In Environmental Engagement, we’ve determined the what, the who and now we are determining the how. This is referred to as engagement through two-way dialogue. An article by Jim Proctor at Lewis & Clark highlights three methods in which engagement is practiced through different types of conversation. The three types that are discussed are the Deficit model which assumes popular knowledge and aims to educate (Dickson, 2005), the Framing Model has a similar goal to educate or inform people but it’s more sensitive to cultural frames (Maibach et al. 2009), and the dialogic model, which is a theory with the goal of stakeholder engagement in a two-way learning process (Stilgoe et al. 2014). In the following sections below we will discuss these terms in the further context of Healthy Democracy, a non-governmental organization founded in Oregon. Healthy Democracy has multiple programs that use different approaches to appeal and engage with different groups of people. Their main programs, and the ones included in this analysis are the Citizens Initiative Review or CIR, Community Oregon, and Democracy Salons.
Citizens Initiative Review
The CIR engages with the public on a complex and multi-dimensional scale. The CIR encourages registered voters to participate in local policy decision making and voter education. One of the first steps of the process of the CIR is once you’re accepted as a participant you undergo training on deliberation and dialogue which speaks to the training model. This type of education is meant to be sensitive to personal communications and teach mutual respect in the democratic environment. The next step involves a discussion with a panel where experts offer advice (adhering to the deficit model providing strict information), and participants are able to discuss their stakeholder position practicing the dialogue model. In the case of the CIR, community members are able to actively engage in conversation to produce a detailed statement to inform a mass scale of voters.
In brief, this process by which multiple modes of environmental communication are used effectively communicates information to community members, by which the use of stakeholder participation in dialogic engagement helps construct a more holistic idea of policy measures. The CIR impressively weaves informative narrative, such as workshops and expert knowledge, coupled with an emphasis on stakeholder interest allowing people to engage and produce a statement that is sent with proposed ballot measures detailing the pros or cons the stakeholders agreed upon. Dialectic engagement in this context is essentially being used to inform more people across different political scales in the form of a framing model used to inform people.
Community Oregon is one of Healthy Democracy’s programs, designed to bring people together who come from a variety of experiences and knowledge backgrounds and help them build skills to communicate effectively both with each other and people they encounter in their day to day lives. The program consists of three different parts: camp, exchange, and expo. To some extent, all styles of communication are utilized within this program but the dialogic method is most prevalent.
The dialogic method is representative of the overarching structure and principles on which Community Oregon is founded. The same genuine two-way conversations aimed at promoting understanding between people outlined in this communication model, are present in the Community Oregon program, especially the camp and exchange portion. Although the exposition is not clearly outlined on the website, it is my understanding that this portion of the program may utilize a communication model that more closely resembles the framing model than the dialogic.
With the Democracy Salons, Healthy Democracy specifically set them up to use a dialogical approach to help citizens engage with each other. The main idea is for people of varying perspectives to share their ideas on certain topics that are important to the political conversation. So then if the What of the organization is information and ideas and the Who is voters, then the How part that connects them in the Democracy Salons is simply the conversations that are part of the program. By getting a diverse group of individuals to share their values, people can learn about and discuss ideas they may never have encountered before. Unlike the framing and deficit model, the dialogical is not necessarily about convincing others that one perspective is correct; instead, it is more geared towards the co-production of knowledge. Sharing many different kinds of lived experiences in a respectful environment can lead to mutual learning. The dialogical model is not perfect, however, as it does break down sometimes when there is a larger group. This is most likely why Healthy Democracy tends to limit the number of individuals who are invited to these discussions. In order for there to be a dialogue, the conversation needs to be somewhat focused. If there are too many voices or too many different perspectives, the process can become time-consuming and lose direction.
An example of the Democracy Salons practicing the dialogical model would be one of their first events. The topic of this particular event was media and public trust. Overall there were about nine or ten participants coming from different backgrounds ranging from journalism to lawyers to professors etc. The first person to break the ice asked the question that got them talking “What the hell is going on?” From there the participants discussed and identified a central theme: trust in institutions. The general agreement was that citizens didn’t trust most institutions, but one participant shared the belief that citizens didn’t necessarily act like a distrustful society. This eventually led to further discussion about the balance between trust and skepticism. In this discussion, all parties present were free to share their opinions with the group and contribute to the conversation. Because of that, the group ultimately arrived at a place where they could ask what could be done about the problem and offer multiple solutions. There was not just one correct answer that was derived from the discussion, but instead there were many. This example of the dialogical model is a good indicator that similar discussions can be instrumental in developing an environment where mutual learning can occur.
All of the programs under Healthy Democracy make use of the dialogical model of communication to some extent. It is central to Healthy Democracy’s mission that they create an environment that supports inclusion and deliberation, as well fairness and respect. Their main goal is to make sure citizens’ voices are heard and to “improve public discourse for the benefit of all.” While the deficit and framing models are more suited for just providing information, they do not do so in a mutually beneficial way. That is to say the dialogical model creates the opportunity for a two way street in the conversation rather than just someone talking at someone. With this mode of communication, there isn’t just one answer to a question, there can be many different answers with varying perspectives that have the opportunity to offer their input. This facilitates the coproduction of knowledge that is essential to engagement. However, this can only be achieved if there aren’t too many perspectives weighing in on any given conversation. Too many voices make it nearly impossible for a dialogue to maintain focus. This is the balance Healthy Democracy must try to find: being able to give as many voices a platform to speak while making sure there aren’t too many voices to distract from the conversation.
- Dickson, David. 2005. “The case for a ‘deficit model’ of science communication.” SciDev.Net. June 27, 2005. Link
- Maibach, Edward, Connie Roser-Renouf, and Anthony Leiserowitz. 2009. “Global warming’s six Americas 2009: An audience segmentation analysis” Center for Climate Change Communication: George Mason University. Link
- Stilgoe, Jack, Simon J. Lock, and James Wilsdon. 2014. “Why should we promote public engagement with science?” Public Understanding of Science 23 (1): 4–15. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963662513518154