Briefing Document


Solving sustainability challenges at any scale requires broad social consensus on the meaning of sustainability and how to achieve it. Without agreement about change, we can expect political gridlock, inconsistent policies and public controversy — all things that make it difficult for businesses to operate.

Effective change demands grassroots public acceptance and legitimacy. The public must be involved in discussion early on, to build shared understandings of sustainability problems and to define possible action strategies that are effective and consistent with people’s collective preferences.

So, how can businesses help citizens become informed, inspired and engaged in a national dialogue about sustainability?

This briefing provides an overview of:

  • Civic dialogue’s potential to promote sustainability
  • How it relates to other types of engagement with society, such as multi-sector partnerships or stakeholder engagement
  • How business participation in civic dialogue benefits business and society

A companion "Best Practices Guide" details effective engagement in civic dialogue, focusing on implementation.

What is the Role of Civic Dialogue?

Figure 2E-Title

See more graphics from the report
Greater progress on sustainability is needed and can be achieved through civic dialogue. Business historically has played little role in civic dialogues, but can make a major contribution. Civic dialogue can be an important tool for business, creating business value and complementing other forms of public engagement, such as stakeholder engagement and multi-sector partnerships.

Civic dialogues are facilitated discussions that build broad-based consensus and commitment around issues that are complex and controversial. Dialogues can involve citizens, businesses, governments and other organizations. They represent democratic change, establishing a mandate for action through citizen involvement.

Who Should Read the Report?

Civic engagement can benefit businesses, and in turn, business involvement can benefit society. This report is designed for business leaders, change agents, and executives wanting to engage clients and customers to participate more meaningfully in their company's sustainability initiatives.

About the Research

This project represents an innovative collaboration between research and practice. Researcher Dr. Thomas Webler summarized the best academic and practical research available on civic engagement. A working session of leaders from the business, non-profit, and academic communities provided extensive feedback, which Dr. Webler incorporated into the final documents.

This report addresses one of the top priorities identified by the NBS Leadership Council in 2013.

Additional Resources

CD-Cover Companion resource for implementation: How to Engage in Civic Dialogue: A Best Practices Guide for Business
Figure 2E-Title Figures from the reports
CD Best Practices Checklist Best practices checklist
Tom Web Interview with Dr. Thomas Webler, author of NBS’s civic dialogue resources
Ann Dale Interview with Dr. Ann Dale, civic dialogue researcher
85914034 - 160
Overview of NBS’s working session on civic dialogue