Published 2022-02-17

This post is also available in Swedish

Tools aiming to help governmental organisations lead dialogues

Governmental organisations often have high expectations of dialogue processes to achieve participation. However, there is little knowledge of how to create inclusive and effective dialogues. The Mistra Environmental Communication research programme is now developing tools to support the work.

The Gottsunda area in Uppsala Municipality is changing. By 2050, the southern parts of the municipality, in which Gottsunda plays a key part as an urban hub, will have grown with 33,000 new homes, thousands of workplaces and a new railway station. Many inhabitants and societal actors are affected and have opinions about the development. The municipality’s action plan for the Gottsunda area includes the keywords participation and cooperation. But how can the keywords be fulfilled and different requests and ideas be identified and handled?

Martin Westin, researcher in Environmental Communication at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and leader of the work package about dialogues at national and municipal government levels in the Mistra Environmental Communication research programme.

Urban development in Uppsala Municipality is one of four case studies in which the Mistra Environmental Communication research programme is developing knowledge about dialogue processes, with a special focus on power relationships and conflicts. The other three case studies consist of land use in Sápmi, water management in rural parts of Västmanland County and dialogue processes in Swedish forestry. The work involves a large number of researchers and many actors.

“The common denominator of the case studies is that the participating actors are interested in changing and improving their dialogue processes,” says Martin Westin, who is a researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and is involved in the case study for Uppsala Municipality and the Gottsunda area.

The work on urban development in Uppsala Municipality started with Martin Westin and his colleagues presenting the research to municipal employees. In turn, the employees have had the opportunity to share thoughts on and challenges with dialogue processes as well as examples and dilemmas that they have experienced themselves. The collaboration has also led to Mistra Environmental Communication and Uppsala Municipality organising a joint webinar series this year, focusing specifically on dialogue in town administration.

High expectations – low knowledge

Mathias Holmberg, who works in Uppsala Municipality’s sustainability department with the coordination of the Gottsunda area, says that the researchers have been invited to meetings and discussions on, among other things, the action plan and the urban development process. He sees great value in the municipality and its work becoming the subject of research, that the municipal actors adopt an evidence-based approach and gain the opportunity to explore and develop dialogue methods together with the academic world.

So far, the collaboration has largely comprised raising awareness of actions and actively building relationships. One example of strong participation described by Mathias Holmberg started with an email from a class of schoolchildren in Gottsunda who had questions and thoughts about issues such as the outdoor environment and lighting.

“Instead of replying to their questions by email, we chose to organise a digital meeting with representatives of the municipality and the police who were able to answer the class’s questions directly. Our horizon for what constitutes participation is shifting. We are also gaining greater understanding of the power perspective and raising awareness of what is information and what is dialogue.”

The work on detailed development plans for Gottsunda will commence later in the year. Mathias Holmberg says that the knowledge currently being accumulated in research will be important to include in this work in order to attain successful dialogues and achieve participation and cooperation.

Martin Westin says that many public sector officials have responsibility for dialogues with citizens and other actors in society. It is a form of governance that is becoming increasingly common in order to meet organisations’ participation goals. Expectations are often high, but there is a low level of knowledge of how to create inclusive, effective dialogues – often permeated by conflicts and challenging power relationships.

“It is important not to damage confidence in the system through dialogues that do not work or to invite people to dialogues in which there is no scope to exert influence. I see good examples when the dialogues are delimited, with few and more focused issues that create the opportunity for influence. We view the research as a contribution to developing the knowledge base of public sector employees. If the latter boost their knowhow, the organisations will also be able to attain their wider goals of cooperation and participation.”

New dialogue tool

The research and work on the various case studies within Mistra Environmental Communication have led to a new dialogue support tool:  The aim is, through reflection, to allow those leading the work on dialogues to evaluate situations and thereby broaden their leadership repertoire and learn more about their actions based on what the situation requires.

The material is currently being tested in various locations and will continue to be developed. During the spring, a number of actors involved will meet up to test the new version, and Martin Westin hopes that there will be an updated written version by the end of the spring. The researchers are also working on an article that describes the development of the Reflection Cycle, and there are plans to develop additional tools.

“It’s both fun and meaningful to work close to practitioners and co-create. It’s also important to maintain each profession’s specific characteristics; the different roles are needed, and the research needs to distance itself during periods of analysis. At present, we are also looking at developing tools to support the interaction between the individuals in a dialogue and the social structures that enable or limit the dialogue.”