The Method

The Community Voice Method is different from conventional public participation: to start with, it takes longer and requires a lot more work on the part of organizers. Why is this extra effort worthwhile? Because, in our experience, the results are 1) more inclusive public engagement and 2) a more accurate understanding of local issues and views.

CVM is an “iterative” approach to public participation and participatory research: successive opportunities for participation are followed by successive rounds of data analysis. The steps of the process are as follows:

Phase One: Participatory discourse analysis

a. Designing the project. A project team, including local partners as well as researchers, is formed to determine project goals, procedures, and stakeholder sampling design.

conducting an interview, South Caicosb. Stakeholder interviews. In-depth recorded interviews are conducted with a variety of stakeholders, with the goal of documenting the array of local discourses on the issues under consideration. Purposive sampling criteria are developed to ensure that the interviewee sample reflects the diversity of the local population, as measured through demographic traits. Within the constraints of this purposive sampling framework, individual interviewees are identified through snowball sampling, i.e. peer referral: stakeholders, starting with project partners, recommended other individuals whose perspectives on land use they considered particularly valuable, representative, and/or well-articulated. Interviewees then recommended other interviewees, who recommend others, and so on, thus enabling the project team to reach stakeholders across multiple degrees of social separation. Each interview is semi-structured (Bernard 2002): an interview guide is followed but not rigidly, allowing freedom to explore topics in more depth.

c. Interview analysis. Using qualitative analysis software, the interviews are coded: interviewees’ statements are categorized by topic and perspective. By examining the topics/perspectives that emerged across multiple interviews, we can then assess the range, distribution and relative weight of different discourses.

d. Documentary production. Drawing on the foregoing analysis, we produce a documentary film from the recorded interview footage. The purpose of the film is to present our findings about stakeholder discourses entirely through the words of the interviewed stakeholders. From each concourse of statements representing a given perspective on an important topic, we choose exemplars, interview excerpts that communicated that perspective particularly effectively (Brown 1980). In the film, these exemplar statements are sequenced to form narratives that articulate shared perspectives. We structure the film through these “multivocal narratives,” (McDowell 1996), rather than the voice of an external narrator.

e. Production of topical information graphics. In order to provide stakeholders with relevant, accessible background information about the issues under discussion, we produce discursively-grounded graphical presentations of quantitative data. To do this, we draw upon the discourse analysis to identify salient local perspectives and concerns. Then we conduct targeted analyses of geospatial and demographic data, producing maps, landscape visualizations, and other infographics that directly address those local concerns.

f. Focus group feedback on presentation. We pre-test the presentation—including the film and infographics—through focus groups made up of local stakeholders. We are thus able to test the accuracy and credibility of our analysis, as well as the accessibility and relevance of the presentation. The presentation is revised based on feedback from focus group participants.

Phase Two: Public deliberation

Only after the conclusion of Phase One, with its multiple iterations of stakeholder input and analysis, do we initiate formal, deliberative public participation (Phase 2). This takes the form of public meetings, which are held at multiple times and locations in order to maximize accessibility.
A typical CVM meeting proceeds as follows:

  1. snacks and informal conversation as participants arrive
  2. welcome by a local resident
  3. infographic presentation
  4. documentary film presentation
  5. facilitated small group discussions: participants respond to the presentation and articulate their own recommendations for addressing the issues being considered
  6. small groups report back to full group
  7. facilitated full group discussion, led by researchers: identifying intersecting recommendations, ways forward, obstacles to overcome
  8. evaluation/wrap up.

Phase Three: Reintegration into civic discourses

Following the public meetings, the project team synthesizes the ideas generated through the deliberations into a final report, which is disseminated to participants, the media, and policymakers. The documentary film and the infographic presentation is also made available digitally to project partners and other interested parties.

These formal procedures are only one of many ways in which the outcomes of the deliberative process are reintegrated into the civic life of the community, however. During this third phase, local partners and participants use the results/findings of the project to inform and energize local initiatives aimed at building collective resource management capacity. These take different forms in different communities, but may include planning charrettes, policy development, or grassroots coalition-building.

Reflexive evaluation, which has occurred repeatedly over the course of the project due to its iterative participatory research design, continues in Phase Three. Through follow-up interviews and conversations with project partners, as well as media coverage, we assess the success of the project and tracked its ongoing effects. Not merely retrospective, this evaluative process isdesigned to inform subsequent local initiatives.