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Dialogue, discussion and debate in online public policy discussion forums

The exchange that takes place within the online public policy forums we host runs the full gamut from deeply deliberative dialogue to divisive bickering.

This is to be expected; they are, after all spaces for the contest of  wicked problems. The question is, how do we enable the former and limit the later?

One of my principal concerns as a community engagement practitioner when I moved into the world of online engagement was whether one could create the conditions for a constructive policy dialogue in the online environment. The big risk with any form of “gathering”, whether online or offline, is that ill will and dogmatism will lead to polarised positions and destructive bickering. It is generally the facilitators’ job to help create the conditions necessary for a respectful exchange; whether that exchange takes the form of collaborative dialogue or a competitive debate. In the online world this process is divided into twin rolls shared by the moderator and potentially, but unusually, a facilitator.

I should state upfront that I’m not a devotee of the school of thought that favours deliberative dialogue above all else. For me, rigorous public “debate” has a perfectly legitimate place in public policy development. Bad ideas are quickly dismissed and good ideas can be improved through exposure to criticism. The not insignificant caveat being that such debates must be conducted in a context where reasonably good will endures otherwise “learning” plays second fiddle to one-up-man-ship.

For me the idea of the creation of Habermas’ perfect speech space has always been a little like former Australian Prime Minister Chifley’s Light on the Hill. A very nice objective, but a rarely achieved reality… particularly in public policy discourse where the contest of ideas can be closely held and fierce.

I recently stumbled across another compelling argument for embracing the more, lets call it rambunctious, aspects of online debate. There is a school of thought that argues that the idea that eventually rational consensus on controversial issues is possible – a belief that underpins deliberative models of democracy – is a dangerous illusion. University of Canberra journalism and Communications lecturer, Jason Wilson, writing on the ABC’s THE DRUM website, notes that political philosopher Chantal Mouffe argues that the radical pluralism of modern societies means that liberal consensus can only be imposed. Rather than seeking it, we should institutionalise and channel inevitable conflict in a way that allows us to be adversaries, not enemies, and in a way that reverses the long process of political disengagement in Western democracies:

“Far from jeopardising democracy, agonistic confrontation is in fact its very condition of existence. Modern democracy’s specificity lies in the recognition and legitimation of conflict and the refusal to suppress it by imposing an authoritarian order.”

I have a theory that academics tend to box themselves into corners in the desire to demarcate intellectual territory. They can get quite passionate about their particular view of the world. I’ve seen academics nearly come to blows over economic theory! My point being that I suspect that both “sides” of this debate are probably wrong and probably right. There is room enough for both debate and dialogue within our world of online community engagement. It all depends on the nature of the issue, the context, and the participants.

So, after some four and a half years and many hundreds of consultations, I thought it was about time to sit back and reflect on what actually happens within online public policy forums. Do people engage in constructive dialogue, destructive bickering, something somewhere in-between, or perhaps a little bit of everything? And most importantly, can we do anything to facilitate more of the former and less of the later?

These are questions that matter to me for at least two reasons. Firstly, one of things we are always being asked by our clients is, does the community actually care about this issue? And the related question, is this issue hot or not? An analysis of the nature of the exchange within each forum space goes a long way to answering this question. A second, and important reason to me personally, is that I didn’t get into this business to encourage socially destructive bickering online that may or may not lead to socially destructive behaviors offline. Ideally, I want to see people exchanging ideas, thoughts, beliefs and knowledge; learning from each other, and coming up with better ideas. Naive perhaps. But I am ever the optimist.

Before I could begin the analysis I needed some sort of typology. My research method has, to the say the least, be loose! (This is a blogpost after all, not a research paper.) A quick look at the dictionary definitions of a group of words I associate with the forum space and a chat with Matt to make sure my thoughts weren’t completely insane. It turned out that while not insane, they were confused. So thanks go to Matt for helping to evolve the diagram below.

First up, a few definitions:

  • Bicker – to engage in petulant or peevish argument
  • Debate – a discussion, as of a public question in an assembly, involving opposing viewpoints
  • Converse – to talk informally with another or others; exchange views, opinions
  • Discuss – to consider or examine by argument, comment, etc
  • Dialogue – an exchange of ideas or opinions on a particular issue, especially a political or religious issue, with a view to reaching an amicable agreement or settlement.
  • Deliberate – to think carefully or attentively

It’s interesting that we tend to use many of these terms interchangeably and thoughtlessly. It seems from these definitions that while conversations don’t necessarily go anywhere at all, and discussion is a fairly broad almost all encompassing concept, the key difference between debate and dialogue is the intended direction of the outcome. The difference between dialogue and debate has been explained thoroughly elsewhere, but for me, the most critical difference is that dialogue is about reaching a mutually agreeable consensus based on the knowledge and needs of everyone present, whereas debate is about having ones viewpoint prevail. Respectful debate is okay. Disrespectful debate is not okay, it deteriorates into bickering and is potentially socially destructive. The difference between dialogue and “deliberative dialogue” is that it takes longer to reach agreement through a deliberative process because everyone thinks much harder about the problem at hand! This is a good thing because there is no premature leaping to solutions before the problem has been properly described and investigated.

I then mapped the six styles of exchange against two criteria. First, the degree of good will between the interlocutors, and second the degree of pragmatism they bring to consideration of potential solutions. With Matt’s help this evolved into a the venn diagram below. It’s clearly not “right” in any absolute sense. I can imagine a group of facilitators arguing (sorry, deliberating) for hours over what it should really look like. But it works for me, so I shall continue…

It may seem obvious, but the first thing I look for within the forum to get a sense of whether there is likely to be any real exchange taking place is the total number of comments. Anything over around 50 comments and there is reasonable potential for some sort of exchange, over 100 and its pretty much guaranteed.

The second thing I look for is whether there is any sort of exchange taking place between participants. It is not uncommon, particularly for low key projects – those with little emotional content, little impact or a very small audience – to see a long list of comments in the left hand margin of the forum. (Note that the forums are multi-threaded, which means that when people are responding to each other the comments step in from the left.) While there are no absolutes, relative to other forums where we see lots of exchange – people asking each other questions, disagreeing with or supporting each others’ arguments and ideas – these online public policy forums are more a less a series of monologues.

As an aside; a colleague once told me that a friend of his thought that a conversation is simply an opportunity for the exchange of two autobiographies. The “monologue” forum is a little like this. While the ideas, thoughts and feelings of the participants are completely valid and useful, there is not a lot of evidence of listening or learning going on. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be a good indication of community ambivalence about an issue.

The quick way to check for “exchange” is the ratio of primary comments to replies. For low key discussion this can approach 1:0. For highly contested issues – off-leash dog walking on public beaches, for example – we have seen the ratio of primary comments to replies approach one to five. That is, for every primary comment, on average there are five replies. In some cases a single exchange may be dozens of comments long.

The next metric I look at is the number of comments per participant and then the number of return visits. It’s quite possible for someone to leave a number of comments in a single visit. It’s more useful to know that they are returning to the forum again and again to respond to other participants – whether by refining, clarifying, reinforcing, extending or modifying their argument. The average number of comments per participant is asymptotic in the extreme. Lots of people leave very few comments (one or two), a reasonable number of people leave a handful of comments (up to ten), and a very small handful of extremely passionate people leave a bucket full of comments (anything over 20, an


d up to a couple of hundred). For more on this, see my presentation on the 90-9-1 principle.

Clearly if the average number of comments is very low, tending towards one; then the chance that any form of exchange is taking place is virtually zero. If the average number of comments is around three or four, then chances are that some sort of exchange is taking place. Note that this is not a hard and fast rule. It is quite possible that while the vast majority of people are happy to leave one comment on a topic, two or three people will have a ding-dong knock ’em out debate (complete with bickering) about a subject because it is so close to home for them.

Again, if the average number of visits is close to one; then the chance of any form of exchange is virtually zero. If, however, the average number of visits is approaching three or four, then chances are that a reasonable exchange is taking place. Again, this is not a hard and fast rule, because a small group of devotees can throw the numbers out.

So, once we’ve established that there is a reasonable level of exchange taking place, how to assess whether it looks more like dialogue or more like debate? Tricky!

I’ve wracked my mind for an easy answer and can’t think of one. If anyone has any clues, I’d be very grateful for some direction.

My answer is qualitative and time consuming. You have to be prepared to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. You have to actually read the comments. Let’s take an example.

Many moons ago we hosted a forum about the future of rail infrastructure into the Newcastle (Australia) CBD. It was the kind the issue with no right answer and certainly no simple answer. Although, perhaps inevitably there were two main “camps”. The tear it up camp; and the leave it right where it is camp. The forum received some 2,500 comments in two to three weeks. To say it was fractious is something of an understatement. A single discussion topic stretched to 681 comments. Many discussion threads within the topic were dozens of comments deep.

This is the first exchange on the topic “Do you feel that the rail line inhibits development of the City?”:

dipsy: Its a bit rich blaming the rail for the lack of development in the city. In most other cities in the world being near a rail station is an asset. Why should we be different? In the long term it just might be the city’s biggest asset.

billyaztec: Blind Freddy can see that the rail line has prevented the Newcastle City centre from thriving. Terminate the rail at either Broadmeadow or Wickham and re-name the terminal Newcastle. Bus the few passengers that want to get to the top of town from the new terminal. Perhaps even spend money on new rail links to other areas such as Nelson Bay, or at least Newcastle airport.

Gudplanin: Dear Blind Freddy, The reason that the Newcastle commercial centre hasn’t thrived has nothing to do with the rail line and everything to do with the growth of regional shopping centres. If you pull up the rail line, how are the workers and shoppers going to get to the revitalised CBD? If they are so few that you can bus them in, then it won’t be too vital.

Fairly clearly a debate. But a reasonably well mannered one. Everyone is making quite reasonable points that contribute to the knowledge base of everyone involved in the discussion.

And then there’s this much longer thread:

reggie: Most cities don’t have heavy rail servicing the shopping or recreational areas. e.g Sydney rail stops at central then you change to either underground light rail or bus to go shopping or to the harbour ect. I beleive a lot of the opposition to remove the rail line comes from people who live outside of Newcastle but on the rail line i.e Maitland etc.

Greg44: You are very very wrong. London stopped above ground heavy rail in 1830’s. Paris is the same. What we have is the equivalent of a heavy rail line running around Darling Harbour and The Rocks

NFlyer: And did you know that slightly more than 50% of London’s underground is above/on the ground? It’s only underground in the city areas. Greg44, you are wrong, as London has many above ground railways. And are now in the process of building what will be known as London Overground.

Greg44: Correct, but incorrect. London has above ground railways, but not in the centre of London. The London Overground that you refer to (which is mainly old lines rebadged) and the overground sections of the Underground are many miles out of town. Just like having above ground railways in Cardiff and calling it the centre of Newcastle. I stand by my statement. Having an overground railway in the Newcastle CBD is like putting an above ground railway along the side of the Thames or the Seine. Hardly something the masses would tolerate. Even less so when they discover it is to save less than 2000 people less than 5 minutes per day.

NFlyer:  When I said London has many above ground railways, I mean radiating from various terminals.

Greg44: All all of them are on the fringe of the city proper, like the proposed station at Wickham. They are not in Trafalger Square, Piccadilly Circus or Parliament Square. They certainly don’t cut the city off from the Thames or Hyde Park.

jrobbo: That’s not true Greg. Waterloo Station, as one example, is right on the bank of the Thames (or a block or so from it) and the bridge goes across the railway line. This is a pointless comparison anyway – the lines in London aren’t the only public transport to the area. Newcastle only has one railway to the city. It’s not the line that is blocking the development – it’s the buildings next to it. They can easily be demolished and development built over the top. Brisbane is doing this and it works well.

Greg44: Without getting bogged down in details, the point is that using the argument that “trains work in {insert name of a large well known city} so they should not be removed from Newcastle” is a cop out often used by those who don’t actually want to look at the facts. It ignores the massive differences in the layout, population, patronage, social benefits, etc etc.

jrobbo: True, but “the railway runs in the middle of the city, so let’s get rid of it” is also not a convincing argument for getting rid of it. I think the trend in building over railway lines for development is one the body deliberating on this needs to seriously consider. It’s a good win-win situation.

Still very much a debate. Certainly no sign of consensus building.  Still reasonably well mannered, but perhaps getting a bit stroppy as it gets bogged down in detail.

It’s actually quite cathartic to reread the thread after so many years. At the time I recall being quite stressed about whether the discussion was heading towards a free-for-all. We were watching it very closely for moderation issues. With a bit of time and space, while the debate is certainly robust, I don’t get any great sense of ill will between the participants. I could very easily imagine this being the first stage in a more deliberative process. A group process of sifting through the chaff in search of the wheat. I also get the sense that the participants quite enjoyed the exchange. All-in-all a very nice example of one of the lovely freedom of expression our democracy affords us.

Much later in the thread, three other participants have quite a different exchange:

smurf: This survey is really telling us all that this great City is ready for change, so why dont we have a big RALLY now at city hall to show our UNITY and get the message thru to Local ,State and Federal Governments, Newcastle wants to see this all go forward with their support NOW!!!!

snail: Or even more constructively, why not engage the Australian Institute of Architects (Newcastle has a branch) to hold a two day work-shop at honeysuckle worksheds about the planning of the CBD and the effects of removing the Heavy Rail line at the CBD. Local planners and architects could host it and it would be open to the public. What would go on is a ‘mock-up’ of ideas in the form of concept sketches and models for various options. Sort of like the 20/20 summit but for the CBD’s future. I know fourth year architecture students have done extensive forward thinking exercises and projects concering the Newcastle CBD. Professor Lehmann has had a leading hand in this. It is a valuable resource to be tapped into. The public could see ideas in motion and see them explored with findings. The work shop could be managed by dividing into teams to work on the various options on offer and present a scheme on the second day. Why not involve our best minds to work with interested everyday punters on this important matter of our future. Who knows, we could learn a bit more and perhaps clarify the direction of our future.

Wishful Thinker: Well done snail, great idea. I agree there are plenty of people in Newcastle with the brains and interests to come up with ideas of beautifying our CBD rather than spend thousands of dollas going worldwide. But while we have a willing spender let’s waste no time (we see too often in Newcastle) and get behind GPT to make Newcastle a proud bustling city it once was.

snail: You are right. Too often we see what essentially needs to be done drowned in overcomplicated discussion and ‘reports’. Leadership is what is most needed here. Just thought a brief, open forum might be a way to formalise opinion and provide informed support for those making the decision in order to further justify decisions based on community consensus. This forum is going a long way in doing that though. Well done.

This is a wonderful exchange for a number of reasons. First, it is constructive is the purest sense of the word. The participants are building on each others’ thoughts. Second it is self-empowering. They are thinking about what they personally can do to move the issue forward. And third, most marvelously, they are talking about an giant “meetup”. The online space has provoked the possibility of an completely organic offline gathering. But it’s still not a dialogue.

To find a ready example of a true dialogue I turn much more recent and very different consultation. The Caring for Country Review for the Australian Commonwealth government. The following exchange takes place in response to the question: What is needed to support and improve the capacity of the community to help manage our natural resources?

Michaeln: Some consistancy in base funding (even $10K pa) to allow engagement of volunteers and provide some capacity to support existing project sites beyond their funded life to ensure that the longer term outcomes and cost benefits are realised. Many projects get delivered , but don’t reach their intend potential, or often return to their original state, due to a lack of capacity to maintain them. Volunteers need an excuse to get involved, people are often happy to help, but not willing to dig into their own pockets (for trees, chemical, equipment, etc.) in order to deliver ongoing benefits to our environment, especially when there are so many issues. Local Catchment Management Groups cannot continue to function on passion for the environment alone.

Bush1: I agree that long term consistancy is extreamly important, short term one year grants are generally not effective in the long run. Smaller amounts over a long term lead to much better outcomes, it would be preferable if project periods of five plus years were to be the minimum for NRM projects.

Peter: I’m a qualified bush regenerator who for 10 years has run a very large Bushcare program. In my opinion getting the community to concentrate on weed removal is a massive problem.The best way to support and improve the capacity of the community to help manage our natural resources is to stop funding activities that are deliterious to the environment.Unless you can change the conditions that promote weed growth, weed removal is only a temporary panacea. Funding community groups to remove weeds might be politically expedient but is largely a waste of money.Weeds often supply occupy an important environmental niche, Lantana for example is excellent small bird habitat.Typically what happens with community weed removal is that habitat gets destroyed, the group over extends or breaks up, the weeds return – money has been totally wasted.I’m begging you – stop providing grant money to the community to remove weeds.

Jeffcottrell: I would have to disagree with this generalisation. I have been a member of Friend of the Colo and Willow Warirors for 10 years and we have been focused on removeing invasive willow taxa and in particular black willows and crack willows from the Colo Catchment which runs throught the Wollemi NP and Greater Blue Mountains WHA. we have a broad scale approach including monitoring the catchment for reinfesation and none of the control sites have been reinfested with willows or other weeds. As we moved from Primary control to monitoing FOC has moved onto controlling other weeds along the….

Peter: The crux of my position is that a lot of work is undertaken without any regard to anything but vegetation. What I would like to see is a comprehensive analysis of an ecosystem and decisions about weed removal be taken in that context.Do the friends of the Colo and Willow Warriors have any idea of the bigger ramifications of their work?Don’t get me wrong, I’d be happy to discover that you know exactly how your program is effecting wildlife and riparian zones and have data to back it up. However if you are only concentrating on weed removal without any understanding of how that is effecting the rest of the ecosystem, then potentially you are doing great harm.

Jeffcottrell: WOW this has raised some great discussion here. It looks like we should get this topic added to the next Landcare form. But getting back to your issue about habitiat removal. I do not think anyone in our group or parks had done research into where the wildlife go during weed control other than assuming that they are mobile and so they move into the adjoining bushland. We do not work in urban parkland and I could understand that it could be an issue in small pockets of urban bush but in the location we work the weeds are on the…

Peter: In urban bushland wildlife often has nowhere to go and when displaced just dies.I would have thought displacement would be an issue everywhere. Available spots for a species are already ocupied, a displaced population in reality doesn’t move into empty space but has to fight and take over territory or die.Unfortunately most environmental community groups concentrate on weed removal and I think it’s time the rest of the ecosystem got considered, hence my reluctance to see continued funding in this area without more research.It was good to see that you’ve modified your regime to help the local frog population.

Surely, as a lovely an example of constructive deliberative dialogue as you are likely to see anywhere. The obvious difference between the two examples is that the former is being discussed by impassioned members of the general public with different visions of the future, whereas the second is an exchange between a group of people with the same overriding objective. Under these circumstances the second group and quite naturally more inclined to want to listen to and learn from each other in order to build a consensus.

In summary then:

  • Dialogue and debate are BOTH legitimate in a pluralistic democracy and are therefore both legitimate and useful (for a variety of reasons) in an online policy discussion.
  • Emotionally contentious public policy discussions require careful and close moderation to prevent the inevitable debate degenerating into bickering.
  • Debate is more common in the online environment than dialogue. This is not necessarily a bad thing and is principally a reflection of the dominant style of interaction in western society rather than a shortcoming of the online space.
  • Dialogue is more common when the participants are of one view regarding the overarching objective of the discussion.
  • Dialogue does not necessarily require facilitation. It can develop organically under the right circumstances.

Photo Credit: Debate by Sasha Kimel

12 April 2012
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  1. […] in my University days. The quality and nature of the discussion ranges from discussion, through debate to constructive dialogue. It has been my observation that when confronted in a public forum by a speaker with an opinion […]