Should You Use The Media To Amplify The Impact of Your Deliberative Dialogue?

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.

There can be an inherent conflict between making public the process and outcomes of consultative deliberations, and respecting the public positions of government stakeholders.

Our experience co-hosting the Citizens’ Panel on Edmonton’s Energy and Climate Challenges revealed the differing opinions for and against media involvement, such as social-media posting and information sharing during deliberative dialogue panels. By presenting this case study we will explore some of the tensions that challenge deliberative dialogue practitioners.

There were three parties co-hosting the Citizen Panel. Alberta Climate Dialogue (ABCD), a community-university research alliance funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The Centre for Public Involvement (CPI) is a partnership between the City of Edmonton and the University of Alberta providing leadership for citizen participation and deliberation. The third partner, who was also the client, was the City of Edmonton’s Office of Environment.

While all parties respected each other’s perspectives, there remained differences of opinion about communicating the work of the Citizens’ Panel to the broader Edmonton community before and during the Panel sessions. This included whether citizens should be posting and sharing opinions outside the panel or whether it should be restricted for the duration of the deliberative dialogue.

The Case For Media Involvement

ABCD and CPI were both keen to promote the Panel widely in order to attract the interest of other citizens and to increase the legitimacy of the Panel’s work (Dryzik and Goodin 2006).

ABCD and CPI felt that panelists would want to speak to their families, friends and colleagues about their work and, as such, should not be isolated from outside influences. They also felt that, on balance, media coverage would generate more community-level interest, which could be mobilized in the post-Panel period when the recommendations were before the City Council.

The Case Against Media Involvement

The City held a different perspective than ABCD and CPI, being more cautious about promoting the panel through the media. Their primary fear was that media coverage and potential subsequent mobilization by community groups and others could interfere, influence, or bias the work of the Panel. The City was also concerned about the potential fallout of either an ineffective or a rogue Panel—one that moved outside the established scope to weigh in on issues that were considered to be “off the table”.

The Outcome For The Edmonton Conference

It was agreed that there would be no media presence at the sessions, nor media outreach, until the Panel Report was completed.

There was very little promotion or communication except for recognition of the Panel on the City website. As well, ABCD and CPI both maintained their own websites. The Panel was prominent on each, but this did little to expand knowledge beyond those already interested. There was limited use of Twitter and Facebook by participants, as well as by ABCD and CPI.

Implications Of Media Absence

A first implication is that the broader Edmonton public was largely shut out of this process as it unfolded. This represented a missed opportunity to undertake community education and engagement around big decisions on citywide energy and carbon reduction.

A second implication revolves around the issue of power imbalances in policy discourse. Given the array of organized interests with access to more information and power than non-organized citizens, the decision to not involve media tends to perpetuate the information and power imbalance between citizens and organized interests.

Exploring Media Involvement Going Forward

While we understand that government stakeholders are worried about media participation creating a bias (and/or creating a public outcry), we believe that more good than bad can come from shining a public light on deliberative dialogue proceedings. Through our many years of experience facilitating citizen deliberations, we have found that many citizens yearn for an opportunity to think critically about important issues and to do it in a way that allows for informed and deeper thought in dialogue with others. The use of media, whether that be through non-line dialogue platforms, social media, etc. can help bring deliberation to more people.

Our hope is that future deliberative dialogue experiences will continue to grapple with these tensions. Through shared experiences, facilitators and government stakeholders can come to understand each other’s perspectives and strike the right balance for media involvement in citizen dialogues.

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