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Thought Piece | On Conference Diplomacy: The Elusive Impact of Bringing People Together

Chiara Rosselli, Executive Director, APROPOS Group

Yesterday morning I found myself up on a rather intimidating stage confronted with a rather complicated inquiry.

How do political conferences influence policymaking?

A brave question, I think.

And, an especially difficult one to answer, when you are up on the very stage of one of these conferences, the Cyprus Forum, sat side by side with executives of other notable political conferences, the Delphi Economic Forum, the Paris Peace Forum and Globsec - without forgetting, of course, that you too manage a political dialogue platform - the Open European Dialogue.

I wish we'd had more time to dig deeper into what is a very legitimate and yet delicate question.

I would've loved to gnaw at it with colleagues who must have put a lot of thought into the topic over the years: what is the real impact of bringing people together?

I had a few extra thoughts prepared, which I didn't have a chance to share, so here they are.

#1 In order to measure impact, we have to first define what we mean by it

For us at the Open European Dialogue, it is all about promoting better quality and more constructive exchanges between political voices across countries and across the party spectrum – regardless of the thematic or policy area.

So we look at impact, not through the lens of what influence we’ve had on a specific policy area, but what influence we’ve had on the way policymakers relate to and understand political perspectives that are not their own.

Impact for us is our members developing a more profound understanding of the political positions of others and building trusting relationships across different political actors.

We see this as a prerequisite for better political collaboration.

#2 We need to choose measures of success which match the intended goal

We collect direct testimonials and conduct in-depth interviews with our members to compile what we call 'impact stories'.

Over the years, we’ve heard:

  • that their views of a particular political opponent within the same parliament can change, thanks to their engagement in the dialogue, and that working relationships can improve as a result;

  • that they can better understand the nature of political parties from other countries when engaging with them directly and not only hearing about them through the often inflammatory accounts of the media – this is particularly true when it comes to the emergence of new parties, often challengers of the status quo;

  • that it is possible for politicians with hard-line views of a certain policy issue to change their perspective on a particular issue and change their perception of the role and position played by other political forces thanks to the immersive exchange experience offered by the dialogue.

It is admittedly hard to measure impact for a thing as vague as 'bringing people together', but it is outright impossible if we aren't quite sure what the intended outcome should be.

#3 Once the intended outcome is clear, Political Process Design can be used as a tool to strengthen our impact

At APROPOS we apply an approach which we call Political Process Design – through which, once there is a very clearly defined objective in mind – we go about finding ways to design political dialogue spaces that can nudge participants towards the desired outcome.

For example, the question we were faced with yesterday, is how conferences can influence policymaking - here are two examples of how they do that and a few relevant reflections from the perspective of process design.

Case Study 1: Facilitate Learning One important way in which conferences have an impact is through influencing policy thinking, by acting as learning facilitators. Yet, we know by now thanks to the work of cognitive scientists that presenting people with information is often, or rather most of the time, insufficient to induce learning. So we can and should ask ourselves how to design an interaction between people and information that can encourage not only the retention of information but also the emergence of new learnings. One simple way to do that is to give the opportunity for participants to engage actively and challenge the information, through participatory methods, rather than passively being expected to absorb it. Another way, beyond encouraging mere interaction is to orchestrate conflict, a term we are borrowing from adaptive leadership. It means to be able to steer a group towards the appropriate level of constructive conflict – not an aggressive shouting match, as we are all too often used to with politicians, nor a 'sea of nodding heads', which we are often accustomed to in the think tank world. To do so, it is important to consider the scale, framing and setting of a conversation. Small group discussions are known to mitigate more aggressive communication and increase the chances of listening to others. A non-binary or confrontational framing can reduce the 'us-vs-them' phenomenon, while an unexpected or non-ordinary frame, can raise the attention and tension level for participants. The setting - meant as both the physical space as well as the norms introduced by the conveners - can completely alter the feeling of a conversation completely.

Case Study 2: Relationship-building Another form of influence exercised by conferences is through the relationships and connections that they facilitate - and the trust-building that can occur when people engage positively in a shared space. A very good case-in-point here is the fact that we know that for many conferences one of, if not the #1 value-added reported by participants, is often the networking element. And yet, we still don't seem to see many conferences proudly and actively design for these exchanges to happen, to be facilitated in a constructive rather than haphazard manner, and to be a fully recognised part of the programme rather than an after-thought relegated to the coffee breaks or dinners. Even more thought should go into designing the human-to-human interaction if the political space we are hosting aims to engage in trust-building across stakeholders, which many conferences have, to some degree, in their mandates. We can design ways to speed up the otherwise slow process of trust-building – by ensuring sufficient time is dedicated to 1-on-1 or small group interactions, preferring closed-door events when possible, and creating guiding questions that probe participants to better understand the perspectives and experiences of their peers.

Political Process Design is not a one-size-fits-all, and it is not an easy fix for all of our impact woes, but what it does offer is a lens which we can use when approaching the concept and design phases of these conferences, workshops, closed-door meetings - anything really that requires empowering human collaboration.

#4 Three powerful principles from Political Process Design

  1. Clarity of purpose: when applying Political Process Design you can't start or move on without a clear purpose – the protocol will constantly bring you back to the fundamental question: why? It encourages by default more strategic thinking.

  2. Procedural logic: once the purpose is well-defined the framework asks you to look at the way you will organize your work and what individual steps it will take to bring you closer to the goal. How do you plan to get from point A to point B? Encouraging this type of thinking ensures that all parts of a programme follow a logical progression and strengthens the effectiveness of the overall gathering.

  3. Emotional intelligence: Political Process Design is a profoundly human-centric approach and its ambition is to (re-)humanize the political spaces we inhabit. It asks us to take into consideration the reality of human decision-making: we are biased, we are emotional decision-makers, we do not like to feel uncertain, we are uncomfortable mingling with people we don't know, we have short attention spans, we need bathroom breaks...The framework urges us to work with the reality of human decision-making and cognitive capacities and integrate these limits into our design, rather than ignore them just because they are inconvenient. In so doing, it is a radically realistic approach to change-making and hence, it can make for very efficient convening. It maximises output while remaining firmly rooted within the limits of what is possible. (spoiler: solving climate change in a 90-minute session is not it!).

#5 So, can conferences have a real impact?

For me the answer is a resounding YES, but with some caveats.

Yes, if they are intentionally designed to act as true learning spaces or trust and relationship-building spaces.

Yes, even more so, if they understand their role as that of facilitators of collaboration, which seems to be more and more the case.

We are seeing a shift in these dialogue forums from spaces for exchange towards platforms for collaboration. We see it with the initiatives supported by the Paris Peace Forum as well as within the Open European Dialogue itself (see our Policy Design Sprint for more details).

I believe that, in part, this can be a very welcome evolution.

There is a growing need for politically neutral spaces which can fulfil the function of bringing people together to facilitate a better-shared understanding and creative solution-building across political divides.

If political conferences would assume this role - that of honest brokers between political stakeholders with different views - their relevance and raison d'etre would be strengthened.

Of course, this shift also raises its own process design questions - how do we intentionally design our spaces to function as effective incubators and ensure that collaboration is not just happening in the corridors, a mere by-product, but becomes a key feature of our political dialogue spaces?

To be continued...

+++ Thank you to the organizers at Cyprus Forum for inviting me to speak of our experience with the Open European Dialogue and APROPOS, and for raising this important topic and facilitating a first exchange on this thorny theme. Thank you to my co-panelists Yiannis Thomatos, Delphi Economic Forum, Alena Kudzko, Globsec, Fabienne Hara, Paris Peace Forum and our wonderful moderator Terry Martin. I hope there will be ways for us to continue the conversation.


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