Participatory proposal writing
How to write up a policy draft in a group
This is a brief how-to of writing proposals, based on materials from the sociocracy handbook Many Voices One Song.
I am focussing here on step 2 in making a (policy) decision, assuming that the issue (1) and all needs of stakeholders are well understood before we start. Also, for step 3, making a decision, see this article on consent decision making.
Step 2, exploring ideas for our policy decision, itself falls into three steps.
- Step 2a: get a general idea of what the scope of the policy will be
- Step 2b: brainstorm ideas
- Step 2c: synthesize and consolidate ideas into a proposal that can enter the decision-making process.
Let’s go through them one by one.
Only begin when you’re clear about the context of the request and the needs that you are trying to meet with a policy. When that’s done, you can start.
Step 2a: picture forming (dimensions)
We gather a checklist of questions that need answering and other considerations to keep in mind when making policy.
For example, we might state in picture forming that “budget” (or “what’s the budget?” in question form) is a relevant consideration when coming up with a proposal.
Sometimes this step seems almost too easy to be worth doing. Yet, making a list of dimensions first makes for much better proposals. Also, it’s quite pleasant for group dynamics to start with a process where everyone agrees.
We like gathering dimensions and questions in rounds, but “pop-corn” (people speak when they have an idea) works as well.
This step is complete when all consideration (sometimes called ‘dimensions’) are written down, and no one has anything to add or an objection to a dimension on the list. Consent on completeness of the list and moving to the next step is a good transition marker.
Step 2b: gathering proposal ideas
With the list of dimensions in sight for everyone, the group can now spell out proposal ideas that make a statement about the dimension. Proposal ideas can start with I think we should… or I think __ should…. For example, I think the budget should be $2500 overall, and spending should be transparent.
It’s important that proposal pieces are specific. In the above example, “spending should be transparent” is not specific enough. Define what transparent means, for example by spelling out a tracking mechanism for expenses and by naming who should have access to that.
It’s sometimes hard for people who throw out a specific idea. Some might find it pushy to advocate for a detailed idea but we see it as a great service to the group to propose something doable. Instead of holding back on ideas gather them without judgment. Anyone can always object later in the decision-making process. There is no harm in throwing out an idea. For the same reason, other members’ proposal ideas should not be dismissed or criticized right away. This step pretty much works like brainstorming. Rounds are an excellent way to gather ideas, especially if contributions are short and the group can do more than one round fairly quickly, building on each other’s ideas.
If running out of ideas, it helps to look at the list of dimensions to see if all of them are covered. Ideally, you’d want them all to be covered before going to the next step. This step is complete when no one has another idea to share.
Step 2c: Synthesize ideas into a proposal
The group now has the list of proposal ideas in front of them. Sometimes all it takes is some re-ordering and cleaning up language and the proposal is ready to make a decision on.
Other times, proposal ideas are a long list of conflicting ideas. In that case, try to identify parts that are straightforward and consolidate them so you can shift your attention to the stickier aspects. It might be useful to do reaction rounds on one or two hot topics but sometimes it’s easier to move forward first and see in the consent process what rises to the level of objections. The goal is never to have a perfect proposal. “Perfect” takes too long and is not efficient. All it takes for now is good enough. Remember this policy is not cast in stone. Add a term to the proposal (for example 12 months). If the proposal seems risky, make the term shorter.
Congratulations, you have generated a proposal! All it takes now is a decision!
Adjustments for large groups or including more input
This process is optimized for a group size of 3–8 people. The same process, however, can be modified for larger groups.
- Step 2a+2c: Both these steps can be done in a large group, either in a synchronous (during a live meeting) or an asynchronous way, for example people adding dimensions to a poster board or a digital file. If the group is larger than 8 or 9 people, rounds are not time efficient anymore.
Ideally, the group developing the proposal is managing this process and facilitating ideas from the large group and deciding when the list is complete enough to move to the next step.
- Step 2c: We discourage synthesizing a proposal as a group. Pick one or two people to do it, either during the meeting or between meetings, simply because it’s more time efficient and easier to pay attention to wording in a small, nimble group. Once the proposal draft is ready, input on this draft can be gathered by a large group, either synchronously or asynchronously. That input can then be used to re-work the proposal before it enters the decision-making process.