Sustaining Higher Orders of Policy Consensus through Metaphor
Towards a new language of governance
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Program proposal to World Future Society (WFS)
Could the challenge of an assembly session not be reformulated in terms of collective
discovery of a set of complementary metaphors or images which best embody a more fruitful
understanding of governance at this time?
Can the contemporary challenge of governance not be reformulated in terms of the
development of appropriate images, metaphors or parables to embody the harmonies and
discords between apparently competing policy insights?
In these strange times, can it not be argued that what is required is some kind of
'strategic keystone' to provide a comprehensible interface between the many
competing strategic responses basic to the dilemmas of governance for the future?
How might the proposed session be structured?
My suggestion would be for a panel plus a facilitator. Panellists are each invited to
briefly indicate their most favoured metaphor to frame the future style of governance for
a complex society -- with a few comments on the value of using metaphor (but not a lengthy
After the first round, the structure can be loosened to include interventions from the
floor, possibly with richer metaphors or criticism of particular metaphors.
The basic rule would be that discussion must focus on the adequacy of a metaphor, not
on substantive issues (except to illustrate the weakness of the metaphor). The purpose is
to identify richer metaphors, capable of handling greater complexity, and with policy
implications. In other words superficial metaphors without policy consequences would be
filtered out through the session process. Modellers talk about 'confronting'
competing models -- here the purpose is to confront metaphors.
The facilitator's role (possibly aided by someone with visualization skills) would be
to hold the contrast between complementary metaphors and to move onto a back burner those
metaphors which were considered less adequate.
Insights into higher orders of consensus
Focus on such metaphors to carry subtle insight avoids the trap of lengthy verbal
presentations using the specialized jargon of a particular discipline or political
ideology. The need is to dialogue about insight and an 'image is worth a thousand
The concern is with the subtlest insights into higher orders of consensus in the face
of a turbulent strategic environment. There is merit in using metaphors which circumscribe
or frame such insights. Imagination can be called upon to offer alternative images of
governance in future times (partly to counter the sterility of the board room imagery of
even the most futuristic science fiction).
If participants are called upon to offer suitable metaphors to capture the collective
dilemma of governance at this time, a new way forward may be explored. This is not an
imposition on those with an involvement in politics and media, since they regularly use
such devices to communicate understandings within their own constituencies.
The challenge is to extend this skill to articulation of the relationship between
the seemingly incommensurable strategic priorities which may be expected to be assembled
in the session. The challenge is to discover 'healing insights', namely to
clarify in metaphoric form the wholeness which articulates the relationship between
different, and seemingly antagonistic, strategic insights. The concern is not to pursue
tokenistic positive consensus for fear of being unable to contain and use a rich pattern
Note how this approach avoids confrontation on points of difference. It calls for
setting the differences between others within an integrative framework which can be
understood as a whole -- preferably with a 'centre' that is empty and open.
Filling or occupying the centre precludes others from comprehending the subtlest insights
through other possible frameworks, whether now or in the future.
This metaphoric approach recognizes that the challenge:
- For the participant (or faction) supplying the integrative metaphor, lies in ensuring a
quality of coherence that keeps the pattern of differences intact. Quality lies in the
pattern that connects.
- For other groups 'encompassed' in this way, lies in responding with their own
metaphors that embody a greater sense of harmony and a greater respect for difference.
Identity lies in contrast. Dialogue is assured through an exchange of perspectives.
Traps to be avoided
Metaphors and images that are helpful to some are experienced as constraining and
simplistic to others. More challenging is that, as with cultural artefacts, people may
appreciate or regret the quality of harmony or discord emphasized in a particular
metaphor. There are some whose need for harmony is considered unrealistic and unmeaningful
However, since the subtlety of the concord that is sought must necessarily transcend
any articulation in a single metaphor, the challenge is to discover a set of complementary
metaphors which together better embody that overarching insight. Perhaps the spiritual art
to be discovered is that of dancing between the insights offered by such metaphors.
A metaphoric example: an ecology of strategic insights
Using the ecological metaphor, for example, one may ask how each political tradition
fits into the political ecosystem. What vital role does each perform within that
Note that this is not an exercise in political syncretism. Rather it is a recognition
that there are people who, for whatever cultural or psycho-social reason, derive benefit
from one pattern of strategic insights rather than from another. The complementarity of
each approach may be vital to the sustainability of development and governance.
Panellists could be invited to articulate or justify their positions on short
papers available as handouts. For the well-equipped, this could also be done
with imagery or video clips.
- Aesthetics of governance...in the year 2491 (Paper for 11th
Conference of World Futures Studies Federation, Budapest, 1990) [text]
- Higher orders of inter-sectoral 'consensus'; clarification of
formal possibilities [text]
- Configuring globally and contending locally: shaping the global network
of local bargains by decoding and mapping Earth Summit inter-sectoral issues
(Served as principal background document to the Inter-sectoral Dialogue prior
to the Global Forum in Rio de Janeiro) [text]
- Through Metaphor to a Sustainable Ecology of Development Policies. In:
Trzyna, T C and Gotelli, I (Eds): The Power of Convening; collaborative policy
forums for sustainable development. California Institute of Public Affairs,
and Center for Politics and Policy (Claremont CA, October 1989)). Sacramento
CA, California Institute of Public Affairs, 1990, pp. 64-81. [text]
- Guiding metaphors and configuring choices (Paper commissioned by the Development
Administration division of the United Nations Department of Technical Cooperation
for Development to be published in a collection of papers 'Tools for
Critical Choice by Top Decision Makers) (1991) [text]
- Metaphors as transdisciplinary vehicles of the future (to be published
in the 1991 conference proceedings by Les Editions du Mail (Paris)) [text]
- Metaphor and the language of futures (Futures, 1993). [text]