The only way. For trust in government.

trust in government

The only way? A must for trust in government? Yes says this post, of deliberative style public decision-making.

Deliberative citizens’ juries, forums, assemblies and panels are now commonplace. In fact I know two people who have been recruited on to juries in two different states. Two people who are proud of the experience.

I called one of them last week. I was preparing to offer deliberative democracy training. Trust in Government was the theme.

‘Right now I don’t feel very optimistic about government myself, but I’ve since I’ve had the experience over and over of seeing people grapple with difficult issues in juries,’ I said. ‘I’m certain it is a way to increase trust in government.’

‘It’s the only way,’ she replied.

‘What makes you so sure?’ She came back immediately with …

Key ingredients

Firstly, I would never have joined forces with the others selected on to the panel. They came from different age groups and backgrounds. They had different skills. And they all brought commitment to solving the problem at hand.

We were put in a position to concentrate entirely on council’s problem. The remit for the panel was clearly focused. The trade off challenge was obvious.

Council was incredibly transparent. I was really surprised how frank and courageous they were. They laid (not very optimistic) information on the table. We understood from this information exactly what the problem was.

Our recommendations were presented at a closed Council Meeting. They asked questions and the report’s now in the hands of Council staff to apply. One councillor didn’t get the central premise of the report, perhaps hadn’t read it. But overall the panel’s work had landed with those who commissioned it.

trust in government
Photo credit: Byron Echo, Amy Phillips

These are key ingredients in the recipe for successful deliberative forums. They account for a change in perception by inviting trust.

With council acknowledging its has a trust deficit with the community, a citizens jury panel of 28 randomly selected anonymous ratepayers has been brought into decide how the rate rise funds will be spent the critical local paper wrote in advance of the panel.

Avoid erosion of trust

If my friend had had to put up with the council’s past attempts to consult the community again, trust would have been eroded by:

The perception they were consulting with a few people of a certain sort who they happened to decide were relevant. By contrast my friend felt that there was an interest in the whole community and its future.

The feeling of wasting precious time. They want my ideas and views in five minutes/one hour/half a day for nothing. It was clear that this problem could only be addressed by deep consideration, exchange of views, debate, review, and above all the willingness of participants not to hold fixed views. It would take some time.

Perhaps the aspect my friend most appreciated was that the deliberation was realistic and authoritative since the council put its trust in the panellists and gave access to relevant council documents and other material.

After devoting so much time to an agreed outcome, she felt what was decided was worthwhile and would make a difference to council in the coming period.

I’m afraid that all Canberra workshop participants saw their own agencies casually and regularly eroding trust with people. This happens through consulting people too late when the outcome is already decided, and through missing strategic opportunities to ask real questions. Senior managers lack trust themselves and make false assumptions about citizens’ interests and capabilities. Unfortunately the habit of eroding trust is hard to break, and so we see people who claim to be consulting trashing a very important brand, government.

p.s. my other friend appears in this footage that I played at the Trust in Government workshop in Canberra.

Café processes revisited: deliberative when well done

cafe conversation at Kinfolk

Café formats can bring strangers together for facilitated conversations and put them at ease. They can stimulate lively, informal discussion and bring out all sorts of views, and when well done are deliberative in nature. Such cafes have been used extensively in social and community engagements in the last 25 years. They may be small or larger scale groupings and events.

The recent death of the founder of prominent not-for-profit Death Café makes this theme poignant and meaningful to me. As the convenor of Death Café Melbourne I’ve put on a handful of Cafés, at Kinfok Café, and in other public spaces. We had a Solstice Death Café only last month at the City of Melbourne’s lovely Kathleen Syme Library and Community Centre.

Jon Underwood built Death Café into a fabulous worldwide social franchise. It all began as a café with tea and cakes in his home in north London. He strongly believed that there were people like him who wanted to talk freely about death. There have now been over 4,000 Death Cafés worldwide. There is no doubt that the movement will live on.

I’d like to revisit the Café style processes, and refresh perspective on a tried and true, stock staple format for public conversation. What is it about this kind of process that makes it useful for dialogue and discussion? How do we hold the best café style events that are deliberative in intent?

Strangers getting together for important conversations.

People who have never met a facilitator in their life, who are at home with their families or friends, may see a proposal to get together for a chat with strangers as too much of an ask. Yet those who work in the field of facilitation, community engagement, advocacy and education know how important it is to open up discussions between people who don’t share the same views, who aren’t friends or colleagues, but come from different worlds.

These are the reasons why: views are more diverse and representative of the community as a whole; people are more likely to consider the views of others’, perhaps for the first time; conversation is more dynamic and interesting for participants hearing new perspectives.

At the heart of gaining valuable perspectives from discussion lies one vital quality. Strangers need to feel comfortable to open up and say what’s important to them. This sparked the advent of both the World Café and Death Café approaches.

Engagement professionals and the café format

Most engagement professionals value the approach for all the reasons I’ve mentioned. World café formats are seen as a good alternative to the monolithic, old-school style of public meeting, where only a few ardent or determined voices are heard.

Further, there’s great value when working within time constraints in being able to bring out diverse views in a short space of time. Thus World Café is often thought of as a form of speed dating.


Jon Underwood of Death Café had the insight when he began Death Café that the social convention of sharing food must be part of the picture. He wrote into the definition of Death Café that there should be tea and cake. Very English!

World Café also has a page defining what it is, and has design principles, which give meaning and structure to the process. At times, when observing or being part of World Cafés there’s been a dull sense that everyone’s been thrown together without enough clarity about what they’re there to do. I’ve wondered if the principles could have been revisited.

In fact the word café is more important than people give credit. For instance, World Café’s second principle is to create a hospitable space. Cafés suggest the social world of food drink and table settings. Here’s a great description of the process and atmosphere of a Happiness Café by Lyn Carson with wine glasses on the table, waiters, and linen table cloths.

Café experiences

My first time running a café was as an activist. At the Café for a Nuclear Free Pacific, the red-checked tablecloths on the front lawn of the French Embassy in Canberra shone out. The French patisseries in Canberra were generous. The croissants were ready and the coffee smelt great. People talked on the subject of what they appreciated about French culture, and their concerns about atomic testing. The embassy staff ventured out to investigate. The event received world attention when it was written up in Le Monde.

Learning: well executed cafés on well chosen questions about contested topics can be inspiring and are not confrontative.

The topic of Death Café makes them quite edgy even for participants who really want to have the experience. This makes guidelines very important. Nobody is there as a professional or as someone wanting to promote what they’re familiar with. All participants are simply people who will face death.

Tea and cake helps everyone get together through offering and taking food, holding cups, sipping and enjoying what’s on offer.

Learning: everyone can be on a level at a café.

I’ve learned a lot about having a quality World Café through being a facilitator and participant. I’m glad that I’ve had both views.

What are we trying to achieve and how will it happen? Many who come to the table haven’t had previous experiences of facilitated events or public discussion and find themselves in a completely new environment.

Learning: in some of these situations it would have helped to have the essence of the process in writing on the table. Similarly the idea of having a red card to attract the attention of the facilitators would have helped for tables that were extra confused.

More lessons learned

This post has been an opportunity for me to go back and look at cafe basics afresh. The lessons learned about the method from an international organization training on World Cafés are:

  • The question should be very clear to participants
  • The method should be explained thoroughly, possibly with a handout

We want to have confidence that the dialogue that emerges from a Café is the best quality dialogue possible. To achieve this, we need to make people comfortable. We can’t underestimate the importance of creating a social setting that enables this.

Finally Café conversations take some time, and it’s unfair to participants to expect them to come out with considered views when there is a rush to keep moving. The World Café is not the same as speed dating.


Deliberative visions. When Victorians come together to think.

Coming together to think. It’s an important time. Say it’s your family and you own a property in common, and now it looks like time to sell. Say it’s your community and there’s a planning proposal that’s going to affect the amenity of a special place. Say it’s your city, and the practices of the elected representatives has gone so far downhill that the state government has stepped in. There are commissioners running the city. But that’s a short-term solution. How would citizens respond to various options for the governance in the long-term? The Geelong Citizens’ Jury on electoral reform saw citizens come together to think.

The Geelong Citizens’ Jury

One Saturday in March I spent the morning at the splendid Geelong Library. The Minister for Local Government, the Hon Natalie Hutchins MP, had made a date to respond to the Jury’s recommendations.

At least a hundred people turned out for the event, many of them interested citizens. After a stunning welcome to country, the Minister highlighted the transparency of the process, in which the jury took place alongside submissions from ‘the people of Geelong’ and online surveys. In other words the government had undertaken a hybrid process. She gave a warm thanks to the jury, highlighting their good sense and commitment, and said that she supported the main ‘practical’ recommendations to go forward to legislation. They had been taken to cabinet. ‘People power shone brightly through this process,’ she said.

There were three jurors as panellists who told of their experience. ‘Discussion without acrimony, one said, ‘it was a democratic experience’. The other woman said: ‘I was proud to be part of the human race, and what democracy can be’. Another juror was clear that the process had taken him outside his comfort zone.

Geelong Panellists and their deliberative visions
Geelong Panellists and the Minister

The Minister spoke of the jury as ‘a catalyst for community leadership’. Ideally some of the underpinnings of this might be:

  • learning new skills in collaboration and negotiation
  • learning about policy and governance
  • learning to influence elected representatives
  • becoming spokespeople or ambassadors of positive governance
  • an understanding of the commitment required in policy decision-making

Continue reading “Deliberative visions. When Victorians come together to think.”

Open State. Democracy & all of us. 2016 Adelaide Ideas Fest

Deliberative democracy enthusiasts in my world are in an exciting collaborative space this month. Open State. The 2016 Adelaide Festival of Ideas giving energy and focus to a future democracy and society. ‘Exploring citizen voice and the notion that government cannot have all the answers is, in essence, what the Adelaide Festival of Ideas celebrates’, states the blog.

There’s Exploring Citizen Juries (17 Oct) and a showcase of South Australian democratic reform and innovation (25 Oct) and Beyond the vote, a showcase of democratic innovation in Australia (25 Oct). And the IAP2 conference.

Premier Jay Weatherill’s vision for South Australia is future oriented, values rich, and aspires to step around ‘rust belt’ towards a different economy and society. Cool! Especially when today many Australians are anxious that there is way too little exploration of new possibilities by those who occupy our democratic institutions.

Check out Open State! Future democracy.
Check out Open State & future democracy.

Here is Jay Weatherill’s welcome to Open State, to provide an alternative vision.

Welcome to Open State.

We’re hosting this program because there’s never been a more important time than now to be open and outward-looking in our orientation to the world. South Australia is today facing challenges that are unprecedented in their scale and complexity. We’re transforming ourselves from an old to a new economy, while at the same time seeking to protect the way of life we value.

And we’re doing this in an environment in which entire industries are withering and blossoming right before our eyes. The imminent end of our car industry and the remarkable growth in the renewable-energy sector are just the most obvious examples of this trend. Saving our planet, educating our children for an unpredictable future, being able to fund the services we need and expect – these are some of the other issues demanding attention.

With so many of the old certainties of economic life gone or going, we in South Australia must be bolder – we must be more innovative – if we are to create the jobs of the future.

Attract and openly share intellectual property

My determination to follow this path was only reinforced during my trip the United States a few weeks ago. While I was there, I visited places that have risen from the ashes of redundancy and transformed themselves from “rust belt” to “brain belt” economies.

Pittsburgh, for example, had an unemployment rate in excess of 20 per cent following the collapse of its steel industry. Today that figure is just 4.6 per cent and the city is renowned for its high-quality, knowledge-intensive jobs.

The single most important thing I learned in the US is that the places most successful at transforming themselves are the ones that attract and openly share intellectual property.

There’s a lot we can learn from places like Pittsburgh.

A collective mentality with open decision-making

And we don’t have a moment to lose when it comes to developing an ethos – a collective mentality – attuned to open innovation, open engagement and open decision-making.

The good news is that we are by no means starting from scratch. Let’s not forget that South Australia’s very founding rested on principles of freedom and governance that, at the time, were radical.

And let’s not forget, too, that over the past 180 years we’ve been national and international leaders in democratic reform and progressive social policy.

We South Australians have a tendency to run ourselves down and be a bit gloomy about the future.

But we do need to remind ourselves that we are leaders.

Our achievements in renewable energy and climate change, our expertise in defence industries, our early involvement in driverless cars – these are all examples of our being good innovators and collaborators. The more important impact of Open State – the creation of new jobs and industries through collaboration – will not be immediately tangible, but it will be extremely valuable in the long term.

We need to explore and share ideas

I know that Open State will have its detractors and that some people will ask whether we can afford to spend time talking.

My response to that is this: In light of our rapidly changing industrial base and deep involvement in the global economy, I believe we can’t afford not to be exploring and sharing ideas.

I hope to see you at Open State in October.


But if you can’t get there,  check out Pia Mancini, democracy activist who is a drawcard at the Festival on this TED talk.

Deliberative democracy hypothetical

Taking it carefully

A great night at Victorian Facilitators’ Network (VFN) this week, exploring deliberative democracy. VFN is fertile soil for us Victorian facilitators with seeds sown, watered and nurtured month by month. There is no membership, just a place for everyone. VFN is a curiosity and generosity driven network that builds professional skills.

The deliberative democracy night was led by the inimitable Michelle Howard of Collaborations. Michelle revealed herself as a huge fan of Geoffrey Robertson. Yes, she has the Hypothetical mojo for sure!

Michelle set up the deliberative democracy hypothetical ‘in-the-round’ of our VFN circle. The problem focus? A contentious facility in a northern Melbourne suburb undergoing rapid change. The stakeholders? Ward councillor, council manager, seniors (the current facility custodians), and a range of culturally diverse groups.

Kimbra White of Mosaic Lab and Bruce Turner were the expert consultants on the deliberative format they term ‘Citizens’ Panels’.

Michelle invited people to the stakeholder roles, ‘I’m sure Joyce of the Senior Citizens is in the room’. My word she was! All played their roles convincingly, drawing on knowledge and experience of communities and councils.

The hypothetical was followed by discussion.

Take it carefully for deliberative
Take it carefully when scoping!

Dynamics I’ve often seen in scoping deliberative projects came up in the hypothetical scenario. For example between ward councillor and council manager, and councillor and consultants.

Councillors can feel that they are letting down the democratic side if they allow others to play a role that effectively influences decision-making. In addition, they are concerned about those community members who regularly have decision-makers’ attention. They understand and respect these people (even if they are a little too vocal). A random stratified sample may be promising because it brings in ‘everyday people’ but surely well known stakeholders won’t be overlooked? I’ve written about the way this plays out in ’Usual suspects threatened by participatory budgeting’.

The consultants and council manager did a great job of speaking for the silent majority as Stephen Mayne has done as a brilliant advocate for deliberative projects.

Nonetheless, there was a lot of discussion about the degree to which inclusion in deliberative processes is truly inclusive. Arabic and Indigenous stakeholders said: our community members would not feel comfortable joining in as lone and unsupported jury members.

I remembered my experience with the Richmond Residents Citizens’ Panel. This jury included people from Africa, China, Vietnam, the Middle East, Latin America and Indonesia as well as old time Melbourne-ites, teenagers, young mums, seniors and everyone in between. However a decision was taken not to include people who would require interpreters.

The evening highlighted that deliberative forums are a really hopeful option in today’s political climate. Yet one person felt strongly that citizen despair would be fuelled if a deliberative forum’s recommendations were shelved

Finally it’s impossible to overstate the importance of the scoping phase. The evaluation of a training program we conducted for the Victorian Local Government Association, Nuts and Bolts of Participatory Budgeting, showed that councillors, executive and officers alike were challenged by Council’s task in realistically scoping the deliberative remit. Firstly participants said it’d take a lot for key internal stakeholders at their council to join forces to define a jointly owned problem. They saw the political dimension of gaining agreement of senior executive and councillors as pretty challenging. Finally they identified the need for culture change so that a council could comfortably ‘partner with the community’ as is required for deliberative processes.

Nonetheless  identified the value of the methodology for getting a genuine community view on:

  • Council Plan
  • Community Planning
  • Capital works and council assets
  • Community thinking about trade offs


If you require guidance, advice or mentoring at the scoping stage, do get in touch.