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Dialogue By Design: Sixteen Practical Ideas for Organizing and Convening Policy Mediations

“Policy Dialogues” are a form of conflict resolution. They are used in regulatory, standard-setting, rule-making, and policy forming settings in which multiple stakeholders are struggling with an issue that has political urgency. Meetings are held over a period of time, they are usually guided by a facilitator or mediator, and they aspire to produce concrete outputs, i.e. a guidance to government, a proposed rule or regulation, a plan, or a strategy.

The Keystone Center (TKC) has a thirty year history of convening such dialogues to great effect. Keystone Center is interested primarily in tangible and applied policy outcomes. For us, building relationships, choreographing inclusive process, and infusing high quality information are not ends by themselves. They are simply some of the means for getting to practical solutions. It is our belief, and our persistent experience, that good people, good data, and good process yield smarter, more politically tractable outcomes to tough problems. One of our templates for this is the idea of “dialogue by design,” a process that has resulted in new policies for federal facility siting, chemical weapons disposal, Superfund cleanups, prescription labeling, and new methods of regional energy transmission.

There are many fine and well elaborated principles and practices that apply to consensus work. Among the best are those articulated by Cormick, Dale, Emond, Sigurdson, and Stuart in Building Consensus for a Sustainable Future: Putting Principles into Practice. (1996: Ottawa: National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy). We try to implement these principles as follows:

1. Exploratory Contacts .

Preliminary calls or letters to knowledgeable individuals in the public, private, and civic sectors are made to examine the viability and timing of a dialogic approach to a specific issue.

2. Issue Framing.

Preliminarily, and subject to revision later on, we will develop a key policy question, or set of questions, to which the dialogue will presumably seek to develop collective consensus answers.

3. Product Framing.

There is, early on, an initial conceptualization of possible products — joint policy recommendations, a delineation of issues and options, a guidance to government – and a formulation of possible linkages to formal decision-making.

4. Concept Paper.

Typically, we will create a brief “dialogue” proposal and quietly circulate a call for participation to prospective participants and funders.

5. Financial Commitments.

Multilateral pledges to help underwrite the dialogue and its associated costs are sought.

6. Co-Conveners.

For some projects, Keystone will often invite two respected and leading authorities to serve as “Co-Conveners.” Conveners typically come to the issue at hand with different histories and viewpoints but are committed to a search for common ground and the exploration of break-through solutions.

7. Representation.

Ensuring that a broad spectrum of voices and viewpoints are invited to participate is central to most policy mediation strategies but Keystone makes special efforts to ensure that those who are invited are, as a condition of participation, committed to disciplined give-and-take discussions.

8. Work Plan.

A detailed work plan that corresponds to the needs of the project and that outlines budget and timelines is developed.

9. Venue.

A meeting setting that is comfortable and business-like, usually with state-of-the-art audio-visual capabilities, is arranged. The setting does not necessarily have to be fancy and it can rotate to different locations as needed.

10. Briefing Book.

A notebook of background materials is compiled and given to participants in advance of the first meeting. Usually, the briefing book contains issue summaries, a multi-disciplinary history of the issue, position papers (if they have been developed), summaries of pertinent research, and other materials that help ground and prepare participants for discussions.

11. Protocols.

As in all forms of mediation, there is an initial set of ground rules which are negotiated at the first meeting (or prior) and which create common rules of engagement regarding project organization, group decision-making, participation by others, ground rules for media contacts and the use of data and technical information, and table manners.

12. Working Groups.

Keystone dialogues often require bifurcation into smaller working groups and cross-sector teams that meet between plenary sessions. This allows more in-depth examination of specific sub-issues, contacts with wider audiences, and the development of proposals for the full group.

13. Getting Out of the Meeting Room.

For many projects, Keystone organizes brief field trips to examine first hand a relevant on-the-ground example of the topic under discussion, i.e., an industrial plant, an eco-system, a meeting with regulators, etc. It is our belief that out-the-meeting-room experiences are powerful learning.

14. Use of Experts.

Certain issues need a great deal of fact-finding and technical information and, in some cases, new modeling or research roundups. Keystone works with all participants to define and secure the level of information that is needed to work on the issue at hand, to identify acceptable independent experts when those are appropriate, and to help secure state-of-the-art salient information.

15. Individual Meetings.

Keystone dialogues typically span a number of months and, in a few cases, years. TKC facilitators are trained to spend a considerable amount of time talking with participants between meetings to ensure that information is being exchanged, commitments to do between-meeting work are being honored, and to help solve procedural or substantive problems that may arise.

16. Reporting and Roll Out.

Typically, most policy dialogues produce a set of recommendations, guidance points to government, or a report on future directions. Keystone plays an active role in distributing such reports and ensuring the widest possible logical policy relevance and use.

While there is no universal, alchemical elixir that fits every situation, we find some of the above steps to be extremely catalytic in effectively convening and facilitating policy discussions with practical outcomes.


Peter Adler

Peter Adler directs ACCORD3.0, a group of independent consultants specializing in foresight, fact-finding and conseneus building. He is the former President and CEO of The Keystone Center and has held executive positions with the Hawaii Supreme Court, the Hawaii Justice Foundation, and Neighborhood Justice Center of Honolulu. Peter can also… MORE >

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