Let's Talk about Civic Engagement

One-Way Lecturing vs. Two-Way Dialogue

August 29th, 2012

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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. 

End of excerpt

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 PlannersWeb.com during 2014.

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