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Newsletter, August 2007

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Summertime and the living is... damp, and reflective

The great advantage of a lousy summer is no call for a barbecue, that generator of false jollity, insipid echo of our Neolithic ancestry and abuser of decent food. Holidays, though: now you’re talking. As Herodotus said (you can tell I’ve done my research) “If a man insisted always on being serious, and never allowed himself a bit of fun and relaxation, he would go mad or become unstable without knowing it.” Amazing how little changes over the millennia.

Part of the stability that holidays bring is the re-centring on what really matters. The last year has been hectic for Dialogue by Design: great growth, many new projects and products, and arguably the danger of being distracted from core values and competences.

No apology here, therefore, for a short re-statement of what we are doing and why we are doing it.

First and most important of all: we believe passionately that the current and future health of our democracy rests on the proper involvement of people in the decisions that affect them. This underpins everything we do and explains why we are committed to organisations such as Involve and to projects such as the Hansard Society’s Parliament for the Future. Yes, Dialogue by Design is a business - and we are a business that campaigns for the best possible processes in engagement and participation.

Secondly, we believe in the importance of design as a principle as well as a process. Public consultation has for too long relied on generic processes - surveys, questionnaires, focus groups, and now all sorts of out-of-the-box software - that purport to meet the public need for involvement.

The weakness of all these is that they focus on methods rather than needs. At Dialogue by Design our absolute starting point is design: who needs to be involved and what do they need to be able to do. Only when these are clear do we begin to think about methods - and we never prescribe generic solutions to specific situations any more than a good doctor prescribes over-the-counter medicines to individuals with specific illnesses.

Thirdly, we believe in deliberation, not just out-and-back consultation. Wherever possible we use face-to-face meetings as well as web- or paper-based methods: because not even the best software is a substitute for sitting down and talking to people. It may be less efficient, in business terms, than packaging everyone’s opinions into a database - but human beings are more than data repositories and we should treat them with proper respect.

Finally, we know that getting consultation right is never easy. So we form working alliances with our clients, combining a real understanding of their needs with our experience and the repertoire of methods available to us. It means investing time to build old-fashioned things like mutual trust and confidence.

These four things - the link between proper involvement and a healthy democracy, the importance of design and meeting specific needs, remembering the human dimension, and the mix of old values and modern methods - are what make Dialogue by Design different and make me proud of the company and the work we do.

All very well being ‘values driven’, you may say - but what about the bottom line? Well, I reckon growing fifty per cent a year speaks for itself. Sound values make for a sound business.

And for good holidays. Enjoy yours.

Andrew Acland

 

 
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