Working with Divergence and Emergence, While Maintaining Focus: Lessons from the Edmonton Citizen Panel on Climate Challenges

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.

A critical moment in deliberative dialogue comes when citizens crystallize their common ground on an issue – while recognizing there may still be divergent opinions on some aspects. It is the role of the practitioner to build opportunities for resolution into the design of the process and to allow citizens to air divergent opinions without losing focus.

In the fall of 2012, we facilitated the Citizens’ Panel on Edmonton’s Energy and Climate Challenges. Understanding that hardened positions can form around environmental issues, we needed to design a process that gave space to divergent opinions but also created opportunities to find and build common ground.

Building resolution into the design of a citizen dialogue panel involves outlining a strategic but flexible overall design; providing space for idea exploration; and striking the right balance between exploration and decision-making.

Mapping Out The Path To Emergence

The process design – the strategic development and ordering of activities – is crucial to any panel facilitation. The first three Saturdays of the Edmonton sessions were largely devoted to fostering an understanding of the critical issues. Deliberation began in earnest on the fourth Saturday (Day 4), with participants spending most of their day working to identify their level of agreement with and support for the goal and activities, including around targets, expected greenhouse-gas reductions, and rationale.

This was a critical moment: the process had to support the panelists to do this “heavy lifting”— working through hard trade-offs and tensions to determine what they as citizens were prepared to do, both individually and through their government, to achieve the targets that they thought were necessary. We urged them to consider what values came to the forefront in doing that. By strategically facilitating the order of discussion, citizen concerns and considerations were able to come to light at a constructive point in time.

Letting Participants Find Their “Safe Space” For Idea Exploration

Citizen dialogue panels need to both give citizens a “safe space” to go outside their comfort zones in exploring ideas, and keep them focused on the hard choices (Yankelovich 1991; Fishkin 2006). It is also important to facilitate clear communication among participants and between participants and facilitators.

In the Edmonton panel, at one stage participants used colour coding (green for yes; red for no; yellow for cautions or conditions for support; blue for don’t know enough yet) as an aid to identifying common ground as well as areas of focus for further deliberation. The use of colors made the level of convergence/divergence more visual and easier to assess.

A great deal of common ground was evident by the end of Day 4 and was reinforced on Day 5. However, it also became apparent that there were some important areas of divergence. The afternoon of Day 5 provided an “open space” opportunity where participants could identify the topics on which they wanted to do more work. This was a deliberate design choice, as we could not predict in advance which key issues would emerge.

Groups were given the freedom to focus on and explore specific recommendations and then vote on them later. This helped to reassure participants that the issues they care about and the recommendations that they make will be duly discussed and considered. The process is as important as the final decision because it allows the deeper tradeoffs and tensions to emerge. And it keeps the decision-making process distinct so that people do not feel constrained in the deliberation phase.

Electronic keypads were used for the decision-making process. Acceptance of recommendations was based on a threshold negotiated with and by the panelists themselves. (See the Panel’s Final Report for more information)

Balancing Exploration With Focus To Achieve The Panel Goals

While it is beneficial to give space to explore new ideas, in practice this was limited by the time available, coupled with the need to deliberate fully on the numerous recommendations proposed in the Discussion Paper. To some extent, the comprehensiveness of the Discussion Paper constrained the panelists and in some cases led to frustration, but it also led to some creative thinking as participants found ways to introduce new ideas or priorities, such as fiscal prudence.

The policies recommended in the paper covered the critical policy actions that would be required to address energy transition and carbon reduction in Edmonton, within the perceived political parameters of City decision-making. Despite the time constraints, alternative viewpoints were heard and given their due, and a firm consensus indeed emerged.

It is important to strike a balance between providing citizens with a detailed Discussion Paper that aids in efficiency and allowing time and space to give new ideas—ideas that are not included in the Discussion Paper—a proper hearing. Dialogue sessions that strike the right balance allow participants to explore creative thought; while still keeping the group focused on its overall objectives. This citizen panel experience exemplified the need for specific design elements to facilitate emergence, explore divergence and maintain focus. All need to be fully served in order for deliberative dialogue to succeed.

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