Montag, 29. Dezember 2008

How to Improve Online Dialogue @

On the occasion of the launch of an online discussion about Health Care on the website of President-elect Barack Obama,, Intellitics reported early assessments of the experiment, among them:
  • Over on techPresident, Micah Sifry calls it “the beginning of a rebooting of the American political system,”
  • Eric Eldon of VentureBeat thinks of it as “a great early step in making government more open.”
  • Tim of Intellectis gives "kudos to the people behind for experimenting with large-scale e-participation so early in the process". He believes "the opportunities for online dialogue and deliberation to help boost civic engagement and to improve public decision making at all levels of government are tremendous."

He also points out a few open questions, here quoted in their entirety:

  • "No clear process model: Judging from the information available on the website, it is not entirely clear how exactly the comments will be processed, what impact realistically they may or may not have on any policy decisions, or what kind of follow-up and follow-through either the transition team or the new administration are willing to commit to. This can become a problem since it risks disappointing participants (e.g. when assumed impact doesn’t match actual impact and participants are left frustrated over the time and energy they spent in vain).
  • Lack of focus in the comments: Instead of simply answering the question (”What worries you…?”), many participants choose to share rich combinations of personal stories, experiences, concerns, assumptions, questions, ideas, solutions, values, priorities, resources, data etc. While this shows just how much energy the participants bring to the table, it also tends to leave the discussion somewhat directionless. There is no process in place to further organize this input, nor does the forum software support participants in being more disciplined or structured.
  • Lack of organizer participation: I was able to spot one instance of comment deletion by the forum administrators, presumably according to their comment policy (screenshot). I may be wrong, but other than that the transition team does not seem to actively engage in the discussions (e.g. ask or answer questions, express agreement or disagreement, or otherwise facilitate the process or provide general community management etc.). I only looked at a few sample pages, though, so I may be wrong.
  • Overwhelming amounts of unstructured data: The discussion on was off to a fast start, reaching 2,000 comments in the first 24 hours. As with many online discussion forums that reach a certain activity level, the amounts of content produced by the participants can be quite staggering. For example, total word count on this forum may well be approaching 500,000 words already (for details how I got this number, see my rough calculations). That means it becomes extremely time-consuming to keep up with even a small fraction of overall input (poor navigation adds to the problem). Moreover, the fact that this data is largely unstructured makes further processing very difficult if not impossible."
All of these questions are procedural challenges I address with my model of Organized Dialogue (OD). They illustrate the kind of challenges facilitators of Organized Dialogue have to face:
  • the transparent coupling of the OD with other processes
  • the (time-consuming) content structuring of (mass) input by participants
  • staying with key questions related to the defined purpose of the OD
  • a clear and acceptable role of the facilitator
Some of these problems could have been addressed by reframing the question. Asking "What worries you most about the healthcare system in our country?" means inviting broad impressions that are hard to handle, and structure. That is a question to get people to vent their frustrations, and experiences, the purpose of which is to be able to say: "I can hear your pain." But that is not a setup for a continuous dialogue.

Instead, the transition team first could have asked more specifically: "What do you think: which worrisome part of the healthcare system in our country should the President-elect address in his inauguration speech?" (Or the first 100 days in office, for that matter). The coupling of the OD with the inauguration speech would have made the purpose clear, and instead of asking for worries, this question focuses on components that need fixing badly.

In a second step, answers could have been clustered into different webs of meaning, presumably something along the lines of typical issues
  • replace the existing system completely
  • improve accessability
  • expand coverage
  • make billings more transparent
  • eliminate racial and ethnic disparities
  • improve emergency readiness
  • take a holistic approach to health
  • improve information
  • reform liability regulations
  • set quality standards
  • improve patient safety
  • expand rural health care
  • qualify and reward the workforce better
After presenting these clusters, a third step could have been to let people evaluate these issues according to importance, the most basic method of which would have been to let people vote on their importance. In a fourth step, experts could have commented on the results, how the issues are interconnected, and what they think should be central concerns. Additionally, all of these issues could have been deepened by asking people for experiences of what needs to be stopped, and which good practice needs more implementation.

All of these steps should have been outlined ahead of the dialogue in a few sentences, along with a short description of the role of facilitators / administrators. People could have also been asked to suggest experts they trust on these issues, so they could have been brought into the disscussion - but that would have taken the dialogue to a whole new policy level, and I don't think that's what the transition team is worrying about right now.

What question would you have asked? What steps of the OD do you think could have been taken?

The Procedural Approach: Practitioners and Theorists of

Cooperative procedures, their design and their relevance are at the heart of the work of the German Procedere - Verbund für prozedurale Praxis in Politik, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft @ (Procedere - Association For Procedural Practice In Politics, Economy, And Society).

Founded in 2005 by both practitioners and theorists, this network around an email list of over 60 participants aims to advcance the theory and practice of participatory procedures, and to unify the knowledge, and discourse of the many different subscenes of participatory, deliberative, cooperative, learning, change management, conflict resolution, problem resolution and other procedures. With three to four official meetings per year, Procedere organizes a dialogue between theory and practice.

The Central Idea Of Procedure
Central to Procedere is the idea of "procedure", which is the key answer to what Procedere identifies as the main question of our time: the question HOW we do things, organize interactions, such as communication, trade, politics, in short: societal practice.

What is a procedure, then? A "procedure" is a "process guided by intentions", as opposed to a process that is just a sequence of unintended events. Basically, all human action (as opposed to behaviour) takes the form of procedures, though it's not always "process-smart", that is, conscious of it's own character as a process; and though all procedures have unintended side-effects.

Procedere's founder Raban Daniel Fuhrmann proposes to subsume all possible manners of proceedings, such as programs, algorithms, strategies, methods, techniques, modes and models, under the family name of "procedure", with the further proposition that they are aimed to resolve given problems. Fuhrmann views all of human history through the prism of procedures, arguing that the history of human inventions is really a history of man-made procedures, and that improvements in procedure, in "HOW we do things", has made all the difference in the progression from tools of stone to agrarian improvement, printing, trading, adminstration, and upt to the industrial, and the digital revolution.

As one of the three initiating founders of Procedere, I share and advance all these views.

Participatory Procedures
The rise of participatory procedures in all different forms is seen as an indication that "procedure has become a problem" itself, and is a deeply political issue. Since participatory procedures - from Large Group Interventions to facilitation methods and models to Multistakeholder Processes - are innovative expressions of ways how people should best interact, they are believed to be treasure chests, and experimental examples, of procedural know-how in action.

In other words, what is so exciting to Procedere people is not that participatory procedures are participatory, (or deliberative, cooperative etc. for that measure), but that they are procedures, intentional processes, certain sequences of interaction. They are figures or shapes of time, "Zeitgestalten", intentional patterns over time.

Again, I share and advance all these views.

The Importance Of Time
Consequentially, Time is a central phenomenon to proceduralists. Procedere distinguishes between chronos, and kairos. Chronos is the driving beat of the rhythm of the irreversible progress of time, time in a quantitative sense. Kairos denotes the quality of a given time: a special, and ripe moment, such as a tipping point, a turning point, a low point, a point of no return, or a window of opportunity. Chronos and kairos define the temporal chain of situations, as guided by any procedure: first, do A and B, secondly, do x and y, and thirdly, begin parallel work on this and that...

I sure share and advance those views!

First Issues of Procedere: Typology, Competence
One of the first aims was to establish a typology of cooperative procedures.
The definition of a cooperative procedure is as follows: "A cooperative procedure guides a regulated process of interaction, achieving agreed upon goals through a composition of methods" (from the taxonomy-workshop in Heidelberg, March 2006). Fuhrmann distinguishes between methods (short term, measured in minutes), procedures (Verfahren) in a narrow sense of (median term - measured in hours or days), projects (long term, measured in weeks or months) an organizations (no deadline).

These distinctions my vocabulary does not share, because I'm not burning up such precious vocabulary to denote mere chronological characteristics.

In March 2009, Procedere will hold its second workshop at the Evangelic Academy in Loccum, this time on procedural competence. We will ask what skills designers of procedures need to have, what kind of abilities, but also what kind of authority and responsibility for the whole of the process. The aim is to identify what makes you a master of procedural design. I'll discuss competence in more detail later.

Sonntag, 28. Dezember 2008

Basic Issues Of This Blog: Organized Dialogue, Societal Change, Procedural Politics, and Professional Facilitators

This blog will be concerned with societal change through Organized Dialogue, as provided by professional facilitators. As a political phenomenon, I call that procedural politics.

It is based on a model of Organized Dialogue (OD), which is the most useful model to understand participatory procedures. ODs, in turn, are based on models of dialogue by Buber, Bohm, and Lueken. Practical examples of ODs are multistakeholder processes, Large Group Interventions, or political / public mediation processes, cutting through the many possible perspectives on participatory processes. All of these examples encompass a lot more than just deliberative discourse. Indeed, ODs are a comprehensive expression of Procedural Politics as collective public problem resolution - transformational participatory procedures at the heart of "governance".

While I describe OD at length in my dissertation, and will set forth its basic tenets in this blog, I still need to explore models of societal change, and align them with my model of OD. I thus hope to be able to make a valuable contribution both to issues and networks such as the Generative Change Community, the social entrepreneurs and changemakers, or the German group Procedere which I co-founded in 2005, and enter into a dialogue with the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and other groups.

For political theorists
As a practitioner and political theorist, I'm concerned with a scientific foundation of participatory procedures. This is a necessary step to establish the design of participatory procedures as a profession, which in turn I believe to be a necessity for successful sustainable development procedures, and a prerequisite for a strong global civil society. Somebody just needs to be able to "do governance", that is, shape collective interaction processes between representatives of different sectors (or sides) of a collective problem.

I think current scientific models of cooperation, or deliberative discourse are not sufficient to capture what participatory procedures are really about. I also believe, for certain epistomological reasons, that typical analytical models are not fit for practitioners. Political science, to me, needs to be the systematic workshop of political action. My political theory is practical philosophy in a pragmatistic mode, and my long term goal is to help establish a Theory of Procedural Politics. I'll talk about that in this blog as well.

The basic question of Procedural Politics is: "How are we to proceed?" It can be seen in two perspectives: 1) the analytical perspective, which holds that politics is a process, and political practice a meta-process of political procedures; and 2) the prescriptive perspective, which is basically an action theory that lays out political action in the form of (professionally) competent, creative, both methodic and strategic procedures. The typical critique of rational action theory can be avoided by assuming a pragmatistic view that distinguishes (with Clausewitz) between purpose ("whereto?") and targets/goals ("what?"), thereby allowing intentional trajectorial action, rather than teleological action.

For practitioners
As for the practitioner's side, ODs are an issue for political consultancy, particularly in regard to Political Change Leadership, Process Providing, and the design of models of participatory methods and strategies. As the great site on MSPs at Wageningen University states:

"Practitioners and policy makers who wish to use or learn from designing or facilitating multi-stakeholder and social learning processes currently are confronted with four constraints:

  1. The lack of a coherent yet practical conceptual framework that enables potential facilitators to make sense of the diverse terminology and differing conceptual dimensions.
  2. Limited practical examples and lessons from experience presented in a way that is sufficiently analytical to be useful in other contexts.
  3. The lack of facilitation skills, experience and confidence to design and implement appropriate and context specific processes.
  4. The lack of comprehensive and integrated resource materials appropriate to the facilitation of multi-stakeholder and social learning processes."
I fully agree with that analysis. I offer OD as a simple and coherent conceptual framework that allows the comprehensive analysis of different participatory procedures as case studies. It serves as a starting point to identify skills, and more importantly, competences for the design of participatory procedures, cutting through the existing mesh of conflicting categories, and assigning different perspectives their respective place in relation to others.

I will also discuss procedural competences, and training for facilitators. Basically, I rely on theories of professionalism, and cognitive schema theory to design learning experiences for practitioners of Organized Dialogue. I also rely on ideas about the creativity of action put forth by Hans Joas in the tradition of John Dewey and other pragmatists.

I think professionalization processes need to be consolidated, both by self-organization in the field, and by a scientific discipline that corresponds to the professionialization. In my view, that discipline ought to be a special kind of politicial science... but I'm open for discussion here.

What do you think - what are your open questions in regard to the design and facilitation of participative procedures? What scientific discipline are you looking for for systematic some orientation?

Potential of web-based participatory governance

An interesting article Will He Bring We Can Believe In? by Eli Pariser about the potentials of web-based governance by Obama.