In the second chapter 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 well.

One problem, as I see it, is that quality deliberation requires informed participants, but properly framing the issue and creating the necessary briefing materials can be quite costly. The challenge is how can we meaningfully involve participants in the co-creation of the briefing process and its outcomes in order to improve quality, lower costs and help make quality deliberation more widely available.

Here’s Tom’s take (as pre-released on Reality Sandwich last month):

Deliberapedia

As noted earlier, framing an issue for deliberation means providing balanced information that helps deliberators take into account the range of views on their issue and the trade-offs connected to whatever choices they might make. Traditionally, it involves condensing a lot of information about that issue into 3-5 approaches for addressing the issue — representing as broadly as possible the full public debate — with the arguments and evidence for and against each approach. Sometimes issue framings also include information about who supports and opposes each option, and a profile of the values that it represents and appeals to.

Most citizen deliberations are framed by professionals who produce “issue books”, videos and other briefing materials, many of which are available at low or no cost, but are quite expensive to put together in the first place. Framing for broad self-organized grassroots deliberations, in contrast, would be crowdsourced, using the fact that advocates for various solutions to a public problem have already developed arguments for their solution and against their opponents’ solutions. Our challenge is to create a context where opponents in the fight over an issue end up participating in co-creating a wiki that channels their information into a coherent frame that clarifies that issue for everyone else. Most of the partisans involved would not participate out of their civic-mindedness but because they wanted their viewpoint to be well represented in this public document. This is the idea behind “Deliberapedia”.

The Deliberapedia vision is inspired by Debatepedia, a leading debate society’s online forum to collectively work up and share arguments pro and con various propositions, creating a database that can be used by debaters everywhere. Deliberapedia would be a massive, readily searchable, rapidly expanding and developing wiki database of organized arguments for and against all sorts of policy solutions to all sorts of public issues.

Deliberapedia would provide a powerful — perhaps even necessary — foundation for a self-organizing grassroots citizen-based deliberative system capable of generating empowered public wisdom with minimal ongoing cost. It would also constitute one of the greatest contributions we could make to democracy even if the rest of the deliberative system for which it was designed is never developed.

Note from the author: The final version of Empowering Public Wisdom will include an appendix showing one way in which Deliberapedia could function, including a special network of grassroots groups focusing on issues they’ve chosen, as well as a chapter on the creation of official legislature of ordinary citizens, who could both contribute to and use Deliberapedia.

It’s still true today that “[i]nside every public participation program is a good public information program.” However, I think we need to be moving from simply informing participants (if understood as a top-down, one-way activity) towards a more participant-centric model that takes into account the entire learning experience. Last Spring at SXSW, I took the liberty to slightly rephrase the guideline as follows: “Inside every public participation program is a good public learning program.”

The wiki approach Tom proposes has opportunities but also many challenges. In order for the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts some level of editorial leadership would still be required, and the need to coordinate non-expert contributors will create certain overhead costs which may at some point outweigh the benefits.

In the context of specific projects, though, one possible solution might be found somewhere in the middle between a top-down and a purely participant-driven (crowdsourced) approach. As I started to outline last year, I agree there is a lot of potential in granting the participants a much more active role in this important pre-phase of any deliberation, consultation or general public participation effort:

  • Building on the diversity of participants’ knowledge and experiences could help improve briefing materials in terms of scope, accuracy and accessibility.
  • Giving participants ownership of the research process and the outcomes it produces may build buy-in and increase trust.
  • Offering participants more variety in the ways they can contribute (e.g. by taking on the role of “researcher, interviewer, fact checker, curator, editor etc.”) might increase overall engagement, with more people participating at a higher enjoyment factor and hence more likely to stick around, invite others etc.

I’d be interested to know who has integrated innovative content co-creation and e-learning components into their online consultations. If you have any leads, please leave a comment. Thanks!