Three Prerequisites for Effective Deliberative Dialogue: Citizen 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.

Before setting off on any process of deliberative dialogue, facilitators need to firmly establish the why, the what, and the how of the process. Effective deliberations require participants to connect fully to the purpose and goals of the project, to be informed about the issues at hand, and to be provided with a framework to guide them.

1. Provide Clarity of Purpose

Achieving clarity on the “why” question is a critical step in any deliberation project. If a project team has difficulty coming to a common understanding about why participants are being engaged before deliberations are launched, this can lead to internal conflict and dysfunction during implementation and afterward. Consequences include confusion, or worse, distrust, about what they are being asked to do and why they are being asked to do it.

For the Citizens’ Panel on Edmonton’s Energy and Climate Challenges, we established the purpose of the dialogue in our formal project implementation plan. It read, in part:

“The Citizen Panel will bring together diverse citizens of Edmonton and support them in learning about the issues, articulating their values, and evaluating the range of implementation steps. The Citizen Panel will make recommendations that capture their reflective sense of these transition options and implementation steps—their acceptability, how far and how fast to implement them, any red lines, areas of convergence and divergence between citizens. This will inform the proposal to Council, and the Panel recommendations will go before Council alongside the Administration proposal.”

2. Provide for an Informed Dialogue

Once the purpose of a citizen dialogue panel is established, it is essential to provide participants with a complete enough understanding of the issues being discussed for them to have an informed dialogue and feel comfortable with the questions at hand. One of the most effective ways to do this is through a central briefing document and/or resource handbook.

We used a document called Edmonton’s Energy Transitions Discussion Paper as the central document for the panel. It included details on ways to reduce Edmonton’s fossil-fuel dependence and greenhouse gas emissions, including electricity, transit, industry, and vehicles. The paper also recommended a slate of actions to address climate change and energy supply. The panel could then weigh the recommendations as presented.

The Discussion paper presented energy and carbon reduction as interlinked and intertwined challenges. However, there was concern that it did not provide a sufficient base of information on climate change. Nor had it been developed for a citizen process. To meet these shortcomings, a team from ABCD and CPI developed a participant resource handbook. It was a complement to the Discussion paper, describing how the Panel would work and how decisions would be made Research concerning climate change and energy vulnerability was accompanied with factual information on Edmonton’s present and possible energy future. The Handbook also included content on risk, uncertainty, values, trustworthiness in scientific information, and a glossary.

3. Frame the Issue for Deliberation

Finally, citizen panels must be provided with a framework to guide their deliberations.

Coming to agreement about how the dialogue issue would be framed for the Citizens’ Panel—what was on the table for deliberation and what was not—was no simple matter given the scope and complexity of energy and climate change issues.

The Project Team agreed that Edmonton’s Energy Transitions Discussion Paper was the best framework for their deliberations. We framed the discussions around the two challenges presented in the Paper: energy and carbon reduction.

This dual framing allowed for more and broader entry points into dialogue and helped expand potential common ground. It also provided a positive and local framing around concrete actions. Had we focused on the global and national dimensions of climate change, the Panel might have had more difficulty arriving at consensus on what actions to take. We feel that the focus on their own community and their ability to have some influence sustained their interest throughout the six sessions. It also addressed the client’s needs who wanted advice on a “made-in-Edmonton” approach to energy sustainability.

The Value of Effective Deliberative Dialogue

By clearly communicating the purpose of the dialogue, providing a discussion paper to outline core background information, and framing the deliberations in a way that fostered productive dialogue, the panel discussion was able to achieve success. Since panelists were engaged and understood the value of their participation, they were able to contribute meaningfully to the climate change dialogue. The deliberative process provides its greatest value when the “why,” the “what” and the “how” are firmly established.

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