Our communities are as diverse and complex as the issues they face. Citizens enter public processes from very different places and have very different skills, capabilities, and interests. Although deliberative dialogues have been utilized in various instances such as the recent budget talks hosted by America Speaks to help move people forward on complex issues, such dialogues are only productive when citizens are both willing and able to engage productively.
You can use Yankelovich’s Learning Curve framework to analyze whether your community is ready to work together on tough issues or whether different, pre-deliberative forms of dialogue might be used first to build skills or invite greater participation. To begin working on an issue, the community must first be aware of the issue. Without awareness, you will not have engagement. Unfortunately, often this awareness is first created when the media reports a decision, lack of action, or an issue as a controversy that poses some threat for all or part of the community. The fear or excitement caused by such a report can raise other barriers to resolution, many of which — such as finger-pointing, divisiveness, lack of understanding, and distrust — are illustrated above. Our partisan political structures can raise additional barriers as the issue gains greater awareness. These also are listed above and include wishful thinking, turf battles, and deliberate obfuscation.
As will be further explained in this series of posts, a well planned set of engagement and dialogue structures can help you navigate through these barriers. The Learning Curve can be used to identify which of these barriers you have faced in the past and which barriers you may face in the upcoming dialogue. Questions you might ask include the following: which barriers have we encountered in the past and which are present now? what segments of the community are involved with or affected by the issue at hand? where are these different segments located on the learning curve? do the barriers encountered differ among the different segments? If so, how and why? By understanding and analyzing the likely barriers you will be better prepared to work through them.
In next week’s post, we will look at Rich Harwood’s “5 Stages of Community Life” and discuss how these stages relate to The Learning Curve.