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Policy forums as obstacles to social change

Through Metaphor to a Sustainable Ecology of Development Policies (Part #2)

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Meetings, and particularly international meetings, are a vital feature of society. They are a principal means whereby different perspectives are 'assembled', 'meet' or touch each other, possibly following a period of separation ('reunion'). Through such occasions conceptual and other resources are brought together to bear on questions of common concern ('conference') or they may provide the environment for the emergence of a synergistic relationship between previously unrelated concerns ('forum'). Considerable effort has been successfully made to increase the efficiency of meeting organization through the use of management skills, communications technology and specially conceived buildings. But despite the ease with which meetings are held, there is continuing concern that many of the events which raise hopes of policy breakthroughs do not fulfill the expectations of participants or of those whose future depends on their outcome.

Some efforts have been made, especially in North America, to move beyond a concern for the 'mechanics' of meeting organization in order to facilitate those processes which are more congenial and significant to participants. These innovations have been for the most part experimental and are primarily applicable to small groups under special conditions (notably where cultural and linguistic differences are not a factor). The fundamental problem seems to be that the apparent success at 'processing' agenda items, participant viewpoints and documents, often appears to be matched by only apparent or superficial consensus whose impact, if any, tends to be limited to one of short-term public relations. The meeting outcome is such that collective empowerment is minimal as is that of the individual participant.

In this light, the current design and operation of meetings itself constitutes a major obstacle to social change, especially in those cases where social change is a theme of the meeting. The conventional approach to discussions of policy issues is to assume that the discussion forum is in many respects 'transparent' to the content, provided that the basic logistical, communication and protocol questions are satisfactorily arranged (e.g. documents, microphone, etc). Since such events tend not to be characterized by remarkable breakthroughs, and are better remembered by the frequency of their failure, it is appropriate to ask more radical questions -- if policy formulation is to respond more appropriately to the challenge of the times. The possibilities for such 'transformativeconferencing' have been explored in earlier papers (Judge, 1984a).

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