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Democs: Smart In-Person Process for Small-Group Consultations

Stephen Whitehead, researcher at London, UK-based New Economics Foundation (nef), recently alerted me to a new paper of theirs: Connected Conversations

Reflecting on nef’s decade of experience in democracy and participation, this pamphlet argues that tackling the biggest issues, from climate change to social inequality, needs to start with small conversations between friends and neighbours. By linking these small groups together we can sow the seeds for new social movements.

From the executive summary:

Meeting future challenges

The UK faces an interlinked set of economic, environmental and political challenges that have led nef to call for a ‘great transition’ – a fundamental shift to a more sustainable, socially just way of living. But transition cannot be achieved from the top down. It will require central and local government, businesses, communities and individuals to develop their own understandings of sustainability and social justice and to debate and negotiate with each other about the way forward.

At the moment, however, there is no easy way to get this kind of debate to happen. Our social fabric is fragmented, and opportunities for debate are few and far between. There is little space for groups to deliberate about complex, pressing issues and even less space for them to share their views with each other. The internet is at best a partial solution: there is no substitute for face to face discussion.

Processes such as Who Sees What offer a clue as to how problems like this can be overcome. We call this kind of approach ‘connected conversations’. Unlike many forms of public engagement, connected conversations are not about settling issues or reaching consensus. They simply let citizens engage in public discussion with friends, family or colleagues in their existing networks and then link these discussions together. Rather than seeking to generate a collective decision, they reflect that tackling the biggest issues means making many small decisions and then finding the links between them. They are, in effect, talking shops – and we are proud to describe them as such.

Democs, their process for self-facilitated small-group conversations, is outlined on the Who Sees What website:

Democs (Deliberative Meeting of Citizens) is a discussion tool developed by the New Economics Foundation to help ordinary people discover, discuss and decide about complex political issues. Democs comes in the form of a conversation kit which breaks down all the key points about a topic into discrete information cards. Players sort through the cards, choose the ones that they think are important and identify the themes that link them. At the end of the process, participants are asked how they would like policy in this area to work.


Democs ‘games’ are played by 6-8 people and take up to an hour and a half. Because all the information needed is on the cards, anyone can organise a Democs game and play it at home, at work or even down the pub! When the kit is launched this Autumn, you’ll be able to request a hard copy of the kit free of charge, or download it and print it out and run your own game. Afterwards, you can send us your results so we can include them in the survey.

Very nice! Watch this 10-minute video to see Democs in action:

Who Sees What – discussion game from Stephen Whitehead on Vimeo.

Small-group processes are essential to dialogue and deliberation, yet often neglected or underutilized online. With the first few basic elements of our small-group functionality now in place on Zilino, we can’t wait to explore and emulate some of the many different flavors of these kinds of processes, including such inspiring examples as World Cafe or Democs.

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