Powered by the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC)

About this Approach

Explore the Dialogue & Deliberation Toolkit

This toolkit can serve as a roadmap to navigate the numerous dialogue and deliberation resources and tools that have been produced by civic engagement and science-engagement organizations. These resources can provide a helpful foundation in the development of science and technology-related dialogues, as well as program models to build on, and facilitation and implementation resources.

Dialogue and deliberation are a set of methods for engaging community members in discussions that surface or refine community priorities and support decision-making around difficult complex societal challenges that lie at the intersection of science, technology, and human well-being—among them climate change and sustainability, consumer genetics and vaccines, and the relationship of artificial intelligence to the future of work.

Dialogue and deliberation programs are facilitated sessions that bring together individuals who are representative of a community of interest to discuss societal issues of concern, including resolving conflicts and increasing understanding, and to develop community-driven recommendations and policy solutions. When employed well, dialogue and deliberation have the potential to bring more and diverse voices to the table and break down barriers and power dynamics. In doing so, these strategies can help develop resolutions and solutions that work for the majority of people.

Dialogue and deliberation events and programs can help enhance understanding and knowledge of these issues and their impact for all participants, as well as identify actionable goals for policymakers, advocacy partners, and other supporting institutions aligned with community priorities. Dialogue encourages openness, respect, and the ability to find common ground, among other qualities; deliberation draws on this dialogue to help participants seek more information and evidence, evaluate various options, potentially changing or re-examining preferences or beliefs, and eventually come to agreement and make informed decisions.

These engagements can take many different forms, including public forums, conversation cafes, citizen juries, charettes, intergroup dialogues, study circles, world cafes, and more! While the form may vary, nearly all dialogue and deliberation programs involve facilitators, issue framing and discussion materials, including both citizens, stakeholders, and experts, and using insights to inform decision-making.

Here are additional definitions of “dialogue” and “deliberation” to consider:

National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (source)

  • Dialogue: “Dialogue increases understanding, builds trust, and enables people to be open to listening to perspectives that are very different from their own.” 
  • Deliberation: “Deliberation, which often comes after dialogue, enables people to discuss the consequences, costs, and trade-offs of various policy options or actions, and to work through the competing values that tough decisions require us to grapple with.”

National Informal STEM Education Network (source)

  • Dialogue: “Dialogue is a discussion that exhibits three features: equality and the absence of coercive influences; listening with empathy; bringing assumptions into the open.” 
  • Deliberation: “A form of thought and reflection that can take place in any kind of conversation.”

American Association for the Advancement of Science (source)

  • Dialogue: “In public dialogue approaches, the goal is to promote dialogue as an end in itself, recognizing that informal discussions with the public can result in learning by both the public and experts. Dialogue-focused forums also serve as opportunities for experts to enhance their own communication knowledge, skills, and experience. Overall, such initiatives provide a chance for the organizers and the participants to explore scientific issues via multiple lenses and perspectives.” 
  • Deliberation: “Public input into science-related policymaking is an important facet of public engagement with science, and is typically oriented toward achieving actions or outputs from the interactions. These approaches can focus on long-range planning perspectives, continuous public consultation, and institutional self-reflection and course correction in response to public input on…”

Science and technology centers and museums are particularly well placed to host and facilitate dialogue and deliberation programming, because they are already place‒based institutions, are largely viewed by the public as unbiased and reliable sources of information, and many already have infrastructures that can be drawn or built upon to host successful dialogue and deliberation programs.

Because science centers and museums are already active in the public engagement space, they are particularly well suited to draw on and expand their existing community partnerships to facilitate important conversations about science and technology-related issues that align with community priorities. By going beyond dialogue and aiming for the Attributes of Community Science—such engagements can create deliberated resolutions to inform policy at all levels of governance and to direct research priorities and funding to better serve its communities.

In an increasingly polarized and inequitable society, employing strategies like dialogue and deliberation can help communities, policymakers, and science-engagement practitioners identify and co-develop solutions that allow democracy to be strong and equitable. Deliberative processes offer science engagement practitioners the opportunity to partner with a community to address pressing and controversial questions faced by that community.

When employed well, dialogue and deliberation programs have the potential to bring more and diverse voices to the table and break down barriers and power dynamics, which together can help develop resolutions and solutions that work for the majority of people. Beyond encouraging dialogue across diverse views and stakeholder groups, deliberation entreats the people and organizations involved to come to resolutions. It is a strategy well-suited for application in deeply-divided societies and can help solve extreme polarization. In the face of such issues which demand immediate action—including combatting the many impacts of climate change; putting an end to racism, xenophobia, and discrimination in its many forms; and preventing gun violence (in the U.S.), among others—dialogue and deliberation are key strategies for finding a successful path forward in our divided nation.

Public engagement with science is a thriving space, and many organizations are committed to increasing public engagement and understanding of important scientific topics. While public engagement with science is certainly a step forward, intentional dialogue and deliberation programming can help bridge across divides and increase informed decision-making. Utilizing proven strategies from the field of civic engagement, including dialogue and deliberation, can push public engagement with science into this productive, policy- and research-informing step.

Professional Skills for Dialogue & Deliberation

While Dialogue & Deliberation events can take many different forms, nearly all programming requires these five key skills.

Topic Identification and Issue Framing

Identifying topics aligned to community priorities requires organizers to develop a strong understanding of the community they seek to involve and the groups that compose it, including major stakeholders and agents of change.

Structure, Format, and Meeting Design

Designing effective agendas and creating welcoming spaces are key for executing Dialogue & Deliberation programming that is inclusive and representative of a range of desired audiences.

Facilitating

Facilitation is one of the most important competencies for a successful Dialogue & Deliberation event because it guides participants toward common ground and group decision making.

Evaluation

Organizers should plan to evaluate the efficacy and outcomes of the event and partnership.

Outreach and Dissemination

Following the Dialogue & Deliberation event, organizers should continue engagement with participants and the community, including sharing results, outcomes, and updates.