Navigating the Range of Public Engagement Approaches

Vol. 18 No. 2


Dozens of effective public engagement techniques have been developed over the last decade or two that enable citizens to have authentic, civil, productive public discussions across partisan divides—even on highly contentious issues. Techniques include National Issues Forums, study circles, 21st Century Town Meetings, Open Space Technology, Sustained Dialogue, and The World Café, to name just a few.

When done well, these techniques create the space for real dialogue so those who show up can tell their stories and share their perspectives on the topic at hand. This kind of interpersonal dialogue builds trust among those meeting even for the first time and enables people to be open to listening to perspectives very different from their own, which is quite a feat in itself in these highly polarized times.

The process of deliberation is key to public engagement work as well, enabling people to discuss the consequences, costs and trade-offs of various policy options, and work through the emotions and values that are a necessary part of making tough public decisions.

Dialogue is not about winning an argument or coming to agreement, but about increased understanding and learning. Deliberation, on the other hand, emphasizes the importance of examining options and trade-offs so people can make informed public decisions. The trust, mutual understanding and relationships that are built during dialogue often lay the groundwork needed for effective deliberation.

Basic but crucial elements of quality public engagement include small-group discussion, skilled facilitation, and the use of ground rules. Oftentimes, convenors provide participants with balanced background information on the topic at hand, and may even develop a broadly-framed spectrum of possible policy choices for participants to discuss.

These practices are similar to dispute resolution processes like mediation and negotiation, though there are some important distinctions. Dialogue is often open-ended, focused more on increasing understanding and developing relationships than on reaching an agreement. Dialogue and deliberation both often involve groups whose conflict or challenge is widespread and not specific to those in the room (e.g., poor race relations in a community versus a race-based dispute involving two neighbors). Because of this, public engagement processes often focus on outcomes that foster change outside of the group as much as on the participants themselves.

Dialogue and deliberation can serve many purposes:

  • Resolving conflicts and bridging divides
  • Shifting the tone of public discourse on a contentious issue from vitriol to civil and solvable
  • Building understanding and knowledge about complex issues
  • Generating innovative solutions to problems
  • Inspiring collective or individual action
  • Reaching agreement or recommendations on policy decisions
  • Building civic capacity, or the ability for communities to solve their own public problems

Techniques range from intimate, small-group dialogues to large televised forums involving hundreds or even thousands of participants. Evolving communication technologies are sometimes integrated into these programs to overcome barriers of scale, geography and time.

To help people navigate the range of public engagement approaches available to them, the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) identified four main streams of engagement based on the primary purpose community leaders, public officials and others have for using these processes to engage citizens: exploration, conflict transformation, decision making, and collaborative action. These four streams are described below.


If you are interested in helping people explore an issue or problem or helping them get to know each other better, consider using “exploration” methods like Conversation Café, World Café, Open Space Technology, and Bohmian Dialogue. These methods emphasize open-ended dialogue and work best when a group or community seems stuck or muddled and needs to reflect on their circumstance in depth and gain collective insight. These methods encourage new insights and connections to emerge by creating a space for people to openly share their thoughts, feelings and perspectives.

Open Space and World Café are often used at conferences, where the organizer wants to see attendees talking to each other and exploring issues and questions of common concern and when the goal is not a specific type of outcome, such as a decision or the formation of action committees. New ideas and action groups may emerge, but the whole group is not moved in that direction. Often, “exploration” methods can help determine what type of in-depth engagement is needed to help a group progress further on an issue.

In his role as mayor of Harrisonburg, Va., Kai Degner used Open Space Technology to convene several successful community dialogues. In May 2009, for example, Degner held a successful community-wide Open Space event called the “Mayor’s Sustainability Summit,” involving about 160 people and 120 organizations in an innovative day-long event held in public and commercial spaces throughout downtown Harrisonburg. The cost to the city was a mere $30 for a few supplies; everything else was donated[1]

Methods in this category are also a good choice for community leaders who sense that many residents are shaken up about a recent natural disaster or national crisis.  People may be angry about how a crisis was handled, discouraged by media coverage of the crisis, worried about a similar crisis happening closer to home, and unsure how to process all of these emotions and fears.  Three of these processes, discussed below, can help them discuss all of these responses civilly and move beyond emotional paralysis to begin thinking about disaster preparedness.

Conversation Cafés are 90-minute hosted dialogues that are usually held in coffee shops, bookstores or other public settings, where anyone is welcome to join. Instructions and ground rules fit on a tiny business card and the simple format helps people feel at ease and gives everyone a chance to speak. Two rounds of turn-based discussion using a “talking object” are followed by “popcorn-style” discussion and a closing round.  Conversation Cafés do not focus on action or a decision. They give people a chance to talk to people they don't know in their community about an issue of joint interest.

World Cafés enable groups of people to participate together in evolving rounds of dialogue with three or four others while remaining part of a larger, connected conversation. Small, intimate conversations link and build on each other as participants move to new tables every 20 minutes to build on ideas already discussed, and discover new insights into questions or issues that matter to them in their life, work, or community. A World Café can involve hundreds of people in one room at tables of four. Events range from 90 minutes to three days and are often held at conferences.

Open Space Technology is an innovative approach to convening people that helps to inspire creativity and leadership among participants. Rather than having organizers design an agenda with pre-set topics and workshops, in Open Space a “marketplace of inquiry” is created in which participants propose topics they are passionate about and then lead discussions on those topics with other attendees who share their interest. Open Space can involve up to hundreds of people in one large room, with interest groups forming multiple times throughout each of the three days and dispersing to numerous smaller rooms. The self-organizing process used in Bar Camps and Unconferences is often based largely on Open Space Technology.

Conflict Transformation

Methods such as Sustained Dialogue, Public Conversations Project dialogues, Compassionate Listening, and victim-offender mediation are a good choice when you want to address a specific conflict or improve relations between groups that are at odds with each other. These methods tend to be used when relationships among participants are poor or not yet established. Generally, the issue or conflict at hand can only be resolved when people change their behaviors or attitudes, expand their perspectives on the situation, or take time to reflect on their emotions and how they came to form their opinions about another group.

One well-known conflict transformation effort is the Public Conversations Project's six-year dialogue involving leaders in the pro-choice and pro-life movements in Boston, who came together in secret after a 1994 shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic. These dialogues revealed a deep divide reflecting two very different world views. Yet, participants began to understand and respect those “on the other side.” The leaders began to speak differently about each other to the media, toning down their rhetoric and, consequently, reaching new audiences. At one point, pro-life advocates dissuaded a pro-life activist from Virginia from bringing his message of violence to Massachusetts, making it clear to him that his group's hateful message was not welcome or needed in their state. The Boston Globe provided the vehicle for the pro-life and pro-choice leaders to go public with their experiences in the dialogue, with a 3,000-word, jointly written newspaper article.[2]

The following are methods that may aid in transforming conflict between individuals or groups at odds with one another:

            Sustained Dialogue is a process for transforming and building the relationships that are essential to democratic political and economic practice. It involves sustained interaction to transform and build relationships among members of deeply conflicted groups, such as Israelis and Palestinians, so that they may effectively deal with practical problems. As a small-group process that develops over time through a sequence of two to three-hour meetings, Sustained Dialogue moves participants through a series of phases including a deliberative “scenario-building” stage and an “acting together” stage.

            The Public Conversations Project helps people with fundamental disagreements over divisive issues develop the mutual understanding and trust essential for strong communities and positive action. Their dialogue model is characterized by a careful preparatory phase in which all stakeholders and/or sides are interviewed and prepared for the dialogue process. Small groups of people from various sides of an existing conflict meet multiple times.

            Victim-offender mediation, or victim-offender dialogue, is a restorative justice process that allows the victim of a crime and the person who committed that crime to talk to each other about what happened, the effects of the crime on their lives and their feelings about it. They may choose to create a mutually agreeable plan to repair any damages that occurred as a result of the crime. In some practices, the victim and the offender are joined by family and community members or others. The process consists of multiple two to three-hour dialogue sessions.

Decision Making

If public engagement is needed to inform policy decisions and public knowledge on a particular issue, processes that emphasize deliberation are a good option.  Methods such as National Issues Forums, Deliberative Polling, 21st Century Town Meetings, Charrettes, and Consensus Conferences are some well-known examples. These methods are recommended when the issue at hand is ultimately going to be decided on by a single entity, such as a government agency or committee, that is genuinely interested in learning about their constituents' informed opinions and shared values. Key features of decision-making methods include unbiased “naming” of the issue and balanced framing of options; creating space for participants to weigh all options and consider different positions; and identifying the public's core values around an issue.

One common topic addressed through deliberation more and more for the last few years is cities' budgets. Public deliberation on budget decisions has even come to have its own name:  participatory budgeting. Public officials and councils are faced with unpopular decisions if they want to balance their city's budget. Public deliberation allows them to gather input and gain buy-in from citizens about efficiency measures, tax or fee increases, and service reductions and expansions. It also serves to inform residents about the complex challenges involved in developing a balanced budget.

Examples of decision-making methods include:

            21st Century Town Meetings, pioneered by AmericaSpeaks, enable members of the general public to give those in leadership positions direct, substantive input on key issues. Each meeting engages hundreds or thousands of general interest citizens at a time, utilizing innovative technology including handheld keypads and networked laptop computers to effectively and quickly summarize citizen input. These all-day meetings bring large groups of people together in one room or multiple networked rooms to deliberate at small tables. Participation is generally open to the public, although organizers recruit heavily to ensure a diverse, representative group.

            Deliberative Polling, created by Stanford University's Jim Fishkin, uses scientific random sampling to identify a diverse group of participants to provide high-quality input on public policy and electoral issues. Members of a larger random sample are polled and a smaller sampling of those polled are invited to gather for a meeting over a weekend to discuss the issues after they have examined balanced briefing materials. These participants, which may include several hundred people, engage in dialogue with competing experts and political leaders based on questions they develop in small group discussions with trained moderators. Participants receive a small stipend to encourage attendance regardless of income level.

Using Public Engagement Processes

National Issues Forums give citizens a chance to deliberate about public issues like the national debt and healthcare reform. The forums, which are generally two hours long, utilize trained moderators and balanced issue guides to engage from a dozen to hundreds of people in one room around small tables. National Issues Forums are often held in academic settings, but those open to the public are publicized widely to help ensure a variety of viewpoints are present. The National Issues Forums Institute works with a network of institutes across the country to focus energy on one issue each year and reports on its findings to public officials via an annual event in Washington, D.C.

Collaborative Action

If your goal is to empower participants to identify solutions to complex public problems and take responsibility for implementing those solutions, “collaborative action” methods may be the best fit. Methods such as study circles, Future Search, and Appreciative Inquiry are designed to engage people in dialogue and deliberation in order to generate ideas for community action and then help them develop and implement action plans collaboratively. These methods are appropriate when the issue or dispute requires intervention across numerous public and private entities, and any time community action is important.

The problem of bullying, for example, is one that may best be addressed by a collaborative action method that allows students, parents, teachers and school staff to engage in interpersonal dialogue on the issue, identify through deliberation what some potential solutions could be and what they might involve, organize participants into groups based on which solutions they would like to work on, and support them through the action phase.  A school can choose to pass a new policy against bullying, but a collaborative action process will create more cross-cutting solutions and broad-based buy-in from across the school community.

Future Search is an interactive planning process which helps people within a system such as an organization or community to discover a set of shared values or themes (common ground) and agree on a plan of action for implementing them. Because participants from all tiers of the system are included, the process builds strong ownership and a powerful shared experience. Future Search involves up to 80 people in a 16 to 18-hour meeting usually including two overnights.

Study circles, a process pioneered by Everyday Democracy, enable communities to strengthen their own ability to solve problems by bringing large numbers of people together in dialogue across divides of race, income, age, and political viewpoints. Study circles combine dialogue, deliberation, and community organizing techniques, enabling public talk to build understanding, explore a range of solutions, and serve as a catalyst for social, political, and policy change. In “community-wide” study circles, hundreds of people meet in separate small groups for four to six 2-hour sessions. Participation is open to anyone, although organizers recruit heavily to ensure that all stakeholders, including those with decision-making power, are represented.

Getting Started

When deciding what public engagement approach might be best, you'll need to consider your primary purpose (exploration, conflict transformation, decision making or collaborative action), a timeline for planning, the level of community support, and the financial and human resources available to you.  Experiment with a variety of public engagement methods, and try mixing and matching elements from various approaches to suit your own needs. 

For more details on these and other dialogue and deliberation approaches, see NCDD's Engagement Streams framework at

Sandy Heierbacher is Director of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, a community and coalition of 1,500 organizations and practitioners committed to bringing people together across divides to discuss, decide and act together on today’s toughest issues. NCDD's website ( offers thousands of resources and news posts on dialogue, deliberation, and public engagement.   She can be reached at .

[1] Visit  to learn more about Degner's summits or watch a video on the event at

[2] Available online at .  The project was also featured on NPR's All Things Considered in January 2003, which you can listen to at





DISPUTE RESOLUTION MAGAZINE is published quarterly (4 times a year) by the American Bar Association Section of Dispute Resolution. Dispute Resolution Magazine provides timely, insightful and resourceful information regarding the latest developments, news and trends in the growing field of dispute resolution throughout the world and features internationally-known scholars and practitioners as authors.


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Joseph B. Stulberg
The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law
Columbus, OH


Nancy A. Welsh
Penn State University, Dickinson School of Law
Carlisle and University Park, PA


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Cambridge, MA


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Hamline University School of Law
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International Monetary Fund

Glen Allen, VA


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Washington, DC


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Stradley Ronon
Philadelphia, PA


Donna Stienstra
Federal Judicial Center
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Zena Zumeta
Mediation Training & Consultation Institute
Ann Arbor, MI


Gina Viola Brown


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Louisa Williams


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