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Designing for Civic Conversations

Format: Papers, RSD6, Topic: Policy & Governance

Michael Arnold Mages

Decreased perception of the importance of a democratically elected government has created a moment of crisis for proponents of liberal democracy. (Foa, Mounk, 2016) The recent rise of factually impoverished, emotionally overabundant political discourse in recent elections in the United Kingdom and the United States has infected the discourse of several major governments in Europe and the Americas. In spite of this concerning recent history, when examining discourse at the level of the individual, civic engagement events have shown that citizens can be trusted to discuss issues, share reasons and come to conclusions (Fishkin, Luskin 2005). Yet, the production of civic engagement events frequently neglects the influence of the system of stakeholders and the power of material interventions in facilitating deliberative conversation.

Civic conversation is a key precursor to civic change, and successful civic change requires engagement across a complex network of actors. A civic conversation is a key place for knowledge transfer, a moment where citizens are able to come to an understanding of the needs of the greater community, and a moment where they can articulate the challenges faced by their communities and the needs that these challenges entail. Citizens have the opportunity to hear the needs of their neighbours and perhaps place their own needs in the context of a portfolio of needs across the entire community. The moment of the civic conversation is where government actors have the opportunity to collate critical information to guide policymaking and to develop a better understanding of the needs of the communities they serve. This understanding serves as a framework or heuristic to guide the creation and application of policy.

There is an ongoing tension between the ideals of argumentation and commitment-making. Jeff Conklin (2006), following Horst Rittel (Rittel, Webber, 1973), has developed an understanding of the political conversation as a mappable argument. Terry Winograd, Fernando Flores (1986) and Hugh Dubberly with Paul Pangaro (2009) have examined commitment-making between actors as a designed(able) system and social practice. Further, the challenge to Jurgen Habermas’ (1995) consensus-based deliberative democracy by Chantal Mouffe’s (2000) agonist democracy—an argument taken up more recently in the design discourse by Carl DiSalvo (2012)—leaves discourse lost in the gulf between the positions of conflict and consensus. However, civic discourse need not be framed as arguments, commitment-making, consensus-building or contestation. Looking to newer models of political discourse, protocol-structured conversation (Cavalier, 2011), deliberative community polling (Fishkin, Luskin 2005) and storytelling (Young, 2000) point to this fertile middle ground. The challenge of a contemporary design practitioner designing civic discourse is to create a conversation that evokes the richness of the lived experience of the participants while maintaining a reflective distance such that participants are able to share their present needs, their hopes for the future, what they feel is the narrative that supports the positions that they hold. The civic participation event is the point where some of that richness can pass into the polity.

Citizens’ involvement in civic life and their ability to articulate need (Max-Neef et al., 1991) in a way that can inform policy creation is influenced by their experiences with organizations that are more a part of their everyday life than the more abstract construction of ‘government’. The needs of citizens are aggregated, focused, filtered and fixed through citizens’ involvement in neighbourhood associations, community groups, churches, community and economic development corporations, business associations, community-based and corporate news organizations, and the views of political agents at all levels. So developed, the individual’s understanding of civic life and the articulation of their needs intersect with the capacities of public authorities, public agencies, and government entities that provision for those needs. At the scope of municipal government, marshalling these mid-level actors—the trusted organizations—facilitates access to citizens and helps to ensure those citizens are motivated to participate. The set of complementary processes that influence the formation of attitudes, values, beliefs, and policy is a dynamic system, and these event-based participations are critical points of feedback within that system.

This presentation details a set of three related case studies implementing an iterative approach to developing a design framework for deliberative community engagements through the lens of a model that I have developed: the high-stakes conversation. In the ground between the agonist approach of contestation or the approach of deliberative consensus, these engagements rely on deliberative techniques — structured protocols, prompts for reason-giving, storytelling, and conversation — and material interventions to support behaviors: planning, convening, orienting, informing, conversing, conflicting, reflecting, deciding. These engagements attempt to evoke a spectrum of thought that characterizes the convened communities’ thinking on a particular issue. Rather than treat the issues as disconnected from the network of community organizations, participation was actively sought in the framing of the issues from a wide network of community organizations, and organizers relied upon these organizations as partners throughout the process. Further, in an unintended consequence and beyond the scope of the event, this multilevel process has catalyzed further collaborative work in the participating organizations beyond the creation of the forums.

These case studies examine the following projects through a reflective account of practice as a designer and the convening agent of these engagements. MyVA Communities is a collaboration between the United States Veterans Administration and a regional board of directors tasked to assess veteran’s needs in Southwestern Pennsylvania, develop a plan to increase coordination among the region’s nearly 1300 charitable organizations providing veteran’s services, and increase the sense of connectedness between veterans and their communities. Nearly 30 organizations were involved, with 16 contributing resources and viewpoints. The Environmental Charter School convened staff, faculty and administration in a deliberative engagement to redesign their compensation system. The Environmental Charter school engaged people at every level of their organization, as well as Human Resources and Social Justice scholars at two regional universities, and several local and national not-for-profit organizations. The City of Pittsburgh’s Affordable Housing Task Force convened citizens to determine where areas of greatest need were within the city, and what solutions citizens wanted to see in their neighborhoods. Participants included city council members, and representatives from 22 area businesses and not-for-profit organizations.

KEYWORDS: democracy, deliberation, feedback, material interventions


  1. Cavalier, R. (2011). The Conversational Turn in Political Philosophy. In Approaching Deliberative Democracy: theory and practice (1st ed., pp. 9–29). Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Mellon University Press.
  2. Conklin, J. (2006). Dialog Mapping. John Wiley & Sons.
  3. Disalvo, C. (2012). Adversarial Design (1st ed.). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  4. Dubberly, H., & Pangaro, P. (2009). What is conversation? How can we design for effective conversation? Interactions Magazine, pp. 1–9.
  5. Fishkin, J. S., & Luskin, R. C. (2005). Experimenting with a democratic ideal: Deliberative polling and public opinion. Acta Politica, 40(3), 284–298.
  6. Foa, R. S., & Mounk, Y. (2016). The Danger of Deconsolidation: The Democratic Disconnect. Journal of Democracy, 27(3), 5.
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  12. Young, I. M. (2000). Inclusion and Democracy. (W. Kymlicka, D. Miller, & A. Ryan, Eds.) (1st ed.). New York: Oxford University Press Inc.




Citation Data

Author(s): Michael Arnold Mages
Title: Designing for Civic Conversations
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
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Symposium Dates:
First published: 12 October 2017
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