Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Dialogue and Public Participation

Communication for Social Change: An Integrated Model for Measuring the Process and Its Outcomes by Maria Elena Figueroa, D. Lawrence Kincaid, Manju Rani and Gary Lewis
(link opens a pdf but you can also find the article at

Key components of the model (p. ii):

• Sustainability of social change is more likely if the individuals and communities most affected own the process and content of communication.

• Communication for social change should be empowering, horizontal (versus top-down), give a voice to the previously unheard members of the community, and be biased towards local content and ownership.

• Communities should be the agents of their own change

• Emphasis should shift from persuasion and the transmission of information from outside technical experts to dialogue, debate and negotiation on issues that resonate with members of the community.

• Emphasis on outcomes should go beyond individual behavior to social norms, policies, culture and the supporting environment.

Their approach is supported in the literature on environmental communication. One major theme in the literature on environmental communication is the importance of engaging people in a dialogue about solutions to environmental problems.

Kathleen Regan points out that “[d]ialogue is genuinely creative and generative act. Successful dialogue is sometimes simply a willingness to meet again to continue talking, but once people begin to speak honestly about their concerns, and about their own uncertainties with regard to their deeply held positions, ideas for next steps emerge that could not have been imagined before the dialogue. Success can also be a decision to take an action that was previously not imagined or thought possible”(Moser & Dilling, 2007, p. 213).

One of the difficulties associated with framing and message design is the process of learning about people’s cognitive frames or mental models, then having to redesign the messages and sit back and hope that the frame fits and the message hits. With dialogue and public engagement, this can be done all at once. The process can be interactive and democratic. The top down communication model can be discarded for one that is inclusive and creative.

Regan tells us that “[o]ne hallmark of dialogue that distinguishes it from other kinds of talk is its ability to identify an “old conversation” that can act as a discursive trap and its techniques for providing opportunities for participants to step out of that conversation and into a new one…[i]n the context of climate change, the “old conversation” appears to be dominated and carried out within the frame of scientific knowledge, certainty and uncertainty, and predictions of the future…[b]roadening the conversation beyond science and trusting the dialogue process enough for scientists to share the conversation with non-scientists is a key ingredient to creating a “new conversation” on climate change”(Moser & Dilling, 2007, p. 215-216).

Cox and Regan point to the need for a new approach to dialogue and public engagement that makes for more constructive results than have been seen up until now. Cox asks the question “[a]re public hearings sometimes divisive or unproductive because of the way the public acts, or is there something wrong with the process itself?...formal mechanisms for public participation too often are simply ritualistic processes that give members of the public little opportunity to influence decisions. It’s not a surprise, then, that ordinary citizens so often experience ‘frustration, disillusionment, skepticism, and anger’ (Senecah, 2004, p. 18)”(Cox, 2006, p.128).

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