…better, why the refusal of public servants to engage in a strategy discussion led to a surprising outcome. In 2009, the Austrian Council was working on a research strategy for the Austrian government – a process it´s tasked with by law.  At the time, the relationship between the advisory body and the administration was beset by conflict which led to a boycott of the Council’s activities by ministries. In practice, the Council could not discuss – and thus validate – the strategy with government officials. 

Conflicts in policy elaboration are the norm and the battle field of lobbyists but usually fought behind closed doors. This holds for the conflict between the Council and the administration. A refusal to cooperate in such a process is highly unusual as it deprives the abstaining institution of any influence on the final outcome. Obviously, for reasons not to be discussed here, the administration was convinced that the Council is no longer a credible player. The refusal to cooperate was intended to discourage the Council from presenting the strategy which would create restrictions on the room to manoeuvre of the administration.

In a surprising step, the Council resorted to opening the discussion, creating an online platform and inviting everybody to join the discussion. This move and the way it was executed changed essential properties of traditional stakeholder involvement process: 

  • Online deliberations give the same weight to each contributor and thus empower those outside the traditional power networks. Traditional stakeholders are important in such discussions but are in conflict if and how to contribute as the process  relies on the power of arguments rather than weight of the discussant. 
  • Arguments are key and the starting point for discussions in online processes. For some participants its sobering to notice that their proposals receive little support from others. This usually is a healthy process that may reduce the willingness to fight for these ideas. Others may see their arguments fly. Still the reaction of the community towards arguments should never be taken at face value. Some of the favored suggestions may not be suitable, likewise excellent suggestions may be overlooked or not understood. In order to avoid these errors, those analysing the contributions do have to be experts in the field to extract the most valuable information and insights.
  • The deliberation produces knowledge for both the organiser and participants alike. Discussions reveal what is important – sometimes a real surprise -, identify controversial issues and thus point to salient issues that have to be dealt with. 
  • Knowing what’s important and what’s controversial is an essential information in decision making processes because it allows for a sharper focus and better solutions for conflicts. This results in better decisions, i.e. prioritise specific proposals first (e.g. important and consensual suggestions), delay a decision until the situation may have cleared or oppose some suggestions. 
  • Such open deliberations only work if there is two way communication between the organisers and participants. Whatever the decision is, the organiser has to inform participants about the outcome and the motivations for the decisions. Given this feedback, the willingness to participate in the future will be strongly increased and vice versa. 

11 year and many online decision making processes later, these insights still hold. 

The discussion of the strategy paper of the Council – a joint effort between the Austrian Council and cbased – was a huge success (see here for details). The discussion platform  (see the first version here or the screenshot below) became the starting point for discuto.io which is now a SaaS platform for stakeholder involvement processes based on ideations, document discussions and surveys as process elements – but this is a different story. 

Looking back at participatory processes organised over the years, the main challenges remain the same irrespective of the environment in which the process is organised (i.e. discussing policy recommendations in large scale projects, elaborating and validating strategies, involving employees in decisions, decision making in networks, etc.) They can be summarised as follows: 

  1. Building a community: This may be easy if you organise closed group discussions and know each and every person to be invited. If the group of potential participants is larger or the general public, well defined communication strategies are needed in order to reach people that are interested in the topic to be deliberated on. This actually, is the only group you should be interested in. 
  1. Organising two way communications: Given that you were successful in informing potential participants about the process, you have to prove that you will take into consideration the contributions that will be made. If you are not putting your weight behind this claim or already have a reputation for not listening, no rational person will contribute. It would be a waste of time. Thus you are either able to demonstrate that you have carefully evaluated input form participants in the past or you really commit in doing so. 

Many institutions that organise or commission participatory processes do this on an adhoc, erratic or one time basis. The effect is that community building begins from scratch every time such a process is started. This is tedious and costly.  

Institutions that would like to have continuous participation should make this commitment explicit by the mandatory integration of participatory elements in their decision making processes and should invest in building a community over time. This might seem like a big investment but is not: Community building should be easily integrated into ongoing communication activities. 

Interacting with the community and demonstrating that inputs are taken into consideration and implemented is a challenge for many organisations. This, of course, includes making decisions that oppose the input of the community on a specific issue. This can be done by clearly communicating the reasons for this deviating decision. Participants soberly assess the chances that their proposal will be taken up. They do not expect that each and every suggestion is implemented as is. What they expect and rightfully demand is that all suggestions are evaluated and the resulting action to be communicated. 

So, overall, if you consider participatory processes, go in strong, build a community over time and be approachable and accountable vis a vis your community. Then you will experience all benefits of community based decision making processes. The Council was highly successful in online validating the strategy: In a vivid discussion process more than 800 comments were added on the platform. The Council thoroughly evaluated the input, integrated many suggestions and even added fundamentally new approaches to the strategy document. This was communicated to participants after the process. The strategy itself was the basis for a government’s science, technology and innovation strategy which incorporated most of the Council’s recommendations. This would have been a very unlike outcome without the community standing behind the Council. 

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