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Let's Talk about Civic Engagement

Don’t (just) Ask; Don’t (just) Tell

In my last column I spoke about how meaningful engagement strategies are needed if we’re to break through the mistrust that too often comes between citizens and local government bodies (including planning commissions).

As I noted, a growing number of those of us who work in the field of civic participation have started to think about public engagement as comprising a range of potential strategies that build on each other. The aim is to create a more comprehensive and useful conception of public engagement than the “hold-a-meeting-and-listen-to-people-complain” approach we have so often felt stuck with.

My framing for this is simple: Tell, Ask, Dialogue, Collaborate. 

Here’s what I mean:

illustration of teacher lecturing studentsTell. We are Telling something to (or at) the public when we give them information. We tend to do this more than anything else — partly because we are dealing with complex issues and want people to know at least some of what we know, and partly because it’s a heck of a lot easier for us to lecture than to engage you in figuring out yourself what the information means and why it matters to you. This is why teachers and professors resort to lectures.

When your goal is to stick a set of information in someone else’s head, Telling is the quickest way to do it. But it’s also the least effective — psychologists have pretty well proven that people retain only a small proportion of what they hear or read, especially compared to their retention and comprehension when they have actually worked with the information themselves.

Ask. We also Ask people for their opinions or experiences a lot. We Ask survey questions like “where do you buy your groceries” or “would you support a proposal to rezone this property?”  And we Ask “do you like this land use scenario or that land use scenario better?”  Asking is an information-seeking activity — it’s trying to uncover facts that we can use to make a better-informed decision (“better informed” in your context might mean “more factually accurate,” or “more politically palatable,” or something else). Asking, if you think about it, is a fundamentally extractive process -– we are getting something we need out of the person we are Asking. 

This isn’t all bad by any stretch. Just like we need people to have information to work with, we also need to know what they’re thinking. The problem is that Asking, like Telling, is at best an incomplete part of what we need. Members of the public have the benefit of expressing their opinions, but it’s a limited benefit. When we are done Asking, we say, “thank you for your opinion … goodbye. We’ll let you know when we want to talk to you again.”

As a resident, I have no control over what you do with my feedback. If I end up thinking that you misunderstood or ignored my feedback, I’m likely to conclude that I wasted my time.

Bust of Socrates, from Garden of Alexandria (Egypt) Antiquities Museum; photo by Sebastià Giralt on Flickr; Creative Commons license
Bust of Socrates, from Garden of Alexandria (Egypt) Antiquities Museum; photo by Sebastià Giralt on Flickr; Creative Commons license

Dialogue. Dialogue is an ancient method (remember Socrates?) for not just building up a body of facts, but creating shared understanding among a group of people.

A dialogue can involve a review of factual information, sharing of opinions, review of alternative options, and so on. But here is the critical element: all of the participants in a dialogue are, in fact, participating. No one is passive in a dialogue. If people are listening but not speaking, they are an audience to the dialogue, and thus not part of the dialogue at all. The very idea of a Dialogue does not include passive recipients, like Telling and Asking do.

Dialogue also requires a different skill set from simple Telling or Asking — it’s at once somewhat easier, since it doesn’t imply public oratory or survey development skills, but it’s also much, much harder. As the ancient Greeks knew, a successful Dialogue requires a structure for Telling and Asking, as well as Listening, Questioning, and Keeping Your Patience When Someone Says Something Silly.

That’s an important point as well: in a Dialogue, people are engaged in thinking, not just stating an inflexible position. So trying an idea on for size, or changing your mind after reconsidering your opinion, is not just OK, it’s a key part of the process.

Collaborate. From my perspective, Collaboration should be the ultimate goal  of our planning efforts. Planners and planning commissions often become central participants in collaborations — whether they realize they are playing that role or not.

graphic illustrating collaborationWhen we make a plan, review a proposed development, or discuss changes to regulations, we know that what we do impacts other agencies, organizations, businesses, and people who are trying to support the community. And we know that we are being impacted by them. Sometimes our comprehensive plans specifically identify these impacts, but much of the time we overlook a key opportunity: the chance to use our planning work as a means of building a meaningful collaboration.

We sometimes enable people to collaborate, but we often don’t use the admittedly limited resources we have to help make collaboration happen.

When we face traffic congestion issues in a neighborhood, how often do we actively engage surrounding property owners in creating and carrying out the solutions? Do we find ways to enable them to construct cross-easements, or do we revised the subdivision regulations, sit back and wait, and then wonder when the congestion does not change?

When we have a proposal in front of us for a mental health services facility, and the neighbors are expressing their worries, do we use the opportunity to catalyze a community priority-setting about the types of mental health resources the community needs? Do we play a leadership role in forming those collaborations, or do we limit ourselves to the technical review and approval process?

Does some of what I described above potentially fall outside of the official mission of some planning commissions? Maybe. But does collaboration-building of this type fall within the fundamental mission of most planning commissions — to support the quality of life of their communities? I would argue, with rare exceptions, the answer is probably yes.

In my own city of Cincinnati, a proactive planning commission in the 1920s — a group of individuals who saw the interconnections between the commission’s mission and the life of the city as a whole — led what historian Larry Gerckens has called “the primary vehicle for sustaining the longest continuous municipal political reform movement in America” (see Community Leadership & the Cincinnati Planning Commission). They didn’t do that by sitting back and waiting for someone else to take the lead. They did that by catalyzing the change that they felt was necessary.

Even today, if we design our public engagement to build Collaboration, we can do more than what our commissions can do alone. We can strengthen the full set of muscles we need to make the entire community better.

In my next column — after New Years! — we’ll talk more about how to shift from one-way communication methods to two-way dialogues.

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.