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Let's Talk about Civic Engagement

Do You Give More than Lip Service to Public Participation?

illustration of lip serviceIf the only public engagement that any commission does is a half-hour question-and-answer session on the tail end of an hour-long panel discussion, it’s giving lip service to the idea of public participation.

I don’t think it’s any news to anyone that our usual methods for public engagement often fail to do what we actually need: engage our residents — who are our true local experts — in the real search for solutions to complex and messy problems (note that we’re talking about planning-type settings, not necessarily formal hearings here).

Planners sometimes hesitate about embarking on the kind of in-depth engagement strategies I’ll be discussing in this and future columns out of concern about disruptive members of the public. We’ve all encountered situations when trying to develop a plan or policy where at least a small number of people come with very specific axe to grind — a particular topic or point of view that might be off track from the stated purpose of the meeting. These folks are often not interested in being part of a conversation, their goal is to push their agenda by any means necessary.

I have written elsewhere about specific methods for managing audience participation in an environment where axe-grinders are waiting for their chance — and I maintain that it’s our responsibility as leaders to manage the situation. Allowing a small group with an agenda to dominate a public meeting is like letting a couple of badly-behaved students poison the learning environment for everyone else in the classroom. It’s not fair to anyone.

microphone illustrationEvery meeting has its own rules and procedures, but it’s our responsibility to make sure that the situation is fair to everyone, not just to the five people who lack the extremely common public fear of speaking into a microphone.

In fact, the presence and prevalence of axe-grinders should indicate to us that our communities hold a massive pent-up demand for real, meaningful participation. If we only open the doors to our residents and business owners once in a while when we have a tightly-defined topic to address, then we have made our own bed. And as our issues become more complex and more contentious, that bed is increasingly uncomfortable to lie in.

Different people have defined the trajectory of public engagement strategies differently — for example, the International Association of Public Participation (yes, there is such a group) has developed what they term a Spectrum of Public Participation (pdf file). From my own perspective, I think our options for how we design public engagement around a plan or decision typically fall into four categories:

• Tell  • Ask  • Dialogue  • Collaborate

What does that mean?

When we give a presentation, post documents to a web page, or announce the preferred plan, we are Telling. It’s one-way communication from us to the public.

When we ask members of the public questions, and then simply write down their answers, we are Asking. It’s one-way as well, but from them to us.

Here’s the problem: while both Telling and Asking are needed, they are nowhere near enough. Either one by itself is badly limited — it’s information-sharing or information-gathering. It’s not engaging, it’s not searching for answers, and, most importantly, it’s not solving problems — which is what we were supposed to be doing in the first place. Perhaps more troubling, it reinforces that unspoken assumption that We The Local Government Types know all the answers.

Instead, what we need in our communities is to build the capacity to Deliberate. We need to share not only facts and opinions, but interpretations and priorities and potential solutions – and do so in a context that enables us to engage the full range of our community’s expertise in the search for solutions.

Perhaps more importantly, we need to build a foundation for Collaborating. If we are going to actually address the deep and complex challenges our communities face, we know that we can’t do it through our limited set of physical planning and zoning tools alone. We need to use our planning processes to engage the full cross-section of people and organizations within our communities. By drawing on people and groups with diverse skills and capacities, we can better address difficult issues.

Make no mistake: many residents want to engage. They want to engage as deeply, as meaningfully, and as powerfully as they can. They want to be part of the solution. Some may come in with a contorted or misinformed idea of what the solutions look like, and others may come in with a sense of mistrust –- deep suspicion that whatever you’re doing is a sham.

It becomes our responsibility to break through that distrust. And that’s not something we can do simply by Telling or Asking. When we plan, or make decisions of any type about the future of our communities, we need to extend as far up that engagement hierarchy as we can go. We can’t do that in one meeting, or with one method for letting a few sample people talk. We have to design our public engagement consciously, drawing on a continuum of methods and tools to enable and guide people to real participation.

We didn’t make this mess ourselves. But if we are going to fix our communities, we have start by fixing the relationship between our residents and their governments. It has to start with us. And that will take more than just managing a few people with an axe to grind.

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.