Unstructured versus Structured Discussion?

On the question of formalization and structure in the Planning Discourse


The proposals for a ‘global’ Public Planning Discourse Support Platform contain suggestions for using standardized ’templates’ for parts of the discourse: a more ‘structured’ or formalized form of discussion than the familiar ‘unstructured’, unconstrained format  we see in the usual forms of public debate.This raises several issues calling for discussion: First, the reasons leading to such suggestions should be clarified. Secondly, likely objections must be considered, such as the possibility that such templates might discourage participation in the discourse or might distort it in some way. The third question is of course:  if such templates are to be used, what should they look like? what format should be considered? And finally: How should they be introduced, included and used in the process? 

Reasons for formalization

The reasons for suggesting such structuring or ‘editing’ of the free expressions of discussion contributions are based on concerns about displaying the core of contribution content in a concise, condensed form for overview and evaluation: overview, elimination of repetitive and redundant items, (focusing on the issue to be decided upon), clarity in separating primary arguments from lenghty  and circuitous elaboration of ’supporting’ evidence and spurious anecdotal material, unnecessary and ‘unacceptable’ rhetorical rendering and bombast etc. 

Special concerns related to systematic evaluation are: explicit ‘filling in’ assumptions and argument premises that are left out as ’taken for granted’ in rhetorical passages, but that must be stated for comprehensive evaluation of the merit of arguments:  the assessment of contributions being a main aspect of the project aim of reaching decisions better and transparently based on the merit of the discourse contribution content, as opposed to traditions forms of decision-making that can disregard that content, such as voting.  


The objections to such formalization must be taken seriously: wide public participation needed for critical policy-making is needed, and provisions constraining  the form of discussion entries (other than obvious rules such as using the common language of the community having the discussion) can be perceived as obstacles (intentional or unintentional) to participation.

Other objections relate to the choice of forms or templates. There is disagreement even in the academic disciplines about how to state’ and diagram’ arguments — there are parties insisting on rendering arguments containing deontic premises in the deductive ‘modus ponens’ form rather than in the format of the ‘planning arguments’ ackowledged as ‘informal’ and non-deductive. 

Choice of template form

The suggestions to use some standardized templates of discussion entires started with the examination of the typical arguments of the ‘pro and con’ kind, about proposed design or planning discussions. The recognition of typical conversational pattern of arguments about a proposed plan or solution «Plan A» and its expected benefits or consequences ,led to the choice of the ’standard planning argument’ template  

    «Plan A ought to be adopted ‘(Conclusion’)


    Pan A will result in outcome B, (given conditions C) ‘Factual-instrumental                        

    and Premise’)

   Outcome B ought to be pursued (Deontic premise)


   Conditions C will be given (Factual Premise)

Or:   A  << ((A > B | C) & B  & C

(The signs <<, >,  & , | stand for ‘because’, ‘result in’, ‘and’, ‘given’, respectively.)

The pattern will have  a number of variations, depending which of the statements happen to be negated: for example: 

A  << ((A > ~B | C) &~B  & C

~A << ( ~(A > B | C) & B  & C

~A  << ((A > ~B | C) & B  & C

~A  << ((A > B | C) &~ B  & C

~A  << ((A > B | C) & B  & ~C     etc.

(Just making these statements explicit helps identifying the reason for a person’s acceptance or rejection of the argument —it could be because the person does not believe A wil produce B, or whether they consider B to be desirable, or whether they are not sure whether the conditions for the plan to work will actually be given.  — the simple  yes or no vote does not make this clear).

 This pattern, with the ‘conclusion’ stated first, in distinction from the standard  sequence in the logic textbooks also signals its lack of claim of ‘deductive’ conclusiveness and logical rigor, that some lay people might find uncomfortably compelling, attempting to override any doubts they may have about its premises. 

Of course, pro and con arguments are only one form of typical contributions in the planning discourse. They are ‘answers’ to a number of typical questions. In this case: «Should plan A be adopted?»   Other questions are thsoe providing answers that will be premises in the arguments:  «Should effect (goal, requiremnt, aim) B be pursued?» Will A produce effect / conseuence B?»  or «What are the conditions for Plan A to work? And «Are those conditions C present n this situation?» 

There are similar families of standard questions and answer claims related to the ‘problem’ statement and the understanding of its causes,necessary conditions and contributing factors. 

The procedural treatment of ‘structured’ versus unstructured discourse.

This is not the place to provide a comprehensive catalogue of all such discourse contribution patterns. Even the question whether  to use such tools in a specific project, of for a specific issue within a project, must remain the decision of the participants in that project discussion. So the role of structured versus unstructured discourse  in the overall process remains to be further explored:  for now, some first suggestions can be sketched.  

As a general principle, the initial entries and exchanges in a planning discussion must be ‘unstructured’. While many problem-solving and planning approaches recommend some specific sequences to be followed: For example:  Starting with a ‘clear problem statement’, gathering information and ‘data’, developing goals and priorities, developing solutions, evaluating those, and ending up with a decision. 

In reality, such discussions are triggered  by any of those ‘steps’. That first ‘entry’ item will rarely be a fully worked out solution, (though the current ‘political practice’ is often that some governance agency will produce such a plan before it is put up for discussion  in a parliamentary body). If the possibility or expectation is that the discussion might change such a plan, its introduction wll be in an unstructured format, and the first discussion therefore will have to be unstructured. It is possible that even such an unstructured discussion will give the participants sufficient confidence to make a decision, and that possibility must be provided for.  This can be done by means of a ‘motion’ for a «NEXT STEP?» to be decided on, for example by a ‘vote’ with a sufficiently close to consensus outcome. Agreed upon as part of  general  procedural agreements).

The concern here, however, is about important decisions that should be based on the merit of the contributions to a more thorough and systematic discourse, and how this can be orchestrated and made transparent. The recommendation for a project to do this is the following pattern of increasingly specific treatment of ‘issues’ (or topics).

The initial unstructured discussion will be the basis for participants to raise specific ‘candidates’ for more in-depth treatment. These will be posted on a bulletin board for participants to express judgments as to whether they should be put on the ‘Agenda’ for such detailed treatment. The assumption here being that large projects will be asynchronous, ‘online’. They can therefore be worked on ‘in parallel’ but on separate ‘threads’ for each topic. 

The discussion of each topic will again begin with an ‘unstructured’ discussion, resulting in the identification of more specific issues, that can be discussed ‘in parrallel’. For each topic, when participants feel that they can make a decision, (e.g. after some discussion) by making a ‘NEXT STEP’ motion: 

– to proceed to a decision;

– to drop the issue without decision; 

– to request or pursue more information;

– to ’table the discussion until another issue has been settled;

– to engage one of the ’special techniques’ (available in a ‘tool kit’).

   The results of the special technique — e.g. evaluation process that can’t be done on the  ordinary discussion format — will be reported back for a ‘Next Step’ decision in light of its results. 

In theory, this process can be repeated for smaller and smaller details, each small recommendation added to the Plan proposal until the entire community feels ready to make an overall decision. 

Tentative Recommendation

The recommendation given these ‘best current considerations’,  pending more comments, is to adopt the ‘fractal’ and ‘parallel processing’ pattern of alternating unstructured and structured discourse that will alleviate concerns about participation but facilitate more formal process as needed in each particular project, as decided by the community of participants. In the meantime, continue work on the structure patterns and potential ‘templates’ of other segments of the planning process. 


Wrong question? 

2 Responses to “Unstructured versus Structured Discussion?”

  1. 1 JVS March 16, 2023 at 12:22 am

    I found the article to be very interesting! It’s clear that structured discussion can be beneficial in many ways, but it’s also important to recognize the value of unstructured discussion. It can be a great way to explore ideas and come up with creative solutions. (ChatGPT)

  2. 2 Thorbjørn March 16, 2023 at 11:44 pm

    I find my comment to the other piece vindicated. I have a hunch that the humongous effort and data-crunching needed to give the maching the ability to ‘respond’ in language indistinguishable from human chatter is a deplorable waste in the wrong direction. Even I with no experience at all in that domain, can come up with a design for a simpler machine (based on the argumentative planning discourse language) that can contribute real arguments bout a plan proposal from the appropriate data. But my point is, by now, that ‘structure’ — e.g. the use of comment ‘templates’ would be needed, And that even such arguments will have to be evaluated by human participants that the machine can’t ‘compute’ I was hoping that I’d be shown convincingly wrong, or, if I’m somewhat right, how to put that insight to practical use.

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