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In my last two articles I insisted that the way we typically engage our residents, business owners, and other interested folks when we are making plans and setting priorities is often completely inadequate to the big challenges we face. As I pointed out, we claim in local government to want to have the community involved — we call it “public engagement” or “public feedback” or “stakeholder involvement” — but the fact is, most of the time we’re paying lip service to the idea, at best.
Too often our approach to public engagement relies on one-way communication, either from officials to the public or from the public to officials. Here are the two common scenarios:
1. I, the Official Planning Type, will tell you, The Public, what we are going to do and how we are going to do it. We have the answers, we have the expertise, you don’t. We want you to know what’s going on (maybe because the law says we have to, maybe because we actually want you to like what we’re doing), and we will probably give you a chance to tell us what you think because that’s what we are supposed to do. But you and I both know that the plan is done, the decision is made. We’re not all that interested in changing our minds.
2. You, the Public, are invited to tell us, the Official Planning Types, What You Want. We haven’t gotten very far into the plan or decision process yet, and we know that it’s your community. We need some idea of What You Want. But you, understandably, don’t have a complete handle on the complicated, interrelated issues we have to consider. You simply don’t think about this stuff every day — that’s not your job. So when we ask you What You Want, and you don’t have the opportunity to think or learn about it, we get your first reactions Your ideas may be bright, they may be visionary, they may be ill-informed, or they may even be outright crazy — rainbows and unicorns, as one planner I know put it.
All that is certainly understandable — I might not have much useful to offer if I just walked off the street into your place of work, either. The problem, though, is that our effort to engage the public often ends there. We the Official Planning Types, listen, write it all down, and sit back and say “hmm … interesting … thank you very much.” Then we get back to the work room, throw up our hands at the impossible stuff you asked for, and start trying to figure out what to do. …
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