Global Flipchart #10
January 2018 |
Facilitating political processes
There is one day in my lifetime that stands out as a “new beginning” for me. That day is 13 May 2014.
A new political party called the Alternative had been founded half a year earlier. They had been ridiculed by all political commentators for not presenting a political programme when they announced the party. Instead they promised that the party’s political programme would be ‘crowdsourced’ over the next couple of years.
Like most Danes, I honestly had no idea what it was all about. Until I saw this small article in a local newspaper.
The headline wrote: ‘Political party wants to make dogmas for political debate’. The article described how the first version of the party’s political programme had been developed through a series of ‘political laboratories’, involving more than 600 people.
Today, 3.5 years later, the party has 9 seats in the Danish Parliament, has won 5% of the votes in the recent council and municipal elections, and gained 1-3 seats in more than 50 local councils nationwide.
In the same period, I’ve facilitated more than 15 ‘POLAs’ - the short name for ‘political laboratories’ (what we facilitators would call ‘facilitated sessions’). I’ve participated in training more than 50 volunteers in the art of facilitation, and coaching mentees.
It’s been quite a journey to participate in the transformation of a loosely organised movement with fewer than 1,000 enthusiasts, no budget or political mandate, to a formal political party represented in parliament, local councils and municipalities.
How to facilitate politics
Back then I was intrigued by the thought of facilitating political processes - could it be done? And if yes, what would it be like?
My general experience of facilitating crowdsourced political processes has been a rollercoaster of letting go of things I held dear in facilitation in order to make things work - only to pick them up and assemble them in new ways.
Four things I learned
- Well facilitated, political debates always produce outcomes to ‘head, heart and hand’
Participants produce content for the party’s political programme (hand), learn new things (head) and create new personal relations with the other participants (heart). A PhD-study on ‘The Alternative’s organisation of open-source politics’ concludes that political laboratories can be seen as technology serving a dual purpose: “It is part of a post-capitalist politics intended to bring ‘the people’ closer to the parliament, and it helps The Alternative cope with the organisational transformation.” Facilitation strengthens formal political processes and organisational growth - hand, head and heart.
- A normative approach to defining ‘what is a political laboratory’ is unproductive
It’s tempting to develop a template agenda for a ‘political laboratory’ and pass it along to rookie facilitators as a DIY kit. But this often does not work. Facilitators need to walk their own path and make their own mistakes. If you insist on normativity in the processes, it basically says more about you than about the need for structure in the group processes. Trust the brave beginners, stay around for them to ask questions, let them ‘trip and fall’, but help them elicit learnings from their mistakes. Don’t work your ass off facilitating, but involve beginners and help them gain their first experiences.
- There are lots of beginnings and very few endings when facilitating inside a political party
The laboratories are the first stretch of a larger political process, which begin with the POLA’s. In the sessions, we often end without having reached consensus in the group, but we will have elicited the various positions represented as thoroughly as possible.
- The less people know about facilitation as a professional practise, the less they tend to prioritise preparing the session
A lot of people facilitate POLA’s in the party, and quite a few would spend little time preparing for the session. Some basically just show up at the agreed time! This was an observation also made by Majken Mac, a young sociologist who did her field work around the political laboratories, for her thesis at the Institute of Sociology, University of Copenhagen. This lack of preparation wasn’t out of bad will, but because they were often very busy people, and weren’t aware of the complexity of facilitated group sessions. After more than three years of practise, a lot of us now support each other as much as possible in the various phases around the sessions, and it continues to be a wonderful learning experience.
If you'd like to discuss any of this with me, please reach out on firstname.lastname@example.org
- Emil Husted and Ursula Plesner, ‘Spaces of open-source politics: Physical and digital conditions for political organisation’