The structure and setting of dialogue sessions matter greatly in enabling better decision-making and outcomes. Poor preparation and facilitation can lead to participants feeling underappreciated, not listened to or frustrated. The way dialogues are designed and facilitated, in particular for decision making on issues of public concern, can make an immense difference when it comes to productively engaging people and fostering collaboration. However, the question of what type of structure is most effective for these sessions has rarely been tested in a formal experiment.
This is relevant for businesses, large organizations and local city governments. In collaboration with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and the Canadian International Resources Development Institute (CIRDI), as well as the University of British Columbia, we compared two common facilitation approaches during a UNDP workshop: a highly structured multi party dialogue, and an unstructured multi party dialogue. Our findings were published recently in the Journal Group Decision and Negotiation
In Panama City in late 2018, 40 participants gathered to discuss participatory environmental monitoring committees associated with mining. The workshop participants included members of community monitoring committees from Argentina, Bolivia, Panama and Peru, as well as subject matter experts, NGOs and representatives from donor agencies.
In our experiment, workshop participants were split into two comparable groups for one session, to understand how the use of structured or unstructured facilitation approaches might change participant satisfaction and equity in participation. Participants were asked to identify challenges associated with the establishment and operations of participatory environmental monitoring committees in the mining sector. After an ideas generation phase, they were asked to prioritize the challenges faced by committees, and select the two most important challenges, which would be the focus for the rest of the two day workshop. In our experiment, structure consisted of three differences between the groups – first a more directed facilitation approach, dividing the participants within the group into small groups to complete some of the work, and the facilitator imposing a specific prioritization method for the group to jointly select the most important challenges.
In the structured session, participants felt that as a group, they did a better job weighing the pros and cons of different ideas, they were more confident that the best ideas were selected, and they were satisfied with the prioritization process and the session overall, and were less likely to say that a few people dominated the session.
The findings showed that structured facilitation with small group discussions provided a small yet consistent improvement over the less structured approaches. Participants were more satisfied with the structured sessions because they felt that the best ideas were listened to and a minority of participants did not dominate the session. We found men and women have different perceptions about the level of women’s participation. Male participants were more likely than women to report a high degree of participation of women, whereas women perceived that females spoke less than the men. This gender gap persisted in both the structured and unstructured dialogue groups. This is important to note, because women are frequently underrepresented in public gatherings, dialogues or decision-making processes. If participatory dialogue processes are to address a range of public concerns in a fair manner, care must be taken to include women from a range of socio-economic and cultural groups. The design of the dialogue process must create space for these participants and their important and too often excluded perspectives.
It is possible that more structure may be particularly appropriate for decision focused exercises, rather than idea generation. We found that structure for the dialogue is especially valuable when the stakeholder group is diverse, the issues at hand are complex, and there are a range of different interests and possible outcomes. Of note, the unstructured group in our study felt that the prioritization exercise was less fair even though the group selected the same method to select their priorities that the structured group had used.
We observed that under certain conditions, there might be a measureable disadvantage to not providing group guidance on decision making, and that a decision making method that is offered by a third party neutral may be more likely to be viewed as fair and impartial. When it comes to decision-making processes on complex issues, it is good facilitation practice to decide jointly on the decision-making criteria and methods early on, especially in conflict sensitive settings.
This is the first known study to compare different approaches for multi party dialogue facilitation with a formal field experiment. Research on meeting design and consensus building amongst multiple parties or organizations is composed mainly of case studies and other qualitative research. This research breaks from the existing body of work, and illustrates that experimental research designs are a feasible tool for learning about facilitation methods, and testing good practices in public participation and public sector collaborative process. Looking ahead, the ultimate aim of this work is to build a stronger evidence-base about how multi party dialogue events concerning decision making on complex public issues should be structured, in order to achieve better decision making, constructive outcomes and satisfaction amongst the parties.
 Honey-Rosés, Jordi; Canessa, Mitzy; Daitch, Sarah; Gomes, Bruno; García, Javier; Xavier, André and Zapata, Oscar. (2020). Comparing Structured and Unstructured Facilitation Approaches in Consultation Workshops: A Field Experiment. Group Decision and Negotiation. 10.1007/s10726-020-09688-w.
 United Nations (2015) Natural resources and conflict: a guide for mediation practitioners. New York, NY. Retrieved from https://peacemaker.un.org/NRC_MediationGuide_2015