Sunday, April 20, 2008

Sunday Reflections - facilitation, fashion and the 2020 summit

As I write, the 1,000 delegates to Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's 2020 summit will be eating breakfast in preparation for the second day.

I have always regarded the summit as a bit problematic at both a professional and personal level.

At a professional level, this type of facilitated process can be useful in drawing out new ideas if well managed. However, the very nature of the process means that truly new ideas are less likely to emerge, less likely to survive if they do emerge. The reasons for this are simple.

There are one hundred delegates in each broad topic area. Each delegate was asked to review submissions made, along with the outcomes from the mini-summits. Each was asked to come with one developed idea, so we start with a pool of one hundred ideas. Many of those ideas will be similar, or at least have common features.

The first part of the process involves getting existing ideas down, hence all the butcher's paper. This is followed by a process of combination and exclusion to reduce the ideas down to a manageable list. This covers day one of the summit. Then on day two, today, there will be a further facilitated process to reduce the list down to a small number of ideas to go forward as the final selections.

Note that there is very little in this process about ideas generation as such, it is in fact about ideas exclusion. Now we come to a second problem, the large numbers involved.

Without attempting any rigorous maths, if we allow three hours for the ideas generation/getting down phase, we have about 1.8 minutes per delegate. Clearly, it is going to be difficult for all delegates to participate in discussion. Even with strong chairing, the prominent and/or strong willed are likely to get more than their fair share of time.

As the process moves into the exclusion phase, the extent of common views in the room becomes important. Ideas without support drop out, followed by ideas with limited support and so on.

Here we can think of common views in two different ways, common views at the start of the process as compared to common views formed through the process.

One of the process objectives in a normal facilitation process of this type focused on generation of new ideas is in fact to stop opening views simply transferring through to become the common view formed by the process. Otherwise, the process does little more than reinforce original ideas and positions. My concern with the 2020 summit was that it was likely to do just that, given both process and the way delegates were selected.

At a personal level, my judgement was that the summit was unlikely to really address the issues that I consider to be important in an effective way, but was likely to come up with things that I thought were shallow or with which I disagreed. I say this in part because I know that my own views are not representative of what I perceive to be the most commonly held views among summit participants.

I stand to be corrected here by today's results, but so far I am not encouraged.

I chose the governance stream and the question of the republic as my benchmark. I did so for a number of reasons.

At a personal level, I remain a supporter of the constitutional monarchy for both symbolic and practical reasons. I see little reason for change in the short to medium term.

I have also written quite extensively on this blog about the problems as I see them with our existing systems of government and public administration. Here I believe that there does need to be major change in the short to medium term if Australia is to perform more effectively as a nation.

In the period leading up to the summit it was clear that there would be a strong push to make the republic the number one idea. It was less clear that the governance group would be able to come to grips with the more complex and fundamental issues relating to the performance of our government and administrative systems.

The first part of the process in the governance group, the ideas generation/getting down phase, appears to have focused on constitutional issues. However, this was clearly not grabbing delegates. According to the Sydney Morning Herald report:

Stream co-chair Maxine McKew had earlier called on them to show more passion after the original recommendations - which included a constitutional convention to revamp commonwealth-state relations, consideration of a bill of rights, and releasing cabinet documents after 10 years, not 30 - met with a lukewarm reaction.

"I was looking out at all your faces … I didn't see a smile, I didn't hear a whoop," Ms McKew, the parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, told the delegates.

Now I would have thought that it was a bit hard to get a "whoop" out of serious constitutional issues. Anyway, thus encouraged, delegates came down in favour of a republic by 2012 as their big idea. Then, geed along by Federal Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus, delegates voted by a two thirds majority to shorten the target date to 2010.

I do not know what will happen today. I do know that if the 2020 summit adopts republic 2010 as a core idea, it is going to suck the oxygen out of debate on other reform issues extending well beyond governance.

The problem with the republic is that it is a strongly symbolic issue, one that divides. I think that a referendum may well achieve yes this time, simply because of Mr Rudd's great personal popularity as well as the overwhelming power of the Labor Party just at present. However, it is likely to create scarring, opening up complicated divides across the country that may take some time to heal.

As I write, I can hear the TV in the background. The panel discussion is dominated by the republic issue. And so it begins.


The initial summit summary is already on line. Listening to the news reports, the final stages of the process in which ideas were pruned down left some dissatisfaction. This is to be expected.

Again as might be expected, the summit outcomes are very variable in terms of quality, a mixture of good and very pedestrian. I will give an assessment later.

The Governance group came down pretty much as expected. However, the language used is grossly misleading and cannot be allowed to stand without challenge.

I found my wife's reaction interesting. Unlike me, she does support a republic. Listening to the news, she commented that she hoped that the republic issue would not derail other key discussion and changes.

Well, speaking for myself, it means that instead of focusing on other key issues, I am going to have to spend time defending the system I like.


Anonymous said...

I share your concerns about the practicability of the Summit. There just isn't enough time for proper discussion and consideration.

Personally, I am in favour of a Republic, but as you say, I think there are more pressing issues in government and administration than this, and it is a divisive issue.

Jim Belshaw said...

You understand my point very well, LE.

I would much prefer to spend my time arguing major issues like general constitutional reform, issues associated with our indigenous people or the real meaning of a true national market. Now I am going to have to spend time defending a system I like.

It's all so dumb. If the issue had been left to rest for another decade, then there is a pretty fair chance that the simple effluxion of time would have delivered them the desired result.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the time constraints of the summit, given the numbers, made it almost inevitable that the outcomes were going to be the big ideas that everyone's heard before.

I was a delegate at the Youth Summit and we had the same problem. Despite the smaller numbers, plenty of worthy and more original ideas were knocked down just because there was not enough tim to explain or debate the practicalities properly. And, as countless referendums have demonstrated, what people don't understand they will almost instinctively refuse.

A lot of people are out there saying that the Summit was a waste of time - I don't agree. Even if it wasn't as representative as it could have been (there were always going to be discrepencies there), at least it served to demonstrate the kind of ideas Australians consider important and stir up some debate in the community (the republic is a good example).

At the very least, it has drawn people into various debates about the future of the country, and isn't that how a democracy should function?

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Holly, good to hear from you.

I am not sure about your first point. I think that there was a chance to generate new ideas, but it all dependended on the initial suite of ideas. plus the impact of subsequent ideas generation. My concern on the second lay in the nature of the inevitable ideas exclusion process.

Now here I want to focus on one of your key points:

"And, as countless referendums have demonstrated, what people don't understand they will almost instinctively refuse."

This is an important point. Some of the issues coming out of the summit need time and oxygen if they are to survive.Otherwise they are either going to be lost or simply jammed through the system regardless.

In all this, there is to my mind a tension between the stated role of the summit and the subsequent use to which the material will be put.

I will add some more a little alter. Looking at the time,I need to get abck to work!