Just as data can be used to help get a given dialogue off to a positive start, data generated during the process can help people find common ground and develop consensus. During our panel session at the MO APA conference, Gerald Williams, the lead planner from Kansas City, Missouri, described the use of digital polling to gather and immediately report data to participants during the development of the Greater Downtown Area Plan. Similar polling practices have been used in much larger arenas. For instance, America Speaks recently ran a National Town Meeting on the future of the national budget and utilized participant polling before, during, and after the one day meetings. Some of these results were presented to the participants immediately to shape ongoing discussion while other results were utilized for a later report and testimony given to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.
A key point to note in both of these instances is that this form of voting was used to improve the quality of dialogue, not to shut out or silence minority views. Using polling to preclude dialogue or force decisions destroys the trust needed for both productive dialogue and sustainable decisions. Polls can be useful, however, to show participants data on the range of views represented, and can also be used when people are ready for deliberation to help build consensus around various options and strategies by showing movement among options or potential areas of common ground.
In thinking about how to introduce data into a conversation, think about sharing the concept of the data to wisdom continuum discussed in our September 28 post either directly, or indirectly by framing questions that invite participants to think about different contexts and approaches.