A dialogic approach to participatory democracy in Green political parties
Addressing complex societal challenges
The alignment of thinking towards a common vision that is able to address and resolve complex socio-technical challenges could be considered as a key requirement to enable true participatory democracy. Forward-thinking policies must be founded on compassion, cooperation and scientific knowledge, rather than on power-seeking and division.
Contemporary societal challenges are far too complex to be managed using conventional debate or consulting. Their mitigation requires the application of systemic methodologies specifically developed for the purpose of resolving multiple conflicts of purpose, interests, and values and generating consensus on, and commitment to, organisational and inter-organisational strategies.
The tools and the methodologies for addressing complex socio-technical systems have existed for some decades. Regretfully, these approaches, though well known in commerce and industry, have not yet made it into the arena of government and political deliberations, where they are needed the most!
The authors of this paper represent an international group of experts committed to investing time and effort in supporting governments, political groupings and large organizations in taking more effective actions and decisions by using inclusive approaches and consensus-building.
The methodology we bring to address these challenges is based on structured dialogue and is known as the Structured Democratic Dialogue Process (SDDP).
The rationale behind structured dialogue
SDDP is a category of systemic design, which enables a small group of (typically 15-30) individuals, with diverse (often conflicting) views, backgrounds, and perspectives, to develop a common framework of thinking based on an emergent consensus. SDDP can be delivered either as face-to-face workshop encounters or as virtual online sessions. SDDP sessions are implemented in compliance with the underlying theoretical laws and principles of a branch of Community Operational Research known as Dialogic Design Science.
SDDPs promote focused communication among the participants in the design process, as well as their ownership of, and commitment to, the outcome. The emergence of commitments to action, founded on the creation of new, shared knowledge and learning, positions SDDP favourably not only as a participatory research methodology to understand and explain a particular phenomenon or challenge but also to decide upon or propose subsequent actions for its resolution. SDDPs have been widely and globally used to analyse and resolve complex socio-technical problems.
The theoretical-philosophical grounding of SDDP was developed by systems thinkers in the Club of Rome.Özbekhan, Jantsch, and Christakis are credited with conceptualizing the Prospectus  of the Club of Rome, titled “The Predicament of Mankind,” which is considered the philosophical foundation of today’s version of SDDP. It is grounded on the thesis that contemporary complex socio-technical challenges require the harnessing of the collective intelligence and wisdom of people whose lives will be influenced by any decisions taken and/or reforms made (i.e., the true stakeholders). A relevant axiom states that “it is unethical to try to change any socio-technical system without the explicit permission and participation of those whose lives will be influenced by any changes”.
The implementation of an SDDP workshop is also referred to as a Co-Laboratory of Democracy, to emphasize the fact that, as the participants work together, they develop a shared language and shared understanding of the issue they are discussing, and obtain consensus on the root causes of the problematic situation, and/or agree collectively on the actions necessary to improve the system.
Moving from divergence and dispute to shared resolve
Green parties have a unique opportunity to pioneer a paradigm shift in participatory democracy.
We must enable citizens and their representatives to engage in meaningful deliberation, manage differences in opinions, and collectively discover the underlying root causes of the problems that impact their lives and well-being. This paradigm will create a shared language and understanding about issues of importance, and eventually, enable agreement and achieve consensus as to what is the best path forward.
Such a fundamental change to the usual way of thinking can be achieved by enabling citizens to think and act as system scientists without the need to master the underlying scientific concepts. The approach that we propose will assist citizens, stakeholders and politicians in harnessing and utilizing their collective intelligence and wisdom to address and resolve complex societal, political, policy, economic, technological, and socio-technical challenges that require collective understanding and the implementation of wise decisions that all parties support.
SDDP and the Green revolution in politics
It is our proposition that structured dialogue is included as an essential component of a Green participatory democracy toolset designed to support and enhance the well-being of citizens and of the planet.
SDDP could play a role in bringing together campaigners and opponents to jointly experience “spaces to have honest and open dialogues about how they are impacted by, react to, and can address the challenge of a Green future” with its system-wide implications. While many politicians may be open to participating in such dialogues, to succeed will require adherence to the rules of SDDP. Participants in effective dialogues bring a full range of positions and an openness to hearing the views and constraints of the “other”.
The uniqueness of the SDDP approach is that it provides a dialogical setting that encourages inclusivity, diversity and innovation, alongside curiosity, scepticism, humour and compassion. Participants in genuine dialogue become more aware of, and better understand, their own beliefs and possible preconceptions around the subject (self-trust); and, by establishing relationships of confidence and empathy, can respect the constraints and vulnerabilities of fellow participants (mutual trust).
As opposed to conventional workshops or assemblies, the SDDP method ensures that every person, irrespective of his or her relationship to the challenge, can participate on an equal footing with experts, leaders, and influencers; each participant will be equally listened to and heard and will be supported in finding their voice, no matter how hidden or suppressed that voice may be. SDDP enables us to fully document the development of the ideas of each participant, the progress of the dialogue, and how contributions grow from individual thoughts into an influence map that identifies the most significant actions required to address a challenge.
Participants in an SDDP dialogue cannot be threatened or bullied by the opinions of experts or other influencers; each will develop his or her own understanding of the challenges, and of the systemic constraints within which change is possible and solutions can be implemented. Participants from all socio-economic backgrounds will feel empowered to have their voices heard, and their opinions acted upon; and, most significantly, each of the participants will view the achieved consensus as encompassing elements of their specific ideas and proposals.
Validating the efficacy of SDDP in promoting Green goals
Before proposing virtual and/or face-to-face SDDP workshops for influential politicians (both Green leaning and other) and key stakeholders (business leaders, landowners, climate sceptics) who may be less supportive of Green goals, it would be prudent to facilitate one or more SDDP Co-Laboratories for staff, external experts, and certain selected but still unconvinced influencers, i.e. who hold both positive and opposing viewpoints.
A proposal to investigate the relevance of SDDP to Green politics would involve three complementary SDDP workshops to review one or more primary challenges facing a Green party entering into a coalition with a larger political party to achieve consensus on how best to address these challenges.
One of the challenges that could be considered could be how to better engage all members of the party so that newcomers to the Green party can better understand their role within the developing culture of the Green party. In the Green coalition better awareness of the potential policy trade-offs could ensure that differences can be resolved through valid compromises without giving up on Green goals.
This approach would encompass:
An initial SDDP where long-standing and new contributors could reinforce their understandings of the vision and the language of the Green policy;
A second SDDP would identify the obstacles that must be addressed to implement this vision in the coalition environment; and
A third and final SDDP will obtain agreement on a road map of agreed actions that will overcome the obstacles confronting the vision.
These topics are well known to the policy team of the Green party and will have been constantly debated and refined over time, and more recently after entering into a coalition. Although the Green party will have achieved a considerable degree of success and acquired support from many sectors of public life, we respectfully suggest that this might be the appropriate time for self-reflection on what has worked well, and where obstacles have been encountered. This could be especially significant as junior members of a new coalition where the challenge of implementing the manifesto promised to Green voters could come into conflict with the aims and goals of the major member of the coalition.
In addition to developing a common language and establishing relationships of trust between new and established supporters, SDDP is able tobring together diverse “factions” within a party. Members of each faction leave the SDDP with the conviction that although not all of their ideas have been adopted, sufficient elements of their approach are embedded in the final road map of actions.
Christakis, A. N., & Bausch, K. C. (Eds.). (2006). CoLaboratories of Democracy: How People Harness Their Collective Wisdom to Create the Future. IAP.
Özbekhan, H. (1969). Towards a general theory of planning. In E. Jantsch (Ed.), Perspectives of planning (pp. 47–155). Paris: OECD Publications.
Özbekhan, H. (1970). On some of the fundamental problems in planning. Technological Forecasting, 1(3), 235–240.
Club of Rome. (1970). The predicament of mankind: quest for structured responses to growing world-wide complexities and uncertainties. A proposal. Geneva: Club of Rome. Retrieved 15 March 2020 https://www.futureworlds.eu/wiki/The_Predicament_of_Mankind
SDDP implementation of dialogic design science enhance the performance of small groups working with complex issues and neutralize known phenomenon that prevent the achievment of genuine consensus, or even reaching a majority view, including such as Spreadthink, Groupthink, Cognitive overload, stereotypes and lack of empathy and the Erroneous priorities effect.
Two examples of political situations where SDDP could have prevented catastrophic outcomes, or at least made the protagonists aware of the dangers of their actions come to mind. The first relates to Nick Clegg’s giving up on his liberal manifesto promise to reduce UK University fees, in the Conservative/Liberal UK coalition. A second was President Biden’s recent withdrawal from Afghanistan. In these examples, a structured dialogue, involving all relevant stakeholders with both positive and negative views of the propsed (and subsecquently found to be disasterous) courses of action could have presented to the respective leaders the possible consequences from pursuing the course of action proposed by their most favoured advisors.