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.
Both of these scenarios revolve around one-way communication. What’s missing in these scenarios is the actual benefit of bringing multiple people together in a supposedly deliberative setting — the ability to draw on different ideas, perspectives, and experiences to find a better solution that anyone alone could come up with. That’s because the structure and assumptions we are using don’t enable constructive dialogues. Everything from how we arrange the chairs to the phrasing of our questions sets us up for one-way talking.
We are left with a hobbled, limping version of that democratic process we claim is so important. Neither members of the public nor public officials are trying to undermine the community. In both cases, they are stuck in a system that isn’t letting them do anything more useful.
If we want to find solutions to the complex, tangled issues we face — whether it’s the impact of a new development or revisions to a sign code — we need dialogue, we need collaborators. We need to draw on every brain we can get, and harness them together.
The word “harness” is crucial. We have this problem in the first place because we haven’t thought through how we can create or enable meaningful dialogues.
If we do nothing to help our public participants understand the issues we have to deal with,
if we don’t identify which of the thousand things we could talk about we need to deal with right now,
if we don’t take responsibility for keeping the conversation on track and productive,
then not only are we wasting our time, but we are wasting the time of the good-intentioned people who want to help figure out real answers. They want to be part of the solution, too, but they need to have a fighting chance.
In the next column, we’ll talk about how we can make this move from lectures to discussions. In the meantime, I hope that this format will allow us to have a dialogue here too. Please feel free to add your thoughts, your examples, or your disagreements.
Della Rucker, AICP, CEcD, is the Principal of Wise Economy Workshop, a consulting firm that assists local governments and nonprofit organizations with the information and processes for making wise planning and economic development decisions.