Scaling up powerful conversations: Examples, methods, and approaches (Collective Coherence Part Four)

In the first two posts in this “Finding Our Way Together/Collective Coherence” series, I explored innovations in voting and in conversations that generate shared understanding. In the third I shared some theoretical and strategic perspectives on how to take such conversations to scale – involving and impacting thousands and millions of people. In this post I share some specific examples, methods and approaches where we can see those theories and strategies playing out. This post completes the series.

Below are a dozen approaches to scaling up what we know is possible in relatively small face-to-face conversations to include and/or influence thousands or millions of people. Keep in mind that many of these approaches have special qualities that – in combination with others – could significantly increase their power and influence. Imagine, for example, if a potent citizen panel like we see in the Maclean’s “People’s Verdict” initiative or in an Austrian Civic Council were woven in with a pre-organized, decentralized, widespread community study circle programs that digested, expanded upon, and brought into reality the wisdom generated by the preceding small-group conversations.

While sharing these approaches, I want to acknowledge that electronic democracy is a leading edge of public engagement. But at the same time I want to note that most of these online public engagement tools involve individual citizens providing input – votes or ideas or responses – into forums or aggregations designed to ultimately influence official policymakers. While these definitely offer opportunities for empowered citizenship, their focus on individual offerings misses out on the potential emergent wisdom and energy that can arise from positive interactivity AMONG members of the public. Even where online forums are highly interactive, more often than not they are subjected to trolling. These dynamics can isolate them from our efforts to upscale powerful conversations.

However, some forms of electronic participation (such as polis, below) can actually mimic the dynamics of conversation and alleviate trolling even though they are based on lone individual responses. Furthermore, some online tools for public policy engagement (such as Voice of the People’s budget simulations, below) can be adapted to augment and/or magnify the dynamics or results of face-to-face engagements. My mention of these in the text below barely scratches the surface of the tip of a vast iceberg of online public engagement tools. But that entire vast assortment of tools should be kept in mind as potential resources in our efforts to upscale the power of face-to-face conversations. We’ve barely begun to tap the synergies available through the integration of electronic and face-to-face public engagements.


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Journalism-based whole-system conversation – the Maclean’s experiment

In 1991 Maclean’s – the Time magazine of Canada – launched its “People’s Verdict” project. They brought together a dozen ordinary citizens who represented the diversity of Canada for a long weekend with “Getting to Yes” co-author Roger Fisher and a negotiation team from Harvard to try developing a shared vision for Canada. Their dramatic interactions were chronicled by a Canadian TV public affairs documentary and by 40 pages of coverage in Maclean’s itself, including short bios of the participants and a blow-by-blow account of their deliberations along with pictures of their initial antagonistic body language evolving into hugs at the end. This extraordinary journalistic initiative allowed millions of Canadians to vicariously experience a high quality deliberation process, tracking their vicarious allies and enemies through intense conflict to their consensus conclusion. My research disclosed that the People’s Verdict initiative generated months of national dialogue. If Maclean’s had repeated the exercise every year, it could have become a model of democracy informed by a coherent, deliberative, national “people’s voice” which profoundly influenced both officials and the public. We can only imagine the potency of such an initiative in today’s world, if it were augmented by social media and other digital resources as well as by the more advanced forms of group process we have today.

Publicized Scenario conversations – The Mont Fleur Process

A series of stakeholder forums were convened in South Africa during the four years between Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in February 1990 and the first all-race elections in April 1994. Mandela’s African National Congress, the Pan African Congress, the Communist Party, officials of the conservative white government’s National Party, Black Sash (the white women’s nonviolent movement) and other leading stakeholders were engaged in dozens of forums to stimulate debate about the nation’s future.

Mont Fleur was the only one to use formal scenario methodology. Twenty-two prominent politicians, activists, academics, and businessmen from across the ideological spectrum met 3 times for 3 days each time. After considering many possible stories about their next decade, they agreed on four plausible and relevant scenarios, each with a symbol of flight: The Ostrich represented continued white minority rule. The Lame Duck represented a slow, negotiated transition with an uneasy white-black coalition government. Icarus symbolized a rapid transition to a left-populist black government which was resisted by business interests. The Flight of the Flamingos stood for inclusive approaches to growth and democracy. This framing provided common language to talk about the future all over South Africa.

These scenarios were presented in a 14-page insert in a national newspaper, accompanied by a 30 minute video. The participants subsequently presented and discussed the scenarios with more than fifty groups, including political parties, companies, academics, trade unions, and civic organizations
This anything-goes exploration of their shared future and the likely consequences of each scenario – and the widespread engagement of the whole society – resulted in an emerging agreement that some version of the Flamingos option was the only workable approach. This shared understanding then influenced constitutional discussions. And the conversations produced strong personal bonds among these leaders of otherwise intensely conflicting factions.

Another version of a national visioning program – this time in Tunisia in 2011 – was discussed in my blog post “Imagine a country imagining its future together. It did!” and elsewhere.

Minipublics that inform the voters – Citizen Initiative Review

A minipublic is a council of citizens chosen (usually at random) to embody the diversity of a community, state or country and deliberate on a public matter. The original and archetypal form of minipublic is the Citizens Jury, usually consisting of one to two dozen people who interview experts, partisans and stakeholders, deliberate, and then issue a report to the agency or official who convened them. Sometimes efforts are made to spread the word about their findings or to get their recommendations implemented.

The Citizen Initiative Review (CIR) is a Citizens Jury consisting of 24 randomly selected registered voters specifically convened to deliberate on a ballot measure and report back to the voters about it in the officially distributed voter information booklet. CIRs in Oregon, where they originated, have had measurable impact on how voters decide to vote. CIRs provide a rare voice of an informed We the People speaking to a less informed We the People during election season. They provide an example of highly targeted ways the minipublic model of citizen deliberation can be applied to public affairs.

Minipublics enhanced by public forums and implementation – Austria’s Civic Councils

Civic Councils (“BürgerInnen Rat”) are an innovative participatory approach used by the Office of Future-Related Issues of the State of Vorarlberg, Austria. They are based on the “Wisdom Council” innovation of American consultant and democratic visionary Jim Rough. One or two dozen citizens are randomly selected and convened to learn about an issue from diverse experts and stakeholders and then helped to seek creative ways to address it, using Rough’s powerful conflict-transforming process called “choice-creating” evoked by his unique Dynamic Facilitation method. The Civic Council’s final consensus statement is read at a meeting of community members, stakeholders, officials and media, after which the meeting shifts into a World Cafe conversation that engages them all. The results are passed on to an officially convened ad hoc “responder group” of multi-sector agencies and organizations traditionally concerned with the issue or domain being addressed, but who may never have worked together before. The responder group is tasked with implementing the citizen recommendations and reporting back to the government and public. (The link above offers extensive research and English-language reports on this process.)

Structured Community Conversation-then-Action Initiatives – Study Circle community programs

Study circles are voluntary (and sometimes self-organizing) adult education groups of 5-20 people who meet three to six times to study and discuss a subject. The study circle programs I’m interested in here explore a critical social issue or community concern described in a study guide which is created locally or purchased from groups who provide such guides on issues of widespread concern.

Each meeting commonly lasts 2-3 hours and is directed by a moderator whose role is to aid a lively but civil and focused dialogue. Between meetings participants read additional materials which are then used as springboards for the next session’s dialogue. By encouraging people to formulate their own ideas about issues and to share them with others, the study circle process helps overcome their lack of information and feelings of inadequacy in the face of complex problems.

Community study circle programs of the kind highlighted here conclude with a large forum in which circle participants and other community members connect with each other around common interests in the topic they’ve studied and plan for action together to make a difference.

The primary advocate of study circles in the US, the Study Circle Resource Center, evolved into Everyday Democracy, and their study circle program evolved into The Dialogue to Change Program.

Structured Stakeholder Conversation-then-Action Initiatives – Future Search

While the study circle program above focuses on engaging dozens or hundreds of ordinary community members, most Future Search conveners make a point of gathering together 30-64 leaders influential in the “whole system” of stakeholder networks involved in a conflict or community because the outcomes of their conversations will reverberate out through those networks. About a third of them are from perspectives not often acknowledged to be “part of the system” but who in fact play significant roles.

This strategically inclusive group first explores their shared past – What are the patterns of the last several decades? What are the stories? What does it all mean? – with any problems and conflicts acknowledged as information, not as something to work on.

Then the group explores and maps out the forces influencing their present activities – including their various concerns and local, national and global trends. They share what they’re proud of and what they’re sorry about, often shifting their views and relationships in the process.

In subgroups they then imagine themselves 5, 10 and 20 years in the future and what was involved in getting there. After sharing their visions, participants develop lists of futures they all want, potential projects to get there, and unresolved differences. After some final reflections, each participant figures out what they personally want to work on and joins others with similar passion to plan and carry out action. Follow-up has suggested that people who have participated in this kind of focused “search for common ground” tend to continue working together, often engaging non-participants in furthering the visions that emerged in the face-to-face gathering.

Whole-system self-governance: Network Governance, Collaborative Governance, and Democratic Experimentalism

The Emerging Network Governance Initiatives (ENGIs) that I’m part of have noted (as I did in this blog post) that multi-sector, multi-stakeholder, multi-scale networks are beginning to collaborate across boundaries in an effort to deal with intractable issues in the domains they share (and in which they often do battle). People involved in ENGIs have suggested that this actually constitutes a newly emerging form of whole-system governance that includes and transcends governments as we’ve come to know them. A key factor here is that (at least ideally) the full diversity of a system is convened into conversations that generate shared insights and collaborations which – to the extent they engage the networks already involved in the issue or realm – totally and directly transforms their collective activity. There’s no “middle-man” – such as a government agency – through which the results must pass in order to be implemented. The collaborative conversations generate direct action among the full range of players.

It turns out others have noted similar phenomena without necessarily remarking on them as suggesting a nascent form of governance. One of the names under which this realization has been talked about is “democratic experimentalism”. It doesn’t necessarily involve networks, but definitely involves players working together across the boundaries of sector, stakeholder, and political worldview. Here is a vivid example of some of these dynamics as they played out in a Chicago school system.

After decades of skirmishing, inveterate antagonists (in the case of education: school administrators, teachers and parents) exhaust confidence in their respective strategies and relax doctrinal commitments… Facing urgent problems (crumbling schools and disastrous drop-out rates) the actors agree to explore new solutions, without agreeing to put aside differences in values that originally divided them… As they institutionalize their experimental efforts they stumble on arrangements that permit the piecemeal re-elaboration of complex wholes through the reconsideration of their parts: Local actors… are given substantial liberty to set goals for improvement and the means for accomplishing it. In return they must propose measures… for assessing their progress and provide rich information on their own performance. The center (the municipal or state school department) pools the information provided by local actors and ranks them according to (periodically revised) performance measures that give substance to standards of excellence and definitions of inadequacy. In the best cases the center provides assistance to those that are not improving as quickly as they’d like. At all events it eventually sanctions those whose continuing failure seems incorrigible. The system increases local innovation by allowing those on the spot to test, within broad limits, their assumptions of what works best. At the same time it makes the exercise of local discretion sufficiently transparent to assure public accountability, allowing each locale to learn from the experiences of the others, and the polity as a whole to draw lessons from the experience of all. Thus is creates a framework for establishing what is currently feasible, how those who fall short can work to achieve it, and those doing well can do better still. These arrangements allow the parties to get a grip… on problems whose complexity once seemed to put them beyond the reach of public action. They create new possibilities for citizens to steer public institutions that affect their vital interests by involving them in forms of problem solving that unsettle encrusted beliefs.

Another observer of this phenomena is the University Network for Collaborative Governance, which suggests that

Collaborative governance refers to community and public policy decision making processes and structures that enable participants to work together to enhance their communities and shape sustainable public policy decisions. Collaborative governance does this by engaging participants collectively and constructively across the boundaries of the public, private, and civic sectors to leverage the unique attributes and resources of each for the greatest impact. The collaborative approach to governance can encompasses any method, model, or process that is deliberative and consensual including civic engagement and service, public engagement, collaborative network management, public consultation, multi-stakeholder collaboration, collaborative public management, dispute resolution, and negotiation.

Full-scale stakeholder engagement – vTaiwan

vTaiwan is an extremely sophisticated federal-level engagement process involving citizens, public servants, and issue stakeholders working together to develop and revise official regulations with radical collaboration and total transparency. Rooted in Taiwan’s historic Sunflower Movement’s 3-week occupation of the parliament building and its young g0v (gov-zero) civic hacker community, it uses many platforms and processes (a) to surface issues around which there is energy, (b) to accessibly crowdsource significant issue-related information and stakeholders, (c) to engage and publicize diverse stakeholder conversations to identify points of consensus and contention, (d) to help stakeholders and public servants interactively draft and modify regulations and (e) to make all of this fully transparent, engaging, and publicly available. I know of nothing remotely like it in the world. (For those familiar with Open Space Technology, I think of vTaiwan as a prototype of government done in the style of an ongoing open space process.) One of its key facets – and probably the most transferable – is the tool described next, the polis platform.

Mass deliberation towards consensus – Polis

Polis is like an evolving, artificially intelligent, consensus-identifying conversational “suggestion box” through which thousands of participants can submit short statements expressing their views on an issue (including feelings, concerns and solutions) and then indicate Agree, Disagree, or Pass on each other’s statements. The polis algorithm continually sorts participants into clusters of like-minded responders and then identifies points of consensus that have a high level of agreement across those diverse clusters. In real time, participants can view graphics showing the whole complex ecosystem of opinion as it evolves. Research has shown that polis participant behaviors frequently mimic a number of dynamics found in face-to-face dialogue and deliberation. For example, after disagreeing with a statement, a participant may originate a statement of their own that clarifies or creatively addresses their disagreement. Furthermore, the results usually get productively fed into subsequent face-to-face dialogues among diverse stakeholders for reflection. You can ask for a polis demo at and see a brief overview at and an example of its use in the US (with revelatory graphics) at

Further notes: Although there’s voting in polis – through people’s agree/disagree responses – it is just used to connect different comments into communities of belief. Often the earliest consensus statements are very shallow, simply avoiding controversy with declarations like ”Everybody should have a right to breathe.” However, as the process continues, more brilliant ideas emerge that nobody thought of before, ideas that happen to cover more ground than other conflicted parties thought of. The software makes it simple for people to notice and validate that fact, producing a significant, wiser consensus that might in other forums have been lost among hundreds of less profound comments.

I’ve wondered how to stretch the wisdom-generating potential of polis even further. As I noted in an earlier post, people’s concerns are a powerful guide to greater understanding. So I’ve imagined teams tasked with identifying and addressing concerns about statements in a polis exercise. These could be
• statements that had strong consensus, to strengthen them further;
• statements that had weak consensus that could be enhanced;
• statements that were favored by some experts, politicians, stakeholders, etc., who wanted to modify them to increase their level of support;
• statements that were liked by the public but about which public servants had concerns (e.g., about feasibility or side-effects) or stakeholders had concerns (e.g., about damage to their interests).

Teams addressing concerns could be civic-minded volunteers, competing deliberative gamers, or supporters of the statement being worked on who would like to see it garner more support.

People deciding how their taxes will be used – Participatory Budgeting

In Participatory Budgeting (PB) a municipal government, agency or official sets aside a significant amount of public funds – sometimes even the entire discretionary portion of the municipal budget – to be allocated by community members through conversations about possible projects. These conversations are organized annually, sometimes in two dimensions – one to cover all the neighborhoods and one to cover all the major budgetary categories – education, transit, health, recreational facilities, food, housing, employment, energy, etc. In these “brainstorming” conversations – usually involving both meetings and online tools – residents share and discuss ideas for projects which are then formally developed by volunteer committees into feasible proposals that are vetted by experts and then presented in forums where they compete for the available funding through PB elections. Near the end of the process, the chosen projects are aggregated into a proposed budget turned over to the government for implementation during the coming year. The government then reports back to the community about how the money was spent. PB is used in more than a thousand cities around the world. And while most PB initiatives center on brainstorming and promotion of projects, there is ample room to upgrade the process through the creative use of minipublics and leading edge modes of dialogue and deliberation. (Note that Voice of the People has “budget simulations” which could be adapted for use with participatory budget activities, potentially expanding participation at various stages.)

Visions of fully empowered citizen deliberation – Citizen Legislatures

At the most visionary edges of this work we find proposals for citizens legislatures – from one of the earliest arguments to modern discussions of Legislature by Lot. The vision here is of a branch of congress or parliament made up entirely of randomly selected citizens rather than elected politicians. Different proposals – including my own in Chapter 13 of Empowering Public Wisdom – offer different specifics. Most involve hundreds of people serving well-paid full-time terms of 1-3 years (usually with term limits), with overlaps allowing for citizen legislators with more experience to help get the newer legislators up to speed. Some proposals involve no other legislative body, while others imagine the “people’s legislature” replacing the more “popular” of the two existing branches of the legislature. Some propose using “pure” or “stratified” random selection (with or without mandated participation), while others – concerned about how qualified the randomly selected legislators would be – involve random selection from a large pool of pre-qualified candidates (with various proposals for qualification standards and/or how such standards might be democratically established) who may or may not have volunteered for the role.

A citizen legislature would not only produce a governing body far more representative of the population than current forms, but it would also significantly reduce opportunities for special interest manipulation, since there would be no elections where parties, funding, media and egos played major roles. And for the purposes of this post, it would be much easier to enhance the capacity of citizen legislators to generate wisdom in their deliberative conversations than it is to do so with partisan politicians in our current legislatures. And the citizen legislators would likely be far more inclined to facilitate the engagement of the public – and to take that engagement more seriously – than most professional politicians do today.

A creative modification of the citizen legislature idea is “multi-body sortition” (“sortition” referring to the use of random selection in political matters). The “multi-body sortition” vision proposes different randomly selected citizen councils and panels that address different categories of the legislative function – i.e., establishing rules, choosing issues, developing bills, reviewing bills, voting on bills, and overseeing the whole operation. Since each of these functions involves significantly different capacities, activities and support functions – and would, if individually addressed, naturally involve different sorts of people – the citizen councils responsible for each function are designed specifically to serve that function only, passing on their products to subsequent citizen panels involved in subsequent functions. The random selection of participants, the division of roles, and other design features (like randomly selecting the issue that a Bill Review Panel will address) all serve to impede special interest intervention and concentration of power while increasing the system’s capacity to do a high quality democratic job with less expense and more representative diversity and informed deliberation. Each council (with the questionable exception of the final voting Policy Jury) would function largely through conversations. Each of those conversations could be designed and facilitated with appropriate methodologies, and each is obviously empowered to arise from and impact the democracy as a whole in its unique way.

(Shortly before writing this post, I was introduced to CrowdLaw which provides a crowdsourced catalog embracing “any law or policymaking process that offers a meaningful opportunity for the public to participate in one or multiples stages of decision-making, including but not limited to the processes of problem identification, solution identification, proposal drafting, ratification, implementation or evaluation.” I see this as a parallel recognition that legislation is not a single function, and that the public can meaningfully participate in different dimensions of that function. This could lay the groundwork for the more inclusive and deliberative – and potentially more powerful – approach of multi-body sortition.)

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Tom Atlee’s work is full of thought-provoking transformational ideas and tools. I’ve clicked and read my way through his wise democracy pattern language, and I’m excited by what he has unearthed.  It’s all recognizable, and yet very powerful to see it documented in the way he has.  I’ve read in great depth his Empowering Public Wisdom and The Tao of Democracy and am really impressed with both books.  As our times increasingly demand and become ready for participatory systems, Tom’s work is an invaluable resource.

— Frederic Laloux
author of
Reinventing Organizations 

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