Updated May 2013 by Heidi Burgess
A policy dialogue is used to resolve regulatory, policy, and community conflicts with multiple stakeholders. Facilitated meetings are held over a period of time to develop or influence policy.
Anyone concerned about a policy that is likely to affect a diverse group of people. Especially useful when many of the stakeholders involved in the conflict might not have a chance to give their input and might get upset about that or about the policy once it is made.
Policy dialogues address controversial and often technical disputes. They help the public, private, and civic sectors exchange information and come to consensus on recommendations for solving the dispute.
- bring diverse groups to the table,
- focus on a regulatory, policy, or planning issue,
- attempt to find practical solutions to complex problems.
Some examples are:
- A group charged by a state department to propose a new Total Maximum Daily Load range for the amount of pollutants allowable in a stream.
- A federal agency working with tribal councils, recreational users, timber interests, and others on stewardship practices in a National Forest.
Policy dialogues usually have a sponsor, a negotiated mission or goal, stakeholders who are willing to negotiate a tough issue in a disciplined manner, and facilitators to help organize and moderate proceedings.
The idea of democracy is founded on the belief that citizens can and should govern themselves. Unfortunately, effective deliberation of controversial issues is often problematic. For example:
- A county commission in Boulder, Colorado tried to consider rules to regulate hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on county land. The meeting was quickly disrupted by anti-fracking activists who wouldn't allow discussion to proceed, eventually taking over the podium, as commissioners adjourned, cancelling the meeting without having any discussions.
- Asian students and parents in a California school spoke out about recurring racial slurs. However, their call for an open discussion between teachers and students was ignored.
Often, discussions on important civic matters end for the wrong reasons. Groups can't get organized or there is no accepted dialogue process. Communication breakdowns often trigger an escalating spiral of suspicion with increased tension and confusion. Often, people of normal integrity and good will actively seek to defeat each other and, in the words of one writer, go "together into the abyss." Policy dialogues can help remedy such situations.
Although there are no magic formulas for success, these three ingredients may help get people interested in starting such a process, and are also likely to keep them involved. These are:
- Ripeness: If the issue is ripe, all the participants are frustrated with traditional adversary processes and are willing to consider alternative approaches.
- Poor Alternatives: Participants can't get a better outcome alone.
- Creative Leadership: Creative leaders truly want to solicit input and can explain (at the end) why or why not they are taking the recommendations produced by the consensus process.
There are many examples. One is the EIPC--the Eastern Interconnection Planning Collaborative--a policy dialogue involving 41 US states and Canadian provinces and 24 planning authorities who together examined the status and future needs of the eastern US energy production and transmission system. These stakeholders, each with differing interests and concerns, developed a set of consensus recommendations for a variety of scenarios including different future energy costs, load growth, and national policy concerns (about carbon emissions for example). The EIPC process was cited by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future as an "innovative" public engagement model which should be considered for other contentious energy conflicts.
A second example is the Collaborative Food Safety Forum (CFSF) which is comprised of industry, consumer, academic, state and federal government representatives who together have undertaken a collaborative process for examining issues of food safety as called for in the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act.