Last year I participated in a community consultation about increasing the water supply in south east Queensland. It was a very satisfying experience because of the process and skills of the consultants. This year I was invited to participate in a different kind of process. The Catholic Church has instituted a process for decision-making called a Plenary Council.
There were 80 randomly selected participants from urban and rural areas in the water supply consultation; many nationalities; varying ages and lifestyles. There were two consultants from a Sydney-based firm, and three engineers who were available to answer any questions of a technical nature that we might pose. This was one of many similar consultations.
In brief, we were assigned randomly to one of ten groups, asked to nominate various ways of increasing water supply, and then as a group to arrange our choices into priority order — all using the laptop computers and common display screens provided. Following a break, all groups then interrogated the various ratings and reasons and, as a group of 80, finally negotiated a set of shared priorities. These priorities would go direct to the Queensland Government.
Some of the strengths of this process are: sound use of randomness as a method of selection; total engagement of participants from start to finish; clear outcomes and strategies for achieving them; final decisions taken by participants; complete transparency regarding content and processes; use of participant experiences; emotional and intellectual aspects attended to equally.
This year I was invited to participate in a different kind of process. The Catholic Church has instituted a process for decision-making called a Plenary Council. The first phase is described as Listening. In this phase, participants (anyone who wishes to participate) are invited to answer a single question. All answers are to be treated equally and with respect; it is not a time for debate, but simply to speak your mind and to listen to others.
However, one of the three consultants (all from within the Catholic Church) has already raised the alarm about how even this simple process has gone astray in some places. He speaks of acrimonious arguments occurring; about different questions being addressed; the process becoming adversarial. He believes these undesirable traits emerge when groups are not adequately grounded in some prayerful or spiritual approach. He is probably correct.
In addition, I have heard of instances where the guiding question has been interpreted quite differently with the result that groups are not answering the same question and hence the resultant data are not reliably comparable. Further, there have been cases where people have been appointed to collect the data from the group and write a “report” to send to the consultant. This introduces another possible filter and raises the question as to whether the group ever endorsed the “report”. Issues of transparency that were obviated in the first process about the water supply, loom large here. Multiply these experiences by hundreds of groups, and the problems are exacerbated.
Finally, once all the data from these listening sessions are made available in whatever forms they are in, someone or some group has to make sense of all the data. This group, or at least many members of it, may never have attended a small group discussion (or perhaps attended only one session). Such people will be at a disadvantage when they come to make sense of the data, or try to interpret differently expressed views. Assuming that the interpreting group achieve its aims, the data in some summary form will then be sent to the Australian Catholic bishops and a few clerics to turn into decisions of some kind. This final group, the decision-makers, are the furthest-removed from the original data. Recall that the Government in the water supply example had unfiltered access to the original data from the groups. The Catholic Bishops, on the other hand, have been well and truly separated from the original data by various processes, designed to interpret and organize the data for them. One wonders what the Bishops will make of the material they receive in 4-5 years time.
Compare the two processes. The former is robust, transparent and requires the Government to confront original, unfiltered data/decisions. The latter is fragile, open to many influencing forces whose identities are unknown, and requires that the final decisions be made by people who have never seen the the data of the initial discussions.
If you apply what Australians call “the pub test”, then it would seem that the process of the Plenary Council wouldn’t receive a pass grade.
This is a pity, as the question for the Catholic Church is equally as important as is the question about water supply for the driest continent on earth. But the process appears immutable and not subject to question.
Eric Hodgens observed recently in these columns, that there is a growing number of religious elephants in the room!
Garry Everett is a member of the Catholic Church and has worked in organizational change. He is interested among other things, in the future structures and processes of the Catholic Church, local and global.