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Confessions of a Creative Dialogue Sceptic (now converted!)

I followed Susan Ritchie’s excellent ‘Wednesday Wisdom’ webinar knowing that, in the eyes of some of my colleagues, I have often been viewed as a bit of a methodology dinosaur, less enthusiastic about new ideas than I should have been!

It all goes back to a rant I must have had many years ago along the lines of ‘Mickey mouse consultation by post-it notes’. It offended even some of my close friends! To be fair, I had experienced a particularly lacklustre session which entertained the participants hugely but provided very little for those who had to take the decision. Since then, and notwithstanding being very keen on participatory budgeting, the Luddite label stuck.

Participatory budgeting, like many other ‘creative dialogues’ is of course hardly new. In 2012, Elizabeth Gammell and I spent a day with the World Bank in Washington DC showing comms people from several countries a splendid video featuring Alan Budge running a brilliant PB event in Keighley a few years earlier. All was going well, and we were, I hope, convincingly making the case for using such a technique on a regular basis. Then someone asked what had happened afterwards, and how was it performing right now. Sadly, and to avoid being too economical with the truth, we had to explain that the grant funding had been withdrawn, the experiment terminated, and the Council turned against the idea.

Happily, the world in 2020 is far more willing to embrace creative dialogue methods. Some of this is due to great improvements in technology-assisted, online tools. But, as Susan pointed out on Wednesday, there has also been a culture-change in management, and organisations were turning up at work without a tie – or the female equivalent – was about as heinous a social gaffe as trying to summarise a complex debate through a drawing. Visual Minutes, are apparently increasing in popularity.

I recall my first experience of Appreciative Enquiry under the superb guidance of Sherry Fuller. When she brought out the ‘toys’ including multi-coloured pipe-cleaners, I tried to hide under the table, true to one who, according to my wife, can’t be trusted to change the fuse in a plug!  In fact, at the end of one day’s training, I was totally sold on AI. Frankly, I’ve never understood why it is not used more. Maybe the problem lies in the name. Rather like Participatory Budgeting! And don’t let me start on Positive Deviance.

Being serious, however, the consequence of the pandemic may well encourage more people to experiment with the kind of methods suggested by Susan Ritchie this week. Consultation in a socially-distanced world is a challenge to the creativity of many engagement professionals. When we announced a Consultation Re-start (or indeed Engagement Re-start) advice and guidance package this week, we were very conscious that one of the main areas of support that our members and clients might require is with re-imagining the dialogue methods.

Virtual focus groups and deliberative sessions on Zoom or its equivalents appeal to many, and I’m keen to encourage Susan to come back to the Institute’s online programme and host a live demonstration. Would anyone be interested? If so, get in touch.

One final thought. We should never forget that dialogue methods are not normally and end in themselves – they are a means to an end. In all the debate about what methodology to use, the goal ultimately is to inform difficult decisions that public bodies and organisations have to make. As we explored in Briefing Paper 38 on Exit from Lockdown – the case for consultation, we face two years of changing methods of working and providing services. The Institute will campaign for transparency and consultation in all these decisions. To do so lawfully will mean developing and implementing new ways of engaging with stakeholders and the public. Creative dialogue methods have a great contribution to make in such a scenario, and as a fervent convert to many such techniques, I will do my utmost to promote them.


To find out more information on upcoming webinars please click here. The next Wednesday Wisdom Webinar will be – Challenging consultees, consultors, and consultation.

About the Author

Rhion Jones is considered a leading authority on Public Engagement and Consultation. A founding Director of the Consultation Institute, he is co-author of “The Art of Consultation” (2009) and “The Politics of Consultation” (2018). He has delivered over 500 training courses and Masterclasses and is a prolific writer on the subject, having written over 350 different Topic papers and over 50 full Briefing Papers for the Institute. Since 2003 over 15,000 person-days of training based on courses he invented have been delivered. Rhion is in demand as an entertaining Keynote Speaker and Special Adviser, particularly on the Law of Consultation, and its implications for Government and other Public Bodies. In 2017, he was awarded the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’.

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