Both policy-makers and the public can make wiser decisions if they think through an issue together. This means involving the public in some way
- when defining an issue,
- when thinking through what might be needed to fully understand that issue,
- when identifying the options to discuss, and
- when weighing those options.
Having a sequenced approach to public engagement helps to build both public understanding of, and trust in, the decisions ultimately made as compared to those situations where the public is simply asked to comment once a course of action has been tentatively decided on, or not consulted at all.
We started our class dialogue on gun violence with several question based discussions. Inviting people to share or respond to open-ended questions is often a good way to begin a difficult conversation because it
- moves them away from positional argument,
- allows them to get to know each other,
- introduces new concepts and information in a way that does not require an immediate response or rebuttal, and
- is clearly “exploratory” as opposed to “deliberative”. (This last characteristic minimizes the fear associated with “deciding on the (wrong) answer”.)
More generally, thinking in questions allows participants to “unpack”, and look at the component parts of an issue, which better enables them to think about where and how those parts interact with each other, as well as with additional issues or concerns that the participants may have.
Our group first generated questions using our sources of conflict “pie-chart”. This led to the identification of a number of things to explore further, a listing of key interests and values, and a listing of relationships that might be affected or considered. The group also developed a set of questions about the boundaries, rules, statutes or procedures relevant to the issue of gun use in schools. Using a different analytical tool, the group considered what ultimately needed to be decided by their group and why, who should be involved, and what subjects would need to be addressed in considering how any decision might be implemented. Finally they used a “jurisdictional grid” to consider how other levels and branches of government might affect or intersect with any policy that might be adopted by the local school board. The notes from these discussions were then given to a smaller group to plan a “world cafe” type dialogue the following week. What happened in that dialogue will be the subject of our next post.
Wise decisions require a kind of integrative thinking that takes time. Participants need to take into account data and information, the context in which that information was collected and disseminated, and the broader context of relationships, values and experience. The question based format used to begin our discussion of what policy should be adopted to govern gun use in our hypothetical community school district promoted this kind of integrative thinking. It also helped to inform those planning the dialogues as to what additional information might be useful and how to present it. Wise decisions also require participants to look at both long term and short term consequences of their decisions, as well as what is unknown or assumed. This requires some evaluation of risk, both to one’s personal interests and to the broader interest of a community. Thinking in questions helped the participants begin to think about these intersections of interest. This session also built skills for navigating differences. Participants continued in later sessions to interact by asking questions when points of conflict emerged, which minimized the acrimony that so often develops over complex issues. And participants were able to use the time between sessions to think further about their own views, and other perspectives they had heard, and to seek out additional information and input.