The Wisdom Council Process is a method designed to creatively solve sensitive problems and strengthen community's self-organization and sense of responsibility in an inexpensive, understandable, and quick way.
Problems and Purpose
The Wisdom Council Process offers a simple, inexpensive and rapid way to strengthen community members’ self-organization and sense of responsibility.
Wisdom Councils are suitable for:
• the creative development and implementation of solutions to sensitive topics
• to strengthen community members’ engagement with and understanding of participatory democracy
Origins and Development
The Wisdom Council Process was originally developed by U.S. consultant Jim Rough. The method has been further developed in the State of Vorarlberg, in Austria, by their Office of Future-Related Issues (Büro für Zukunftsfragen). Their adapted model is called Bürgerrat, sometimes referred to in the feminine plural as BürgerInnenRäte. In English, this translates as Citizen Councils or Civic Councils.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The original Wisdom Council design was for twelve randomly selected citizens. While the original design is based on simple random selection, in Vorarlberg and elsewhere the random selection process is carried out in a way that ensures that the mix of participants reflects the mix of the larger population.
There have also been Councils with as many as 30 people, conducted in two separate groups which are then brought together at a later stage in the process.
How it Works: Process, Interaction, and Decision-Making
In the two-day working phase, the participants identify topics of public interest in their environment and develop suggestions for improvement / solutions. They are supported by a moderator trained in Dynamic Facilitation, an approach designed to support creativity by creating psychological safety through deep and attentive listening.
The moderator supports participants in creatively developing collaborative solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems. The focus is on the group's self-organization dynamics. With the help of this empowerment approach and its focus on group energy, the process has been found in practice to produce good results with a favorable cost-benefit ratio.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The Wisdom Council Process has been a significant influence in the creation of the Bürgerrät model in Vorarlberg, which has been spreading in Austria and Germany due to its powerful and cost-effective results.
The typical outcomes of Wisdom Councils include a high energy level among participants, a strong sense of "we", a desire to take greater responsibility for addressing collective challenges, a greater appreciation of the complexity involved in public issues, along with a paradoxical sense of possibility.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The first Wisdom Council in the civic domain was in 2003 in Rogue Valley, Oregon. It was sponsored by a small handful of local citizen volunteers. Until that time, the founder of this method had thought that the process would need to be sponsored by governments to be successful, but was impressed by the value obtained through a purely citizen-led effort that still included expert facilitation.
Another community application took place in Port Townsend in 2005, with the members of a local food co-op who were experiencing internal strife.
The most extensive application in North America has been in the city of Victoria, where the process has been used a total of six times. The first three Councils used the original Wisdom Council format of beginning with a more open-ended question about improving collective well-being, while the next three used a slightly modified format called the Citizen Insight Council where the randomly-selected group focuses on a specific topic.
Despite the first example of the Rogue Valley Wisdom Council, the most successful applications of the Wisdom Council model to date have been the Bürgerräte in Austria, which have all been sponsored by local governments.
Note: the Wisdom Council model has also been used successfully to catalyze organizational learning within business organizations, and also within government departments; yet since that is not the focus of this site, we will not delve into those applications further, other than to simply mention them.
Dynamic Facilitation is the "operating system" of the Wisdom Council Process, since it creates psychological safety for divergent perspectives and thus evokes a high level of creative collaboration from participants.
The Vorarlberg Bürgerrät model has grown out of the Wisdom Council Process, and is one of the most successful applications of it to date.
Jim Rough's Center for Wise Democracy