The White House’s Office Of Science And Technology Policy last week invited comments on a number of blog posts that summarized citizen recommendations to enhance participation and transparency. (This is part of the administration’s “Open Government Initiative.”)

One blog post was on “Enhancing Citizen Participation In Decision Making.”

People shared a lot of good ideas. I wish I could link directly to a particular comment, because my friend Peter Levine added what I thought was the most important intervention.

Peter suggests four principles to keep in mind about any mechanism for face-to-face public participation:

1. Some method to ensure reasonable levels of representativeness.

2. A neutral and responsible presentation of the issues.

3. A carefully through-out process that promotes learning and collaboration. That almost always requires trained moderators.

4. Some protection against deliberate manipulation by interest groups. In a completely open online discussion, it’s easy to email a huge number of supporters and ask them all to post comments. In a conventional public hearing, usually the main speakers represent specific interests. We need to draw a true cross section of people for an open-minded discussion. Random selection is one way to avoid manipulation, but there are other ways as well–always involving careful recruitment.

Any of these ideas is worth more exploration, but I am interested in the third.

Dialogue almost always requires trained moderators. Intuitively we know this is true. Dialogue, when it goes well, pushes us to examine our own assumptions about what motivates other people. When was the last time you did that, unprovoked? I didn’t think so.

Flipchart in the garden by Flickr user Sjors Provoost

"Flipchart in the garden" by Flickr user Sjors Provoost

In dialogue initiatives that I have been a part of, we often ask participants a variety of questions at the end, including whether people changed their mind about anything or whether they see others who disagree with them differently than before. Very few people admit to having their minds changed — but people often report that they see others in a different light.

That kind of mindset change cannot be self-generated but requires someone to push it.

Even more, when I look at different dialogue initiatives, and at the different group conversations that take place within them, I’ve found that one of the key leverage points is the quality of the leader. It is not rocket science to lead a dialogue on public issues, but it is a skill that takes a bit of mindfulness.

What makes a good dialogue leader? It’s not the same thing as being a “neutral facilitator” because it takes a little more moxie. I can think of five key traits:

  • Ability to think on your feet
  • Genuine interest in what other people have to say
  • Ability to track the conversation actively and bring in things that people said previously
  • Ability to set expert knowledge aside
  • Willingness to lead, humility to set ego aside

Lots of my readers are active in the public dialogue field. What are your key conversation leader traits?