Six Design Elements That Contributed to Edmonton’s Deliberative Dialogue Success

Jacquie Dale, PublicEngagement

In 2012, the City of Edmonton, the Centre for Public Involvement (CPI), and Alberta Climate Dialogue (ABCD) collaborated to create a citizen dialogue and deliberation process focused on energy vulnerability and climate change. The Energy Transition Strategy that incorporated its recommendations was passed unanimously by Edmonton City Council in April 2015. For a video reflecting on the influence of the Panel on City Council discussions, see this link.

The Citizens’ Panel was designed purposefully “to provide policy and program implementation advice and guidance to the City around energy transition and carbon reduction actions in the City’s environmental strategy.”

By exploring the design elements that contributed to the Panel’s success, this piece provides an introduction to our seven-part series about deliberative dialogue in Edmonton. Over the next few weeks we will be posting a series of articles that explore particular aspects of the climate change deliberations and the lessons learned about the dialogue process.

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.

Below is a brief summary of the top 6 design elements that helped make the panel a success:

1. Discussion Paper to Frame Choices

The central question for the Citizens’ Panel was expressed as: What choices are we prepared to make together to meet Edmonton’s energy and climate challenges? A discussion paper was used to structure these options.

The use of a Discussion Paper was important to help frame the choices and to provide participants with enough information to make responsible and informed recommendations to the City on policy and implementation. The dominance of this paper to the Panel is evident when one looks at how the goal of the Panel was expressed in its report to Council:

The goal of the Citizens’ Panel on Edmonton’s Energy and Climate Challenges was to discover whether we, as Edmontonians, want our city to become low carbon, whether we consider the Discussion Paper to provide a good map for getting there, and how much we support particular actions proposed in it.

2. Values Were Introduced Into The Citizen Process

In deliberative dialogues with citizens, the role of values is crucial. Citizens are not expected to bring expert or technical knowledge to the table; instead they bring their own experiences and values. In various ways through the sessions, citizens were invited to deliberate on what values should guide government as it makes decisions and what value tensions need to be addressed. They then applied these values to the issue(s) at hand, including thinking through the trade-offs that people are willing to make for the collective good.

The Citizens’ Panel final recommendations and report included four value-driven principles and a core set of four values: Sustainability, Equity, Quality of life, and Balancing individual freedom and the Public good.

3. Dialogue Was Facilitated Through Six Sessions

The Citizens’ Panel was thoughtfully designed into six sessions in order to get participants comfortable, provide detailed information open the floor to fruitful discussion in an effective order of events and provide time for reflection. The sessions, hosted on six consecutive Saturdays, included:

  • Session 1: Begin values exploration and get citizens comfortable with one another
  • Session 2: Information session and framework presentation
  • Session 3: Panelists discuss the Discussion Paper in small groups
  • Session 4: Deliberation, wherein panelists work through the hard trade-offs and tensions to determine what should be done to achieve the necessary targets
  • Session 5: Open space for groups to explore topics in depth
  • Session 6: Final determination of recommendations

4. The Role, Benefit and Challenge of Emotion in Dialogue Was Acknowledged

Deliberation on important issues that engage our values can be emotional (Gastil and Levine 2005; Fishkin 2006). Design needs to recognize this and make space for it. For example, one of the first activities in Session 1 asked participants to select a photo that represented their hopes, fears or concerns about being a panel member on the topic of climate change and energy resiliency. This gave a prominent place to feelings and emotions and provided the opening for people to bring both their hearts and heads to the table.

5. Diversity of Methods Was Employed

Good design takes into consideration the practices and principles of adult education and citizen participation (Creighton 20 0 5; Schwartz 20 0 2). As designers, it was important to incorporate a range of ways for people to work with and process information.

To this end, there were 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 and some of it with physical activities (e.g. getting panelists to position themselves in a physical space to align with 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.

6. Panelists Participated In Varied Group Configurations

Over the course of the six sessions, participants worked on their own, in pairs or triads, in small groups, and in the full group. In addition, the composition of groups varied from session to session so that panelists learned to work with each other, especially with those who had different views, personalities and approaches.

Well-Designed Deliberative Dialogue Proves a Success

Overall we believe that the Edmonton deliberation was a success. The dedication, perseverance and collective capacity of the Panel members reinforced our previous experience that citizens have what it takes to wrestle with and work through the tough and complex issues our society faces — if they are given the appropriate process, credible and balanced information and an opportunity for real influence. And deliberative dialogue, done well, provides that.

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