Friday, February 11, 2011

Broadening Public Discussion

Today I attended a meeting at the Moot Court at the Australian National University in Canberra from 12:30pm to 4pm. Fourteen people from academia, government and industry were discussing the creation of the "Australia Forum", a project for enabling public policy discussion. I attended for the School of Computer Science at ANU which researches the technology for such forums and also has hosted some. I wrote a blog post summarising my understanding of the background of the project.

The "Moot Court" is a room in the Law Faculty which simulates a court for training lawyers. This was selected as the best space for the meeting as it has furniture which can be arranged into a circle.

After acknowledging the original inhabitants of the land the chair asked us to sum up what our contribution could be in one sentence. I explained I was from ANU Computer Science and teach using online forums, help design physical spaces for this. Also I pointed out CS has hosted such events in room N101 for Senator Lundy and others.

As with a real dialogue, the difficult part is working out who everyone is and where their points of view come from. The task is to work out what we are attempting to achieve and what we have in common.

The Australian Forum is over ten years old (although I only heard of it for the first time last week). The ANU's Australian Centre for Dialogue also has been in existence for several years. There is obvious possible synergies between the two projects.

One of the difficulties is understating exactly what is proposed. It could be a convention centre or a web site, or something in between. Also it is not clear if the philosophy of "dialogue" requires any particular physical or virtual infrastructure.

Unfortunately much of the original promotional material developed for the Australia Forum is based on the idea of a symbolic building in Canberra. This makes the project look like the Canberra building industry asking for a government handout to build an expensive building which will hardly ever be used. The project has evolved to include a more flexible and virtual approach. But this is not yet reflected in the promotional material.

I spent an hour trying to work out what was wrong with a project which apparently worthwhile project and how to fix it. Senator Lundy then arrived and mentioned the NBN and Public Sphere. These were the missing piece of the puzzle. Not everyone agrees that the NBN is the best way to get broadband across the community, but most would agree if you have the broadband it can be of great use for community consultation. Senator Lundy's Public Sphere process provides a methodology for carrying out such processes.

Senator Lundy described the meeting "in the round" she attended recently in Geneva. This was the Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council. These international forums have a very structured process. The Senator suggested using online tools to help make these processes more flexible. Also the Senator raised the idea of Australia hosting such international forums.

Senator Lundy suggested that any forums need a strong nexus with political issues of the day. This will then supplement the political process, not compete with it. Digital tools can provide a more granular approach to discussion. That discussion can take place from formulation of public policy through to its implementation.

Pia Waugh pointed out that we want human synthesis of the conversation, not just automation. I pointed out that we now use these techniques for teaching at university. There are approaches to this which are well tested and can be applied to broader public discussion.

The Australian Forum is planning to put out its next planning document in the next few months. In the interim, those who want to get a taste for what a well run Internet enhanced face-to-face meetings are like, can attend the free BarCamp Canberra 2011, being held at ANU, 19 March

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