Interview with Courtney Breese, Executive Director, NCDD

We are very happy to have the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) on board as a partner and supporter of this year’s OFU20 event. NCDD is “a network of innovators who bring people together across divides to discuss, decide, and take action together effectively on today’s toughest issues.” Since its founding in 2002, the organization has built a strong community of civic-minded group process professionals and provided a forum to explore, among many other important topics, the opportunities and challenges of integrating modern internet and communication technologies into their day-to-day work.

We spoke with Courtney Breese (LinkedIn, Twitter), NCDD’s Executive Director, about the impact this year has had and what she hopes to see at OFU20 in October.

Tim Bonnemann: Hi, Courtney. Glad you could join us. Wow, what a year! How have things been on your end?

Courtney Breese: What a year indeed! Over the last six months we at NCDD have been focusing our conversations around the changes that COVID-19 has brought to the field of dialogue and deliberation. It’s been a challenge for many, but has also forced us to explore new avenues for this work.

Tim: At NCDD, you’ve been engaging your members online for many, many years (in addition to in-person conferences and events). How has the pandemic impacted your work as a non-profit organization and community?

Courtney: NCDD has been using different forms of online engagement since we started in 2002, first with email listservs and through our website. In the last ten years we’ve experimented with different platforms and tools for engagement, primarily through our Tech Tuesday events, as well as in planning our national conferences. Since the pandemic made its way to the U.S., this work has been even more essential and more people have been looking for opportunities to learn about how to use online tools for engagement. NCDD has been responding to this demand by creating opportunities to highlight others’ work using tools and platforms for virtual engagement, as well as exposing our network to the tools themselves.

We’ve been using platforms such as and Zoom for years now for NCDD events, but there is so much more out there! We’re highlighting several of these tools in our first Online Engagement Showcase, which NCDD is co-hosting with the Center for Public Deliberation next Tuesday, September 29th at 1pm Eastern/10am Pacific. Those interested can learn more about this free event on our website. We hope that by more closely connecting our network to the options available to them, they will take this new opportunity brought on by the pandemic to try them out. 

Tim: Very nice, already signed up and looking forward to  it! I remember ten or so years ago, and in some cases much more recently, there were still a considerable number of people in the NCDD community of dialogue and deliberation practitioners who weren’t quite sold on the benefits of online engagement or at least couldn’t see themselves adopting these new opportunities. Face-to-face engagement, in-person engagement – that, to many, was the gold standard. First, do you think that assessment is accurate? And second, do you think those attitudes have been changing due to the pandemic and the impact it has had on everyone?

Courtney: You are absolutely right, historically there has been a large subset of the NCDD community who viewed face-to-face engagement as far and away the best approach to this work. I think the hesitation to embrace online engagement came from lack of experience with it, lack of knowledge of the platforms, and that many of the platforms at that time did not include synchronous video capabilities. It likely felt risky to make the switch. For me, I’ve felt more comfortable with technology for engagement because it offers NCDD opportunities to connect across geographical distances and increase our reach. This is at least partially attributable to my growing up with technology as a kid.

Personally, I feel that online engagement has developed into a much more robust option over the last decade, and since the pandemic it has been in the spotlight (for better or worse) as government, organizations, and schools use video platforms in lieu of in-person meetings. I don’t think that it is a complete replacement for face-to-face engagement, but that it now offers us a convenient alternative or a complement to it. So much work has gone into designing engagement for an online setting that it does stand up to many of the in-person methods out there. And with the impact of the pandemic, more people are taking notice of that. 

Still, as the pandemic has highlighted, it has some limitations, mostly in the form of access to technology and the internet. If we can address some of these issues, it seems as though the reach of online engagement could change the way we do engagement for the long-term. 

Tim: Agreed, and hopefully the increased demand will drive new solutions. Speaking of improvements, what recent examples have you come across of people and organizations making good use of technology to accomplish their engagement goals?

Courtney: I have heard about experiences of all sorts. For organizations, using technology has been an essential component of building connection among staff while they work at home. I know many organizations are using Zoom to hold staff meetings or informal check-in calls to keep everyone connected, personally and professionally. Certainly this has been an asset to the NCDD network as well during the pandemic. We’ve held several calls that have let participants simply process all that is going on together.

In terms of community engagement work, people and organizations in this field have been working with their partners and clients to adapt to online engagement efforts as in-person plans have been shelved. And some of these conversations have been shifting as a result of the pandemic. Communities have been using video conferencing to discuss local concerns. Local governments have moved public meetings online, and are learning how to adapt their process to this new format. We’re all exploring the issues that this pandemic has brought to the surface or given us the space to work through together. I know these aren’t very specific examples, but it just seems to be everywhere!

Tim: No worries, it does feel like this space is fast evolving wherever you look. Last but not least, any particular query or challenge you’d like to see explored at this year’s OFU20 event?

Courtney: I’d like to see us explore the accessibility challenges that can at times exclude members of the community. Online engagement offers us a fantastic opportunity to broaden access, but it still has its limits. What might we do, and who might we need to partner with to address this? I look forward to exploring this and other topics!

Tim: Great! Thanks so much. And thanks again for NCDD’s support this year. We appreciate it!

Courtney: Thank you! We’re excited to support OFU20.

To learn more about OFU20 and to get tickets, please check the registration page.

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