This is the story of our team’s quest to change political conversations, one post-it at a time.
In 2015, the financial and austerity crisis, coupled with a sudden influx of refugees seeking to escape conflict and persecution in Syria, pushed European relations to a breaking point.
The dialogue between countries became heated, accusatory, and counterproductive.
Germans were asking the Greeks to sell their islands to pay off debt. The Greeks responded by asking for World War II reparations.
The political landscape was dotted with uncertainty, and it felt like no one was on the same page.
In difficult times, it is sometimes necessary to find the courage to see opportunity in tragedy. The predicament in which Europe found itself revealed the need for a better political communication strategy. With political bickering at an all-time high, a team armed with inventive spirit, and a sense of optimism that seemed to clash with the sobriety of the times, stepped in with an idea - and some Post-its.
A different kind of political conversation is possible.
Stressful environments rarely birth ideal decisions.
Experiments conducted by psychologists have proven this fact time and time again, yet, the spaces in which politics take place are seldom tranquil.
Instead, they’re often filled with antagonism, mistrust, and very strong personalities. In a context where the “othering” of political forces seems to be the new norm, political debate can quickly turn into adversarial shouting matches.
Politics has to do better for the sake of the future of our democracies, our citizens, and the world.
Out of the political desperation that was 2015 rose the Open European Dialogue, a group of people that understood that the way in which we are getting used to having political conversations today is a problem and sought to make a small change with massive potential benefits.
Today the Open European Dialogue is on a mission to revolutionise the way policymakers communicate and collaborate.
The Open European Dialogue is a politically neutral platform for members of parliament who value an open exchange of ideas and perspectives.
It is a platform that believes strongly in the importance of its own neutrality, seeking to act as a much-needed facilitator of difficult conversations between people with different political views through the tool of Political Process Design.
Process Design is the art of creating spaces for dialogue and collaboration that are fit-for-purpose.
It means designing a way for people to engage in a journey that allows participants to explore and engage with difficult conversations in a way that encourages the act of listening to the perspectives of all, especially those that are often silenced or forgotten. It allows for the intentional uncovering and consideration of important information, that would otherwise often be neglected.
Ultimately, participants come out the other side having engaged in a deeply participatory and creative process where a richness of information and perspectives has been exchanged, and ideas for ways forward co-created, often resulting in better ideas, better commitment from stakeholders to the solutions identified, and better follow-through.
Political spaces can thus be designed to help create the conditions for a more open exchange, encourage a creative non-confrontational approach to problem-solving, and create ownership and commitment to the dialogue and collaboration process through the active engagement of participants.
How? While the design of a fit-for-purpose conversation space will look different every time, in the case of the Open European Dialogue, it will, often, end up involving sessions that allow for the exploration of big thinking around key political challenges, small, intimate conversation stations to share personal perspectives and experiences; fast-paced idea-generation sessions; and Post-its… a lot of Post-its, to boost creativity and participation.
From economic governance, digital taxation, migration, democratic innovation, and more, the application of Political Process Design tools and approaches helps craft spaces where genuine dialogue can emerge, even between political forces with very different perspectives and opinions.
Through this exchange of ideas, policymakers can learn through the experiences of leaders with diverse backgrounds and beliefs.
By designing a positive and encouraging setting for politicians to talk with one another, the Open European Dialogue facilitates constructive conversations across political divides without the pressure of creating consensus.
In a room filled with different coloured Post-its, it’s suddenly possible to witness calm and collected political conversations: no vitriol, no room for egos, just a genuine, curious, open discussion.
Encouraging politicians from all over Europe to take part in cross-party dialogues in a positive setting has massive societal implications.
It promotes understanding and unity rather than exacerbating division.
It’s easier for politicians to identify their commonalities, and the noise around their differences gets quieter.
“We have common problems but not common reactions to the problems,” Ioannis Maniatis, a member of the Hellenic Parliament, said.
“This experience, the exchange of ideas, the exchange of stories among the different member states of the parliaments with different democratic experiences, with different economic and financial attributes, all this can help us see with a better view what’s going on, how we can tackle the crisis we are facing, and, of course, what could be a European answer to facing the global problems that are facing our local communities.”
The Open European Dialogue understood that, at a time of heightened political divisiveness, cooler heads meant better politics.
By removing the impediment of the typical rigid and stifling environments where political discourse usually takes place, the road to change is paved with constructive debate rather than pernicious disagreements.
The goal isn’t to change people’s behaviours. The idea is to give people the space to have deeper discussions that can go beyond the mere surface of an argument and can enact beneficial policy change more effectively.
Markus Blume, a member of the Bavarian State Parliament, commented on the Open European Dialogue’s ability to bring different leaders together and encourage them to speak on the issues at hand by crossing party barriers and fostering communication.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity to share best practices and ideas all over Europe, completely independent of where you are from and which party you are with.”
What does a future in which we learn to better listen to and talk with one another look like?
Driven by the belief in a brighter future defined by better dialogue and collaboration, the Open European Dialogue team has partnered up with the non-profit organisation APROPOS-Advancing Process in Politics to keep researching, developing, testing, and disseminating new ways in which we can have better political conversations, across borders, both geographical and ideological.
Today, the APROPOS Group is a collective of process designers and policy thinkers that brings decades' worth of practical experience, research, and experimentation with purposeful decision-making processes and political dialogue.
The team designs meetings that facilitate and nurture better conversation, offers capacity- building training, and publishes research designed to advance the study of collaboration methods, even, and especially, among people who do not share the same political views.
Thanks to the Open European Dialogue’s alliance with APROPOS, the Policy Design Sprint saw the light in 2021, where participants from six different European parliaments tested a unique approach to cross-border policy design.
The Policy Design Sprint methodology centres around a group of parliamentarians who want to tackle one specific problem. The participants start with research and initial exploration and work together toward a feasible solution. In small groups, parliamentarians can focus on a problem using their experience, backgrounds, and expertise to create and test a prototype to solve the struggle at hand.
During the first Policy Design Sprint held in 2021, the participants were challenged with one question:
“How can parliaments better oversee executive action during crises?”
The pleasant and creative atmosphere, paired with the design of an explorative journey of discovery, discussion, and the facilitation of a shared sense of direction, allowed different policymakers to tackle this shared concern throughout several spirited meetings. During and after these brainstorming sessions, the Open European Dialogue supplied research and resources that enriched the extremely rapid prototyping process. In less than 10 hours, spread across six weeks, they had an implementable policy prototype on their hands. A few months later, the Policy Design Sprint granted the Open European Dialogue the honour of being recognised by the OECD as a global best-practice for cross-border innovation.
Embracing change, one Post-it at a time.
Great thinkers throughout human history have dedicated their minds to the idea of change.
How can we alter our nature and strive to be better versions of ourselves, even if in some ways we may be tragically flawed? Some argue that true change is impossible and human beings are who they are. Perhaps we can make some adjustments along the way, but we will never overcome the pitfalls of being human.
Whether or not humans are capable of radical change that overrides our genetic programming for disliking those who don’t think or feel the way we do, is a nuanced question. Maybe we can and maybe we can’t; it doesn’t matter.
What matters is that we keep taking steps, as small and simple as they may seem, toward creating the conditions for something better to emerge and implementing systems that nurture and facilitate thoughtful conversations that can, eventually, open up the possibility of change.
For us, change is defined by the hope of a more humane political arena, one where people who choose to dedicate their life to political service can feel safe, nourished even, where we can agree to disagree while remaining open to the points of view of others, where we can foster hope and possibility over deadlock.
In the quest to improve the quality of political dialogue in Europe, our team realised how an unthreatening piece of colourful sticky paper could help us move mountains.
When change so often feels violent and unsettling, and people fear it even when it may be for the best, it is our responsibility not to succumb to that fear of the unknown but to keep testing the waters, seeking out slight alterations to our customary modus operandi, for the sake of the future.
Behind the humble guise of the Open European Dialogue’s Post-it notes is a simple tool which embodies a big idea: that a different kind of political conversation is possible. Even if we don’t see the whole picture yet, we can start putting together the pieces – even when that piece is just something scribbled down on a bright yellow Post-it, an opportunity to do things just a little differently.
The People Behind the Post-its
Chiara Rosselli has been Head of the Open European Dialogue (OED) since it was 9 months old. She developed a long-term vision for the OED as an innovation platform for Europe’s policymakers rooted in process design tools. She is the lead designer behind the OED’s Policy Design Sprint and is now Co-Founder and Executive Director of the APROPOS Group in charge of research and development.
Isotta Ricci Bitti has governed the Open European Dialogue as Deputy Head of the program, ensuring essential strategic direction that has allowed the OED to transform itself from a niche project into an established experience platform maintained by a dedicated team of professionals whom she has coached and guided towards ever greater levels of ambition and excellence. She is Co-Founder and Managing Director of the APROPOS Group, in charge of organisational development.
Rebecca Farulli, Associate at the APROPOS Group, passionately shares her enthusiasm and experience for knowledge management for policymaking and political innovation. Her curiosity and entrepreneurial spirit granted the Open European Dialogue the opportunity to be recognised by the OECD as a global best-practice in cross-border innovation. She now coordinates the APROPOS ideation room, where new ideas and processes are developed.
Ronith Schalast, Associate at the APROPOS Group and Community Manager of the Open European Dialogue, is responsible for strategic engagement and political monitoring. Working with the OED over the years, she has embodied and protected the spirit of the dialogue, championing the transformative power of open exchange between people with different political views and ensuring we stay on track with our mission to change the way politicians talk with one another.
Caspar Kolster has been a fundamental pillar of the Open European Dialogue team for many years. His passion for, and dedication to, the practice of political process design allowed the OED to keep innovating its dialogue formats and ultimately led him to make the first steps towards the creation of the, now, APROPOS Group. He is currently Co-Founder and Advisor to the APROPOS Group.
Peter Woodward, Founding Director of Quest Associates, has been the Lead Facilitator and Process Designer for most of the Open European Dialogue work and lent his incredible experience and expertise to make sure we designed the most humane and participative dialogue processes for politicians. Peter is Co-Founder and Advisor to the APROPOS Group.
Mia Forbes Pirie, an international mediator, facilitator and coach, has supported the work of the Open European Dialogue, helping us to facilitate some of the more difficult conversations with her empathetic process design style and her profound experience in transformative mediation and conflict resolution. Mia was awarded the recognition of Independent Mediator of the Year in the UK. She serves the APROPOS Group as Co-Founder and Advisor.
A special mention also goes to:
Verena Ringler, then Project Manager of the International Affairs Department at the philanthropic foundation Stiftung Mercator, was the ideator of the pilot project “Mercator European Dialogue”, predecessor of the “Open European Dialogue”, that first and foremost recognised the need for a space for politicians to better communicate with one another across borders and party lines. Today she is the Director of European Commons and of the AGORA European Green Deal and her work continues to focus on multi-stakeholder alliances and regional innovation in Europe.
All the people, partners and funders who supported the Open European Dialogue mission over the years, allowing us to share with the policy and political sectors our vision for a better political dialogue culture. These include our colleagues at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the Istituto Affari Internazionali, CIDOB – Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, ELIAMEP – Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy, Stiftung Mercator, the King Baudouin Foundation, Robert Bosch Stiftung and the Bertelsmann Stiftung.
Last but not least, a special thanks goes to Joe Barbor, the talented writer who helped us to tell our story.