This week we continue our series on guidelines for engagement with some thoughts on managing and coordinating a dialogue process. After establishing a purpose for your engagement effort, you need to assess the resources (including skill sets) needed for an effective dialogue. Both this assessment and the development of a plan for proceeding, can provide an opportunity for building collaborative skills among both staff and a key set of volunteers. For example, the work of establishing process goals, time lines, and initial informational materials can be combined with training to build facilitative skills. By inviting community volunteers in at this initial stage and providing training, you can recruit a core group can help maintain a collaborative environment during the dialogue process itself.
How you sequence dialogue sessions or segments can also affect the success of your process. Participants need both adequate information and time to review and absorb it. Yet citizens are often invited to look at recommendations without an adequate opportunity to really develop an understanding of an issue. Dialogues that begin with a focus on understanding, clarifying, and sharing information are less likely to degenerate into arguments over “the facts” than those which skip this step. Once participants have a common understanding of both the information available and the varying perspectives they bring to the table, they are better equipped to generate and evaluate potential solutions or recommendations. Although it may take more time to start with informational dialogues, doing so can pay real dividends in terms of finding sustainable solutions. For more on this component of managing dialogue, you may want to review our series on Structuring Engagement.
Dialogue is not always easy and participants are likely at times to fall into the habit of debating positions. Articulating the goals of the process clearly in advance helps you to manage this dynamic. As arguments arise, participants can be invited to focus on ways to achieve the stated goals and address the problems they are encountering in dialogue rather than simply debating who is right or wrong. One tool you might want to use to promote productive dialogue on how to progress toward goals is an action plan. By inviting participants to work through action plans, you will help them better understand how to move from dialogue to concrete accomplishment. You can learn more about action planning and download a template from Everyday Democracy.
Integrating a method for obtaining ongoing feedback from participants and volunteers is another important aspect of managing an effective dialogue process. Monitoring how your process is (or isn’t) meeting the needs of the participants, or the goals or time-lines you worked through at the outset, can help you fine-tune procedures to get the most out of your process. To learn more about feedback and evaluation, you may want to look back at our series, “What Are You Evaluating?“. When seeking feedback, it is a good idea to provide participants and the public with more than one way to comment. It is also a good practice to consult with participants as to the timing, scope and content of progress reports made to keep the general public informed on the process.
Finally, there are a number of process details that, if not managed well, can seriously undermine public trust in your engagement efforts. These include issues related to notice, representation, and authority. While it may sound simple, it is possible to fail to provide adequate and accessible notice of the time, place and expected focus of each dialogue session. This may violate legal requirements, and even where it doesn’t, it will raise concerns about secrecy and exclusion. Note that meetings and records governed by sunshine laws will be open to the public and confidentiality rules generally will not apply to such meetings. For this reason, if participants require some level of confidentiality for parts of the discussion or for information shared, document at the outset why and for what and clearly define the level of confidentiality to be provided. Participants also need to know who they are talking with, and how their work will be applied. If direct participation in dialogue sessions needs to be limited and representatives are used, try to ascertain the nature and source of their representative authority, and the procedures for communicating with the represented group. Otherwise you may be deferring to much to individuals who are not in fact serving in a representative capacity and failing to reach the larger population. Finally, you will want to make clear how the engagement process relates to other decision-making processes, both political and regulatory, so participants will be able to think critically and realistically about the differences between what they want done and what is likely to get done over a defined time frame. Those participating in an engagement process will want to see direct linkages between their work and those processes. Establishing such linkages will help with the credibility of both your existing processes and with future processes as well.
You can download a check list version of our dialogue guidelines from our resources page.