One of the tasks for those of us who run public consultation processes is to distil the key points into a summary that captures the essence of what people have said in a few pithy paragraphs. These are sometimes then turned into bullet points that can fit neatly onto PowerPoint slides to accompany a presentation.
This is all standard practice and of course it is a regular part of what we do for our clients. I do sometimes think, however, that all summaries - not just of consultation reports, but summaries in general - need to come with health warnings. We need to remember, as the great architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is quoted as saying, that "God is in the details".
A few years ago I used to run training courses in political negotiation for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. As part of the preparation for this I interviewed some senior diplomats about the realities of negotiation around international summits and at the United Nations. One of my standard questions was "What distinguishes the brilliant negotiator from a merely good negotiator?" Virtually without exception the answer would come back "Command of the detail".
Do we rely too much on summaries? And can this reduce the ability of decision-makers to command the detail? I have become very conscious, every time I try to summarise a complex argument, that people way up the food chain may be relying on what I write because they do not have the time to read the original material on which I am basing my summary.
The use of PowerPoint can add to the risks. It is a truly wonderful invention, but the need and temptation to reduce everything to bullet points, rather as our news media sometimes reduce complex issues to sound bites, can distort the results. In the age of globalisation one can imagine a sort of corollary of chaos theory: if the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas (as the title of Edward Lorenz's seminal paper on the subject in 1972 famously asked), then maybe a bullet point missing from a slide in London can crash a market in Caracas.
There is another version of van der Rohe's quotation: that it is the Devil who is in the details - a variation attributed to the German musician Blixa Bargeld. Whether you feel more at home with God or the Devil, do remember the importance of the details the next time you are tempted only to read the summary.
With all good wishes for a very Happy Christmas.
Return to the Newsletter Archive.
A look under the surface of a public consultation: Part 5/5 - Publication
By Remco van der Stoep
FEATURED CASE STUDY
A two-year project testing ways to cut emissions at the community level.
Dialogue Designer is a free tool which offers guidance in choosing the best engagement process for any given task.