Category Archives: Community Engagement


Then up the ante on community engagement and decision making

Opening out and digging deep

When we come together in facilitated meetings, citizens’ assemblies or community engagement ‘consultations’, often only certain voices are heard; perhaps the loudest, the majority, the ‘community leader’, or the voices the facilitator favours. Other voices at the margins that may differ from the majority or have conflicting views, go unheard. However, including all views may well lead towards futures that are preferable to the narrower ones many of us currently contemplate. Engagement and decision making needs to open out and include all voices.

In this era of increasingly polarised views, people who offer unpopular or alternative perspectives are often bullied or ‘trolled’. We are even exhorted from the top to be ‘quiet Australians’. This has the effect of making people reluctant to be different and flows down through workplaces, local councils, community groups etc.  Superficial discussion, simplistic arguments or passive agreements have become the norm. So, engagement activities need to dig deeper, way down to the beliefs and the stories underlying the situation.

Enriching possible futures through ‘opening out’

Instead of seeing them as problematic, we can welcome conflicting views and include the marginalised, the powerful, and all those in-between. By giving everyone a voice, we can ‘think outside the box’ and embrace richer perspectives. Such expansion is not possible where we all share similar views, follow ‘the leader’, feel pressure or be too shy to voice an alternative or unpopular view. This expansion is the starting point of opening out.

Certainly, working with conflicting viewpoints is not easy. The facilitator requires experience and expertise in applying the process. Tips include working toward developing expertise before including some participants who may be seen as adversaries. Also, enabling guidelines to be developed by the group sets the tone, and reminds people that this is a place for respectful debate.

Deepening discussions – reflecting on our worldviews and stories

Opening out is not enough by itself. There is also a need to dig deeper with our discussions. While we are quick to offer an opinion, analysis is often thin on the ground.

Here’s a real-life example of exploring the process of opening out and digging deep. In a workshop setting, the discussion topic was the potential for unconventional gas exploration and extraction (the most well-known being ‘fracking’) in the South West Coast District, Victoria, Australia. Participants from the region held a range of views. The workshop began with small groups where everyone ‘tried on’ different views, discussing and becoming more familiar with the similarities and differences of their own views and values compared with others in the group.

Questions to further prompt reflection

Bringing the group together the facilitator asked a series of questions linked to each level, (see diagram) beginning with the present and leading to a future ‘dream situation’.

Source: Inayatullah, S. (2017). Causal Layered Analysis, Prospective and Strategic Foresight Toolbox. Futuribles International, 1-21.

The facilitator asked participants:

  1.  ’What do you see, what is spoken about, what is published when      you look at the energy situation?’ This is the most superficial visible level, such as statistical data and newspaper headlines.
  2. ’What is the cause of this situation?’ This is the factual level that includes systemic causes.
  3. ‘What beliefs are causing this to happen? (you may have to step out of your own beliefs here)’. This level taps into participants’ values as reflected at level 2, to identify worldviews. These may be dominated by economic, social and/or environmental concerns.
  4. ’Is there a suitable metaphor or myth to help us understand why we behave the way we do in creating the situation we are in?’ and ‘what is a suitable metaphor or myth to describe a future ‘dream’ situation?’ This level goes deeply into the underlying story.

As the workshop advances, moving to the ‘dream situation’ and identifying a new myth or metaphor is vital to creating a new story as a foundation for change. For example, the group might identify the current metaphor as ‘be careful what you grow in the shadows’ and a new metaphor as ‘turn on the light’. The group then works back up the levels. These processes can contribute to decision making by progressing to the identification of preferred future scenarios and strategies for their achievement.

My aim in providing this summary is to encourage a grasp of the practice, although of course, it is best to ‘learn by doing’. You will probably have some concerns and questions. I briefly tackle two such questions next but feel free to voice your thoughts, positive and otherwise via my email details.

Question – For this practice to be effective, there needs to be power-sharing. Why would the powerful share their power?  Why would corporations and organisations (including charities and social enterprises) relinquish some of their power?

Response – Public trust in organisations has been badly shaken lately. Many need to build or repair trust. The pressure to be accountable is increasing. Add to this the financial and reputational cost of conflict to organisations and they may well become more receptive to democratic approaches to engagement and decision-making. Failing adequate responses to this need to ‘wake up’, a series of collapses may make them increasingly receptive to alternative future pathways. Unfortunately, it is not at all difficult to envisage collapses due, for example, to climate change.

Question – What about the facts?

Response – Facts are vital and are identified in level 2 as the systemic causes of an issue. Values also play a crucial role in the way facts are received. Division about the facts of climate change is a case in point.

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Although successfully applied nationally and internationally, it is relatively early days in the development of this futures-oriented engagement practice called Causal Layered Analysis (CLA). The practice both progresses democratisation and engages the imagination in identifying alternative possibilities and strategies. Today, applying innovative new methods and imaginings is key in transitioning towards a preferable future.

Marcelle Holdaway (

Marcelle describes her values as revolving around equity, empowerment and healing ourselves and the world around us. These values have consistently informed her professional and personal objectives of lifting the bar on matters social and environmental. As an active practitioner, including having had close ties with SAN, she has spent the past 4 years completing a PhD concerning her practice area. Marcelle’s thesis explored a practice-base for democratizing stakeholder engagement by corporations; a practice base also applicable to a wide range of organizations and situations.
Marcelle currently holds the position of Adjunct Fellow  Accountability and Sustainability,  University of the Sunshine Coast within the School of Social Sciences, University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland.