Society-Wide Conversation As a Mode of Democratic Engagement

Society-Wide Conversation As a Mode of Democratic Engagement

Imogene Woodmass, Tatjana Buklijas

What is a society-wide conversation?

Representative democracy, as a structure of collective intelligence through which people make shared decisions, is widely understood to be in crisis. The causes of the crisis are multiple, from the disillusionment with democratic capitalism post-the global financial crisis to the effects of the novel, algorithm-led information environment (Bollinger and Stone 2023, Wolf 2022). Symptoms of the crisis are equally diverse: decrease of trust in government and institutions, low voter turnout at elections, shrinking political party membership, rise of populist parties, shift of weaker democracies (such as Turkey, Russia and Hungary) into plebiscitary dictatorship, or the resilience of autocratic regimes (Wattenberg 2002, Foa 2020). The crisis is further compounded with the core features of the Western economic and political systems today: e.g., markets, as efficient as they are, do not consider ‘externalities’ such as environmental impact, and the system of competition between parties and electoral cycles is not geared towards making tough decisions on complex, long-term, intergenerational problems. The lack of real action on the existential issue of climate crisis is a clear example. 

This concern over the inability of existing representative democratic structures to progress on important, long-term issues has resulted in calls to find other ways for collective deliberation and decision-making. Alongside new institutional arrangements proposed in the field of democratic innovation (such as temporary or standing citizen assemblies), we often hear calls for a “society-wide” (or “national”) conversation, issued by different social actors to engage the entire society and bring attention to a long-standing societal issue deemed, by some, as overdue and urgent. Academic literature, however, has yet to engage with the idea of a “society-wide conversation” with the topic instead broadly discussed and interrogated in other fora. These include comment pieces in the news media, with articles written by journalists, academics or other experts across business and politics offering a more personal opinion on the benefits and drawbacks of such a  conversation. What do we mean then when we talk about a society-wide conversation, and what are the common themes that define it? In the following sections we discuss the key elements of one, provide several recent examples across the globe, and then finish with reflections on how these lessons could apply to a society-wide conversation on climate action (Net Zero).

When and how does a society-wide conversation start?

A society-wide conversation involves all sectors of society coming together on a topic or trigger issue that has historical significance for that nation, typically at times of fraction across democratic society and often operating within the broader context of race, gender, or class (Churchill et al., 2014). The conversation topics themselves are often deemed challenging, and opinion between sectors of the public polarised as the topics often bear a moral weight. These conversations are often called for by a person or group that has access to a platform, typically a politician or political group, activist, or community group when they find that typical democratic modes of political debate and conflict resolution are insufficient (Pearce, 2001). The society-wide conversation is then mobilised by these factions and the media in attempts to reach the public and enter public discourse (Churchill et al., 2014; Morris, 2016). These conversations are usually sparked by trigger events, or an occurrence that elicits emotive responses across sectors of society where the public is talking about this subject simultaneously, and a greater call for action and intentional conversation is permissible. The conversation goes beyond a top-down approach, and leads to discussions between family, friends, and social circles. Though there is no identifiable end point for such conversations, their ability to incite public thinking and unification is unique and permits an inclusion and public participation that might not otherwise be experienced (Kreidler, 2016; Stignant & Murray, 2015).

Who participates? Who speaks? Who listens? 

The aim of a society-wide conversation is usually to reach all sectors of society, including those voices typically silenced in mainstream discourse: youth, women, Indigenous peoples, and other minority groups (Stignant & Murray, 2015). Perspectives and voices are included that might otherwise be unheard or sidelined through representative democracy processes, and there is a real commitment to transformation and unification. Society-wide conversations extend outside of major cities, enter local communities, and link these diverse perspectives back into the wider national discourse (Stignant & Murray, 2015). The overarching effort is to permit conversation so that a collective identity may form around what is considered a pressing issue. 

In line with an increase in the number and type of speakers, there is also a need to have more listeners. The act of listening has been criticised as being excluded from public discourse as speakers attempt to have their voices heard without the desire to be challenged. As polarised opinions are being shared, there is a duty for the listener to actively attempt to understand and explore these voices and make a genuine effort to reach common ground, establishing a shared rhetoric orientated towards social change (Eadie & Nelson, 2001; Escobar, 2011; Weaver, 2019). We must also ask questions of who is doing the speaking and is this the right person, weighing up the necessity of knowledge and personal experience within the society-wide conversation discourse (Williams, 2015). Both speaking and listening are then understood as vital to the society-wide conversation in their capacity to create space for marginalised voices and to change perspectives.

Where do society-wide conversations take place? 

Online platforms are increasingly being used in society-wide conversations due to their ability to reach minority voices, but also to facilitate conversation between individuals or groups who might not otherwise have contact with each other. The cumulative effect is a lack of geographic or time constraint, without traditional media gatekeepers who privilege certain voices and perspectives above others (Bail et al., 2017; Williams, 2015). The mobilisation of social media as dominant sites for these conversations demonstrates a commitment to hear diverse voices, perspectives, and ideas, encouraging people to challenge their own views. With the accessibility of social media sites, people can debate each other as new stories unfold, and the lack of formality on these sites allows for these dynamic conversations to play out (Bail et al., 2017; Hidaramani, 2022; Kreidler, 2016). However, the type of algorithm optimisation used by most social media platforms can lead to polarisation and echo chambers, where communication can become a ritualised process where like-minded people are engaging in siloes, with little interaction with voices that diverge from their own (Escobar, 2011). In conclusion, social media sites have the capacity to engage the public in the urgency required for a society-wide conversation (Weaver, 2019), yet they should be read with caution in the conversations that they do facilitate. 

Beyond social media platforms, society-wide conversations take place in community centres, workplaces, and other offline spaces (Bail et al., 2017). There is a changing tone across these spaces with education and changing perspective driving these conversations, and face-to-face communication encouraged in its ability to allow for consensus and unification (Russell & Tyne, 2023). Public discourse has typically occurred in town halls and legislative hearings (Bail et al., 2017), and while these formats still exist, there is an informalisation of the society-wide conversation taking place. As the topics are intended to engage all sectors of society, conversations are encouraged around the kitchen table and lived in spaces between ordinary people as they spread information through each other (Bail et al., 2017; Russell & Tyne, 2023). 

What kind of topic is suitable for a society-wide conversation?

What is often seen across society-wide conversations is a moral weight to the topic of discussion, with an emotive and empathetic quality embodied in members of society. Topics tend to have a historic dimension and often speak to issues of inequality. These conversations tend to exist outside of political parties as the issues are pervasive, going beyond siloed sectors of society as they work to create unity and social progress in an emotionally charged space (Kreidler, 2016). Society-wide conversations typically emerge at times of moral panic and tragedy (Adams, 2023; Morris, 2016), but there is a belief in positive outcomes and change – that having these hard conversations and creating space for affected and marginalised voices to engage with peoples of different views can create an informed citizenry that chooses to enact change. 

The final point of similarity across society-wide conversations is their orientation towards a result. There is a desire for consensus-making or a shift in behaviour across the public. Though there is no identifiable end point to the conversation, there is an expressed desire to reach common ground for a unified public so that social progress can occur, and harmony can be reached on issues that are perceivably difficult (Kreidler, 2016). The result may be new legislation or policy, constitutional transformation, or a broader change in social attitudes towards a particular issue (Hirdaramani, 2022; Kreidler, 2016). What is consistent is that consensus is reached across diverse sectors of society, and that the public is unified in their view on the topic of debate.

Examples of society-wide conversations evaluated against these criteria

Australia + Voice to Parliament, 2023

The “Voice to Parliament” referendum will be held October 14 on the question: ‘Do you support an alteration to the constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice?’ This referendum was proposed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (ATSI) and has been led by the current Labour government. The referendum is situated in a broader conversation about democracy, race, and colonisation, marking a milestone for the recognition of the status of ATSI in Australia.

Whose voices are being heard? Who is listening?

On one side is the ‘yes’ campaign, driven by a bottom-up voice where the majority white Australian public is positioned as the listener, and ATSI as the primary speaker. Dialogues are community-led and supported by researchers, legal experts, state governments, businesses, and community organisations. Federal, state and territory governments have all pledged to support the ‘yes’ vote as they listen to and support the often-unheard ATSI voice (Piccini, 2023). There is a focus on the young people of Australia who have been characterised as politically progressive with an interest in issues-based politics, and whose support is important for the ‘yes’ campaign (Chowdhury, 2023), emphasising the necessity to listen to and platform voices often excluded from mainstream dialogue.

On the other side are two distinct and separate camps campaigning for a “no” vote. The first camp represents ATSI, criticising the Voice as not being enough. Indigenous led groups including the Black Peoples Union, The Blak Sovereign Movement and Recognise a Better Way see the Voice as empty, without the ability to create meaningful change in the life of ATSI, and without the ability to recognise ongoing colonisation and diverse experiences of injustice (Carlson, 2023; Knowles & Charles, 2023). The second camp represents conservative Australia who see the Voice as racially divisive, giving ATSI people unfair privilege (Carlson, 2023; Knowles & Charles, 2023). These groups include Advance: Fair Australia and the Rule of Law Education centre, criticising the referendum as expensive, unfair, and destructive to Australian democracy, highlighting a lack of information around how this Voice to Parliament will be operated (Knowles & Charles, 2023). We see a breadth of voices communicating their ideas and views to the undecided Australian public.

Where is the conversation happening?

Both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns are located on online platforms across websites of social change organisations, some ATSI-led, university websites, government websites, and news sites. ABC news have an online questions submission box for readers. Offline sources include pamphlets distributed to homes by the state government and social change organisations. Events and workshops are being held by different community and university groups to spread information to the public. Additionally, the University of Sydney has produced a conversation guide for non ATSI Australians, encouraging people to engage in face-to-face conversations which they see as a more effective educational tool than mainstream media (Russell & Tyne, 2023). Campaigns are asking their volunteers to engage in phone canvassing and door knocking, public rallies, and talkback radio amongst other methods in attempts to spread their message across states and social groups (Knowles & Charles, 2023).

What is the moral weight of this conversation?

The Voice recommendation comes from the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, which outlined processes to reduce disadvantage and increase decision-making capabilities for ATSI (Deadly Story, 2019). The Voice gives ATSI the opportunity to speak directly to Parliament, communicating their own wants and needs. The Voice is situated in its historical context, including a 1933 petition to King George V to introduce an ATSI member of parliament, the 1967 Referendum to recognise Aboriginal peoples as Australian citizens, the 1973 National Aboriginal Consultative Committee, the 1978 National Aboriginal Conference and the 1990-2005 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. Through this deep and involved history, ATSI have fought to have their voice, identity and very existence recognised within Australia (Uink et al., 2023).

Is this conversation orientated towards a result?

There is a measurable end point of this society-wide conversation – the October referendum in which Australians will vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on a Voice to Parliament, although questions remain what a ‘yes’ result would look like in practice and if it will make any meaningful difference in the lives of ATSI. The Voice is one part of a three-step process for reform and reconciliation, followed by treaty making between ATSI and the Australian state, and truth-telling of Australia’s colonial history. Whether the referendum is successful or not, it is unlikely that the society-wide conversation on how the State recognises ATSI and their sovereignty will end here.

Aotearoa New Zealand + Matike Mai, 2016

The Matike Mai report released in 2016 by the Independent Working Group on Constitutional Transformation is a forward-looking report on how New Zealand might recognise Māori sovereignty. The report makes seven recommendations that should be enacted by the Crown or government across a five-year period, with six potential models of constitutional organisation. This report is situated within a wider conversation on Māori sovereignty and decolonisation in New Zealand.

Whose voices are being heard? Who is listening?

The working group for constitutional transformation was formed in a 2010 meeting of the Iwi (tribe) Chairs’ Forum. Between 2012 and 2015, 252 gatherings were held in communities across the country. In these gatherings, Māori were both speaking and listening, giving their own unique points of view on what is needed or desired in constitutional transformation. Diverse people with differing traditions and different lived experiences across politics, disability, sexuality, gang affiliations and many more, were doing the speaking on a topic that their voices were often excluded from (The Independent Working Group on Constitutional Transformation, 2016). This conversation was couched in Māori perspectives and voices, to be listened to by both the working group who turned these views into a report, as well as the Crown, New Zealand government and the Pākehā (non-Māori, white settler) public (Delahunty, 2022). Young people also played a prominent role in the report. A separate young person group held their own workshops and meetings in a real effort to include a young person’s voice in the constitutional future of New Zealand (Matike Mai Aotearoa Rangatahi, 2015). 

Where is the conversation happening? 

Meetings happened in offline spaces, connecting voices that are often not reached through mainstream channels. These spaces included: marae (meeting houses), schools, health and social service clinics, universities, disability centres, law offices, gang pads, private homes, and teen parent units (The Independent Working Group on Constitutional Transformation, 2016). Written submissions, focus groups, and one-on-one interviews were all used as means of communication, demonstrating the optimisation of offline spaces. Conversations occurred in online spaces with the release of the report through the likes of media websites, websites of Māori and social change organisations and social media websites, permitting more voices into the conversation.

What is the moral weight of the conversation? 

This dialogue holds deep emotive and moral weight for Māori who have been isolated from power and sovereignty for over 180 years. The models of constitutional transformation that are produced hold historical and moral weight for Māori, guided by tikanga (custom), kawa (rules), He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Niu Tirenei 1835, Te Tiriti o Waitangi 1840 and other international Indigenous rights instruments, including UNDRIP (Potter & Jackson, 2018). Accepting that some Pākehā (descendants of settlers) would see this work as divisive, The Independent Working Group on Constitutional Transformation (2016) understood the need to communicate to the public and the Crown the moral weight of this society-wide conversation.

Is this conversation orientated towards a result?

The report makes practical recommendations that can be enacted over a five-year period and suggests constitutional models that could be implemented by the Crown. The authors suggest 2040 as a goal for some form of constitutional transformation, though it is unclear how politically realistic the goals they set are. What we do see is that the report is a tool for a society-wide conversation, not its closure (Potter & Jackson, 2018). The conversation around constitutional transformation and the recognition of Māori sovereignty can utilise Matike Mai, allowing for a better educated public and a more informed society-wide conversation

Ireland + Abortion Referendum, 2018

Ireland’s Eighth Amendment had been put in place by referendum in 1983 when Roman Catholic activists campaigned for the right of the unborn life to be equal to that of the mother (Ely, 2022). In the decades following, stories of women who had experienced trauma or died due to oppressive abortion laws led to a coordinated campaign to decriminalise abortion in Ireland. A 2018 referendum was passed, repealing the Eighth Amendment and legalising abortions in the first trimester. 

Whose voices are being heard? Who is listening?

The Roman Catholic Church has been vocal across Ireland’s private and political life. The 2018 anti-abortion campaigns (including Save the 8th, Iona Institute, Love Both) are firmly rooted in their religious views and association with the Catholic Church (Maguire & Murphy, 2023). They have received international support, primarily from the U.S. and the Catholic Church (Pierson, 2018a). The pro-choice campaign (including ROSA, Together for Yes, Doctors for Choice) reflect an activist and grassroots voice, empowering women who have had their stories silenced in the shame and stigma often attached to abortion (Holland, 2018; Pierson, 2018b). There is an effort to include voices of marginalised women, including transgender and nonbinary voices (Carnegie & Roth, 2019).

These campaigns are located within a conversation around abortion as a political issue. The United Nations Human Rights Commission condemned Ireland following the appeals of three women between 2013-2014 who cited Ireland’s abortion laws as cruel and inhumane (McDonald, 2013). In response to this, Ireland’s parliament set up a Citizens Assembly of 99 individuals in July 2016 to discuss issues including abortion law reform (Carnegie & Roth, 2019; Palese, 2018). Following deliberations, 87% of members advocated for some form of constitutional reform and stated that the Eighth Amendment was unfit for purpose (Carnegie & Roth, 2019). This recommendation provided the government, which had been criticised for not listening to public demand for abortion law reform, with an incentive to act.

Where is the conversation happening?

Offline and online spaces were mobilised to reach the public by both campaigns. Visual imagery was utilised by both sides through posters, leaflets, clothing, murals, foods and many more tools (Maguire & Murphy, 2023). Activist organisations shared their messages through leaflets, canvassing and workshops held across Ireland (Daly & Bottomley, 2023). Social media platforms were mobilised with volunteer ran pages that encouraged the sharing of stories (In her Shoes) and an opportunity to have conversations and provide information (; peer-to-peer messaging programmes) on a topic that had long been stigmatised (Schofield, 2018). Debate continued across television, news media and national talk radio with many discussing the campaign imagery they had seen in their lived-in spaces (Maguire & Murphy, 2023).

What is the moral weight of the conversation?

The conversation around abortion has a strong tradition of being rooted in religion, particularly tied to the Roman Catholic Church in its Irish context. The referendum itself is situated in a wider conversation around the separation of the Church and the State in Ireland (Ely, 2022; O’Toole, 2014). With the declining influence of the Church, the government has an increased capacity to hear alternative and secular viewpoints (Chonnachtaigh, 2018). Furthermore, both sides appealed to an emotive storytelling and imagery in their campaigns. The ‘no’ campaign used visually graphic imagery and stories evoking fear and shock (Daly & Bottomley, 2023; Maguire & Murphy, 2023). The ‘yes’ campaign mobilised high profile stories of women who had suffered due to restrictive abortion laws. The 2012 death of Savita Halappanavar due to medical complications from the refusal of an abortion brought abortion reform back into public discussion, with activist groups forming to repeal the Eighth Amendment to save women’s lives (Ely, 2022). Savita’s death was a trigger point that incited action based on emotions of grief and anger (Holland, 2018). With the mobilisation of both historic and current high-profile cases of trauma suffered due to Ireland’s strict abortion laws, the ‘yes’ campaign built itself on a moral and ethical basis with an urgency for the public and government to act.

Is the conversation orientated towards a result?

The 2018 abortion reform referendum is understood as a key moment in a longstanding conversation regarding the relationships between Church and the State (Chonnactaigh, 2018). Though the referendum passed with a 66% yes vote, there are still restrictions that mean abortion is not free, safe, and legal for all – particularly those who are not ordinary citizens (Carnegie & Roth, 2019). The referendum then marks a key moment in this society-wide conversation on abortion and religion but may not be considered an endpoint.

Argentina + Abortion Referendum, 2018

In December 2020, the National Congress of Argentina approved a law that “decriminalises” abortion.  Law 27610 approved “Access to voluntary interruption of pregnancy” in two situations: 1) Voluntary interruption of pregnancy by any woman in the first 14 weeks of gestation 2) At any point of pregnancy in cases of rape and where there is a threat to life of the pregnant person. Approval of this legislation was preceded by a long mobilization of public opinion led by feminist and human rights groups.

Whose voices were being heard? Who is listening?

In Argentina, abortion advocacy was embedded in broad- based civic activism. A national abortion advocacy campaign founded in 2005 incorporated providers within and beyond the health system, as well as labour movement, human rights groups, and feminist activists. In the 2010s, abortion activism became integrated in ‘Ni Una Menos’, a mass movement against gender-based violence. Draconian abortion restrictions were understood to be yet another form of structural violence against women. 

The pro-abortion movement promoted the introduction of several bills in the Argentine Congress. In 2018 a bill was approved by the Chamber of Deputies but did not pass the Senate. In 2020 a bill was reintroduced and approved by Deputies and by the Senate and finally sanctioned as a law.

 As is the case in many other countries, the pro-abortion campaign was opposed by religious groups and the Catholic Church who maintained the concept that life starts at conception.

Where was the conversation happening?

The national abortion campaign started with meetings organized and promoted by different feminist and human rights organizations, dissemination of information and petitions through social media, public demonstrations and collection of signatures supporting legislation proposals.

When the first bills were introduced for discussion in 2018, they were followed by a long series of hearings and debates in congressional committees with the participation of experts, supporters and opponents to the bills in discussion. During committee and legislative discussions there were massive demonstrations in the streets neighbouring Congress.

What is the moral weight of the conversation?

One of the main arguments of the pro-abortion movement is the public health issue of the need to guarantee safe and accessible access to abortion whereas under restrictive legislation many women that wanted to interrupt pregnancy did it through unsafe illegal procedures.

Was the conversation oriented to a result?

Since the origin of the abortion advocacy movement, the goal was the approval of legislation that would legalise the voluntary interruption of pregnancy. This was finally achieved by the end of 2020, fifteen years after the beginning of the mobilisation and “national conversation” campaign.

UK + Post-Brexit Immigration ‘National Conversation’, 2018

Following the Brexit referendum, the UK found itself in a unique time in its history that lent itself to a society-wide conversation. The public reported large feelings of distrust towards the government, with social cleavages widening (Katwala, 2019). British Future and HOPE not hate ran a series of structured meetings across the country to discuss immigration policy and to produce a report intended for government use. British Future, established in 2014, is an independent think-tank on issues around identity and migration affecting Britain. HOPE not hate, established in 2004, has had a recent focus on community politics, moving on from its initial purpose to defeat fascism and the BNP. This ‘National Conversation’ received funding from various foundations, including the Jo Cox Foundation, and has collaborated with the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee. 

Whose voices are being heard? Who is listening?

British Future and HOPE not hate structured this conversation with the intent to engage with a diverse demographic of people across the UK who felt as though they had long been ignored by the political class (Rutter & Carter, 2018). They hosted citizen panels with ordinary members of the public, alongside local government, business, and civil society groups. It was important in the context of this conversation to engage with citizens panels reflective of the towns and cities that they visited, as well as the wider UK, as the conversation on immigration has traditionally been dominated by business and civil society, tabloid press, politicians and other influential members of the public (Katwala, 2019; Rutter & Carter, 2018). The public were able to listen to voices that they might not have otherwise engaged with in the context of the society-wide conversation meetings, with British Future and HOPE not hate producing a report intended for the government and policy makers to use.

Where is the conversation happening?

This conversation moved away from political forums and online media where polarisation is prevalent (Stonebridge, 2021) to face-to-face discussions in offline formats. The National Conversation visited 60 towns and cities where 130 meetings took place, with an additional nationally representative offline survey, and an online survey that anyone could access and complete. Engaging with people offline was perceived as important to intentionally reach people who did not converse in online forums. In the wider conversation on immigration, online and news media were been popular tools to shape attitudes and spread views, often polarising and without the complexity required in a society-wide conversation (Rutter & Carter, 2018).

What is the moral weight of the conversation?

Rhetoric and public debate around immigration has been a longstanding conversation in the UK and is one that is emotionally charged and highlighted by trigger events, such as Brexit (Puzzo, 2021). In this context, immigration rhetoric has been politically and socially important for some time. Many of the meetings that took place in the National Conversation referred to emotive images of migrant children spread by the media, as well as participants’ own personal stories and experiences of migration or immigrant interaction, emphasising the personal, emotive, and empathetic nature of this conversation (Rutter & Carter, 2018). As Brexit revealed public division and distrust with the political class, the conversation itself was orientated to reconciliation and policy making built on what was deemed to be moral (Puzzo, 2021).

Is this conversation orientated towards a result?

British Future and HOPE not hate published a later 268-page report in which policy reformation recommendations were made for the Government to implement reflective of the wants and needs of the public. The underlying goal of the National Conversation was to build public trust and reengagement with the political class. Political parties, academics, and other stakeholders failed to acknowledge and engage with this report – with the media holding various views (Puzzo, 2021). This has significance in the context of Brexit, characterised as a failed society-wide conversation (Stonebridge, 2021). Despite the lack of utilisation of this report, the National Conversation demonstrated a way in which the public could feel they were genuinely participating in democracy and policy making.

Conclusion and recommendations

These examples of recent society-wide conversations provide important lessons for any future conversations concerning climate change and move to Net Zero.

These society-wide conversations are taking place in Western democracies where clear themes of engagement and procedure are emerging, allowing governments and policymakers to converse across sectors of society, engaging diverse peoples and points of view. This capacity is essential when developing policy which requires public buy-in to be successful.

  1. Listen to diverse voices – including in offline spaces; Policymakers need to be able to access different sectors of society as speakers and listeners in both online and offline spaces. This allows people with diverse experiences and knowledge bases to have their voices heard and to inform the conversation. The Matike Mai report released in New Zealand in 2016 is a good demonstration of this capacity, as the working group approached Māori communities and people who have not had their voices heard by the state and the Crown, yet who would directly benefit from constitutional reform. In the Irish abortion referendum case, grassroots organisations and women with lived experience had the opportunity for their voices to be heard and influence legislation. This teaches us that conversations can be mobilised across online and offline platforms, allowing those who live rurally, older people, and those without internet literacy to be reached in a digital age. Echo chambers can be disrupted as conversations occur face-to-face, with individuals sharing and conversing across online platforms and lived in spaces. Policymakers then need to be mindful and intentional as they platform voices and share information, empowering the public to be speakers and listeners alike in spaces where they feel comfortable, capable, and confident.
  2. Ask moral questions: From these examples, we learn that there is a necessity for the topic to have some moral weight to ensure public engagement. Society-wide conversations need to be located within morality and emotion, temporally indistinct with links to both a historic background and a connection to a recent high-profile trigger event. This is demonstrated within the Voice to Parliament referendum which is situated within a society-wide conversation on the status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and their sovereignty in Australia, engaging with themes of racism and colonialism in doing so. There is a historic link to previous injustices experienced by ATSI and the different political actions they have undergone to have their sovereignty and identity recognised by the state. Policymakers and politicians in Australia were able to translate this historical conversation into the present-day imagination through the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart which received significant media coverage. The Voice to Parliament referendum then acts as a stepping stone in a society-wide conversation that has both a historic and current temporality, asking moral questions on the status of ATSI sovereignty in the present. Furthermore, through the UK National Conversation on immigration there was a reliance on images and storytelling of people who had experienced and seen emotive cases of migration and asylum-seeking, moving the issue of immigration from a political conversation to a moral one. There is a necessity to mobilise an emotive storytelling on a moral issue with some historical weight. This is important when considering Net Zero and the real impacts of climate change, and how the story may need to be told for public engagement in a society-wide conversation.
  3. Define milestones and endpoints: Finally, it is important for each society-wide conversation to have a milestone or end point – a common goal in which the public are actors in some form of decision-making. The likelihood for public engagement in a society-wide conversation is much more significant with this orientation. In the cases of abortion reform in Ireland and Argentina, the referendum itself acted as a milestone in a conversation on politics and religion. As the public had some obligation to vote in the referendum, there was a stronger engagement with activist organisations, media, and their communities when debating their vote. This stands in contrast to the examples in the UK and New Zealand which lacked obligation for the public to act, and the conversations themselves have appeared to be siloed and stalled. In these cases, the society-wide conversation was more structured and engaged with distinct communities, and the reports have had limited traction across politics and media. While it is still unclear of the outcome of the Australian referendum, it can be predicted that if the ‘yes’ vote succeeds, there will be some form of constitutional change and a changing political status of ATSI in federal government. When policymakers are planning for a society-wide conversation around Net Zero it may be important to consider what milestone will the public be working towards.

Society-wide conversations need to be approached with intention. Platformed voices need to be able to drive the conversation in both online and offline spaces, allowing the public to act as the listeners with those affected by the issue and those with marginalised voices given a space to speak and share their own stories. Through emotive storytelling on a topic that bears a moral weight across time, conversation topics like Net Zero can hold more significance and engage with the public at large. For this to be effective, there needs to be an orientation towards a result – a tangible measurement of the society-wide conversation as defined by policymakers or government. With choices made in these spaces, society-wide conversations can be a useful political tool when deciding on the policy decisions that will appeal to the public.