Reflections on the Cascadia Conference on Dialogue and Deliberation (Part I)
As I write this, I’m rocketing down the rails on the Amtrak from Portland to Seattle, headed home after the Cascadia Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation. This inspiring confab was the last of 5 regional gatherings held around the country this fall by the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD), a nonprofit that promotes the use of innovative social processes for better discovery, learning, and decision-making, in settings from neighborhood groups to corporate boardrooms, nonprofits to universities to legislative bodies. It was hosted by Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement and Concordia University.
The theme of the conference was “public engagement” — which was broken down into three broad topics:
- Quality Public Engagement: What is quality public engagement and how do we educate others about it so it becomes broadly adopted?
- Online Engagement: How can online technology enhance public engagement?
- Collaborations that Work: How can we strengthen connections between public administrators, engagement practitioners and the public?
Kudos to NCDD’s Sandy Heierbacher and the entire organizing team (especially crack facilitators Walt Roberts and Tod Sloan) for putting together a fantastic event that left me enlightened and inspired. It was the perfect antidote to the toxic partisanship of the recent election season.
A Few Highlights
My head is still spinning from the rich stew of ideas, models, processes and projects presented at the event, to say nothing of the amazing people. Herewith, a few highlights:
1. The People
The best thing about this gathering was the people. (I love hanging out with facilitators and social process geeks.) The attendees, about 180 in all, consisted of a mix of professional facilitators, academics, community organizers, techies, consultants, corporate and philanthropic leaders, and government officials. It was great to spend time with old friends and co-conspirators like Joseph McCormick, Susan Partnow, Howard Silverman, John Spady, Peggy Holman, Jim Rough, and one of my personal heroes, Tom Atlee. To finally meet folks long I’ve admired, like DeAnna Martin and Sandy Heierbacher. And to make tons of new connections with inspiring people who are in the trenches daily endeavoring to make democracy work.
2. The Process
Most conferences (and I attend a lot) are sorely lacking in one respect: interactivity. They don’t build in enough opportunities for dialogue — between audience and presenters, or, more importantly, between participants. The old, didactic model of experts at the front of the room dropping knowledge on the audience followed by a short Q&A period misses so many opportunities for participants to interact in creative, generative ways that spark new connections, deepen the conversation and harness the wisdom of everyone in the room. This conference, by contrast, was beautifully designed and facilitated for maximum dialogue potential.
The conference kicked off on Friday evening with a World Cafe dialogue, facilitated by Walt Roberts, on the state of public engagement. About 50 of us spent two hours shuffling from table to table every 15-20 minutes as we moved through a series of questions about the state of public engagement and ways to improve it. Between each round, we passed the mic around the room as people shared insights that had come up at their tables, and a team of graphic facilitators recorded our thoughts with markers on large paper murals with images and keywords culled from the report-backs. This was a great way to quickly meet a bunch of new people, generate a wide range of ideas and insights, and set a conversational, collaborative tone for the rest of the conference.
The main event took place Saturday from 9-5, with all 180 participants in attendance. The morning consisted of three plenary presentations of innovative dialogue-driven public engagement projects from Washington and Oregon (more on the projects below). After each presentation, rather than going straight to Q&A, the audience members turned to each other in groups of four to discuss what we had just heard. The mic was then passed around for people to share their observations and insights, or ask questions of the presenters.
The afternoon breakout sessions were organized using Open Space, a self-organizing process where anyone in the room can offer a session on any topic. Some two dozen sessions were offered — ranging from brainstorming sessions on upcoming public engagement projects to technology demos, conversations on race, gender, and privilege to envisioning a sustainable future for suburbs. John Spady and I presented together a demonstration of the web platform my company, Zanby, built for the Countywide Community Forums (more on that below).
After the breakouts we reconvened for a final wrap-up session where, again, the mic was passed around the room so that anyone could offer insights or reflections. In keeping with the goal of maximizing interaction, the last thing facilitator Walt Roberts did before closing was to invite everyone to look around the room and find someone you’ve been meaning to connect with but haven’t yet had the chance.
I wish conference planners everywhere would take a few pages from NCDD’s book and design many more opportunities for dialogue and interactivity into their events.
3. The Projects
The three projects featured in the morning plenaries were all noteworthy.
- City of Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI): Several ONI staff presented about the variety of ways the city is institutionalizing public involvement in decision-making processes throughout the city government. Afifa Ahmed-Shafi, ONI’s Public Involvement Best Practices Coordinator, described the Public Involvement Principles [PDF] adopted last August by the city council. According to the ONI website, “[The] principles include partnership, early involvement, building relationships and community capacity, inclusiveness and equity, good quality process design and implementation, transparency, and accountability.” The city council also adopted a requirement that every measure submitted at council be accompanied by a “public involvement report” documenting how citizens were consulted in developing the proposal. ONI is currently conducting a baseline assessment of public involvement across all city offices, and is looking at other experiments such as participatory budgeting.
- Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review: Established by the Oregon legislature in 2008, this reform institutionalized a citizen jury-style process for evaluating the pros and cons of statewide ballot measures. “24 Oregon voters are selected at random, and then demographically balanced to fairly represent a cross-section of the entire state electorate. This panel participates in balanced hearings where campaign advocates and policy experts present the arguments and facts about the measure.” After several days of testimony, the panelists decide how they would vote on the measures and write pro and con statements. The statements and vote totals are included in the official state voter’s guide.
- Countywide Community Forums (CCF): [Full Disclosure: CCF is a Zanby client.] In 2007 Dick Spady, founder of Dick’s Drive-In Restaurants, proposed a ballot initiative to establish a periodic public consultation process for King County government. After supporters gathered 80,000 signatures the county council adopted the measure before it had a chance to go to a public vote. Since then, every 4-6 months, the County Executive or the CCF board picks a topic and declares a new forum round. Past topics have included public safety, customer service, and county budget priorities. For a period of 4-6 weeks, the public (anyone who lives or works in King County) is invited to become registered “citizen councilors” and host or attend a meeting in their neighborhood where they watch a brief overview video about the topic, discuss the issues, and take an opinion survey. Alternatively, citizen councilors can watch the video, discuss, and take the survey entirely online at the CCF website. The website, which is powered by Zanby’s online community platform, also features a map and calendar of face-to-face meetings, as well as online groups for staff and volunteers to collaborate and manage the program. When a forum round is over, the survey responses are tabulated and presented in a report to the County Auditor, County Council, and the public. The most recent forum round, which took place earlier this fall, focused on “county budget priorities” and resulted in 766 surveys submitted.
I also learned about several other cool initiatives at the conference:
- Marine Map – A web-based decision support tool for multi-stakeholder marine spatial planning, developed by EcoTrust. With some cool GIS technology, participants in a live workshop setting or online can draw a circle on a map to propose a protected area and get an immediate analysis of the impacts on habitat, fish populations, and economic impacts on nearby ports and fishing fleets. Check out this video.
- A Pattern Language for Social Process (no link) – A physical card deck being developed by a woman named Tree that is meant to aide with creative problem-solving in community and organizational settings. I’m still trying to get my hands on a copy of the deck.
- Ideas4Oregon – After this idea-generation contest drew 542 submissions for creative ways to address social problems, the Meyer Memorial Trust, Oregon’s largest community foundation, is working on plans to build a platform for better connecting the state’s social sector.
- Family Support Network – Has a newly redesigned website that helps community activists to map assets (such as skills or equipment) at the neighborhood level and trains “community weavers” who help neighbors match needs and assets in times of crisis, increasing community resilience.
In my next post, I’ll share some further observations on the ideas and issues that came up in the discussions at the Portland conference.