Finding Clarity in Complexity: Edmonton Climate Change Panel Case Study

Jacquie Dale, PublicEngagement

In 2012, the City of Edmonton, the Centre for Public Involvement (C PI), and Alberta Climate Dialogue (A BC D) collaborated to create a citizen dialogue and deliberation process focused on energy vulnerability and climate change. 56 citizens came together every Saturday for 6 weeks to provide advice and guidance to the City. This article is part of a seven-part series exploring some of the lessons learned about deliberative dialogue through the Edmonton Citizens’ Panel. The Energy Transition Strategy that incorporated the Panel’s recommendations was passed unanimously by Edmonton City Council in April 2015.

You can find the full working paper, written by Mary Pat MacKinnon, Jacquie Dale and Deborah Schrader, here: Looking Under the Hood of Citizen Engagement: The Citizens’ Panel on Edmonton’s Energy and Climate Challenges.

The Citizens’ Panel on Edmonton’s Energy and Climate Challenges involved a partnership of government, researchers, and practitioners, and it dealt with complicated technical issues surrounding energy use and climate change. This mix of both structural and content complexity represented a “double whammy” of obstacles that called for some innovative approaches to achieving successful dialogue and deliberation.

A Complex Partnership

The Panel was a complex undertaking for many reasons. It was a partnership of three different organizations, with different organizational cultures, constraints, mandates, expectations and operational requirements. In addition, both Alberta Climate Dialogue and the Centre for Public Involvement are embedded and housed in the University of Alberta, meaning that contracting and research have to adhere to technical university practices.

Robust Support Team Needed To Facilitate Sessions

Deliberative dialogue requires intense conversation. The team required to support weekly, meaningful participant dialogue consisted of two lead facilitators, and a team of more than 30 small-group facilitators, note takers and runners, project support staff, resource people, and academic researchers. In addition, speakers, city staff, observers, and video recorders also had to be supported and managed, including the negotiation of conflicting requests and perspectives Coordinating this number of people added to the challenges of rolling out six full-day sessions with 56 citizens over eight weeks.

Appoint Team Project Managers To Improve Efficiency

Working together as a team of equal players sometimes meant that our decision-making processes were not as efficient as they needed to be. About two-thirds of the way into the sessions, we remedied this by having one of the senior Project Team members assume the role of overall Project Manager.

This role meant that one person could “run interference” as needed so that not all issues came to all team members, while ensuring that all essential components were getting done and that those who needed to be involved in decision-making were involved. This improved our functioning without losing the benefits of a multi-party collaboration. Having a single Project Manager, with authority, play this role from the beginning is highly recommended for complex deliberative dialogue projects.

Ensure Complex Issues Are Understood By The Participants

When it came to getting the Panel up to speed on complex environmental issues we employed a diversity of methods. Good design takes into consideration the practices and principles of adult education and citizen participation (Creighton 2005; Schwartz 2002). One key component of this is to recognize that adults learn differently than adolescents. As designers, it was important to incorporate a range of ways for people to work with and process information.

To this end, there was a range or ways used to provide/utilize information including written material, speakers, videos, and graphics. A lot of work was done visually, some of it with words (e.g. flipcharts or Post-it notes), some of it with images (e.g. the use of graphic recording in Session 5) and some of it with physical activities (e.g. getting panelists to position themselves in a physical space to align with the degree of agreement or disagreement on an issue or statement). Electronic keypads were a key visual tool for taking the pulse of the room anonymously on different issues and recommendations, allowing people to see where common ground was emerging. This transparency was important to maintain strong trust in the process and each other. Through strategic adult learning methods, we were able to ensure that the participants had a good enough understanding of complex issues for productive deliberation.

Finding Clarity In The Complexity

This case study revealed the effectiveness of appointing project managers, and using creative presentation methods to ensure that all participants understand complex topics from the outset. Deliberative-dialogue practitioners need to be flexible in both the design and implementation of their projects in order to meet the demands of both structural and issue complexity.

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