From top-down to participatory: a funny thing could have happened on the way to the forum

Attention Conservation Notice: This post is a sequel to a somewhat robust critique of a climate meeting (which called itself a “forum”) held yesterday. I thought it was a tragically missed opportunity to gather information from people, to generate ideas and enthusiasm and to build links between people who don’t know each other but could and should. So this is how I would have tried to make all that happen. Rather than build castles in the air, I have assumed that I’ve only got the same time (2 hours), money (not much) and physical space (a wretched tiered lecture theatre) as the organisers themselves. I really really want to know what people think about this.

So, let’s do this as a SMEAC.


* There is a debate happening at present about a carbon tax that has the potential to either demoralise or re-energise parts of the climate movement.
* There has been a history of tense relations between climate groups in Adelaide, which is slightly on the mend. The carbon tax issue reveals some of these.
* Many people in the audience are potential or activists and organisers, who have information, perspectives, contacts and energy that could and should be captured.
* Other activists have burnt out or stepped back from climate activism. We must find out why, and seeing how we can bring them and their energy back into the fold.
* People in the audience who have useful skills and knowledge for each other should hooked up with each other on the basis of where they live, what they do (job etc) and what they campaign on.


Explain concisely the different groups perceived “opportunities and threats” around the carbon tax.
Display the points of overlap/unity, and explore how the tensions within the movement can be constructively managed.
Create spaces for non-hierarchical discussion of important movement issues.
Extract as much of the information from people attending as possible
Create opportunities for individuals to mingle systematically


Before the meeting
Get formal (written!) agreement from all the speakers that they will keep their speeches to the agreed time, be that 3 minutes, 6 minutes, whatever. In a perfect world this wouldn’t be necessary, of course, but some groups have a long and dishonourable history, don’t they?).

Invite people who will be attending the event to send in (via emails) suggestions for what should be discussed. You don’t have to take these on-board necessarily, but the very act of asking is going to make people more likely to come and participate.

Devise and print a handout (probably will come out at about 12 A5 pages) that can be given out to all those who attend
It should include –
* Factual information about the carbon tax, sourced from reliable sources.
* A brief summary of the different positions of the sponsoring groups
* A brief summary of the positions of other groupings (political parties, unions, business, other climate movement groups not in the room)
* A list of places where people can get reliable and intelligent information about the carbon tax (policy wonks, journalists etc) and climate change more generally (at minimum about science, policy, psychology, activism)
* A calendar about the coming months of climate activity at the federal level (release of the Government’s climate plan, release of Garnaut’s last report, timetable for when the legislation is supposed to go through.)
* Useful for helping people orient themselves for the daily headlines.
* A comprehensive calendar of all upcoming climate-related meetings (not just the ones being put on by the sponsoring groups) in the next couple of months.
* “Biographies” of the sponsoring groups, including their short-term objectives, their contact details, their websites and the sorts of things volunteers would end up doing if they got involved in that group.
* Something inspiring and/or funny!!! “You’ve got to give them hope” as Harvey Milk said… A cartoon or two never hurts.
A prominent email address so that if people have further questions/ideas whatever they can get in touch.

Yes, this is a lot of work, but it builds trust and credibility, and means that instead of using up precious time on the night transmitting basic information, people can be referred to the booklet.

On the night
Before formal proceedings;
Explicitly encourage people to mingle before formal proceedings kick off (have the people at the stalls say at that. Have the powerpoint slide on the screen saying that too. It is CRUCIAL that informal networks form (see Granovetter’s weak ties, Gladwell’s three kinds of people a social network needs)
Consider having name tags for people (sticky labels and marker pens – don’t use pen, it’s illegible). Consider having both a name label and also a label so people can write down what they want to talk about with other attendees (it might be “Port Augusta” or “movement-building” or “denialism” or whatever”) And if people REALLY want, they can have a third label saying where they come from. Who knows, they might bump into someone who only lives a few streets away, with whom they can work on local issues.

6 pm sharp Welcome to the meeting
Do an acknowledgment of country.
Also consider doing an acknowledgment of carbon dioxide

Think about doing something funny/inspiring. How about reading out a greeting from someone who wanted to be at the meeting but couldn’t? Or an account of a recent piece of direct action (like the Rising Tide action on Greg Combet’s office?)

Do housekeeping as quickly as possible (“toilets here, fire exits there. Please switch your mobile off, or onto silent. You are free to tweet this meeting, use hashtag ____.” There’s three bits of dead tree we’ve given you. A handout full of information and contact details and upcoming events. A questionnaire that we’d really like you to fill out, ideally tonight, and a really brief feedback form about tonight.”)

Perhaps find out what the mood in the room is (“a temperature check”) (though this is usually only useful or really doable in a smaller group).

6.05 Get people talking to someone else (what’s known as an “activation phenomenon)
“Turn to the person behind you – because you probably know the person you are sat next to – and introduce yourself. And chat. If you need a topic, you could decide what one thing you would do about climate change if you were Julia Gillard for a day, or just talk about something that inspiring that you’ve done or seen about climate change activism recently”).
Run a couple of straw polls so everyone has a sense of what people in the room know (ideally you’d do this a spectrum, but tiered lecture theatres preclude this, so do it as a ‘put up your hand if…”
you have decided what you think about the carbon tax
you think the climate movement should be focusing its energy on the carbon tax

Find out what’s the most time someone has travelled to be here tonight. Give them a round of applause? (this can be quite cheesy though…)

6.10 Body of the meeting
Carbon Tax section (ideally 30 minutes)
Have one person do a quick summary (6 minutes) of
* what the carbon tax proposal is
* when it will go through, if it indeed does
a slide (from the booklet) showing the different position of the various sponsoring groups
Ask each panelist to say, in strict maximum of 3 minutes, why the carbon tax is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing and what it happening would mean for the climate movement.
ENFORCE the 3 minute rule. Have a round of applause for the speaker who does it in the shortest amount of time (e.g. 2 minutes)
Ideally all the groups will not only have a summary in the handout, but also their own documents on stalls outside the room!

6. 30 BEFORE going to the q and a, have people talk with either the person they spoke with before or someone else. Ask each pair or three to write down the biggest question they have about the carbon tax. Ask them to write legibly!
Then take no more than 5 questions about the carbon tax. Ask both questioners and the panel to keep their contributions as brief as possible.
Collect the rest of the questions that haven’t been asked. Commit to putting these questions up on a website, and having someone go through and source the answers to the questions (creating a FAQ, in other words). If the questions are directed at specific groups, get those groups to do a response). There should be a one-week deadline for this. Once the FAQ is written, there can be an email sent out telling people it exists…

After these five questions, call time on that portion of the discussion – we need to NOT become obsessed with the government agenda, and leave ourselves enough time to discuss strategy!
Do a straw poll with the question “Hands up who has shifted their opinion on the carbon tax on the basis of what they have heard tonight?”

6.50 Climate Strategy
Each panelist has 4 minutes (again, very strictly enforced) to answer the following questions
1) The biggest challenge the climate movement faces is…
2) The actions we need to take in the coming year are…
3) The mistakes of the past which we need to avoid are…

By the end of this the room will probably be buzzing with ideas and energy!
It’s only 7.15, or maybe 7.20 tops.

At this point there a couple of options – (how to decide – maybe throw it open to the meeting, or just keep to the original decision?)
Option One – have a Q and A based on this. On the plus side, it’s a familiar format (and there’s only so much meeting format innovation that people can take… People can just sit and watch if they want, as others chest-beat and pontificate and launch speeches-not-evenly-thinly-veiled-as-questions. Not that I am in any way in favour of …
Option Two – come up with a series of questions that you want the room to use their collective intelligence on.

My proposed questions would be
* How can we use social media more effectively? (facebook, twitter, youtube, blogs)
* The next march? Which date? Which topic How do we ensure that people who watch the march or who go on it come away knowing more, knowing new people? (See Climate Rally Speech I’ll never give)
* How can we make our meetings and groups more welcoming to people who don’t consider themselves “activists”? What are the barriers to participation? What examples of good practice to people have? Why have other people left these groups, asides from “moved to another city”.
* What questions do we need to answer about our next joint campaign (e.g. Port Augusta). Who are our potential allies? What should our demands be? What are the potential pitfalls in this campaign?
* Group for people who don’t want to answer any of those questions. Remember, you can sit there filling in your questionnaire.

Each group would be in a different part of the room. There would be plenty of copies of an A5 bit of paper with the specific group’s question, so the question didn’t have to be constantly read out. Individuals would be encouraged to take part in the discussion and also write their ideas/suggestions down on the A5 paper, which would then be collected and typed up, alongside the minutes taken by the scribe.

At 7.45pm (i.e. 25 to 30 minutes) we will finish with the group discussion and resume tiered seating. The facilitator will then give a ONE minute summary of the very main discussion points from each group.

By 7.55pm it should be time to Close of the Meeting. Make sure it’s up-beat…
Make sure people have filled in their questionnaires, or can come collect a stamped addressed envelope.
Ask people to fill in the brief feedback form, and have a box at the front where people can put them.
Finish with a clear brief statement of what happens next, and what people can do.
Have a single round of applause for the speakers and the organisers and the participants and all those who wanted to be there tonight but couldn’t be.
Ask for donations to cover the cost of the next meeting.

After the meeting
Go to the pub and have fun!
Do NOT look at the either the questionnaires or the meeting feedback forms until the following day.
The person/people doing the type up and circulation of the results should NOT be people who were involved in the meeting organisation and implementation – too much power and/or too much work in too few hands is a recipe for burnout and cliques and so forth.
Do a face-to-face debrief as to how it went and how it could have been done better a week or so later.

Administration and Logistics

Welcomers to the meeting (offering stickers/name labels, answering questions etc)

Chair of meeting – responsibilities include introducing meeting, time-keeping the contributions

Collectors of feedback forms

After-care person/people who types up feedback forms and questionnaires, tabulating and distributing the information to the relevant people. Also facilitates the debrief meeting a week to ten days later…

Budget for self-addressed envelopes with stamps.
Paper and pens for groups – maybe have a bit of A5 paper that says “Introduce yourselves to each other, discuss what you’ve heard about the carbon tax briefly and write down LEGIBLY your one or two questions about it. The Q and A is only going to take 5 questions, but these papers will be collected and all the questions answered on the following website…..

Command and Control

Have an understudy who is willing and able to do the chair’s role if chair is sick/unavailable.
Erm, it should be pretty straightforward if everyone has enough of the same goals, no?

If go for option two in the Climate Strategy section, each group should have an “external” facilitator to make sure the group isn’t dominated by zealots/loudmouths and also a external scribe who will do a super-brief report back. The type up from the group should, where appropriate, form part of the minutes.
Facilitators and scribes appointed from within the group tend to be partisan and blind to viewpoints they do not approve of, and can – intentionally or otherwise – marginalise people.

If there were extra volunteers available;
volunteers tweeting it
volnteers videoing it and posting it

Same 70 people, same four speakers. Huge, HUGE difference in potential outcomes, I hope you agree.

Please, comment. Tell me what is wrong about this proposal…. Tell me what you would do differently…

About dwighttowers

Below the surface...
This entry was posted in activism, climate, competence and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to From top-down to participatory: a funny thing could have happened on the way to the forum

  1. Adrian Segar says:

    Excellent! I hope you’re leading some of this kind of process in areas you’re passionate about. You certainly know what to do…

    • dwighttowers says:

      Glad you like. When I get the opportunity, I do. What’s curious to me is that participants like it but then don’t go and implement even a few of the ‘techniques’ at their own meetings. Fear of failure? (Wrong) perception that there is something difficult in it? Don’t know.

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