How to run society-wide conversations

by Dr Tatjana Buklijas and Imogene Woodmass

As we start a new government term, new questions are reopened and existing questions are being reframed which need society-wide input and discussion. We need to carefully consider how to conduct these conversations in ways that are inclusive and productive.

Authors Tatjana Buklijas and Imogene Woodmass explore this in a piece originally written for IPPO.

Around the world, policymakers are reconciling the long-term need to tackle climate change with public backlash against policies that would ensure a path to Net Zero. 

In this review of ‘Society-Wide Conversations’ that have been held in different parts of the world, our partner INGSA explores how national debates over controversial issues of social change have come about, and their outcomes.

The review concludes that high quality conversations that lead to change share distinct hallmarks. These are useful to understand when considering how public dialogue can be a potential springboard for behaviour change and policy action. 

Need to listen to diverse voices – including in offline spaces

Policymakers need to be mindful and intentional as they platform voices and share information, empowering the public to be speakers and listeners alike in spaces where they feel comfortable, capable, and confident.

In Ireland, for example, grassroots organisations and women with lived experience had the opportunity for their voices to be heard and influence legislation.

Need for conversation to have moral weight to ensure public engagement

Topics suitable for society-wide conversations must go beyond technocratic concerns. To spark engagement, they will necessarily be issues of deep emotional significance that often have an historic dimension, and address issues of inequality. 

For example, policymakers and politicians in Australia were able to bring the story of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders into the country’s present-day imagination through the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart. An important example when considering how to approach society-wide conversations on the impact of climate change.

Need to define milestones and endpoints

There is more likelihood of engagement when the public are actors in some form of decision-making. For that reason, referendums are often used to create a milestone in a society-wide conversation. They work better still, when citizens are obliged to cast their vote.

In the cases of abortion reform in Ireland (and Argentina in 2018), the referendums acted as milestones for conversations on politics and religion. When policymakers are planning for a society-wide conversation around Net Zero it may be important to consider what endpoint they expect the public to be working towards.

The examples of recent society-wide conversations in INGSA’s review provide important lessons for any future conversations concerning climate change and the pathway to Net Zero.

At a time when representative democracy is facing a crisis, in the midst of disillusionment towards politicians and public institutions, and divisive, polarising culture wars, there is a need for alternative approaches for collective decision-making in society. 

Society-wide conversations can offer a potential solution to the limitation of representative democracy, by involving all sectors of society and collectively addressing pressing issues. 

Working at their best, society-wide conversations can be a tool to reach consensus on deeply divisive issues, in order to drive positive behavioural or policy change.

Read INGSA’s full report here and watch our event on How to Run Society-Wide Conversations on Routes and Choices for Net Zero.

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