternating with rigorous expert-informed deliberations to look for weaknesses and challenges in those new options, followed by more choice-creating work to break through those challenges, etc., as a dynamic use of the gifts of both approaches.

    I fear that our failure as a civilization may be equally tied to our unimaginative deliberations and our unrealistic creativity. The two modes — choice creating and deliberation — are, in my view, thoroughly complementary and vitally necessary. Insisting on their incompatibility impedes the urgently needed development of synergies between the two approaches to produce unprecedented pragmatic breakthroughs.

  9. […] from his upcoming book, Tom Atlee picks up the topic of learning in deliberation, something he has written about previously. It’s a thorny issue and generally applies to public participation as […]

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