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Let's Talk about Civic Engagement

One-Way Lecturing vs. Two-Way Dialogue

In my last article I introduced you to the idea of crowdsourcing — the model being used by successful companies to recruit and test new ideas directly with their customers and users. It’s a powerful model, made easier than ever by internet tools.  As I pointed out, we claim in local government to be crowdsourcing ideas — 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.

Fundamentally, the difference between what we are doing and what we could be doing much better is the difference between one-way lecturing and two-way dialogue. Our usual approach is at least 90% one-way, either from official to public or from public to official. Here are 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.

illustration of a unicorn and a rainbow

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, or they may be ill-informed or outright crazy — rainbows and unicorns, as one planner I know puts 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 is that our engagement with you 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 a one-way conversation. The actual benefit of having multiple people together in a supposedly deliberative setting — the ability to draw on different ideas, perspectives, and experiences to find a better solution than any one  of us could alone — largely disappears. We are left with a hobbled, limping version of that democratic process we claim is so important.

Neither the public or the officials are trying to undermine the community. In both cases, they are just stuck in a box 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 put enough thought into how we can create or enable meaningful dialogues. If we don’t help our public participants understand the issues and identify which need to be dealt with right now, and if we don’t take responsibility for keeping the conversation on track and productive, then we’re wasting the time of the good-intentioned people who want to help figure out real answers to issues facing their community.

In the next column, we’ll talk about how we can make this move from lecture to dialogue. In the meantime, feel free to add your thoughts, comments, or questions below.

photo of Della RuckerDella 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.

Rucker is also Managing Editor of EngagingCities and author of the recent book The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help — portions of which will be serialized here on during 2014.