A distributed dialogue is a decentralised approach to deliberation with the aim to develop ongoing, embedded discussions around a given policy issue. A distributed dialogue takes place at different levels and uses a mix of methodologies. Parts of the process are often self-organised by groups of participants, with the aim to engage a wide range of communities and different stakeholders, as well as the general public. Distributed dialogue entails a number of dialogue events held across different geographical areas and through a range of different media. While the overarching policy issues are the same, local groups organising dialogues enjoy a high degree of autonomy.
In distributed dialogue stakeholders and citizen groups set up their own events to discuss a topic, following prompts from the initial organisers. The aim is to offset the limitations of more traditional methods, such as a lack of flexibility and innovation; limited numbers of participants confined to recruited or well-organised groups; high costs of centrally organised events, and the top-down nature of traditional consultation and engagement methods.
The rationale behind a distributed approach is that dialogue on complex issues should include a range of conversations that happen in different spaces. Distributed dialogue has the advanatge of offering a number of entry points for citizens and other stakeholders across multiple areas. This can ensure that large numbers of people engage meaningfully in the debate, while allowing organisers to tap into a wide range of expertise and local experiences.
A distributed dialogue approach will be:
- Devolved because it requires a top-down engagement method launched from the centre but influenced by a wide range of actors from local contexts. It makes use of various networks and community activists to reach out to citizens. While normally groups might remain unconnected and work in isolation, Distributed Dialogue envisages a clear channel between the various groups involved and the results of the different conversations will be fed back into the decision-making process.
- Well promoted, because promotion of the process to potential participants and the public at large through the mass media is crucial to the success of the dialogue exercise.
- Collaborative, because, unlike a consultation process, in a distributed dialogue citizens are equipped with the necessary tools to engage in the conversation, from good non-biased information to building skills and confidence.
- Open, because there should not be pre-determined outcomes. Although the process should be structured, it should not be constrained by narrow and leading questions, rather citizens should be allowed to drive the discussion and set the agenda.
- Of mixed methodology, because this approach merge online and offline approaches and diversify methods of engagement at different times and in different situations, to ensure a broad range of people have the opportunity to engage.
- Influential, because the outcomes of these dialogues should be linked to the policy cycle and fed back into decision-making. The process should be open and participants should be able to have an input on the process and on designing the dialogue.
- Internationalised, because these issues are generally cross-national and may take place on international platforms.
- Continuous because one-off engagement will not be useful in tackling intricate issues and any public engagement will need to be ongoing and become increasingly integrated in the governance process.
Distributed dialogue has been used to address complex policy problems, across a number of policy areas.
A seminal cases of distributed dialogue is the Sciencewise-supported BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) Bioenergy Distributed Dialogue. In BBSRC case, the goal was “to develop an ongoing, informed discussion between the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), its research community and a range of stakeholders, including members of the public, around bioenergy research, its potential and the issues associated with it.”
For a range of interesting cases studies, se Involve's publication Talking For a Change.
Local dialogues are open to everyone, but there shoud be strong communication channels to ensure some degree of consistency across different dialogues and that outcomes are fed back to all participants. The advantage of Distributed Dialogue is that it allows for the participation of a variety of actors, e.g. community activists, who will be able to reach citizens at the local level.
Costs vary depending on the scope and breadth of the engagement. Central costs are contained and devolved thorugh the involvement of local groups that run their own local events.
Approximate time expense
This is a long-term process. It takes a minimum of one year to organise and facilitate.
This method represents a new approach to public dialogue and has a number of strengths:
- Ability to engage a large number of stakeholders and lay people in different locations;
- Insights into concerns and aspirations in different localities around the same issues;
- Costs and organisational tasks are decentralised and money is potentially saved by accessing venues and staff in external organisations;
- Opportunities for continuous engagement integrated into the decision-making process.
Some weaknesses include:
- Encouraging others to run workshop can be time consuming and resource intensive;
- Data collected can be inconsistent;
- Difficult to ensure inclusiveness and transparency of local dialogues.
The method was developed by the Danish Board of Technology.
Build skills and capacity of participants
Gather informed and considered opinions (deliberation)
Generate new ideas (innovation)
Create a shared vision amongst participants
Number of participants
Self selected participants attending as individuals (open access process)
Level of awareness and interest
participants need information and cannot articulate their interests
participants know about some aspects/can roughly articulate some interest
Crime and justice
Environment and climate change
Health and well-being
Housing and Planning
Science and technology
Limit search to...
... face to face processes
... online processes
Level of involvement