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Dialogue & Deliberation Methods

Written by NCDD director Sandy Heierbacher to expand upon the text on our “What Are Dialogue & Deliberation?” page.

This resource provides enough details to enable you to decide which of these leading dialogue and deliberation methods you should learn more about. In addition to looking at which methods fit your intentions, you will need to consider which methods are aligned with your resources, timeline, and the people you feel need to be involved.

The text below is drawn from NCDD’s Engagement Streams Framework.

AmericaSpeaks 21st Century Town Meetings


21st Century Town Meetings enable the general public to give those in leadership positions direct, substantive feedback on key issues. Each meeting engages hundreds or thousands of general interest citizens at a time, utilizing innovative technology to effectively and quickly summarize citizen input. These all-day meetings bring large groups of people together in one room (or multiple networked rooms) to deliberate at small tables. Participation is generally open to the public, although organizers recruit heavily to ensure a diverse, representative group.

More details:
At a 21st Century Town Meeting, diverse groups of citizens participate in round-table discussions (10-12 people per table), deliberating in depth about key policy, resource allocation or planning issues. Each table discussion is supported by a trained facilitator to ensure that participants stay on task and that each table has a democratic process. Participants receive detailed, balanced background discussion guides to increase their knowledge of the issues under consideration.

Technology transforms the individual table discussions into synthesized recommendations representative of the whole room. Each table submits ideas using wireless groupware computers and each participant can vote on specific proposals using a polling keypad. The entire group responds to the strongest themes generated from table discussions and votes on final recommendations to decision makers. Before the meeting ends, results from the meeting are compiled into a report, which is distributed to participants, decision makers and the media as they leave. Decision makers actively engage in the meeting by participating in table discussions, observing the process and responding to citizen input at the end of the meeting.

Learn more at www.americaspeaks.org.

Appreciative Inquiry

Exploration and Collaborative Action

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a change method that encourages stakeholders to explore the best of the past and present in their organizations and communities. AI dramatically improves performance by encouraging people to study, discuss, learn from, and build on what’s working, rather than simply trying to fix what’s not. AI involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential. Between 20 and 2,000 people can participate in a 4- to 6-day AI summit.

More details:
Considered one of the most significant advances in the field of organization development and change, Appreciative Inquiry, is about the search for the best in people, their organizations, and the world around them. AI enables people to discover what gives “life” to a living system when it is most alive and most effective.

In AI, the arduous task of intervention gives way to the speed of imagination and innovation; instead of negation, criticism, and spiraling diagnosis, there is discovery, dream, and design. The typical AI cycle can be as rapid and informal as in a conversation with a friend or colleague, or as formal as an organization-wide analysis involving every stakeholder – including customers, suppliers, partners and others. AI enables changes never thought possible to emerge democratically.

Learn more at appreciativeinquiry.case.edu.

Bohmian Dialogue

Exploration; can also be used for Decision-Making

Named after its creator, late quantum physicist David Bohm, Bohmian Dialogue is focused on attending to and discussing individual internal dynamics such as assumptions, beliefs and motivations. The idea is not to eliminate them from happening, but to surface them in the conversation in a way that furthers the dialogue. The process is very open; often there is no pre-set topic and no set timetable.

More details:
David Bohm observed that both quantum mechanics and mystical traditions suggest that our beliefs shape the realities we evoke. Bohmian Dialogue involves joining our thinking and feeling into a shared pool of meaning which continually flows and evolves, carrying us all into new, deeper levels of understanding we could not have foreseen. Through dialogue “a new kind of mind begins to come into being,” observed Bohm, “based on the development of common meaning… People are no longer primarily in opposition, nor can they be said to be interacting, rather they are participating in this pool of common meaning, which is capable of constant development and change.”

Bohm’s approach to dialogue involves participants working together to understand the assumptions underlying their individual and collective beliefs. Collective reflection on these assumptions can reveal blind spots and incoherences that people can free themselves of, leading to greater collective understanding and harmony.

Learn more at www.infed.org/archives/e-texts/bohm_dialogue.htm.

Citizen Choicework


Public Agenda’s Citizen Choicework helps citizens confront tough choices in productive ways. Participants in multiple small groups work through values conflicts and practical tradeoffs, and develop a sense of priorities and direction. Key principles include nonpartisan local leadership, inclusive participation, and unbiased discussion materials that “start where the public starts.” People engage in a single Choicework session which can range from two hours to a day-long session. Participation is open to the public, and organizers tend to publicize to typically underrepresented groups to ensure a diversity of perspectives

More details:
Citizen Choicework is based on a deep respect for the public’s capacity to address issues when circumstances support, rather than thwart, dialogue and deliberation. Based on decades of research and experience concerning how average citizens think and talk about issues, Public Agenda’s Choicework dialogue materials are designed to help groups and communities talk productively about public problems. The materials present alternative perspectives on an issue, highlighting the pros, cons and tradeoffs of various paths.

Citizen Choicework can address a wide variety of issues, involve face-to-face and online dialogue in various combinations, and include media partners and leadership networks in a variety of ways.

Learn more at www.publicagenda.org.

Consensus Conference


Developed in Denmark to inform policy decisions related to technology, Consensus Conferences are used in a variety of settings and typically involve a large group of randomly selected citizens with varied backgrounds who meet to discuss issues of a scientific or technical nature. The conference has two stages. The first involves small group meetings with experts to discuss the issues and work towards consensus. The second stage assembles experts, media and the public where the conference’s main observations and conclusions are presented.

More details:
Consensus Conferences utilize expert knowledge in addition to the insight and experience of non-expert citizens. The four-day events provide an opportunity for a small but representative group of citizens to engage in extensive dialogue with experts on a particular technological issue, to deliberate amongst themselves about possible action steps, and to then present consensus-based recommendations to the government and to the press.

The Consensus Conference model of public engagement and decision-making shows us how can ordinary citizens make intelligent decisions about complicated and ever-changing technological issues. By providing a demographically (not politically) representative group of citizens with high-quality information and facilitation – and then feeding the results of that microcosmic dialogue back into the macrocosm of public discourse – democratic society is given appropriate wisdom to reflect and act upon.

A Story…
To help ensure that technology decisions are made wisely, the Danish Parliament established the Danish Board of Technology (Teknologirådet) in 1986. The Board of Technology has sponsored dozens of consensus conferences on such topics as electronic identity cards, genetically modified food, educational technology and the future of private automobiles, and their methods for using this model have been duplicated in many other countries. Although the Board’s technology assessments do not always conclude in recommendations for a solution, technology assessments often identify joint views, conflicts and options as the first step toward finding a solution.

Armed with this knowledge, the Board of Technology is able to serve as an independent source of high-quality advice and assessment to the Parliament regarding technology issues. One consensus conference uncovered citizens’ strong position that blood tests should never be required for job applicants. The subject was then discussed in Parliament and, partly due to the consensus conference, blood tests were banned as requirements for employment in 1992.

Learn more at https://ncdd.org/rc/item/1492.

Conversation Cafés

Exploration; may also be used for Conflict Transformation

Conversation Cafés are 90-minute hosted conversations which are usually held in public settings like coffee shops or bookstores, where anyone is welcome to join. A simple format helps people feel at ease and gives everyone who wants to a chance to speak. Conversation Cafés do not focus on moving to action; they come before action. They are a place for people to gather their thoughts, find their natural allies, discover their blind spots, and open their heart to the heart of “the other.”

More details:
The cafés were first initiated in Seattle, Washington by a pioneer in the voluntary simplicity movement to wanted to encourage people to talk about living more simply. Since then, Conversation Cafés have been used to focus on all kinds of issues – especially to help people talk about September 11th, 2001, and to help people move beyond political polarization. At Conversation Cafés, people learn together how to create a culture of conversation – which is a culture of intelligence, peace, and political awareness.

Conversation Cafés are dialogues in their simplest form. Participants are asked to agree to a few guidelines that set the tone of the gathering (“suspend judgment as best you can,” “listen with respect,” “seek to understand rather than persuade,” etc.). After the host introduces the process, each person speaks in turn, going around the circle once. During this first round, everyone says their name and speaks briefly about what is on their minds regarding the theme. Everyone is asked to express themselves fully yet succinctly, allowing time for others to speak.

During the second “round,” if someone wants to respond to another’s remarks, they can do so when it is their turn to speak. To allow more time for conversation, participants are asked to keep their remarks brief, possibly just naming the theme or subjects they want to delve into more deeply. After these first two rounds, the conversation opens up and people can speak in no particular order. This conversation takes up most of the 90 minutes. A final closing round gives everyone a chance to say briefly what they are taking away from the conversation.

Note: There are a number of other simple dialogue processes that go by different names – Listening Circles, Councils, Wisdom Circles, etc. Many of these processes are used more for private groups such as businesses, rather than public conversations, and many engage people over time in multiple dialogue sessions. These processes emphasize creating a safe space where participants can be trusting, authentic, caring, and open to change. Learn more at www.wisdomcircle.org.

Learn more at www.conversationcafe.org.

Deliberative Polling


Deliberative Polling combines deliberation in small group discussions with scientific random sampling to provide public consultation for public policy and for electoral issues. Members of a random sample are polled, and then some members are invited to gather for a meeting over a weekend to discuss the issues after they have examined balanced briefing materials. These participants (up to several hundred people) engage in dialogue with competing experts and political leaders based on questions they develop in small group discussions with trained moderators.

More details:
Parts of the weekend events are broadcast on television, either live or in taped and edited form. After the weekend deliberations, the sample is asked the same questions again. The resulting changes in opinion represent the conclusions the public would reach, if people had a good opportunity to become more informed and more engaged about the issues.

The deliberative poll is especially suitable for issues where the public may have little knowledge or information, or where the public may have failed to confront the trade-offs applying to public policy. It is a social science experiment and a form of public education in the broadest sense.

Each Deliberative Poll conducted thus far has gathered a highly representative sample together at a single place. Each time, there were dramatic, statistically significant changes in views. The result is a poll with a human face. The process has the statistical representativeness of a scientific sample but it also has the concreteness and immediacy of a focus group or a discussion group. Taped and edited accounts of the small group discussions provide an opportunity for the public to reframe the issues in terms that connect with ordinary people.

A Story..
Eight regulated public utilities have conducted Deliberative Polls in their service territories in cooperation with the Public Utility Commission of the State of Texas: Central Power and Light (Corpus Christi), West Texas Utilities (Abilene) and South West Electric Power (Shreveport, La.), El Paso Electric (El Paso, TX), Houston Lighting and Power (Houston), Entergy (Beaumont, TX) Southwestern Public Service (Amarillo) and Texas Utilities (Dallas).

The success of those polls led the Public Utility Commission to require that the public be consulted on public utility policies after it has had an opportunity to become informed on the issues.

Learn more at http://cdd.stanford.edu/.

Future Search

Collaborative Action; may also be used for Conflict Transformation and Decision-Making

Future Search is an interactive planning process which helps people in a system such as an organization or community to discover a set of shared values or themes (common ground) and agree on a plan of action for implementing them. Because participants from all sectors of the community or organization are included in the process, it builds strong ownership and a powerful shared experience. Future Search involves up to 80 people in a 16- to 18-hour meeting usually including two overnights.

More details…
Future Search can help an organization or community – even one with strong conflicts or a wide diversity of ideas or interests – establish a basis from which it can move forward effectively. Future Search supports the group in understanding where it has come from, what it has to work with, where its shared hopes and dreams lie and how it might move forward to effectively implement these hopes and dreams, without suppressing or denying any part of its shared experience.

Future Search is an “open system” process, involving anyone who can affect, is affected by, or has important information or experience related to the task at hand. This often means that individuals from outside the immediate boundaries of the group will be invited to participate in both the planning and implementation. In this way, those with the power to make decisions sit down to work together – with equal voices – with those affected and those who have important relevant information or experience. During the conference, and once common ground is discovered, a process is used to bring people with shared interests together to decide how to implement the common ground themes.

Learn more at www.futuresearch.net.

Intergroup Dialogue

Exploration and Conflict Transformation; sometimes used for Collaborative Action

Intergroup dialogues are face-to-face meetings of people from at least two different social identity groups. They are designed to offer an open and inclusive space where participants can foster a deeper understanding of diversity and justice issues through participation in experiential activities, individual and small group reflections, and dialogues. Groups tend to meet for 2 hours on a weekly basis.

More details:
Intergroup dialogue emphasizes open communication on justice issues such as social group membership, identity, and positionality as they relate to structural and societal power relations. In intergroup dialogues, therefore, participants share personal experiences, exchange information about each others’ cultures, and examine both personal and cultural narratives in the context of systems of oppression and privilege. They reflect on relevant issues, work with differences and conflicts, and identify socially just actions they can take individually and in alliance with others.

College students are often introduced to intergroup dialogue in order to advance their understanding of and respect for diversity and to augment their skills in the area of intergroup relations and managing conflict between social identity groups. Intergroup dialogue is seen as a tool for learning about the complexities of living in a multicultural society.

Learn more at www.umich.edu/~igrc/ and http://depts.washington.edu/sswweb/idea/.

National Issues Forums


National Issues Forums are characterized by choice work, deliberation, and working toward common ground for action or a shared sense of purpose. In forums, people find places where their values, interests, and goals overlap. By giving citizens a chance to deliberate about public issues, National Issues Forums offer a place at the table where decisions are made that affect their lives. Forums, which are generally two hours long, can engage from a dozen to hundreds of people in one room around small tables. Forums are open to the public, and organizers often publicize widely to ensure that a variety of viewpoints are present.

More details…
National Issues Forums offer citizens the opportunity to join together to deliberate, to make choices with others about ways to approach difficult issues and to work toward creating reasoned public judgment.

The use of “issue books” as a basis for deliberative choice work is central to the NIF method. NIF issue books use research on the public’s concerns to identify three or four options or approaches to an issue. Presenting issues in this way invites citizens to confront the conflicts among different options and avoids the usual debates in which people lash out with simplistic arguments.

Forums seldom end in total agreement or total disagreement. Instead, they frequently end in a discovery of a shared sense of purpose or recognition of how interests are interconnected.

Learn more at www.nifi.org.

Open Space Technology

Exploration; can be adapted for Collaborative Action

Open Space Technology is a self-organizing practice that invites people to take responsibility for what they care about. In Open Space, a marketplace of inquiry is created where people offer topics they are passionate about and reflect and learn from one another. It is an innovative approach to creating whole systems change and inspiring creativity and leadership among participants. Open Space can involve up to hundreds of people in one large room, with interest groups forming multiple times throughout each of the three days.

More details…
Open Space is said to be appropriate in situations where a major issue must be resolved, characterized by high levels of complexity, high levels of diversity (in terms of the people involved), the presence of potential or actual conflict, and with a decision time of yesterday.

At the very least, Open Space is a fast, cheap, and highly participatory way to run meetings. At a deeper level, it enables people to experience a different quality of organization in which self-managed work groups are the norm, leadership is shared, and diversity is a resource to be used rather than a problem to be overcome. Open Space runs on two fundamentals: passion and responsibility. Passion engages the people in the room. Responsibility ensures things get done. The framework for the event is a focusing theme or question which says just enough to evoke attention, while leaving sufficient space for the imagination.

Open Space Technology can be a powerful tool for harnessing commitment and responsibility. Several organization-wide Open Space Technology meetings within a short time frame will start to shift an organizational culture from something that might be de-energized into a more vibrant organic networked community that is effectively producing results.

Learn more at www.openspaceworld.org.

Public Conversations Project dialogue

Conflict Transformation

The Public Conversations Project helps people with fundamental disagreements over divisive issues develop the mutual understanding and trust essential for strong communities and positive action. Their dialogue model is characterized by a careful preparatory phase in which all stakeholders/sides are interviewed and prepared for the dialogue process. Small groups of people from all sides of an existing conflict meet multiple times.

More details:
PCP’s mission is to foster a more inclusive, empathic and collaborative society by promoting constructive conversations and relationships among those who have differing values, world views, and positions about divisive public issues. Since 1990, PCP has convened, designed, and facilitated numerous dialogues on a variety of controversial public issues, including abortion, the environment, population and development, sexual orientation and religion, and economic difference.

PCP has two core beliefs: (1) Shifts Happen – People whose differences have led to polarization, stereotyping and marginalization can and do develop better relationships with each other when they participate in an effective dialogue. (2) Shifts Matter – The relationships that evolve through dialogue hold possibilities for collaboration and for respectful disagreement that previously may have been unthinkable.

Learn more at www.publicconversations.org.

Study Circles

Collaborative Action; can also be used for Exploration, Conflict Transformation and Decision-Making

Study Circles enable communities to strengthen their own ability to solve problems by bringing large numbers of people together in dialogue across divides of race, income, age, and political viewpoints. Study Circles combine dialogue, deliberation, and community organizing techniques, enabling public talk to build understanding, explore a range of solutions, and serve as a catalyst for social, political, and policy change. In “community-wide” Study Circles, hundreds of people meet in separate small groups for four to six 2-hour sessions. Participation is open to anyone, although organizers recruit heavily to ensure that all stakeholders (including those with decision-making power) are represented.

More details…
Part of a larger community program, a study circle is a group of 8 to 12 people from different backgrounds and viewpoints who meet several times to talk about a critical public issue. In a study circle, everyone has an equal voice, and people try to understand one another’s views. They do not have to agree with one another. The idea is to share concerns and look for ways to make things better. A neutral facilitator helps the group look at different views and makes sure the discussion goes well.

In a large-scale study circle program, people all over a neighborhood, city, county, school district, or region meet in diverse study circles over the same period of time. All the study circles work on the same issue and seek solutions for the whole community. At the end of the round of study circles, people from all the groups gather in one place to work together on the action ideas that come out of the study circles. Study circle programs lead to a wide range of action and change efforts.

Learn more at www.studycircles.org.

Sustained Dialogue

Conflict Transformation; can also be used for Decision-Making and Collaborative Action

Sustained Dialogue is a process for transforming and building the relationships that are essential to democratic political and economic practice. SD is not a problem-solving workshop; it is a sustained interaction to transform and build relationships among members of deeply conflicted groups so that they may effectively deal with practical problems. As a small-group process that develops over time through a sequence of 2- to 3-hour meetings, SD moves through a series of phases including a deliberative “scenario-building” stage and an “acting together” stage.

More details…
Sustained Dialogue is based on decades of experience with dialogues among citizens outside government in conflictual relationships. SD is a process for transforming and building the relationships that are essential to democratic political and economic practice.

Sustained Dialogue focuses on groups whose relationships make productive collaboration impossible at this moment. It focuses on practical problems and issues of concern to all participants (they are what cause people to come together), and it simultaneously and explicitly focuses on the relationships that create and block resolution of those problems.

SD provides a sense of purpose, direction, and destination for participants willing to come together time after time in an open-ended process. That process creates (1) a cumulative agenda, with questions raised at the end of one meeting providing the agenda for the next; (2) a common body of knowledge, including understanding of each side’s experiences, concerns, and interests; (3) new ways of talking and relating that enable participants to work together; and (4) opportunities to work together that could not have been foreseen at the beginning of the process. The process must remain open-ended; requiring overly precise definition of objectives at the outset can prematurely close doors.

Learn more at www.sustaineddialogue.org.

Victim Offender Mediation

Conflict Transformation

Victim Offender Mediation, or Victim Offender Dialogue, is a “restorative justice” process that allows the victim of a crime and the person who committed that crime to talk to each other about what happened, the effects of the crime on their lives, and their feelings about it. They may choose to create a mutually agreeable plan to repair any damages that occurred as a result of the crime. In some practices, the victim and the offender are joined by family and community members or others. The process consists of multiple 2- to 3-hour dialogue sessions.

More details:
Victim Offender Mediation is a face-to-face meeting, in the presence of a trained mediator, which gives crime victims the opportunity to get answers to their questions about the crime and the person who committed it. They take an active role in getting their material and emotional needs met. Research indicates that victims who participate in VOM receive more restitution than those who do not and feel safer and less fearful afterwards than those who do not.

VOM also gives offenders the opportunity to take responsibility for what they have done. They learn the impact of their actions on others and they take an active role in making things right (through restitution, apology, community service, etc.). Research indicates that offenders who participate in VOM feel they were treated more fairly than those who do not, and have a higher rate of restitution completion than those who do not.

Learn more at www.voma.org.

Wisdom Council

Exploration; can also be used for Decision-Making and Collaborative Action

Wisdom Councils are randomly-selected microcosms of larger systems like towns, organizations, unions and nations that engage in a creative, thoughtful exploration of the issues affecting the system. A specialized facilitation process is used called “Dynamic Facilitation,” which is nonlinear approach for helping people address complex issues in a creative and authentic manner in order to allow shared insights and aligned action to emerge. The outcomes of the Wisdom Council, which are reported back to the community, can catalyze further dialogue, self-organizing action, and change throughout the larger system.

More details:
The Wisdom Council involves a public lottery where about twelve participants are randomly selected to meet for a session lasting two or three days. Wisdom Councils are characterized by “choice-creating” – an energy-driven process where people address issues they really care about, rather than following a pre-set agenda or topic.

The group meets with a “dynamic facilitator” to identify key issues, work on them creatively, and develop unanimous statements reflecting the common ground that emerged during the process. These “Statements of the People” have no coercive authority, but are presented back to the whole system. Everyone is invited to hear the statements in person or through video or the media, to dialogue in small groups about them, and to report on their conclusions. These small groups usually report that they support both the statements and the process.

The Wisdom Council’s unique benefits are due to a number of factors, including the make-up of the group, the issues selected, and the process used. The make-up of the group reflects the diversity of the larger whole, and it is a group to which anyone might be chosen. The issues selected by the Wisdom Council are the major issues that people really care about, but which are generally left unaddressed as they may initially feel “too big” or “unsolvable.” The process used in a Wisdom Council continually makes room for divergent perspectives while deeply welcoming each person’s creative contribution. The “choice-creating” quality of talking and thinking that ensues is oriented toward discovering common grounds for action, shared “aha’s” and “of course’s,” via breakthroughs of head and heart.

A Story…
In Jackson County, Oregon, three community members initiated a Wisdom Council because they were dissatisfied with the role citizens had in their community’s governance. They purchased a list of registered voters for the county and used computer software to randomly select a group of 7 people who were invited to participate in two days of facilitated dialogue.

The participants formed a symbolic “we the people” that came together to creatively explore the issues they felt were critical to their community. For them, the critical issues were education, accountability of elected officials, and the environment. Through the process of Dynamic Facilitation, all voices and perspectives were fully heard, a diversity of ideas and feelings were expressed, and a unanimous perspective emerged.

At the conclusion of the Wisdom Council, members presented their unanimous results (and the process that got them there) to a community gathering of about 100 people. Audience members then gathered in small groups to dialogue and respond. Organizers were overwhelmed by the resonance expressed by the larger community. A key action item that self-organized out of this event involved a civic engagement strategy for Ashland, Oregon residents to re-write their town charter.

Learn more at www.wisedemocracy.org.

World Café


World Cafés enable groups of people to participate together in evolving rounds of dialogue with three or four others while at the same time remaining part of a single, larger, connected conversation. Small, intimate conversations link and build on each other as people move between groups, cross-pollinate ideas, and discover new insights into questions or issues that really matter in their life, work, or community. A World Café can involve hundreds of people in one room at tables of four; events range from 90 minutes to three days, and are often held at conferences.

More details:
The World Café method creates focused networks of conversation around an organization or community’s real work and critical questions. It is an easy-to-use method for fostering collaborative dialogue, particularly in large groups.

Café conversations are designed on the assumption that people already have within them the wisdom and creativity to confront even the most difficult challenges. The process is simple, yet often yields surprising results. In a World Café gathering, you join several other people at a Café-style table or in a small conversation cluster exploring a question or issue that really matters to your life, work or community. Others are seated at nearby tables/clusters exploring similar questions at the same time. People are noting down or sketching out key ideas on the Café’s paper tablecloths or large cards.

From these intimate conversations, members carry key ideas and insights into new small groups. This cross-pollination of perspectives is one of the hallmarks of the World Café. As people and ideas connect together in progressive rounds of conversation, collective knowledge grows and evolves. A sense of the larger whole becomes real. Innovative possibilities for action are made visible.

Learn more at www.theworldcafe.com.

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Add a Comment

  1. edwin rutsch Says:

    I wanted to mention the Empathy Circle format as another process. It uses Empathic Listening, (Reflective Listening) in small group discussion. see

  2. Sandy Heierbacher Says:

    Hi, Edwin! I checked, and we don’t have the empathy circle method covered in the Resource Center at all. Would you mind putting a resource post together and submitting it via the form at https://www.ncdd.org/rc/add ? I’d love to see it covered on the site.