The design of dialogue
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With the first commitment of the Kyoto Protocol commencing in 2008, many signatory governments have identified bio fuels as a favoured response to the problem of fulfilling their countries' pledges to reduce total greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels. Despite the tendency for pressure over climate change to expedite the commercialisation process, detailed evaluation of the claimed benefits, likely efficacy or environmental impact of bio fuels in New Zealand in the form of the Bio fuels Sales Obligation policy (BSO): a mandate place on the Oil Companies to supply a percentage of bio fuel. Systems thinking propound the notion of complex interrelatedness: a pivotal concept in our current understanding of the cumulative effects of greenhouse gas emissions and their relationship to climate change. It also recognizes that the multiple ways in which different stakeholders perceive a contentious question are an integral feature of any problematical situation. By applying systems concepts to qualitative research, Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) is therefore particularly suitable for the analysis of multiple stakeholder discourse in this situation. The present study employs SSM to examine stakeholder opinion through the construction of conceptual models in the form of rich pictures and root definitions. The researcher invited diverse stakeholders to ‘see what they were thinking’ and reflect upon the beliefs and assumptions that informed their views with respect to New Zealand bio fuels development. With reference to official documentation arising from the policy development process and through a series of interviews and a focus group, the research examines perceptions of the consultation process on bio fuels development and its contribution to informed decision-making. The study data indicates that the scope of enquiry tended to be restricted by early presuppositions regarding the consultation process and its desired outcomes, which consequently shifted the focus of consultation the enquiry from an assessment of the desirability of bio fuels to an appraisal of the feasibility of government policy. However inadvertently, communication was distorted. The research examines the basic assumptions that shaped the discourse and enabled already established opinions to prevail. Furthermore, the thesis explores how using SSM to surface tacit assumptions and challenge proposed models of intervention can help improve the reflexivity of discourse and decision-making. By ensuring open communication remains at the centre of discourse, SSM could provide a means of establishing productive conditions for learning and co-creative dialogue. Consequently the study has important implications for how the ‘health’ of public discourse in New Zealand might be sustained when addressing other similarly complex issues.