Democratizing Democracy - Visioning Session

During part of the We the People breakout session, we are going to run a visioning session. This form of session has previously been used on various scales, from 2 person brainstorm sessions to a national assembly with 1500 randomly picked people from the Icelandic census. It’s remarkably good at getting a certain type of result quickly. You can see some examples of big meetings like this here and here, and here.

The goal of the session is to get a large statistical sampling of people’s opinions, ideas, values and priorities for what democracy is all about - how to democratize democracy. The breakout session participants will split down onto tables of about 7 each, one of whom will be a pre-briefed facilitator. This is the script:

Quick Rules for participants of the Visioning Session:

  1. Use CAPITAL LETTERS on all cards
  2. ONE idea written on each card
  3. Use your imagination, get everyone’s opinion
  4. Ensure mutual respect and courtesy
  5. Ensure equality in the discussions – make sure everyone has an input
  6. Ask for the zone master’s assistance if necessary
  7. Speeches are not to be held at the table
  8. Ideas and attitudes are gathered by going round the table and everyone has a short presentation
  9. One input from each participant is put forth in each round
Starting off
  • Once at your table, make sure all the necessary meeting material is there (see materials, below)
  • Meet the participants at your table with a smile and assist them as well as you can.
  • Don’t take a stand with or against any of the participants and keep a positive attitude.
  • Show the other participants that you care about their participation and that their points of view are welcome, important, unquestioned and received.
  • The task is to bring out a lot of ideas and therefore all ideas are welcome. Don’t worry about “bad” ideas getting in - they’re still ideas, and should be considered and evaluated on their own merits.
Writing ideas
  • When you start, take a few minutes of silence (about 10) for everyone to do individual accumulation of their thoughts and ideas on the subject.  
  • Use the silence to examine your thoughts - express your deepest beliefs and write down your thoughts.  
  • The objective is to bring out many and varied ideas.
  • Use freedom and independence when it comes to writing down ideas.
  • Idea cards may be rewritten and adjusted at any time, and they may even be torn if they address different issues on one card.
  • Participants should only write one idea on each card.

Submitting ideas

  • When everybody is finished writing ideas, start taking turns introducing your ideas.
  • Introduce one idea at a time. Show the card, and explain why it’s an important idea.
  • Be very brief and to the point, keep the flow going.
  • If somebody introduces the same idea as you, just add it to the set immediately as a duplicate (don’t throw it away!) unless you feel their introduction isn’t addressing the same idea, in which case you might have to think about wording.
  • Points and ideas should be clear and mostly self explanatory.
  • Allow questions if someone at the table doesn’t understand the meaning of an idea, but don't allow any discussions other than the relevant explanation.


Categorizing ideas
  • When all the ideas have been introduced, discuss briefly if there are obvious categories that the ideas can fit into.
  • Don’t worry about how many categories there are - talk it over, merge and split categories until everybody is happy.


Voting ideas
  • When everything has been categorized well, choose in your minds five cards on the table that reflect the values that you think are the most important. About one minute is given to reflect in silence before the voting begins.
  • Important to stress that choosing more than one word with similar meaning should be avoided.  Go for diversity!
  • Everybody should start voting at once, and not worry too much about what others are voting.
  • Mark the five blue cards that you selected with a line. One line on each - one person can’t spend all his votes on one value.
  • The facilitator collects the 10 cards that received the most votes and writes them down along with their category designation on a piece of paper labeled “results sheet” that should be handed to the breakout session facilitators.
  • Collect all of the ideas into one pile for each category and put a rubber band around it. The table facilitator should pass this to the breakout session facilitators.

Meeting material

  • a pen for each participant
  • a pile of blank cards
  • some elastic bands
  • an A4 piece of paper to use as the results sheet

Diversified perspectives

It looks like a fantastic process.

But I’m afraid that there may be a very important element missing. Gender.

Do you know about what the group will look like, in regards to gender? On the pic, there is more of less the same proportion of men and woman. I have a feeling that it won’t be the case in this instance. Because, if you look at the participants who joined the group, they are mainly men, except for one woman. (I don’t count.) We have historically observed a very high concentration of men in these circles (open government, open data) in recent years. And this has resulted in some type of projects and initiatives. What would happen if there was more balance?

I think it would particularly important for this specific group to have a high proportion of women, at least an equal proportion of men and women, in the light of the initial findings of the Edgeryders project.

Given the results pointed to by the initial data, a female participation would probably result in more diversified, balanced perspectives.

fair participation

Hi Lyne,

as a researcher in eDemocracy I find it very important to make sure that the process is mathematically fair. You point here at the importance of gender balance in the decision in e-Democracy. This is, in my opinion, very important.  And there are two reasons why I see this might not be the case: Men are generally more aggressive when discussing (in general a man will have about 10 times more testosterone than a woman of the same age), and men might be more interested in the topic.

In a process where each person choses to sit at whatever table they want, it is difficult (or unethical) to balance the second one. Since no one is being excluded, would you force women to sit on the eGovernment table because the number of men and women are not balanced, when they rather do something else. Or would you kick off some men from the discussion so that the number of men and women are the same? Both options seem to me very questionable.

On a bigger scale, with enough men and women, the situation could be better risolved by making mirror institutions. For example two parliaments, one with only women, one with only men, and a law will have to pass thorugh both institutions to become a law. But those are representative institutions. On institutions where anyone can join it is quite unavidable a disparity between genders.  Matter of fact, statistically genders are interested on different things. I know of many people who thought this was cultural until they had a baby-boy and a baby-girl, and tried to educate them in a gender neutral way. The book the Female Brain will confirm you the differences.

So I am afraid it is unaviodable that there will be an unequa number of men and women at the table.

Then there is the problem of making sure that everybody has an equal saying. And this I think is very important and much research needs to be done on this. But again, is it correct to frame this from a gender perspective? If we have 6 men, and 2 women, and each gender is given equal amount of time, then each women will have three times more time then their male collegues. This does not sound fair to me.

What alternative would you suggest?

Try to be aware of why this is so

Since the groups are self-selected, there is nothing we can do than go with what naturally occurs.

I just wanted to point to you the fact that it has naturally been circles of men, for the past several years, that lead discussions and reflections on open government and participatory democracy. It is recognized fact that there is a high concentration of men in this circle. Why is it this way? There may be issues that would differ if it was a different situation.

We cannot do anything to change the current dynamics, but at least we could ask ourselves why this is so. Why it is this way, and what could be different.

I would like the group to consider the fact that there may be something in the nature of the discussions or the chosen strategies so far, which does not attract women. Otherwise, there would be many women around, right? Nobody has pondered on these issues so far.

If I did not experience it personally, I would not be raising these issues. I recently attended a conference on open government where women were given 3.8% of the time to talk. It is a reality. And women attending in the room pointed it out. I’m not making this up. I did not pay attention to these issues until when I started calculating the percentage of participation, after I came back from the event. Since this day (May 16, 2012), this concern remains stuck in my head.

But how many asked to talk?

Lyne, 3.8% of the time was given to woman. This is very interesting. Are you aware on how many women asked to talk? Because if this is also between 3.8% ± 0.5 % I would say that things went as they should have. I suppose there are other topics you would find women being more present then men. Education, for example.

For what is worth, in all the eDemocracy system that I code I make a point to make sure proposals presented are always anonymous at the moment of voting. In this way the voter supports an idea, not a person. This to avoid any (even unconscious) bias they might have. It is actually quite interesting after the vote, when people discover who wrote the idea they voted for, to see people’s reaction. What is interesting is that some time people discover they are supporting the idea of a person they did not like. This usually force them to reconsider the person (in the light of their previous evaluation of the idea).

I saw in another post you discussed how women seem to be able at comunicating and using web 2.0 discussion software, while men seem to be better and more interested in coding it. It looks to me like we are integrating and complementing each other very well.

I have a suggestion to make. In the last several years I have participated in a group called metagovernment. And yes we were mostly men (I only remember two women). But most people participating there are invited not just to discuss slution but also to code their talk. Now women can be very good coders. The NASA in fact prefers them to men, as they are less lightly to pull an all nighty, with the result of a more bug free code (when a bug can kill people this becomes very important). But matter of fact, women coders are rare. Very rare. My experience is that women find coding booring. And prefer human relations. Why could someone find a flesh and blood human being more interesting than a computer code is beyond me to understand :wink: . But this is what I have observed. (P.S. I am only half joking, after all the computer code CAN change the World more than most human beings).

BTW, those differences starts quite young. Kids at 4 when you ask them to complete the phrase “I play with” add the name of a person if they are girls (I play with Sue, I play with Sara) and the name of a toy (I play with the ball, I play with LEGO) if they are boys. We are different.

So I think it is just natural that, in an historical stage where people are coding the possible solutions, people who do not like coding will be less present.

Open up the horizons and you’ll see more participation

In response to Pietro Speroni: In a 7 hours long period of time, 16 men were invited to speak for 6 h 44 minutes, while 2 women were given 8 minutes each. Women spoke for 16 minutes in total, or 3,8%.

Coding isn’t all there is to think about, in open governement strategies and participatoy democracy. There is a vast range of possibilities that have not yet been explored, since this movement is very recent, still in its infancy. I think the problem is a matter of perception. The vast expanse of these possibilities is not really perceived by all, as what has been done so far represents only a portion of the possibilities, of what could be explored.

My hypothesis — it is really simple to figure this out: Since the focus has been mainly on transparency these past years, with very few projects and strategies focusing on collaboration (for instance, Edgeryders is such a project), the call for participation has appealed more to men than women.

I might be wrong, but I think that it would suffice that a little more effort be made to explore the component collaboration”, for more women to be interested in these issues.

Another hypothesis: In the "collaboration component, introduce an exploratory intent on the notion of “connections”, or “connectivity”, and women will be more likely to participate.

Statistics, damned statistics,…

On those figures, in fairness, the women should have had 46 minutes. I’d like to see the breakdown of people… I’m sure that some of the men talked lots less than others. Let’s look at the breakdown along more lines than just gender - I’m sure there’s a gender-related disequilibrium at work, and fully agree with you, but there might also be a deeper underlying principle that transcends gender boundaries.

I agree that there is more to this than just coding. Thankfully.

the importance of coding in e-democracy

Hi Lyne,

I am sorry, there might be a misunderstanding. I am used to conferences where people submit work, and the best of it is allowed to be presented. So my question was how many men vs women presented their work. Of course if we are speaking about invited speakers, then it is much harder to judge. In theory it would be fair if the percentage reflected the imbalance there is in reality. But I have no way of judging this. Plus such analysis would hardly be objective. And sometimes the organisers invite people from a minority to air out hard to find voices. That’s their prerogative. So it should then approach 50% more… if the organisers felt the women had a different point of view that needed to be presented. This is the problem with conferences where people are invited. There really is a lot of power in the hands of the organisers. And this is why I usually prefer conferences where people can submit their own work!

I absolutely agree that there are vast rages of possibilities yet to be explored. And more power to you if you can come up with formula that appeals also to women.

But one thing I know for sure, coding is absolutely not all there is. But is something that in e-democracy you cannot do without. I am Italian, so permit me an example that comes close to my homecountry. When you cook spaghetti, water is not all there is. But it is also a necessary component. There are of course other necessary components, and none is more important than the other, as each of them (if missing) can make the whole experience fail.

Ying-yang spaghetti :)))

It is difficult to evaluate the situation. The event was organised by a small group of people (men). The speakers were chosen by the organizers. There was no possibility of submitting one’s work. Topics and allocation of time was entirely decided by a small group.

What is interesting about this event is that it was the first opengov meetup in a geographical area that has no previous experience with opengov and tends to be culturally isolated from the rest of the world (everyone invited there had to speak French). There were 2 previous events, one in November 2011 and another one in April. It was announced as a barcamp but was in fact a very traditional set up. The May event was also a traditional approach.

From such events, I think that we can learn many things, on many fronts…

Empowerment, not enforcement

I agree that of course this session as with any other session would be made better by a greater diversity of ideas and balance of genders, not to mention other factors. However it’s a fact that these breakout sessions are self-selecting. We can do what we can to make the environment as gender-neutral as possible, and to make as few assumptions as possible about the genders or other features of the participants, but I don’t think it does anybody any service - in fact, it probably does everybody a disservice - to start enforcing a particular set of restrictions in order to accomodate gender politics.

Rather, we should strive to do what we can to empower people of all genotypical, phenotypical, cultural and political configurations to participate, refuse profusely to create segregation on the basis of reductionary victimization, and ask that all who participate be mindful of their peers.

The model I described works well with any gender ratios, and seems to be unaffected by it. Also, the rules make it such that a priori there is no special preference given to people depending on gender - everybody should have equal time to engage, and hopefully everybody will shed any shyness of inferiority they may feel, in a nice and humane environment. If anybody feels biased against, let the breakout session organizers know and we’ll try to fix it!

What we can and should do, however, is make sure that there are as many male and female facilitators for the tables. Ideally we’d also randomize people onto the tables, but that may be time-prohibative due to the self-selecting and emergent nature of the session.

Way to go, Smari

Well. Done.

I won’t be joining you myself, as I am involved with Lucas in the resilience session, but i can already see this is going to be a popular one. Keep up the good work!


Iceland…Iceland…so many things to learn…

This procedure looks interesting. I am very curious to experience it in practice. Perhaps I will import and use it!

As for the gender inequality, well…that’s true here, but I also think that we have so many cleavages which are surrounding us (we will all be western people, perhaps white ones, and well-off) that gender is just one … if we really want to treat it equally! :slight_smile: Hope it makes sense and helps the debate…

Doing what we can

(Sorry, this should have been as a reply to Lynne further down)

Hi, Anthony here, one of the other facilitators.

We’ll need to do what we can. I’ve just been reading, by coincidence, a piece by Emma Mulqueeny of Rewired State on the problems she’s had getting young women to engage with coding better Government tech. A couple of lessons from her post and comments for us might be:

  1. Don’t draw a big red circle around the issue - that might put female participants off, or make them think that they’ll stand out. Instead, manage participation and balance quietly.

  2. Focus on social consequences rather than mechanics and system design [I think we’d want to do that anyway].

Are they useful thoughts?

And - question rather than idea - if we are unbalanced as to gender, would it be helpful to gently encourage an all-female table for one part of our discussions, or does that go counter the first point above?