Learning to embrace complexity and coordinate pathways to sustainability is a necessity in policy and environmental governance settings (Pahl-Wostl, 2009; Cundill et al. 2012). Complex sustainability issues, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and food and water insecurity, pose challenges to environmental governance and to policy advisory mechanisms at all scales and have policy interdependencies extending far beyond environmental concerns alone (Stechow et al. 2016; Dorsch and Flachsland, 2017; Kowarsch et al. 2017). When dealing with these issues, there is increasing acknowledgment that scientific knowledge alone is not sufficient (Bäckstrand, 2003; Jasanoff, 2004; Reed, 2008; Lang et al. 2012; Edenhofer and Kowarsch, 2015).

As a result, different forms of collaboration and deliberation—particularly on the regional and local level where ecological processes and human activities interact most intensely (Cundill, 2010)—are becoming more and more prominent to increase the effectiveness of outcomes in environmental governance and decision-making (Leach et al. 2014; Newig et al. 2017). The engagement of diverse actors in discussions on problem-framing and exploring potential solutions and alternative policy pathways has been a mainstay in environmental governance since the 1960s (Bulkeley and Mol, 2003) and participation has become even more important as environmental governance has shifted towards decentralized decision-making and sub-global responses (Lemos and Agrawal, 2006). Environmental governance is strengthened by the engagement of diverse perspectives because issues addressed are often characterized by (a) multi-dimensional and inequitable impacts, (b) scientific uncertainty, (c) conflicting interests and values, (d) urgency, and (e) mistrust in institutions (Stern, 2005).

As a crucial bridge between scientific expertise, policy, and society in environmental governance, deliberation platforms offer a particularly promising way to contribute legitimate and credible inputs to policy-making. They represent temporal collaborative settings—be it forums, workshops, roundtables, or other formats—that include the perspectives of a high diversity of actors, values, and worldviews to facilitate joint deliberation about policy issues (Engels, 2005; Edenhofer and Kowarsch, 2015). Deliberation platforms include, for example, the Panel for the Phase-Out of Coal (Agora Energiewende), the Transdisciplinary Panel on Energy Change (Institute for Advanced Sustainability Sciences), as well as discussions conducted as part of the BioStep project (Ecologic Institute). See Table 1 for more details.

Table 1 Information on the projects and interviewees

More specifically, deliberation platforms, as we have conceptualized them, represent facilitated venues for bridging disciplines and sectors which emphasize active discussion and exchange of arguments to explore alternative problem framings and solution spaces addressing environmental governance challenges. Deliberation platforms are highly participatory processes where diverse individuals exchange and integrate scientific and other knowledge. Participants invited to deliberate can include but are not limited to policy-makers working in government offices, individuals who can exert influence on political agendas or on policy debates, as well as those who are involved in decisions taken outside of policy circles but who nonetheless have a bearing on and a stake in the issue at hand.

In most settings, deliberation platforms are designed with a particular purpose in mind, giving them the characteristics of strategic interventions. This is true even though some are designed from a bottom-up perspective, taking inspiration from emergent processes (Newig et al. 2017; Scott and Thomas, 2017). Deliberation platforms can thus have multiple objectives for different actors. While deliberation as such is not always an explicit goal, it is actually facilitated by, and an essential empirical characteristic of, the processes in question.

Our notion of deliberation is a “debate [or] discussion aimed at producing reasonable, well-informed opinions in which participants are willing to revise preferences in light of discussion, new information and claims made by fellow participants” (Chambers, 2003, p. 309), emphasizing participant equity and an exchange of rational arguments crucial in fostering social learning (Koontz, 2014). Thus, there is an essential element of substantial epistemic progress and to some extent deep learning in the concept of deliberation, in contrast to debate, discussion or dialog which are, however, elements of a deliberation process. Moreover, the guiding question of a deliberation process is “what should we do (collectively)?” rather than “what do you want (as a particular group)?” (Neblo et al. 2017).

Despite the gainful heritage of deliberation research for public participation, most influentially shaped by notions of Jürgen Habermas (Habermas, 1981), critics have pointed to potential problems and shortcomings of deliberation processes, including: (a) insufficient appreciation for societal power asymmetries, leading to processes that potentially side-step conflict and de-politicize issues, (b) the inability for humans to think and act rationally, and (c) decreasing feasibility of such processes at larger scales (Mouffe, 2000; Kapoor, 2002; Dietz, 2013). In our understanding, however, the debate about these criticisms has also shown that deliberation processes—if well designed and under certain conditions—can be feasible, highly valuable, and perhaps even indispensable elements of democratic policy-making in modern societies.

Organizing participatory deliberation processes is, however, challenging in practice, since they require on-going deliberation between diverse actors willing and able to openly discuss their diverging values and interests (see, for example, van Asselt, 2000; Goodin, 2008; Miller et al. 2014; Edenhofer and Kowarsch, 2015; Garard and Kowarsch, 2017a; Neblo et al. 2017). The main research question addressed in this analysis is therefore: What are the elements most central to the successful organization of deliberation platforms from the perspective of experienced public engagers? Addressing this research question from the perspective of public engagers helps to improve understanding about these actors and the contexts in which they operate (see, e.g., Escobar, 2014). People that pull the “backstage” strings for the organization of such platforms can be seen as “public engagement practitioners” or “public engagers” (Escobar, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2017). They are described to act as “boundary spanners” (Williams, 2002), embedded in a local community, located in-between disconnected networks, doing considerable amount of political and relational work by performing many different roles required to motivate and organize participation (Escobar, 2017).

In order to analyse elements central to success, we must first establish an understanding of what is meant by success in this particular context. We refer to success here as an overarching goal common across the different platforms analysed: providing a platform for participants to share and learn about various perspectives related to policy-relevant sustainability issues in order to provide inputs to environmental governance processes. These inputs can be concrete, for example a policy brief or white paper directly targeting specific decision-makers, or more general, for example guidelines to encourage longer-term transformational change. This conceptualization can be differentiated from understanding success as meeting the specific objectives of a given process (though these more specific objectives contribute to this broader, overarching goal), or of measuring success based on the use of the outputs, for example to ultimately lead to better decisions, which go beyond the scope of this paper.

Deliberation platforms are important to study for three main reasons. Firstly, they provide a mechanism through which to respond to calls for new forms of knowledge production in light of highly complex sustainability issues (Gibbons et al. 1994; Nowotny, 2003; Jasanoff, 2004). Deliberation platforms also present opportunities for the meaningful inclusion of stakeholders in processes providing inputs to decision-making, which can improve both the effectiveness and legitimacy of decisions (Fiorino, 1990; Davidson, 1998; Beierle, 2002; Irvin and Stansbury, 2004; Renn and Schweizer, 2009). Finally, participatory processes such as deliberation platforms have a number of objectives which are in and of themselves valuable from a normative perspective (Garard and Kowarsch, 2017b). For example, deliberation platforms can strengthen communication and understanding of the hugely diverse perspectives on complex policy problems (Andonova, 2006; Reid et al. 2006; Reed, 2008; Engels, 2016), can increase the ownership felt by multiple actors over the processes and outcomes (Clark et al. 2006; Cooper et al. 2007; Cornwall, 2008), and can lead to social learning (Fabricius et al. 2006; Leemans, 2008; Reed, 2008; Gerlak et al. 2017).

While there are a number of case studies on the contexts, processes, and politics of individual multi-stakeholder platforms, this paper addresses a clear gap in the literature by identifying key conditions favorable to the success of deliberation platforms. Systematic evaluations of these types of platforms are urgently needed but incredibly complex, especially when trying to draw lessons learned across platforms, due in large part to the crucial importance of context and the difficulty in translating findings across different objectives, policy contexts, actor constellations and geographic scales (Blackstock et al. 2007; National Research Council, 2008; Luyet et al. 2012; Wesselink et al. 2011). Thus, this study does not attempt a full-fledged evaluation but rather adds to the debate by analyzing a wide range of deliberation platforms within the realm of environmental governance, while still exploring the findings in light of the context of each case.

While deliberation platforms can exist at many different scales and on any number of topics, we focus on national- or European-scale processes dealing with current issues in environmental governance. Following a description of analytical methods in the section 'Methods', we conduct a preliminary ranking of the most central elements in the section 'Results'. Given the diversity of both platforms and organizational elements, we specify in the Results how the central elements manifest in different contexts and approaches and how these elements interact with one another. Finally, in the section 'Discussion', we consider possible trade-offs and co-benefits between central elements with the goal of improving both our knowledge of these complex processes, as well as their practical organization in the future. We also discuss the potential of the central elements of deliberation platforms to create an environment to foster social learning, an aspect we find particularly promising for future studies.


The deliberation platforms selected for analysis in this study (see Table 1) address complex societal issues related to environmental governance and aim to exert influence on or provide inputs to policy-making. We focus on deliberation platforms where scientific actors play a significant role, given the importance of scientific input to environmental governance.

Expert interviews

Expert interviews with public engagers highly experienced in organizing and participating in deliberation platforms form the major source of information for this analysis. Interview questions were designed to provide both overarching thoughts, to be able to classify elements central to the organization of deliberation platforms at a general level, while also diving into details in order to improve our understanding of how different manifestations of these general elements are appropriate in various specific contexts. 16 semi-structured interviews were conducted with expert public engagers, between January and May, 2017. The research team selectively identified and interviewed highly experienced public engagers as a preliminary source of information about deliberation platforms because in part to acknowledge the fact that, often, public engagers learn about what works and what doesn’t through experience and through practice (Escobar, 2017). The first step in identifying interviewees was to look into a variety of relevant projects which fit our criteria but also represent a diversity of more specific approaches, i.e., platforms emphasizing deliberation between diverse participants including scientific experts (or projects with deliberation platforms as an integral component) on policy-relevant topics related to environmental governance occurring at a national or European scale. Then, 22 public engagers leading the organization of these platforms were contacted for interviews, 16 of whom responded. Information about the interviewees and the projects discussed can be found in Table 1. A team of two experienced interviewers subtly guided interviewees in order to elicit precisely what happened in past deliberation platforms, to determine what has worked best and why, and to explore what could be improved upon (and how) from their perspective. This was done while continually referring back to the official objectives for the process (see Table 1) and the broader goals of learning and providing inputs to environmental governance. All interviews were transcribed save for one, where extensive notes were taken instead of recording. All interviewees were shown the manuscript prior to submission. They were given the opportunity to verify the accuracy of the statements they had made during interviews (and the framing of these statements in the section 'Results') and also to ensure that the authors did not violate their rights and anonymity. All interviewees gave their consent.

Through careful design of expert interviews, this study adheres to the advice of Kirsty Blackstock and colleagues (Blackstock et al. 2007), who stress the importance of integrating purpose, context, and methods for evaluating learning processes. In this article, purpose refers to the aforementioned general understanding of 'success' of a particular deliberation platform (section 'Introduction'). Context is taken into account by specifying how different manifestations of these elements are appropriate in various contexts. Finally, methods are addressed directly by discussing specific design elements with interviewees, referring back to purpose and context in doing so.

Empirical analysis

We conducted a Qualitative Content Analysis (QCA) of the interview material in order to “systematically describe the meaning” of interview text (Schreier, 2012, p.3), allowing us to categorize elements central to organizing and conducting deliberation platforms. QCA was chosen as opposed to other methods because of its relevance to the research question. Narrative analysis, while useful in many contexts, was not applied here because the emphasis on narrative smoothing, recounting entire storylines in the analysis, and making disconnected elements more coherent was unnecessary to answer the research question. Since the goal of the research is to classify rather than create new theories or hypotheses, Grounded Theory was not an appropriate choice here. Thematic Analysis, while most closely ressembling QCA, does not provide opportunities to derive meaning from the frequency of different categories, an important feature to be able to rank the central elements.

Going beyond the selection of the appropriate analytical method, the choice was made to have the research team perform coding, as opposed to using topic modeling, which relies on computer programs to group words into themes. While topic modeling certainly enables the organization of the manifest context of the text (the surface meaning), the latent content (the meaning ‘between the lines’) is better analysed by a human. Having the research team perform coding was especially important in this case because interviewees did not always employ the same terminology to refer to similar elements or events, and some interviews conducted in German were translated into English before analysis, making the precise wording used by the interviewees themselves less certain. In order to verify the translations, two bilingual individuals reviewed each translated interview, and all quotations employed were checked by the interviewee to ensure that the interpretation of their meaning, both in translation and in coding, was correct.

Three rounds of coding were undertaken using Max QDA software. During the first round, any elements central to achieving success or which could be improved in order to overcome perceived challenges based on the perspective of interviewees were coded individually. As mentioned in the Introduction, elements of success in a deliberation platform are conceptualized as those most central to fostering sharing and learning about various perspectives amongst participants. Then, in two further iterative rounds of coding, all elements were categorized based on the types of interaction or intervention referenced by interviewees.

The Code Relations Browser was employed in order to determine the number of times two elements were mentioned together in the same coded text segment. Following this, the most central elements were identified based on the number of interviewees who mentioned each element overall, the number of other elements connected to each element, and the percentage of total connections involving each particular element. This measure of centrality allowed us to focus on the top five elements most central to the organization and operation of deliberation platforms and then to explore in more depth in which contexts different manifestations have been successful.

Results: Central elements in deliberation platforms

This paper takes a broad view of deliberation platforms, striving to find commonalities between different processes in an effort to strengthen understanding of how public engagers operate across a diversity of processes as a preliminary study into these platforms. Concurrently, this paper also strives to specify how elements of success manifest in various specific contexts. This is done by relating the general to the specific, synthesizing knowledge from experience while ensuring that the context is still communicated. Thus, while the Results below are not a direct fit for all contexts, they nonetheless provide insights relevant and interesting to a broad variety of contexts.

The elements identified in the QCA were ranked based on their centrality in the organization of deliberation platforms from the perspective of public engagers. The initial set of 44 elements (see Supplementary Material) was narrowed down to the five general elements most central to the organization and operation of deliberation platforms. These elements are: participants, openness, facilitation, communication, and dialog.


The question of who exactly participates was found to be the most central element in the organization of a deliberation platform. Many interviewees discussed the importance of participant diversity, inter alia referring to gender diversity, participants from different geographic locations or age groups, diversity in academic background and disciplinary focus, a balance of interest groups, and the inclusion of diverse knowledge systems, which can be seen as both an objective and a consequence of processes such as deliberation platforms. One interviewee stated that “no matter what the setting is, a very important first step is achieving a diversity of perspectives or viewpoints.” Another described, based on their experience with a large number of processes, a general need to determine early on “what is the appropriate territorial scale, geographic scale, what is the range of disciplines that have to be involved, and do you integrate local knowledge, expert knowledge, practitioner knowledge, scientific knowledge, do you factor in value-based decision-making and the instincts that politicians bring in.”

While many interviewees described diversity in positive terms, others cautioned that in some contexts, seeking the highest possible diversity in participant viewpoints, perspectives, positions, and opinions was not always the best plan. For example, one interviewee explained that “controversial debates would be better for smaller, less high-level workshops instead of having fierce discussions where the Minister is present.” Another described the risk that “you end up with a verbal battle between the different actors and you make no progress content-wise.”

Another issue is the significance of considering which particular individuals represent relevant organizations in deliberation platforms. One interviewee explained how “an institution that I regard as relevant can send different people that can have very different impacts on the process.” Another interviewee gave a hypothetical example to highlight this issue: “you can have highly intelligent introverts that excel at quantitative methods […] But they are exactly not the right people to put into transdisciplinary research when you actually want to get the benefits of mobilizing tacit knowledge, practical knowledge, or local or indigenous knowledge.”

A major challenge discussed in the interviews with regards to engaging the right participants in deliberation platforms is how to incentivize participation. For example, one interviewee described the need to “publish an agenda that makes sense and that makes people willing to join your workshop” and to invest in “preparation of the workshop, to scope the issues that are relevant for the participants.” In an unrecorded interview, one individual argued that selecting an interesting and relevant group of stakeholders can itself be an incentive for participation by providing clear opportunities to network and forge alliances.

Another challenge is “the question of inclusion, of reaching the stakeholders or interest groups which are not really able to represent their interests [such as] socially underprivileged groups, disadvantaged people who do not have economic resources or networks.” On the other hand, one interviewee pointed out that, with regards to highly technical topics, “if you belong to a marginalized group, you almost cannot be involved in [certain technical] discussions because it takes so many resources to follow them because they are so complex by definition.”

Participant selection is a critical element to consider for public engagers at the very earliest stages of planning. Broadly, reflecting on who represents organizations and incentivizing continued engagement are very important concerns. Other considerations, for example diversity of perspectives and including marginalized groups, are more context-specific.


Ensuring that both public engagers and participants come into a deliberation platform with an attitude of openness was the second most central element in organizing a deliberation platform. As one interviewee stated, “attitude comes before method,” referring to openness as necessary for learning and taking seriously the perspectives of others.

Many interviewees described openness as a crucial consideration to keep in mind when convening such a platform in terms of remaining flexible and open to understanding different viewpoints. One interviewee explained that public engagers should “have some kind of story or message in mind even before you start doing this, but then be open to revising it.” Multiple interviewees employed the term “auf gleicher Augenhöhe” or “at eye level” to describe their ideal for the way in which stakeholders should achieve balance and equity in their interactions with one another in deliberation platforms. Interviewees clarified that this expression refers to the need to rectify power imbalances and take seriously the perspectives of others even if you don’t necessarily agree with them. One interviewee illustrated the importance of room setting, for example configuring seating to avoid anyone physically occupying a center stage. Another emphasized that “prioritizing the respect and the empathy with stakeholders is absolutely key,” stressing the importance of “treating them as equal partners.” Another interviewee described that openness was especially important when fostering trust between scientific experts and lay people, noting that “the more trust the participants have the more open-minded they are.” Similarly, yet another interviewee explained the importance that scientists “see that the implicit and practical knowledge brought in by the diverse actors at least has the same value as your academic reflections.”

There were differing opinions regarding the extent to which openneess is an ingrained personality trait or characteristic which isn’t easily changed. On the one hand, one interviewee explained that “if you have ten people and nobody is willing to talk openly then it is quite hard.” On the other hand, openness may be something which public engagers can foster. One interviewee described how “we had to develop a lot of methods ad-hoc” in response to the level of openness demonstrated by participants. Another explained that using the Salon MethodFootnote 1 enabled participants “to loosen up in a nice environment, which also has a positive effect on their mood to deal with each other.” This particular method is explicitly intended to bring out a feeling of openness and is thus well-suited to convening participants regardless of their predisposition to this trait.

All interviewees agreed that openness in public engagers is crucial for success in deliberation platforms. There was disagreement regarding whether openness in participants was an ingrained characteristic (and thus an issue of participant selection), or whether certain methods could foster openness.


Facilitation, the third most central element in deliberation platforms according to our analysis, was brought up often during interviews but was specified in a variety of ways appropriate to different contexts.

The issue which came up most often during interviews was whether facilitation should be neutral. One interviewee explained that “a very important role of a facilitator is not to judge any content.” Another stated that “as a facilitator, I am obliged to never comment on statements of participants in terms of making a judgment and I try to hold back my own personality and opinion.” On the other hand, speaking about a bottom-up process, one interviewee stated that “it would make it all quite artificial building up trust with people if you would only work with neutral facilitators because it makes it clear that there is a distance.” Another interviewee also described how it would be nearly impossible for a facilitator to be completely neutral, arguing that they should instead aim to be “relatively independent.”

Many interviewees felt it was beneficial to have facilitation carried out by individuals with in-depth understanding of the discussions, in particular when they focused on more technical or complex aspects. For example, one interviewee stressed that facilitators “should be knowledgeable about the topic” in order to avoid having someone “who doesn’t understand the topic and starts making random comments,” which could risk throwing the discussion off course. Another interviewee agreed that in some contexts “it actually helps to have people who have the expertise in the topic and who will know the stakeholders.” Yet another interviewee stated that facilitators should at least “to a certain extent have knowledge about the topic.”

Many other ideas regarding the role of facilitators were described during interviews. Acting as guides, facilitators could, for example, “build trust, pick up a lot of different positions or perspectives, [and] clearly point out what the objective is that accompanies the process.” Another interviewee described how it was important for facilitators “to manage that people open up and lose their rigid positions.” Facilitators can also act as agents of compromise; one interviewee explained how “the facilitator in this process needs to take care of the groups that have an interest in the way forward and needs to make them offers, or at least partly create these offers together with them.” Another important role of the facilitator is coordinating inputs. For example, one interviewee explained that “simply briefing the [external] speaker is very important” to avoid a situation where “speakers give their talks and lose the participants.” A final issue concerns splitting up the faciliator role. One interviewee described how it may be beneficial “to divide roles over the project team or to work with external support for example hire a professional facilitator,” explaining that “you have a deficit when you wear too many different hats.” Another interviewee stated that “it is best if you have two facilitators,” where “one is responsible for the content and intellectual part […] and then the other person watches the whole process, for example the atmosphere in the room.”

As already suggested by others (Mostert et al. 2007; Muro and Jeffrey, 2008; Reed, 2008), facilitation plays a crucial role in the practical organization of deliberative processes. However, decisions regarding the type of facilitation, for example neutral, knowledgeable, or even multiple facilitators, depends strongly on the platform context.


The most common way in which the issue of communication, the fourth most central general element, was brought up during interviews was with reference to transparency. This nearly always involved communication between participants and organizers. One interviewee described transparency throughout the process “from the perspective of a participant–when I know why I am invited, what the expectation is and what I should provide as a participant, and also a transparency about the final outcome.” Another explained the importance of “above all clarifying the question and topic […] if it is not clear to everyone what this is all about, the whole process will be a mess.” A third interviewee stressed the importance of all actors being aware of “why certain stakeholders are involved or why certain stakeholders are not involved.” A fourth stated that public engagers “have to make clear to the participants on what concerns they would have an influence, on what is still open.”

Public engagers can also be transparent with regards to their own perspective. For example, one interviewee described how, when organizing a platform, “the most important part is transparent communication and honesty about the problems that we do not have an answer to yet.” Another interviewee described how it was made “very clear from the beginning […] that this is a proposal and it is a deliberate policy advocacy exercise by us, but that we are open to whether there are any arguments around that would cause us to revise the proposal.” Another interviewee explained their view that “of course we [public engagers] have a direction. And we also make this position transparent. I find this very important, that our own objectives are not implicit.”

Another point was the need to make information not only transparent but accessible to participants. For example, one interviewee explained how it is important to “consider that participants who are not familiar with the jargon might have a problem communicating on an expert level” and also spoke about “language barriers.” Another explained that “in case participants use quite formal scientific language, it can be useful to use pictures and graphs to make the discussion more understandable and encourage participants to discuss.” A third interviewee stressed the importance of producing a variety of products, for example “different brochures in six European languages and an exhibition aimed at the general public” among many other communication tools.

Communication is also crucial for managing expectations and mediating conflict. One interviewee described the importance of making sure that participants “understand why such processes take so long. […] You need a lot of mediation and strong communication.” Another explained that maintaining communication throughout a process “requires a lot of effort due to the number of people involved.” One strategy to avoid conflict could be to think about means to “engage differently” with participants harboring more extreme perspectives, with the interviewee clarifying that “this doesn’t mean we ignore the other side completely.”

Some interviewees also spoke about different means to foster communication. One suggestion was to have “a focal point, one person that accompanies the process content-wise”, as well as “one person who takes care of administration and organization.” One interviewee described “dividing the organizations participating […] so that every organizer had five to six organizations for which he or she was responsible. That meant that we were able to build up a good relationship across the years.”

Increasing transparency is a major goal of communication in deliberation platforms. In addition, communication strategies should aim to manage expectations and conflict, clarify objectives and key terms, and ensure that information is accessible and that outputs are appropriate for target audiences.


The final of the five elements most central to the organization of deliberation platforms from this analysis is the importance of fostering dialog between participants. Regarding means to structure dialog, one suggestion was to have “a format and structure that facilitates the visibility of different perspectives and a real dialog.” This interviewee recommended the Salon Method1, where “a dialog walk takes place in a park or garden, there are record stations distributed along the way and the results are immediately captured.” Another interviewee also had success employing the Salon Method, explaining that “I think you can deliberate well while walking, especially when it is about generating new thoughts or ideas.” Another suggestion is to employ Chatham House Rules, allowing participants to feel free to express their opinions openly in the group and be secure that any information communicated beyond the group will be completely anonymized. A third means to foster dialog is to combine small and large group discussions, for example through break-out or focus groups. According to one interviewee this helps to ensure “that every participant has the time to speak.” Another interviewee also advocated for this combination approach, where you “alternate plenary sessions to get everybody participating together with small group sessions where five to seven people have the possibility to discuss something in depth.”

Many interviewees suggested having recurring interactions in order to build up trust and foster more meaningful dialog. One interviewee explained that “especially in a field like energy transition, climate mitigation or adaptation, politics change so quickly and so enormously and when you only talk to each other once a year, you stay behind in your exchange.” Another interviewee, speaking about a bottom-up project, described holding “a monthly ‘Stammtisch’ meeting with interested actors in a pub, where there is the possibility to exchange with each other about the project and other issues that are relevant for them.”

Fostering dialog is closely connected to facilitation. One interviewee explained the importance that facilitators “stimulate the discussion because you want the participants to motivate each other to think beyond their horizons and perhaps that they adjust their perspectives as a result of the dialog.” Another interviewee explained that a facilitator should ensure “that they [participants] truly listen, not just say their opinion.” Faciliators can also ensure there is equality between participants, an important precursor to fostering open dialog. One suggestion is to use “a talking stick, a pointer, or something in your hand that helps to let people finish speaking when you’re in a process of reflection. […] It is all about listening to the other person speaking instead of thinking about my answer already.”

There are numerous methods for fostering dialog, as well as a wide variety of possible outcomes. In general, however, there was near-unanimous support for the importance of stimulating in-depth dialog between actors in a deliberation platform, and of having recurring interactions to build trust and strengthen dialog over time.


This Section will focus on three main points. Firstly, we will summarize lessons regarding central elements at the general and specific levels based on the Results. Secondly, we discuss the implications of some of the numerous potential trade-offs and co-benefits associated with elements we have identified as being central to the organization and operation of deliberation platforms. Lastly, we present a preliminary overview of the many ways in which deliberation platforms can contribute to social learning processes.

Lessons for and from public engagers

Lessons learned from this analysis are on two levels: the general and the context-specific. As a general lesson learned, for example, public engagers should avoid gravitating towards individuals they are familiar with to represent different groups or organizations in deliberation platforms, and should instead invest in identifying change agents within those groups—individuals who are relatively open, and are able to scale up learning in the platform to their own groups. Such considerations, and figuring out how to incentivize the participation of change agents, should be done early in the planning stages of a deliberation platform.

Trust also emerged as a general, central, cross-cutting point. While some organizational elements can foster trust, including openness on the part of both public engagers and participants, appropriate facilitation, and transparent communication, others are the product of a trusting environment, in particular dialog. Being transparent as a public engager organizing a deliberation platform refers not only to choices made regarding the platform itself, but also includes their own existing knowledge, personal perspectives on the topic, and potential biases, which are important not to hide from participants. Structuring the process so that meetings are recurring was another lesson on the general level, which applied to less formal platforms as much as it did to more strictly organized ones, since it contributed to building trust amongst participants over time. Fostering trust can help to counter critiques of deliberative processes, such as those highlighted in the section 'Introduction' (Mouffe, 2000; Kapoor, 2002; Dietz, 2013).

Regarding more context-specific take-aways, one difference emerged between longer-term, better funded platforms and shorter-term, lower funded platforms. Longer-term platforms may have more flexibility to adapt processes and procedures to suit how open participants are to each others’ perspectives. It is therefore perhaps more important in shorter-term or less flexible processes to select participants who are open, since opportunities for opening up mindsets may be more limited. Better funding also means that options such as engaging multiple facilitators, or splitting communication up amongst multiple contact points, are feasible solutions.

The question of facilitation is another interesting one. While many public engagers were in favor of neutral facilitation, the two who most explicitly questioned the extent to which facilitators could actually be neutral were involved in the most transformative, co-designed projects. Thus, it is possible that the threat of false neutrality is more significant in bottom-up deliberation platforms with the goal of eliciting transformative societal change.

Lastly, the context-specific topics of deliberation platforms can also have a bearing on participant selection. In particular, our results show that platforms with highly technical topics may not be able to engage with marginalized groups without also engaging in capacity-building. Furthermore, highly contentious topics may require additional resources in order to engage actors with more extreme or entrenched positions in different ways, without excluding them but avoiding direct confrontations which could exacerbate divides. However, even in less technical or contentious deliberation platforms, it is crucial to acknowledge and try to rectify power imbalances between participants so that all can engage “at eye level.”

Trade-offs and co-benefits

The potential for trade-offs and co-benefits has often been explored with regards to many solution-oriented, policy-relevant topics at the science-policy interface where stakeholders are often engaged (McShane et al. 2011; Singh et al. 2012; Visseren-Hamakers et al. 2012; Onaindia et al. 2013; Valin et al. 2013; Bustamante et al. 2014; Stechow et al. 2016). However, they have yet to be explored in great depth regarding the processes through which stakeholders are engaged on these topics (Garard and Kowarsch, 2017a). A rather obvious interaction between the central elements in the organization of deliberation platforms is the trade-off concerning resources. In some cases, additional resources could help to alleviate some of the challenges faced in realizing central elements, for example, as suggested by interviewees, employing multiple facilitators to split the role into more manageable parts, having contact persons for specific issues to improve communication with participants, or holding multiple workshops or meetings over a longer period of time to build trust and strengthen dialog. However, especially in cases where funding for a deliberation platform is fixed (which is most of the time), simply throwing more money or human resources at an issue is not feasible.

One of the trade-offs highlighted in the results is the issue of prioritizing diversity in different perspectives, but perhaps inadvertently creating a situation where open dialog becomes challenging. This is particularly significant in cases where the topic addressed through a deliberation platform is highly controversial. In such cases, it is important for organizers of deliberation platforms to consider which constellations of actors will contribute to a productive discussion (Goodin and Niemeyer, 2003; Reed et al. 2009). It is important not to ignore the other perspectives, but rather to think about alternative ways of bringing them into the debate without causing so-called verbal battles or increasing polarization. In such cases, mediation techniques and expert facilitation can be very valuable.

Potential co-benefits of employing an experienced facilitator include, for instance, better communication and improved (and more open) dialog between participants even when there are strongly diverging viewpoints. Thus, co-benefits could help to address the trade-off concerning diversity of perspectives. In cases where organizers prefer to limit the diversity of actors discussing together at one time, strengthening communication between organizers and participants regarding which actors are present and why would still improve transparency, and could also provide incentives to participants to maintain their involvement in a process.

Another trade-off which came to light is between having a neutral facilitator who is nonetheless very knowledgeable about the subject matter and ensuring openness on the part of the organizer. Often, when someone is professionally engaged in debates and has enough understanding to be a knowledgeable facilitator, they will have already formulated their own judgment on these debates. Thus, as one interviewee explained, it would be somewhat artificial to act as a neutral facilitator and could potentially raise questions regarding how open organizers truly are about their own position and stakes. In a worst-case scenario, this could be used as an argument by certain actors to discredit others who hold an opposing perspective which they feel, rightly or not, was strengthened by the support of a supposedly neutral facilitator with the same perspective. This scenario could also entail a slew of other unwanted consequences, for example further polarizing different groups.

Strengthening communication and in particular transparency with regards to potential biases and perspectives held by organizers or facilitators could potentially help to mitigate this trade-off. This could be done by ensuring that the opinion or judgment of the facilitator is transparent from the outset, and then clearly communicating the protocol for neutral facilitation and where the boundaries of neutrality will be. Going a step further could involve opening up a dialog explicitly about the particular perspectives held by organizers and facilitators, as well as discussing the influence other stakeholders perceive these perspectives to have had on the process as a whole, and integrating this with an evaluation plan for the entire process.

While we have highlighted but a few trade-offs and co-benefits based on the results in section 'Results', there are innumerable others when all of the 44 elements important to consider in the organization of deliberation platforms found in this analysis (Supplementary Material) are taken into account.

How the five central elements help foster social learning

Participatory processes such as deliberation platforms can, under certain conditions, result in social learning (see, among others, Webler et al. 1995; Pahl-Wostl and Hare, 2004; Keen et al. 2005; Ison et al. 2007; Pahl-Wostl et al. 2007; Wals, 2009; Armitage et al. 2011). Social learning in deliberation platforms, as we have described them, involves individual participants exchanging diverse perspectives and positions, while also listening to other participants and engaging in active deliberation on the experiences, values, and worldviews underlying their perspectives. Many issues currently confronted through environmental governance processes are so complex and disputed, and uncertainty is often so high, that the best policy solution is not obvious in most cases. Thus, a social learning process about alternative problem framings and solution options based on rational argumentation is not only possible, but is absolutely necessary.

Social learning has been applied to a diversity of contexts and scholarly fields, and defined in many different ways (Gerlak et al. 2017). One notable shift towards a clearer conceptualization of social learning was presented by Mark Reed and colleagues (Reed et al. 2010), who distilled three major themes from social learning literature, in terms of three general features characterizing a social learning process: (1) a change in understanding at the individual level, (2) situating the new understanding within wider social units and contexts, and (3) doing so through social interactions as the primary mechanism for learning. Using these three features as guidance, we now briefly discuss how the five central elements identified in the section 'Results' may foster social learning.

Firstly, the change of understanding at an individual level can be fostered by a number of the central elements identified in our analysis. The results in the section 'Participants' demonstrate that the selection of participants should be sufficiently diverse in order to bring different perspectives and rational arguments to the table which can enable changes in understanding, specifying previous findings that inclusiveness and representation of various interests is a key consideration for participation in environmental governance (Rowe and Frewer, 2000; Muro and Jeffrey, 2008; Renn and Schweizer, 2009). Openness in participants is also a prerequisite for changes in understanding; our findings demonstrate that participants with a set, inflexible opinion are less likely to be persuaded even by sound arguments. Our results also show that openness in both participants and public engagers themselves is conducive to building a sense of trust and equality which, according to previous studies, can further strengthen social learning (Muro and Jeffrey, 2008; Newig et al. 2010; Koontz, 2014). Interviewees stressed that clearly structured dialog, in terms of ensuring that arguments are presented in a comprehensible manner and participants actively listen to one another, is important for changes in understanding as well, echoing findings in studies of other participatory mechanisms in environmental governance (Pahl-Wostl and Hare, 2004; Muro and Jeffrey, 2008; Renn and Schweizer, 2009; Newig et al. 2017). Finally, a co-benefit of facilitation is improving dialog, especially ensuring that participants have equal opportunities to speak and discuss, as described in the section 'Participants' above (see also Muro and Jeffrey, 2008).

Secondly, for social learning to occur, changes in understanding must go “beyond individuals or small groups to become situated within wider social units or communities of practice,” (Reed et al. 2010; based on Wenger, 1998). Again, participant selection is of the utmost importance, aligning with the findings presented in the section 'Participants'. Strategically identifying individuals with the capacity to exert influence and spread new understanding beyond the individual level to the larger group they represent is highly beneficial in terms of fostering this second feature of social learning, going beyond what has been stated in previous studies. This also relates to openness; our findings and others show that individuals who themselves are open to changes in understanding are more likely to communicate these changes to their communities outside of a deliberation platform (see also Pahl-Wostl, 2009). Finally, facilitation can help to guide deliberations in a way which focuses on topics of highest relevance and interest for the groups and organizations who are represented, making it more likely that individual learning will be taken up by the group.

Lastly, social learning features social interaction as the particular mode through which social learning must take place. Most obviously, social interaction is the main value-added of convening a deliberation platform as opposed to less costly meetings with smaller or more homogeneous groups, and convening deliberation platforms by default provides a social space in which learning can occur. Face-to-face dialog is a particularly crucial ingredient to foster learning through the social interaction which takes place in a deliberation platform. Our findings demonstrate a variety of ways in which public engagers must strategically plan for dialog when organizing deliberation platforms, including alternating large and small group dialog for example. Opportunities for interaction which go beyond a consultation have also been identified as a significant factor in fostering social learning in many other environmental governance contexts (Pahl-Wostl and Hare, 2004; Muro and Jeffrey, 2008; Renn and Schweizer, 2009; Gerlak and Heikkila, 2011; Luyet et al. 2012; Newig et al. 2017). Furthermore, our findings demonstrate that facilitation is central in developing equality and forging trust amongst participants, creating conditions favorable to positive social interactions. The selection of participants is also connected to this third feature. Our findings point towards the importance of ensuring that the participants selected are able to at least agree on some basic epistemological points, which can help to shape social interactions in a deliberation platform in a manner that encourages social learning. This echoes the findings in other environmental governance contexts that at least a minimum of convergence and alignment of viewpoints is crucial to generate common understandings and foster social learning (Webler et al. 1995; Muro and Jeffrey, 2008; Renn and Schweizer, 2009).

While not all of the central elements are directly connected to the three features of social learning, they are nonetheless central to ensuring the process as a whole functions smoothly. This is in and of itself a precursor to fostering social learning through deliberation platforms. A clear example here is communication, which is a necessity for a successful deliberation platform, but which doesn’t necessarily fit directly within the themes identified in the social learning literature discussed above.


A better understanding of deliberation platforms is of crucial importance, not least because so many resources are invested into highly promising participation in deliberation platforms. There is a risk in convening deliberation platforms that, if insufficient emphasis is placed on design and evaluation, participants and organizers alike may come away feeling the process was not successful, potentially even worsening the polarization between diverging viewpoints. At a broader scale, as Chantal Mouffe and others have shown, means for deliberation risk paying insufficient attention to power asymmetries, labor under the (incorrect) assumptions that humans always think and act rationally, and are incredibly difficult to organize at larger scales (Mouffe, 2000; Kapoor, 2002; Dietz, 2013). Thus, investing more into understanding these costly but promising activities and ensuring in particular that we can learn from experience and improve processes over time is of the utmost importance.

This paper has contributed to the literature in a number of ways. Firstly, by synthesizing organizational knowledge across multiple deliberation platforms, we provide a strong foundation for further studies and advance the scholarly understanding of these complex but under-studied processes at the macro scale. Secondly, by highlighting the specific manifestations of general organizational elements, this paper adheres to the guidance of Kirsty Blackstock and many others regarding the importance of taking context into account while also deepening the knowledge on organizational elements to facilitate an exploration of potential trade-offs and co-benefits between them. Linking the general to the specific is another important step towards creating a more comprehensive knowledge base regarding deliberation platforms. Thirdly, by conducting the analysis from the perspective of the experienced public engagers themselves, this paper advances knowledge about public engagers and the contexts in which they operate. Furthermore, our results complement previous studies regarding organizational elements which can foster social learning, for example regarding facilitation and transparent communication.

This study also provides crucial inputs to public engagers in practice. Knowledge about not only the general elements which lead to success but also the different manifestations appropriate (or not) in various contexts is useful when organizing deliberation platforms and designing deliberative processes. Understanding the potential for trade-offs and co-benefits between certain elements (in the section 'Lessons for and from public engagers') is particularly practical when considering resource constraints and alternative design options. This study can help to justify from a normative perspective the emphasis on certain organizational elements based on the connection to certain objectives or desired outcomes such as social learning. By contextualizing our findings, practitioners can access knowledge from a variety of activities but still base their final design on their own particular context.

While five general elements were analysed in depth in this study, there are many more aspects of the organization of deliberation platforms which bear investigation. Exploring more of the elements, and in particular examining elements related to evaluation—a highly challenging aspect of deliberation platforms—in follow-up studies would be a fruitful area of future research. Further studies would also be necessary to confirm the ranking of central elements determined in this exploratory study, as well as to empirically connect the goals and outcomes of deliberation platforms to social learning theory. Particularly interesting would be an ethnographic case study analysis of select platforms, with researchers observing from the very outset in order to dive more deeply into the goals, organizational elements, and then following through to analyse the outcomes.

Better understanding the relationship between precise elements of deliberation platforms and different types of learning is a first step towards better understanding how more precisely to foster and encourage transformation, the ultimate goal of many of the platforms analysed here. Deliberation platforms can be a means through which to promote and improve transdisciplinarity at the science-policy-society interface (see, for example, Jahn, 2008). According to some, certain major assumptions or promises of participatory processes, for example building capacity, learning, creating new knowledge, and making different voices heard, may actually be impossible to fully realize without a significant shift in research cultures towards a more inclusive and equal treatment of stakeholders participating in research (Felt et al. 2012; Klenk et al. 2015). This study provides an important step on the road towards better understanding deliberation platforms broadly, from the perspective of public engagers, but more work must be done in order to truly advance our knowledge of these processes, within the academic realm but also, crucially, in order to improve their use in addressing urgent challenges confronting environmental governance.

Data availability

While interviewees have given their consent to share their names and the projects discussed as part of this article, the full transcripts of the interviews remain confidential. The datasets generated and analysed during the current study are thus not publicly available in order to protect interviewees. However, segments of transcripts can be made available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.