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Dialogue: policy forums as metaphors

Transformative Approaches Project

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1. Constraints of meeting design

The organization of a meeting and its processes in fact provide a remarkable metaphor of wider society and the challenge of using resources more appropriately. To use Gregory Bateson's insight, "we are our own metaphor" (Bateson, 1972). The challenge of formulating more appropriate policies is highlighted by the difficulties in meeting design:

(a) Building constraints: The constraints of the building and the regulations governing how it is to be used, including simple questions like the ability to reconfigure the seating arrangement in the light of the emerging processes of the meeting. These are a reminder of the constraints imposed by existing physical structures and regulations in wider society.

(b) Protocol constraints: The protocol constraints necessitating special focus around certain individuals. These are a reminder of the constraints imposed by existing social structures, whether relevant to social change or not.

(c) Meeting procedures: Meeting procedures based on rules of order (Robert, 1985) which have not changed to any significant degree throughout the 20th century and which fail to take into account the best thinking on self-organizing systems. These are a reminder that "plus ça change...", as those with revolutionary inclinations delight to point out.

(d) Meeting agendas: Meeting agendas designed months (or years) before the event, thus to a large degree pre-programming the process and outcome and blocking any unplanned initiatives in the light of emerging opportunities. This is a reminder of the dead weight of prior commitments under which policy-makers operate. The structure of such agendas also tends to reinforce linear thinking and fails to reflect the non-linear relationships between the items -- a reminder of the clumsiness with which we endeavour to respond to the cyclic complexities of the social and natural environment.

(e) Hidden symbolism: Much more controversially, except for those acknowledging the implications of Freudian symbols and sexual politics, is the body-language of speakers, especially in relationship to the microphone and any proscenium, and that of the audience seated in expectation of stimulation. This is a reminder that unconscious factors may play a determining role in meeting processes.

(f) Misuse of attention time: Use and abuse of one of the principal resources in meetings, namely time, especially in the form of the attention time of a captive audience. This is a reminder of how policy-makers tend to exploit their position in relation to the resources of captive constituencies and markets, whether this takes the form of "cartel formation", "asset stripping", "environmental degradation" or "resource depletion".

(g) Limitation on forms of presentation: Obligation of the audience to accept the form of presentation favoured by the speaker, with little recognition of the need to translate the content into other modes (except in the extreme case of language interpretation, but not including that between disciplinary languages). This is a reminder of the widespread assumption that people are all naturally capable of processing a complete spectrum of information forms, unless they are of reduced mental competence.

Again it is not the purpose of this paper to explore such intractable issues further. They must be circumvented by other means if there is to be any hope for timely breakthroughs.

2. Facilitating integrative breakthroughs

In any policy forum, integrative breakthroughs are facilitated by:

(a) Imagery within the conference: recognizing the implicit or explicit metaphors favoured by the factions represented, namelywhat imagery they use to communicate within their group and with their constituencies;

(b) Imagery for external communication: recognizing the implicit or explicit metaphors of the policy forum as a whole, namely what imagery is acceptable and how that may relate to that of any subsequent public relations campaign;

(c) Design of new imagery and metaphors: encouraging the deliberate selection and design of more powerful metaphors to encode the dynamics of the relations between incompatible perspectives and especially between the factions represented. For if one faction perceives the other as "sharks", and are perceived by the latter as "sheep", no amount of rational discussion will overcome the "ecosystemic" constraints on their harmonious relationship. The same may be said of "hawks" and "doves"; both know who "eats" whom.

Metaphor is widely used to communicate policy options. However it is used simplistically and in a rhetorical manner divorced from the actual written articulation of policy. The metaphors currently favoured do not reflect the exigencies of sustainable development or the dynamics between the advocates of competing policy alternatives. Resources can be usefully devoted to identifying, selecting, designing disseminating and employing more appropriate metaphors in policy contexts. Such a shift in focus should open up new ways of reflecting collectively on the more complex, cyclic and incommensurable perspectives currently lost in the savage interactions between factions. It is such complex perspectives which constitute the real policy challenge.

This suggests that a desirable policy forum design would focus attention on the emergence and movement of policy-relevant metaphors, their relationship (as comprehensible meaning complexes) to more conventional forms of information, and their reflection in organizational form. Such stewardship in the governance of a forum opens up new possibilities in the governance of society as a whole.


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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