A distributed dialogue is a decentralised approach to deliberation with the aim to develop dispersed ongoing, embedded discussions around a given policy issue.
A Distributed Dialogue approach is based on the idea that complex issues need to involve a range of conversations that happen in different spaces. It therefore entails a number of dialogue events organised by interested parties (rather than centrally planned) which are held across different geographical areas and, potentially, through a range of different media including on-line forums. This is intended to give multiple entry points for citizens and other stakeholders to take part.
The defining feature is that the dialogue events are self-organised by groups of participants, with the aim of engage a wide range of communities, different stakeholders, and the general public in the discussions. While the overarching policy questions are the same, the groups or individuals organising dialogues enjoy a high degree of autonomy over who is involved. Distributed Dialogues however tend to work best when there is a strong level of ‘scripting’ provided for the distributed events – with clear questions, background information and a planning and facilitation toolkit provided. By their very nature however the commissioning body has limited control over the quality of the discussion, the mix of people involved or the neutrality of the organisers/facilitators.
In distributed dialogue stakeholders and citizen groups set up their own events to discuss a topic, following prompts from the initial organisers. This works to offset the limitations of more traditional methods; fixed time and place of workshops, limited numbers of participants; high costs of centrally organised events, and the top-down nature of traditional consultation and engagement methods.
The rationale behind a distributed approach is that dialogue on complex issues should include a range of conversations that happen in different spaces. Distributed dialogue has the advantage of offering a number of entry points for citizens and other stakeholders across multiple areas. This can ensure that large numbers of people engage meaningfully in the debate, while allowing organisers to tap into a wide range of expertise and local experiences.
A distributed dialogue approach will be:
- Devolved because it requires a top-down engagement method launched from the centre but influenced by a wide range of actors from local contexts. It makes use of various networks and community activists to reach out to citizens. While normally groups might remain unconnected and work in isolation, Distributed Dialogue envisages a clear channel between the various groups involved and the results of the different conversations will be fed back into the decision-making process.
- Well promoted, because promotion of the process to potential participants and the public at large through the mass media and direct contact is crucial to the success of the dialogue exercise.
- Collaborative, because, unlike a consultation process, in a distributed dialogue citizens are equipped with the necessary tools to engage in the conversation, through the provision of trusted non-biased information and a structure with which to have an informed, constructive conversation.
- Open, because there should not be pre-determined outcomes. Although the process should be structured, it should not be constrained by narrow and leading questions, rather citizens should be allowed to drive the discussion and set the agenda.
- Open to diverse participation ,at different times and in different situations, ensuring that a broad range of people have the opportunity to engage.Influential, because the outcomes of these dialogues should be linked to specific policy questions and have a route into decision-making.. As it is the responsibility of the organisers of the distributed dialogues to ensure that the outcomes of their discussions are fed back to the commissioning body/decision making group the results can be inconsistent. It tends to work best when there is a standardised format to do this but.
- Internationalised, in some cases, if the issues are cross-national they could take place on international platforms.
Distributed dialogue has been used to address complex policy problems, across a number of policy areas.
A seminal case of distributed dialogue is the Sciencewise-supported BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) Bioenergy Distributed Dialogue. In BBSRC case, the goal was “to develop an ongoing, informed discussion between the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), its research community and a range of stakeholders, including members of the public, around bioenergy research, its potential and the issues associated with it.”
For a range of interesting cases studies, see Involve's publication Talking For a Change.
The advantage of Distributed Dialogue is that it allows for the participation of a variety of actors, e.g. community activists, who will be able to reach citizens at the local level. Size of local discussions tend to range from 5-50 but have the potential to engage large numbers of people overall.
Participants are usually a self-selecting cross section of the general public. While distributed dialogues are, by design, open to everyone, there should be strong framing questions to ensure some degree of consistency across different dialogues and clear mechanisms for feeding into decision makers and ensuring outcomes are fed back to all participants.
Costs vary depending on the scope and breadth of the engagement. Central costs are contained and devolved through the involvement of local groups that run their own local events.
Main costs: Planning and promotion, production of materials for workshops, Communications.
Approximate time expense
This method represents a new approach to public dialogue and has a number of strengths:
- Ability to engage a large number of stakeholders and lay people in different locations;
- Insights into concerns and aspirations in different localities around the same issues;
- Useful for identifying how priorities and opinions differ in different geographical areas or between different types of groups.
- Can be a cost effective way of enabling large numbers to participate as costs and organisational tasks are decentralised and money is potentially saved by accessing venues and staff in external organisations;
- Opportunities for continuous engagement integrated into the decision-making process.
- Gives a high degree of autonomy and control to citizens.
Some weaknesses include:
- Distributed dialogues can take a long time to organise and so is not suitable in situations where fast action is needed.
- Encouraging others to run workshop can be time consuming and resource intensive;
- The commissioning body retains little control of how discussions are framed or facilitated in practice.
- Data collected can be inconsistent;
- Difficult to ensure inclusiveness and transparency of local dialogues.
- It is difficult to ensure inclusiveness and transparency of local / stakeholder led dialogues
- The process may produce contradictory or inconsistent data.
The method was developed by the Danish Board of Technology.