The APROPOS Group is a non-profit, politically neutral think tank. They operate out of Berlin and Rome in the field of democratic innovation, and specialise in the development and implementation of process design methods for the political sphere. The all-female operational team is led by Executive Director Chiara Rosselli, who also heads the Open European Dialogue, an initiative that tries to change the way policy makers across Europe talk with each other.
PartyParty Founder and Publisher Josef Lentsch spoke with Chiara Rosselli about the role of process in politics.
Josef: What is the problem that you want to tackle in politics?
Chiara: The absence of constructive political dialogue spaces. Dialogue to me is the most threatened instrument of democracy that we have right now, our inability to talk to one another is staggering. We don’t like each other. Even people like ourselves who preach that we are trying to uplift dialogue in our personal lives, struggle to sit around the table, and listen to people with different opinions. We have to work on this muscle, this muscle that represents what democracy is all about, which is the compromise of different points of view. And I feel we have forgotten that democracy is not just about arriving at a better policy solution, faster and with more data. This approach overlooks the whole issue of democratic cohesion: how do you live together when you are different?
“Dialogue is the most threatened instrument of democracy”
Josef: So how did you come up with a think tank that focuses on process design in politics as a solution to that?
Chiara: My early career was spent in think tanks across Europe. I worked in Paris, Rome, Berlin and Brussels. In the mid-2010s, we were hit by the multiple crises of austerity and refugees . Across the news there would be exchanges along the lines of the German media asking Greek politicians to sell their islands in order to repay for their debt and, of course, retaliation from the Greeks in terms of asking for World War Two reparations.
That was a moment in time where we saw that there was a need to take a step back and assess what was happening at the level of the political dialogue culture that was developing within Europe. And in 2015 I encountered this project that at the time was called the Mercator European Dialogue, and took over its leadership. It was an initiative to bring together politicians across borders and party lines, face to face, to see whether there was a different way of having a political conversation that would lead to better results.
Josef: How many policy makers participated in the Open European Dialogue over the years and from how many countries?
Chiara: We started in 2016 with 25 members of parliament from 19 member states. Now, our latest dialogue brought together 70 MPs from 29 states–including adjacent regions of the EU. Over the last eight years, we have had hundreds of MPs participating.
Josef: How did you get people to actually sign up to this? All those people you work with are pressed for time. What was your pitch to convince them that they should engage with that?
Chiara: It was, frankly, a very uphill battle at the beginning. I think we ultimately managed because the level of discourse was so blatantly dramatic, and the policy makers were longing for a constructive face to face exchange across party lines, but there was nothing on offer.
Josef: Can you give us an example of the impact your work has had?
Chiara: We have the testimonial of an alumna of the Open European Dialogue and former chairwoman of the European Affairs committee in her country, who took inspiration from some of the methods we use within our dialogue space, like introducing external expertise into the discussions of their parliamentary committee and the use of topic rapporteurs. And she shared how immediately this had an impact on the quality of the political discourse. There were less direct attacks from the opposition on the government, and there was more focus on the material rather than who was proposing the policy and why.
And this, it’s important to underline, was something that she was able to introduce essentially overnight and did not require a massive change of an institutional structure. The practice of process design, which we are specialising in at APROPOS, is about such changes. It’s about thinking through and dedicating some time to how we can change political dialogue and decision making spaces so that we can encourage participants to have more constructive conversations.
Josef: Is there a specific methodology that you use?
Chiara: Our methods pull from different approaches, from design thinking, to moderation and facilitation techniques, and the list keeps growing. These approaches come together under what we call the practice of Political Process Design. Which is an approach through which we instil intentionality into the processes that regulate our dialogue and decision-making spaces.
We use a framework we call the Three P’s – purpose, process and people to design spaces that we understand as fit-for-purpose. Do you have the right people and the right process to achieve your purpose? Are these three essential components of your design aligned? These are some of the questions that guide our methodology. And we’ve understood that through those levers you can access certain components of trust, such as empathy, competence and authenticity.
Josef: What was your path from heading a programme to founding your own organisation?
Chiara: Over time we started getting more and more recognition for this work, like in 2021, when the OECD recognised it a global best practice for political collaboration and innovation across borders. So we realised that there was more to our parliamentary dialogue programme, which we felt was important to share with the wider political community. And that’s where APROPOS was born. The acronym stands for “advancing process in politics”. It’s the first think tank – that we know of – that has political process design as a unique focus of its work.
Our initial objective was really to take the lessons learned and methodologies that we utilise with the Open European Dialogue and disseminate these further. Since then we have been developing political dialogue and process design solutions for the policy sector.
Josef: Who do you design for?
Chiara: We work with foundations, think tanks, and continue to work with our politicians, to design dialogue and cooperation spaces for them, via the Open European Dialogue, as our flagship product. We deliver capacity-building trainings for the policy and non-profit sector, and aspire to be of service to institutions and the third sector as a whole, to create greater awareness of the need to design better processes, and provide insights into how to strengthen an entity’s ability to reach its own stated policy ambitions through better process design.
“A statement is not a dialogue”
Josef: Now politics is a lot about process, right? It’s about how you make decisions, or how you arrive from A to B in the parliamentary process, for example. So why do you think there still seems to be an under-appreciation in the political community of how important deliberative process design is – and do you see that changing at the moment?
Chiara: I think we still grossly overestimate rationality in political decision making. We’ve created institutions that assume that just through the exchange of information, we can impact or change the way that people feel – but unfortunately, that’s not the case. And I think especially now that there’s a stronger fragmentation of our society, even more we need to use the tool of dialogue with genuine intention, as a two way-conversation, and not a sort of discussion or a debate where there’s a winner and a loser. We need to make sure that we are digging deeper into the emotional and unsaid challenges of certain policy issues that seem to be irrevocably stuck in a political deadlock.
And that requires different structures than the ones that are in place. I can give you an example: twice a year, national parliaments are invited into a dialogue space at the EU institutional level. The formulated objective is to create better dialogue and understanding among different countries and political opinions. De facto, it is two days of 1-1/2 minute statements that follow one another with very little time for questions, and there is no real exchange. But a statement is not a dialogue.
I think instinctively we all know as human beings what a conversation feels like. So that’s why at APROPOS we like to think of political process design as codified common sense. Yet, all too often, it is precisely common sense that is the first thing to go out of the window.
Josef: And do you see a change happening there? Do you see that there is a growing awareness about that, or is it still a tough fight for every metre of progress?
Chiara: Yes to both. It is a hard battle for every metre, because institutions and cultures which define the status quo are hard to die and difficult to change. But at the same time, I do believe in the power of working with politicians every day. There is a sense that something needs to change in the way we do politics. And I think there’s a desire to test out new methods. Of course, we’ve seen this with the massive uptake of citizen assemblies and other deliberative citizen processes, which is an interesting part of the conversation. But we should apply the same criteria and care that we use when designing citizen participatory spaces to other sectors of decision making.
“We are part of a movement”
Josef: If you think ahead until the end of 2024: what gets you excited when you think about what lies ahead for APROPOS?
Chiara: We are part of a movement, of a group of organisations like The Innovation in Politics Institute and PartyParty that are working to move the political sector in the right direction, in terms of better methodologies and better infrastructures for politics to thrive on. I truly believe that better process design can make a significant contribution to help advance a better form of political decision-making.
When we play Whack-A-Mole with policy issues that keep emerging and seem to come with very specific reasons as to why they are so challenging, what is overlooked are the systemic weaknesses and flaws in our political decision making system. I wrote about it in my policy paper: “Avoiding System Failure: How Process Design Can Help Fix Politics”. So finding that more and more people are opening up their perspective and dedicating their attention to addressing these meta-challenges is exciting to me. I look forward to working with other organisations to see where we can push the agenda in terms of democratic and political innovation.
“Deep change will require long term strategic thinking and investments”
Josef: What do you see as the biggest challenge for your work?
Chiara: Time. It took us eight years to get the Open European Dialogue to where it is. Nowadays, when we speak to politicians, it’s almost an immediate “aha” moment for them. They understand completely why there’s a need for such a space. But it did take eight years of tweaking the messaging, working with the stakeholders, and learning from how we absorbed different political shocks – working with each new crisis to shape our network’s ability to respond and stay relevant to our stakeholders in times of high political pressure.
I was just at a conference the other week talking about how we rebuild trust in politics, and stood my ground that I will not offer a piecemeal solution when I am asked to talk about these issues, because deep change will take decades. It will require long term strategic thinking and investments.
In the end, we need to remember that change is about people. It’s not institutions or machines that will bring forward change. It’s people. So we need to nurture and intentionally design spaces that allow for people to do that.
Josef: Chiara, good luck, and thanks for the conversation!
Chiara Rosselli is the Co-Founder & Executive Director of the APROPOS Group. She has been leading efforts to innovate the way we think of political dialogue spaces and collaboration tools in the political space and beyond since 2015. She is the Head of the Open European Dialogue, Europe’s first dialogue platform for politicians, the lead designer behind the OED Policy Design Sprint, and has recently published a policy paper on “Avoiding System Failure: How Process Design Can Help Fix Politics”.