Roundtable discussions are small group, often closed, deliberative techniques where ideas are equally exchanged by participants on a given topic.
Problems and Purpose
Roundtable Discussions are small group discussions where everybody has an equal right to participate. This method can in reality encompass a number of different formats; roundtables are a form of academic discussion, used as a technique for community and public engagement, and may also be used by organisations and businesses.
Roundtables are generally not open to the wider public, but involve a relatively small number of participants who discuss or deliberate on a topic that is usually identified beforehand. The key principle underpinning a roundtable is that all participants are on equal footing .
Roundtable discussions are distinct from the Magic Roundtable , which is a specific deliberative technique. This entry refers to roundtables in a general sense, the implementation of which will vary in practice.
The general purpose of a roundtable is to hold a close discussion and exploration of a specific topic. A roundtable, holding all participants on equal footing, aims to confront issues rather than people . The individual aim of a roundtable discussion will vary in practice. Roundtables are used as one-off events, as series, as a tool within broader participatory processes, and as established, ongoing meetings.
The San Francisco Urban-Rural Roundtable had a specific set of aims, where participants were given a list of four goals to focus on. The overall objective of this series of roundtables was to produce a final set of recommendations which were ultimately used as the basis for San Francisco’s first food policy. The Coquitlam River Watershed Roundtable in British Colombia was established as a permanent planning entity, having been chosen as a suitable structure through a participatory planning process. The latter application is distinct in its role being embedded as a part of an ongoing process, meeting on a biannual basis. Another ongoing use of roundtables is seen in the Coffee Cup Revolution, an initiative to reduce waste. In this case, roundtables are used to discuss individual initiatives with stakeholders and the local community.
Origins and Development
Whilst the term was coined from King Arthur’s legendary round table where knights congregated, the roundtable as an engagement is somewhat more recent, arising in the 1980s from rose “out of a need for consensus-building to identify problems and seek solutions in the relationship between formal decision makers (such as governments & judiciaries) and other sectors of society (such as environmental groups, community groups & other interest groups)” . Nonetheless, the roundtable’s legendary origins are still relevant, since the round shape of the table meant that no one person sat at the head, and everyone seated was of equal stature .
How it Works
Generally participant numbers at a roundtable are relatively small – 10-12 people . However, larger numbers are manageable if participants are split up into smaller groups, as seen in the Halton Citizens’ Reference Panel which involved over 50 members of the public, split up into groups of seven or eight.
Participant demographics will vary according to the purpose and need of the organiser. Roundtables often involve stakeholders and stakeholder organisations who are invited by the organiser . They are not usually open to the public (as observers), although members of the public may take part.
Participants are usually invited by the organiser a few weeks in advance of an event. Given the range of contexts in which roundtables are used, participants may comprise stakeholder or community organisations, business people, employees and employers, professional associations and others .
In some cases, participants may be recruited through promotion and advertising of the event . This is more likely should the target participants be members of the public, or for an academic roundtable discussion.
A topic for a roundtable has usually been identified in advance. Selecting the topic and scope can be tricky as it must be clearly defined, yet allow the opportunity for open and natural discussion – otherwise the conversation can dry up during the roundtable. Some guidelines suggest drawing up an agenda beforehand , splitting the topic into smaller areas for a more structured discussion , or focusing on specific goals as with the San Francisco Urban-Rural Roundtable.
Roundtables will generally make use of a facilitator or chair for the discussion, but this person should not lead or direct the discussion. The facilitator’s role is to try and ensure that everyone is included equally in the discussion and to keep the discussion on track, through reminding the group of the time or to gently steer conversation if it goes too far off track . Again, this will depend on the scope and aims of each roundtable.
The time allotted for a roundtable discussion can also impact how exactly the discussion evolves. Given a limited time, participants may choose to work towards a specific goal or outcome, or instead spend the discussion on broader reflections without the impetus to achieve a specific output . However, this will also depend on the scope of the topic and the aim of the organisers. It is essential that the facilitator is mindful of time to avoid participants’ frustration if the discussion is cut short – especially if it is a one-off meeting.
Consultancy firm Cocoate identify some specific rules and guidelines for a roundtable discussion, which includes no mobile phones or toilet breaks , which may be too restrictive or unsuitable for some purposes. General guidelines that could be more widely applicable may include:
- Listening to others; no interruptions when people are speaking
- No other discussions whilst someone is talking
- Everyone to participate actively
- No domination
- Differences in opinion are not expressed or taken personally
- Maintain a civil tone and atmosphere
Note that the above guidelines can also be established by the group themselves at the outset, by agreeing on some ground rules that the discussion will abide by .
As mentioned above, roundtables may or may not work towards a final decision, recommendation or output, depending on the purpose and scope. Roundtables were used as an additional component to the Edmonton Citizens’ Jury , where citizens could simply share their opinions and feedback on the proposal of internet voting. Other uses might have a more structured remit, such as the San Francisco case cited above.
Roundtables are not usually open to the public or observers , but there are exceptions; the Northumberland Hospital Collaborative Budget Strategy was a participatory process where organisers hosted a Public Roundtable where an open invitation was extended to the public, and experts met with over fifty citizens.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The influence of a roundtable discussion will again vary according to its application. The Coatquitlam River Watershed Roundtable, although not formally empowered to make and enforce decisions, seeks to directly influence decision-makers through its recommendations. Notably, this roundtable format enjoys enhanced legitimacy given that it was carefully selected as a suitable structure as part of a broader participatory process, and is embedded into the structures governing the Coatquitlam River Watershed area.
The San Francisco Urban-Rural Roundtable also had considerable influence, with its recommendations positively endorsed by the Mayor who went on to turn them into policy. A further effect was the establishment of a similar event in Los Angeles.
However, it must be emphasised that as the aim and scope of roundtable discussions is varied, there is no general influence or outcome that is always sought, or achieved. Academic roundtable discussions may not aim towards a specific output, although it is not uncommon to aim for some kind of research publication to emerge from the discussion. Other roundtables such as those held as part of the Edmonton Citizens’ Jury , were a forum for citizens to share their opinions and feedback which was incorporated into the Jury’s final recommendations.
As the application and purpose of roundtable discussions varies so widely, it is difficult to draw any general conclusions. With this in mind, a few points can be made.
Roundtables have an advantage of standard hearings in that they usually follow a relatively strict process which can make for a more effective discussion. They are also relatively inexpensive to run .
One disadvantage is that the small number of participants and the fact that they are usually invited leaves a roundtable vulnerable to criticism from those not present: why should those outside the room accept the outcomes of a discussion they were unable to participate in? This critique can also be levelled at any number of random selection deliberative processes , but is more acute in the case of formats like roundtables and focus groups when participants are more likely to be invited by the organiser, or self-selecting. Roundtable discussions will also be more difficult when the topic is particularly contentious and/or an adversarial atmosphere arises, although good facilitation may help to mitigate this .
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