If done right, policy dialogues and other forms of convening can be powerful tools for solving problems and improving policies. For more than forty years, InterEnvironment Institute (formerly known as the California Institute of Public Affairs*) has convened collaborative policy forums, participated in policy dialogues run by other organizations, done research on the convening process, and promoted collaborative decision-making in California and internationally.
In 1989, the Institute held an international workshop to look at how policy dialogues could be used more effectively to promote conservation and sustainable development. Participants were practitioners and researchers from Canada, India, Sri Lanka, and the United States, and staff of three international organizations: IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), the Union of International Associations, and the Asian and Pacific Development Centre. The proceedings of the workshop were published as The Power of Convening.
InterEnvironment Institute’s approach to convening is different from that of many other organizations in that we stress collaboration rather than conflict resolution. The difference is encapsulated in a comment by Jean Monnet, father of the European Common Market: "Do not come together to argue and negotiate. Come together to solve a common problem."
In collaborative policy forums, leaders and experts who represent different constituencies and points of view meet to explore solutions to policy issues and further their different interests. The participants come to the table with sufficient respect for the legitimacy of one another's needs and concerns to operate by consensus procedure.
Policy forums are not a substitute for conventional political or regulatory processes but offer a complementary path. Conventional processes are usually characterized by formality, authority based on position, and vertical downward communication. In contrast, policy forums are "organic" structures in which parties deal with each other directly and there is a diversity of viewpoints. In such forums, there is joint participation in decision-making and much informal communication.
Forums give parties an opportunity to find areas of agreement, clarify areas of disagreement, and - if desired - negotiate their differences. Forums can cut across the various institutions, professional disciplines, and sectors of society concerned with an issue. In the international arena, they also serve to bridge national and cultural boundaries.
The workshop report in The Power of Convening makes additional points on collaborative policy forums, including objectives, participation, focus, duration, results, follow-up, and evaluation.
For an article on our favorite convening organization, see Convening thinkers and doers: Sweden's Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation from The Power of Convening.
See also Example of an Institute convening project, which is about the California Forum on Hazardous Materials.
*The California Institute of Public Affairs (CIPA) became InterEnvironment Institute in February 2010. CIPA continues as an activity of InterEnvironment Institute.