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Democratic dialogues: how to communicate with the people of Nuneaton

The 2015 General Election was a disaster for people and political parties that can loosely be called ‘progressive’. Rather than relying upon the one-way communication of ‘messages’ and ‘narratives’, they now need to learn how to engage in open-ended ‘Democratic Dialogues’.

Image of 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed' Essential reading for 'progressives'. Flickr/Brazilian Culture Ministry. Some rights reserved.

"Radical Hope"

On Saturday May 16th, I went to a meeting entitled "Radical Hope". It was organised by Compass, a progressive think-tank. Their website says that Compass is a home for those who want to build and be a part of a Good Society. To that end, among other things, Compass says it aims to:

Provide political education to help members and activists make change in our increasingly complex world on the local, national, UK and European levels… Behave in ways that replicate what we want a Good Society to look and feel like.

Compass would no doubt say that the meeting was a success: well over a hundred 'progressive' people paid to attend from 1pm to 5 pm on a sunny Saturday in the East End of London. However, if the way you organise meetings is a useful indicator of what a good society would look like and feel like, for me, Compass failed miserably.

The problem is that the meeting was designed and managed as a classic example of the traditional leftist ways of doing things.  As the website told us, Compass certainly ‘talked the talk’:

This event will be led by you. A big part of the day will be ‘open space’ groups where you decide what you want to discuss so that you can get together with others who want to develop similar ideas and actions. You can suggest themes and ideas for the open space here – it’ll shape the day! As the old politics begins to crumble the possibility for a radical politics of hope emerges... We need to start creating real democracy.

The trouble was, at the event itself, they totally failed to ‘walk the walk’. Here is why.

The location was a fifteen minute walk from Shadwell Docklands Light Railway station: a cavernous, bleak and highly reverberant main meeting room, with a small bar for drinks and snacks, and some spaces for breakout groups.

It did start bang on time. But 1pm to 5 pm is not 'a day'. For most people 'a day' is from, say, 9.30 or earlier to 6pm. This is not pedantry. It is important because in eight or nine hours a hundred people can do much more than they can do in 4 hours.

My heart sank when I saw the layout of the main room. It had rows of folding chairs laid out in the classic platform-and-audience format. Except that there was no platform. The speakers would be sitting on the same level as the audience. And there were a lot of speakers: three MPs, 3 Guardian journalists and assorted think-tankers.

We started with a few words of welcome from Neal Lawson, the Chief Executive of Compass and an introduction to Ruth Lister as the Chair of the event. Ms Lister told us that the platform speakers would each have five to seven minutes to say what they thought were the most important issues that we had to address. At least I think that what she said. I certainly remember the limit of 5 to 7 minutes on the platform speakers. But Ms. Lister remained seated as she spoke and the rather poor quality of the PA system and the hall's reverberant acoustics made it difficult to be sure what she was saying.

At the time I was sitting at the end of the fourth row and this clip shows what I could see when Neal Lawson was speaking. Note that most of the speakers are invisible.

Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP spoke first. When she was asked to finish her remarks, she began to speak more quickly saying she just had a couple of quick points she wanted to make. I couldn't hear what these important points actually were before she gave way. The next speaker was at the other end of the platform and spoke so poorly that members of the audience asked him to speak up and speak more slowly. Even so it was difficult to hear what he had to say and I tuned him out.

At this point, I noticed that Neal Lawson was standing a few feet away from me. I went over to him and said that I thought the process was going to go on for at least another hour and was killing the energy of the audience. Without an appropriate large-group process, a meeting like this would be really boring. Frankly I couldn't see any point in staying. He rejected my concerns, saying that there would be an 'Open Space' process later on and that would give the members of the audience a chance to contribute.

So I moved to a seat further back in the hall to observe proceedings. The clip I linked to above shows that it was just about possible to hear what was being said when sitting near the front. This clip is taken from my seat near the back. It has echoes of the "Blessed are the cheese-makers" scene in "The Life of Brian".

Such images make me wonder if the people around me were resigned to going to meetings and sitting silently looking at the backs of other people's heads while the platform speakers harangued them while at best only half-hearing what was being said. Perhaps they are. Perhaps that's why so many people think that politics is a boring waste of time.

It also raises the question of whether this is what Compass thinks a Good Society would feel like, look like, sound like? I certainly hope not.

At about 2.15 the speakers finished their comments and the Open Space process was announced. It would end at 15.30 for a tea-break, after which the group convenors would report back to the meeting in plenary. Each group was to produce (I think) 1) a list of things that gave them hope for the future, and 2) some suggestions as to what actions to take to realise or build on those hopes.

A slide was then shown of the fourteen topics that had been pre-decided (!!) (possibly from emailed suggestions) for the 'Open Space' groups to discuss.  Each group would be led by the people who had proposed the topics, some of whom had also been speakers.

The locations of the groups were indicated by scruffily hand-lettered A4. Sheets sellotaped around the main hall and on the way to the break-out rooms.

Neal Lawson reminded us that whoever comes to the group is/are the right people, and that the only law of Open Space is the Law of Two Feet, which says

If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else.

If you are familiar with "Open Space Technology" you will immediately see that this was an over-simplified and bowdlerised version of the very complex and sophisticated real thing.

If you are new to the Open Space process, you can see what it should be from its Wikipedia page and the many films of explanations and events that have been posted on YouTube.

The audience duly broke up into groups and I wandered around to see what was happening. The acoustics made discussions in the main room into a deafening din and how anyone in the larger groups could hear what was being said baffled me. The group discussing a progressive narrative and the media was impossibly large with 28 members.

I joined a small group with five members discussing 'The World'. As I sat down, the man who had been speaking in a strong French accent left, and we were five once more. Then another woman joined us.

The convener had been one of the platform speakers. A member of the group asked her a question about her presentation, to which she responded very knowledgeably. Even so with only six of us in the group, and all straining forward to hear, the background din made it difficult to follow what she was saying.

I was asked for my interest in 'the World', and I said that I'd been studying and observing democratic innovations such as the Participative Budgeting Process in Brazil since 2001. Why did I do that?  Because I'd co-written a book about Gaian Democracies and thought that Latin America was the best place to try to work out how to put its ideas into practice.

A woman member said she didn't know what Gaia meant, and left as I was trying to explain. Then another man joined us and told us what he wanted to talk about. After a few minutes, he too left, and one of the organisers notified us that we had 15 minutes to come up with our hopes and action-ideas.

One of the women knelt down and started to write some ideas on the A3 sheets of paper that were on the floor between us. I don't remember what she wrote but after some discussion of the relative importance of political theory and community practice, she too got up and left.

The convener and I then had a short conversation about whether political theory was or was not important in making change happen at community level. After making some notes in a little book, she asked me what were my grounds for hope. I replied that I found the determination of Latin American radicals to push back against neoliberalism very encouraging even though they were facing enormous difficulties.

Now, the other woman in the group said she didn't know what neoliberalism was. So I tried to explain that neoliberalism is the free-market ideology that underpins the economic, social and foreign policies we call Thatcherism and Reaganism and those of every government since.

The convener then asked if I had any practical proposals for the plenary session. I said Compass could organise a series of workshops on why we have to push back against neoliberalism and what we could learn from the Latin American experience.

As we were ending the session, I asked the convener if she needed any more information on neoliberalism to help prepare her presentation to the plenary session. She said she would not be mentioning it. When I asked why, she said that as the convener of the group she could choose what to say and what not to say. Somewhat astonished, I pointed out that in her role as a facilitator, she should try to reflect what the members had said in her reporting of the discussion.

She disagreed. As far as she was concerned she could choose what she said in her report to the plenary according to her own preferences. In effect anything that I or anyone else had said was irrelevant to the report she would make to the plenary session.

At which point, I invoked the law of two feet and left the meeting entirely. The next day, as I reflected on the event, I realised it gave me an opportunity to offer some thoughts on one of the perennial questions that bedevils radical politics in any country.

In a few sentences that were audible from the platform, John Harris, who had reported on the 2015 election for the Guardian, spoke about the need to work out 'how to communicate with the people of Nuneaton', and similar towns which Labour ought to have won but lost. This is one of those apparently simple issues that actually goes to the heart of what is wrong with the mind-set of the progressive elites such as those responsible for the Radical Hope event.

Communication vs propaganda

The interest shown in the topic of a progressive narrative and the media suggests how the problem is currently being defined. Communicating with the people of Nuneaton, it seems, is defined as the need to create the right story and then finding an attractive way to get it across.

The problem of communication seems to be seen as working out how to improve a traditional one-way process; in other words, propaganda.

No doubt, propaganda works very well if you are in control of the messages transmitted by a good chunk of the mass media 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If not, then the message has to be very carefully crafted, precisely targeted and delivered with great skill and persistence. And even then, it often fails to make any impact.

As George Prince tells us in The Practice of Creativity, the definition of the problem is a partial statement of the solution. If progressives define the problem of 'communicating with Nuneaton' from a narrative or message perspective, the answer has to be based on some form of propaganda. However, when your opponents control a substantial part of the mass-media, have vast budgets and tightly-coordinated campaigns for lobbying, public relations, advertising and promotions, an approach based on spasmodic, cheap and haphazard attempts at counter- propaganda is sure to fail.

So, what should be the definition of the problem of how to communicate to the people of Nuneaton for the progressive elites? I believe that to communicate successfully with the people of Nuneaton, progressive elites will need to reject models of communication that are essentially based on top-down monologues, and embrace a strategy that is based on 'Democratic Dialogues'.

Democratic Dialogues

The great Brazilian educator Paulo Freire said that:

Monologue reinforces oppression, silence, resignation, ignorance, fear, mistrust. Dialogue nurtures liberation, hope, energy, competence, trust.

Dialogues, he says,

  • - Increase people’s ability to perceive the challenges of their time.
  • - Predispose people to reevaluate constantly, to analyse “findings”, to adopt scientific methods and processes.
  • - Help people to assume an increasingly critical attitude towards the world and so to transform it.
  • - Enable people to discuss courageously the problems of their context – and to intervene in that context (by) offering them the confidence and strength to confront those dangers instead of surrendering to the decisions of others.

A Practical Guide to Democratic Dialogues (pdf), compiled in 2007 by Mirna Angelica Cuentas and Anai Linarezs Mendez for The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Organisation of American States (OAS) offers this useful explanation of the difference between Dialogue, Negotiation and Debate.

NEGOTIATION

DIALOGUE

The expected outcome is a concrete agreement.

The expected result is the transformation of human relationships.

Participants seek to define and satisfy material interests through specific arrangements agreed by the parties.

Participants seek to create new human and political problem-solving capacities.

The parties must be ready to attempt to reach agreement.

Can be fruitful even if the parties are not ready to negotiate but are convinced that they do not want to continue a destructive relationship.

Involves assets or rights that can be physically divided, shared, or defined tangibly.

Involves change in relationships by creating new bases for mutual respect and cooperation.

DEBATE

DIALOGUE

Participants listen to each other in order to refute data, trying to demonstrate flaws in what the others are saying.

Participants listen to others in order to get to know each other better and to understand each other’s beliefs and interests.

Participants seek to impose their ideas, given that debate should lead to a single answer, so they defend their own views.

Participants  express and share their uncertainties as well as their deepest beliefs

Offers very little new information.

New information emerges.

By adopting a communications strategy based on Democratic Dialogues,  progressive elites would be able to achieve an increasingly Precise Shared Understanding (PSU) with the people of Nuneaton about what has to be done to tackle the agenda of complex dilemmas that they, their communities and our society are facing. Thus, the problem of communicating with the people of Nuneaton, could be defined as:

"How can the progressive elites learn how to reject the Monologue/ Propaganda model of communication and embrace one based on Democratic Dialogues?”

Democratic Dialogues in action



The above image shows something of what the people of Nuneaton might encounter if the progressive elites genuinely wanted to communicate with them. The people are engaged in a typical dialogue process. There are only a handful of people in this particular group, but there could be a dozen similar dialogues taking place around the room. Similar processes can be designed to involve as many as a thousand people in arriving at a shared understanding of what should be done to improve their business or public service or community.

What about the room itself? Could it be a ballroom? Or a clubroom of some sort? It certainly isn't depressingly bleak as was the hall at the Radical Hope event.

Look at the sheets of paper posted on the wall in front of the group. They show that the dialogue must have been going for several hours or even days to have produced so many ideas and so much information.

Finally we see the group's Facilitator at work. In my experience of designing and managing dozens of successful dialogues like the ones illustrated here, there needs to be at least one skilled Facilitator for every ten participants.


If members of the progressive elites were to engage seriously in a long-term programme of Democratic Dialogues they will begin to learn from and learn with the people of Nuneaton. Hopefully, they will also begin to see that the complexity of the systems they are working on makes it potentially lethal to try to treat them as if they are simple and linear in their properties and problems.

That's the beauty of the precise shared understandings (PSUs) that are produced through democratic dialogues. Based on that PSU, they enable people operating at all levels within a complex system to produce the predictable outcomes that are not only unobtainable but inconceivable in top-down, centre-periphery, command-and-control, monological communication.

Costs and Benefits

If members of the progressive elites genuinely want to explore the potential benefits and costs of engaging in Democratic Dialogues in hundreds of 'Nuneaton's, the best first step would be to organize a 2-day workshop with a score or so of Dialogue practitioners from fields such as Creative Problem-Solving, Whole-Systems Change, the Charrette Process, Management Cybernetics, Paulo Freire's Culture Circles, and Soft-Systems Thinking.

In the UK alone there are hundreds of such specialists with many decades of practical, successful experience in business, the public services, and community development. Worldwide, there are thousands of them.

To start bringing the Democratic Dialogue processes into hundreds of 'Nuneatons' would need several hundred thousand pounds  in development funding for a small team working for about a year, and then annual funding of a few tens of thousands of pounds per Nuneaton thereafter.

With a relatively modest amount of funding, progressive elites could be engaged in a Democratic Dialogues programme with dozens of ‘Nuneatons’, over the next five or six years.

They could all then begin to understand what Tom Bottomore meant when he said:

It would not have occurred to most of the democratic political thinkers of the nineteenth century to regard universal suffrage (ie the right to vote), competition between several political parties and representative government, however valuable by contrast with the institutions of other political regimes, as the ultimate point of democratic progress, beyond which it was impossible to venture.

That is surely worth a few million pounds and a few years of democratic innovation with the people of many Nuneatons.


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