What would a “national dialogue infrastructure” look like?

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.

  1. For any complex problem, mathematical or social, certain defined steps need to be followed if we are to succeed. This is even more so when a problem is being discussed by people with various perspectives and constituencies.

  2. I agree. I think a well defined (but publicly transparent) process will be important to allay a wariness to collaborate broadly with people of different perspectives and constituencies.

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