Informed Participation, a deliberative methodology
Informed Participation is a unique way to bring the public into government decision making. It gives government a method to solve complex issues with the public in a way that gives them a meaningful role in balancing competing interests. Public policy is becoming increasingly complex and trust in government is declining, so new innovative ways of engaging with citizens is needed. This method shifts engagement from obtaining buy-in to building ownership and creates more legitimate solutions.
The Australian Government views Open Government as integral to its efforts to respond to a changing and increasingly complex policy environment. Public deliberation is of special interest. As a member of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), Australia is required to develop biannual action plans that advance the OGP’s mission to promote more open, accountable and responsive governments. Australia’s National Action Plan 2018-20 is helping to promote use of public deliberation through a commitment to develop and implement an Open Dialogue Roadmap. Australia’s Department of Industry, Innovation and Science (the Department) plays a leadership role in this project.
The Department co-chairs the OGP Practice Group on Open Dialogue and Deliberation, an international committee of engagement experts from government and civil society. The Group is collaborating on the Roadmap, and is making the case for greater use of public deliberation and developing a methodology that would work for citizens, stakeholders and for governments. The approach is called Informed Participation.
Complexity is the driving force behind this effort. Complexity results from a growing convergence of policy goals that were traditionally housed in different departmental silos, such as environmental protection and economic development. Today, governments work to align these goals across departments, but this can bring different values and/or interests into conflict, which must then be balanced.
Typically, these trade-offs are made by officials from behind closed doors, possibly supported by public consultation. However, the legitimacy of the process is increasingly called into question. The public often see the decisions as arbitrary and unfair. Informed Participation takes a different tack. Instead of trying to get “buy-in” for the decisions, it aims at building a sense of “public ownership” by giving the public a meaningful say. This not only increases legitimacy and trust in the decisions but makes them more resilient and sustainable.
This kind of engagement is very different from public consultation – and can raise concerns among officials. The Roadmap addresses these concerns. It not only shows why public deliberation is needed, but why governments can trust it to work. While Informed Participation has many innovative features, we will mention just four:
• Designed to Fit: There are many good deliberative models, such as citizen’s juries; but, it is a mistake to rely on any one model. Different issues require different tools. Informed Participation is a methodology, not a model. Rather than forcing issues to fit into a preferred model, it instructs officials how to design the process to fit the issue.
• Principled and Systematic: The methodology breaks process design into an ordered series of planning steps, such as setting clear objectives, selecting the right participants, and setting clear boundaries for participants’ role in decision-making. The process is analytical, systematic, and guided by fundamental principles, such as transparency, inclusiveness, and evidence-informed decision-making.
• Disciplined and Fair: Informed Participation gives the public a meaningful voice in decision-making but, in exchange, participants must agree to some “rules of engagement.” These require participants to be open about their views, listen to one another, adhere to evidence, and agree to work together respectfully to try to accommodate their differences.
• Government-Friendly: Informed Participation recognises that governments don’t normally share decision-making, and by doing so poses concerns around transparency, accountability, privacy, and more. The approach has been designed to accommodate these concerns and addresses them along the way.
In Phase I of its work, the OGP Practice Group launched The Deliberation Series and released three major publications, introducing and outlining Informed Participation.
▪ Volume I – Deliberation: Getting Policy-Making Out From Behind Closed Doors
▪ Volume II – Informed Participation: A Guide to Designing Public Deliberation Processes
▪ Volume III – Informed Participation: A Workshop on Designing Deliberative Processes
The papers are available on the OGP website and the Department’s website, at www.industry.gov.au/ogp-guide. Volume IV is in progress and will focus on narrative-building.
The Department has successfully employed Informed Participation in the development of its Artificial Intelligence (AI) Ethics Framework, the refresh of the Office of Northern Australia’s five-year Strategy, the design of Australia’s third OGP National Action Plan and Austrade’s Tourism 2030 Strategy.
Further, this work is closely aligned to the study that stems from the 2017 OECD Recommendation of the Council on
Open Government, which looks to promote innovative ways to effectively engage with stakeholders to source ideas and co-create solutions.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
Scaling may be Informed Participation’s most promising innovation. Take making trade-offs: it’s a good example of deliberation because it requires genuine give-and-take, which, in turn, requires dialogue. However, the more people in a process, the more unwieldy this gets, and scaling becomes a serious challenge.
A common solution is to replace the back-and-forth of dialogue with a simple vote, in effect bypassing the dialogue. Informed Participation objects to this. It sees this step as aggregating votes, not deliberating over values/interests. Real trade-offs require concessions and compromises, with genuine give-and-take.
Informed Participation proposes a new and promising way to scale deliberation that doesn’t use voting, and which could involve thousands of people. The method is described in volumes I and II of The Deliberation Series. Volume IV will take a deep dive into narrative-building, which is key to the method. Early efforts to test it are underway in Ottawa, Canada.
What is the current status of your innovation?
Informed Participation is in the implementation phase. The methodology is being applied in developing the Australian Government’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) strategy, development of Australia’s third National Action Plan under the Open Government Partnership (OGP), and the development of a new hospital in Ottawa. Discussions have also commenced with agencies working in the areas of indigenous affairs, maritime safety, deregulations and Action Plan development more broadly across the OGP. In addition, awareness raising and learning and development initiatives are ongoing.
Collaborations & Partnerships
Informed Participation is the product of a collaborative effort by the OGP Practice Group, which includes government and civil society members from seven countries around the globe, who bring a wealth of experience and expertise to the table.
The Department’s contribution stems from its extensive research on deliberation, which involved nearly 1000 people from civil society and within the Australian Public Service.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
Informed Participation impacts and benefits the following groups:
• It assures governments concerns over shared decision-making is fully addressed.
• It gives citizens a new and more meaningful role in finding solutions to complex issues.
• The “rules of engagement” show public servants how this kind of deliberation will lead to disciplined and fair decision-making.
• Society will enjoy better outcomes, more legitimacy in decision-making, and higher levels of trust in government.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
The outcomes of Informed Participation are highly dependent on the quality of the deliberation. To get good results, you must make good trade-offs, but good deliberation depends on trust and without it a process can quickly fail.
Informed Participation is an exercise in building trust. Volume II identifies five Key Performance Indicators that help officials monitor how effectively the process is building trust among participants. Higher levels of trust should lead to better solutions, and in turn, lead to better outcomes.
Unfortunately, there has been little work done on evaluation. Feedback from training sessions has been very positive. The approach is being tested in a number of projects, from designing a new hospital in Ottawa, to developing a Northern Australia agenda. Secretaries from the Australian Public Service appear ready to endorse Informed Participation for transforming public sector capability. So, while formal evaluations will take time, they are coming.
Challenges and Failures
In developing and implementing the methodology the OGP Practice Group had to overcome the perceptions by bureaucrats that stakeholders and the broader public were simply a source of opinion and not of expertise. Moreover, for many, more meaningful forms of engagement like deliberation are viewed as risky. Traditional consultation affords significant levels of control to bureaucrats and ceding this control can be seen as risky as well as time and resource intensive.
Deliberative processes are less familiar, but providing a good methodology that has been developed from the perspective of the public sector and is comprehensive, principled, systematic and accessible will give bureaucrats the confidence to engage in public deliberation processes. This has been achieved with the Informed Participation methodology.
Conditions for Success
“Air Cover” from Senior Leaders: Senior leadership must fully support the initiative, raise awareness of it, and give the Project Team authority to make difficult planning decisions, as required.
Knowledge and Capacity: The Project Team must have the appropriate knowledge and skills to:
o Communicate effectively with Senior Leaders;
o Design a process that fits the issue and context;
o Improvise as circumstances change and challenges arise;
o Explain the project to participants to help them understand their roles, motivate them to work together, and inspire them to trust the process.
Awareness and Support: The public must be better informed about deliberation. The best approach is to create successful case studies. Governments could select and launch a series of visible “demonstration projects” that raise awareness and arouse interest in deliberation.
Time and Resources: Appropriate timelines and resources should be approved before a project is launched.
Informed Participation is a methodology, not a model. It is a systematic approach to solving complex issues. Because complex issues vary in nature, so do engagement processes.
The methodology is being tested through several projects in Australia and Canada. Although these projects differ in design, scope and scale; they were designed with the same methodology.
The three volumes of the Deliberation Series are tools/resources to encourage and enable others to experiment with the approach.
The Practice Group is meeting in the new year with OGP officials in Brussels to discuss opportunities to act as a champion for deliberation; to encourage OGP member countries to experiment with this approach in their action plans; and to serve as a mentor and advisor to those who need help.
We are also looking at how we can take some of the principles and approaches from Informed Participation and combine them with Human-Centred Design to create a methodology on ‘Informed Design'.
Strong leadership and governance were essential to the success of the project. Australia’s Open Government Forum, the OGP Practice Group, and the Australian Public Service (APS) Reform Committee provided the leadership, direction, and expertise to ensure the work was of high quality; and gave the project the profile, legitimacy, and authority we needed to begin spreading the ideas across the APS.
Volume I of The Deliberation Series creates a coherent “narrative” that explains what Informed Participation is, how it differs from deliberative models, and why it matters. It contains key messages about the methodology that can be easily tailored and we used these to create a range of training and communications products.
Informed Participation is sophisticated and this presents a challenge for training. While our two-day program provides a solid introduction, many people don’t have two days to spare. We have since developed specialised training packages, including a two-page summary, 2 hour ‘masterclass’ training session, presentations and online training.
Training large numbers of people requires tools that are easy to understand and apply. Here we created some simpler tools, such as checklists and templates. Informed Participation requires practitioners to use their judgement. While the tools should be kept simple, they must not turn the methodology into a tick-the-box process.
Sometimes our users want to meet face-to-face to discuss issues or to get support and encouragement to move ahead with difficult decisions. Although tools are useful, mentorship and advice are an essential part of the training program.
Establishing a new methodology involves a range of challenges including awareness raising, developing and testing new products, and managing uncertainty. We leveraged the team’s collective resources to solve problems, and provided the right support, including agile project management, training, and design thinking tools.
Informed Participation was developed though a collaborative process and this is a strength of the methodology.