Skiing, inertia and deliberation

(Reflections on a rainy UK morning in which I miss Vancouver and the chance of skiing every weekend a lot) Managing a deliberative process is a bit like slalom. Starts slowly, but quickly builds up so much speed that to remain in the optimal line you have to anticipate like crazy every turn or you end up over-steering and losing speed.


Getting to the first gate


I usually recommend organizers of deliberations to prepare a bunch of messages and have confederates in the online community or facilitators in the ftf event create a 'tutorial' phase that shows the potential of the process via a sort of interactive warm-up. This is banal stuff for anybody that organizes these things. Less banal for first timers that have never looked inside the sausage factory. The first gate is basically achieving a bit of 'quantity'. If nobody posts in a forum or nobody talks in a dialogue on average the space is super boring. I added on average because, as in all things, there are special exceptions (e.g. situations in which silence is a chosen signal).


And the next


But that is just the first gate, as soon as the deliberation starts, and a decent mass of posts appears in the online platform or self-sustaining dialogue begins in the face to face small group discussions, the organizers should move to implement strategies to reduce info overload and maximize inclusion and all sorts of other things. Those are some of the subsequent gates and missing one (e.g. promotion of women participation, mismanaging info overload, preventing domination) generates so much inertia that recovering requires strong steering that reduces participants' ownership of the process. These are subsequent strategies because each of them is a frame or a prime, a little steer that reduces the natural flow of an expanding discussion in order to remain in the ideal line of deliberation. The less steering an organizer has to impose the better. Starting a deliberation with a women participation boosting message before the common problem of women under participation has even emerged is clunky and puzzles the participants that often do not know that such phenomenon even exists.the following is a recent example of screw-up recovery.


The Experience of the Southampton Citizens' Assembly


The U.K. Citizens Assembly South that I co-managed included politicians and ordinary citizens in small group discussions following the Irish model and required a medium size steering in the second weekend because we had completely missed a gate during the first weekend. Politicians significantly dominated the small group discussions during the first event. We had to reshuffle the groups and move moderation up two notches in the second weekend to get back in a mode in which everybody had a chance to speak. Nothing dramatic, but not having planned the reshuffling ex-ante and not having anticipated it to participants the process was felt as an abrupt decision. In skiing when you have to correct a lot you lose overall speed, in deliberation you lose participant potential satisfaction and sense of ownership. To compensate we introduced an unconference, a completely off task space fully managed by the participants. We can explore the effect of these design choices a bit only because we ran two identical deliberations at the same time and the one in the North (Sheffield) did not have domination issues not including politicians. I am not claiming any causality for obvious reasons, too many moving parts, but simply highlighting a hunch and future hypotheses to test.


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