Wednesday, 16 November 2011

the Occupy movement and public consultations

Two recent Open File articles by Hilary Beaumont discuss the public consultation process for a Halifax stadium, and make a comparison of the World Cafe method being used there with the consensus process being used by General Assemblies in the Occupy movement. Analysis of dialogue and decision making processes is hugely important, and Hilary's questions and observations get right to the point.

Hilary asks which process is best for making collective decisions and, "which one is winning at democracy?" However that kind of question seems similar to asking whether a hammer or a saw is the best tool for building a house. It is far too narrow a focus to be of any practical help. Clearly both hammers and saws are needed in different circumstances, for different purposes. And it is also comparing apples to oranges. World Cafe is not a group decision making process, it is a group conversation process that is massively scalable and by it's nature cannot be dominated by a few loud voices. General Assemblies use a consensus based decision making process that, as Hilary notes, works best in small groups.

So although comparing and contrasting methods is vital, setting up a competition between them doesn't seem particularly helpful. The most important thing is that we keep constantly learning about how to apply the best possible process in any given situation. It's an art, not a science. And there are many other powerful social technologies like these.

Hilary points out a weakness of World Cafe: it may be very resistant to domination by a few loud voices, but if there is a majority position or a position that has the backing of the power structures of society, minority voices can end up being be suppressed. While it offers great opportunities to co-create out of diverse perspective, it is not particularly well-suited to handling perspectives that are in direct conflict with each other. However, there is just no comparison between a World Cafe public consultation process and the more common "town hall" meeting style where a few people get to grandstand and the rest sit in silence. World Cafe is just hugely superior for inviting citizens' voices into the process in almost any situation.

But here we get to a far more important point. When a local governance system, lacking entirely in imagination, rather sclerotic and at least a little nepotistic, and intimately tied into the parasitic global financial system, moves towards putting our money towards a stadium and calls a public consultation process to explore the idea, the process used in the public consultation is not really the main issue here.

I fully support my colleagues and friends who are opening new spaces for civic engagement using World Cafe and other methods. But to expect the kind of revolutionary systemic transformation we need to come from a government led and funded consultation process is simply unrealistic. What these processes can do however is create connections, build networks, and open minds to the fact that there are other ways to have the important social conversations.

Another interesting question is, "How could Occupy use these Cafe consultation processes to advance the movement?" In a space like this, citizens are gathered to discuss one aspect of the future of our city. What if 10-20 Occupiers got together and decided to use it as an outreach event? Spread out at tables around the room, engaging with citizens and challenging the priorities that lead our government to put a stadium ahead of other pressing needs like a strong social safety net and building the resilience of our local economy. Not trying to sabotage or hijack the process, but using it to bring up the deeper issues that might otherwise remain unspoken. Use it as a way to plant seeds for future conversations in contexts where radical change is actually on the agenda.

Building a stadium is a colossal waste of money in a world of depleting resources and drastically increasing instability. But I have no desire to fight the powers that be on this issue. Stadium or no stadium has nothing to do with radical change, and therefore is just not worth it. However, engaging with the process under the right circumstances, with the right view, in cooperation with the right people, might be worth the effort. The government has invited a conversation with citizens. Kudos to them for this, for what it is. The question for those who want radical systemic change is, "Is there an opportunity here to advance that agenda, or are the conditions not ripe for that and our efforts are better spent elsewhere?"