It doesn’t matter whether an organization “decides to engage” its public

Posted: September 17th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Civic engagement, online engagment | Tags: | No Comments »

because it’s always been engaged with the public and always will be.

We see this framing a lot: “The organization decided to engage with its public”. Let’s banish it. “Decided to engage” is misleading, because it suggests that engagement is up to the organization.

When it comes to gravity, the earth doesn’t have a veto. Just so, the organization can no more decide not to engage than the earth can “decide” to ignore the sun’s gravitational pull.

The public is always interpreting the organization’s pronouncements and actions, and that interpretation matters as much as or more than those pronouncements and actions themselves.

And the public interprets silence and inaction readily and almost always negatively.

The organization can’t “turn off” the public’s ongoing interpretation, and so it is always engaged.

So by all means urge the organization to decide to recognize that it is already engaged with its public, to examine how well (or not) that engagement is working, and to make it more robust. But let’s skip right past discussions of whether or not to veto gravity.

“Trust me” has no place in public engagement: A lesson from Liberia

Posted: May 14th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

The “trust me” approach to public engagement asserts when it should listen, seeks superficial agreement when it should watch behavior, and in effect treats “trust” as something that’s nice to have when in fact it’s the oxygen that powers community collaboration.

Residents of Monrovia, Liberia, and indeed all of us are lucky that public health officials took a much more serious and robust approach to trust a few years ago.

Here’s what happened.

In 2015,  a young man was stabbed and killed in a gang fight in Monrovia. Routine testing revealed that he was positive for Ebola.

When public health workers identify a new case, they begin to trace the victim’s contacts so they can monitor and treat those most at risk and contain the spread of the disease.

That was much more difficult here. The public health goal conflicted with the police goal (identify and imprison the attackers). In addition, during a prior Ebola outbreak, the government had instituted forced quarantines, making Liberians even more reluctant to come forward.

The public health officials needed to create a kind of transactional trust, fast, with people not predisposed to trust. The officials needed information to trace contacts, and then trust to monitor those contacts for early signs of infection.

So they listened to what members of the community needed, found ways to provide it, brought the high risk contacts into quarantine voluntarily, and contained the outbreak. (More at the link above, including the story of “Time Bomb”.)

What struck me most about this case:

  • Trust was necessary,
  • It would be demonstated (or not) in the voluntary behavior of members of the community, and
  • It had to be nurtured – public health workers couldn’t simply assert that they were trustworthy.

And in this way, Monrovia 2015 is a microcosm of the public engagement challenge: creating operational trust strong enough to allow the community to do what needs to be done, when people have conflicting goals and a shared history that makes distrust a the likely response.

When have you seen public engagement respond to a situation where the community’s trust was a matter of life or death? What happened?




Public dialogue mandatory to maintain trust in value trade-offs

Posted: November 8th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

andre-robillard-298-unsplash smallerMy take on a key point from Joseph Thornley’s interview with Don Lenihan last year on the InsideP2 podcast:

  1. Public engagement as “consultation” served well when we could hold one siloed discussion at a time. The stakeholders more or less shared values, e.g. in the “environmentalist silo” or in the “economic development/jobs silo”, so those not participating may have felt represented.
  2. Today, discussions across silos (and sets of values) are mandatory, and value trade-offs inevitable. Those not participating don’t see how the value trade-offs were made. So they lose trust in the process.
  3. Open dialogue, where not just the input but also the deliberation and decision-making are transparent, is the only way to sustain trust in this situation.

Worth a listen. The remaining podcasts in the series look interesting as well.

Image credit:  André Robillard on Unsplash

Cure for the “incomplete” public engagement RFP?

Posted: August 16th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Frustrated by what *wasn’t* in the Public Engagement RFP you were proposing for? Imagine presenting this response: the types of buyers

Here is our full response to your RFP—everything you were looking for …

However, because we have only 60 minutes together, I’m going to let you read that on your own.

I’d like to use our time to walk you through the three things we believe should have been in the RFP but weren’t, and to explain why they matter so much.


“Public engagement is worthless”, if all the dots aren’t connected.

Posted: August 14th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

If you manage public engagement (PE), sell PE services, or buy them, especially for transportation or other infrastructure projects, take a few minutes to read this post and the comments at Strong Towns.

steve-harvey-698868-unsplash smaller

If all the connections aren’t made, public engagement may in fact be worthless.

Please resist the temptation to sputter or, especially, post an angry comment. These are good folks who need excellent PE support to fulfill their goals, and they’ve written about this at length.

So when they get frustrated and dismissive, it’s worth figuring out why. These are the questions that arose for me, so I put them to you as well. Regarding the PE efforts you have designed, implemented, bought, or sold:

  1. Did you assess, in each instance, whether the extra cost and time required to do PE was likely to have commensurate results?
  2. If so, did you dissect which aspects of PE – outreach, survey, education, negotiation, publicizing results, long term follow-up – need to be emphasized?
  3. If so, did you work with the client or your senior managers to identify the sponsor’s responsibilities for implementing PE well and following up with integrity?
  4. If so, did you identify indicators and devise a monitoring process to ensure that the effort stayed on track, delivered what was promised, and built trust?
  5. If the answer to any of the above was “no”, did you turn down the work or push hard for a better approach?

I’d love to hear your stories.

For more on how to design and manage public engagement to create results and build trust, see the latest from Facilitation Analytics, Navigating With 3D Evaluation: Public Dialogue For Results.

Image credit: Steve Harvey, Unsplash

The 34 second case for open dialogue, online or off. (Thoughtexchange)

Posted: August 8th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Civic engagement, dialogue, online engagment, The business of public engagement, Transparency | No Comments »

People are well aware of the risks of publicly visible dialogue, especially when it’s online. So agencies and organizations often choose mostly one way information flows: comments and questions are directed to the sponsor privately, carefully reviewed and often trimmed of controversial content, and only then posted in public.

In this clip, Jayme Smithers of Thoughtexchange makes the best case possible, if you only have 34 seconds, for publicly visible dialogue and back and forth.


The whole discussion is worthwhile. It features three school superintendents reflecting on their experience using Thoughtexchange, but it’s mostly applicable to face to face discussions and other web-based approaches as well.

They go well beyond the humor, explaining that the benefits of publicly visible back and forth are manifold.

It allows the sponsor to serve as the convener, introducing participants to one another, often for the first time. It elicits new information from participants and gives them the chance to make the case, in their own words, often with particular credibility for their peers, credibility that the sponsor may not have.

The full video also addresses concerns many dialogue sponsors have that criticisms will be aired. One superintendent notes that “the buzz is out there” already. Those discussions are happening anyway. Shifting them to a public forum allows the sponsor to hear them and, often, add data and questions that may shape the discussion in a more productive direction.

Well done.

Showing how online engagement is worth $29,000 or much more

Posted: August 2nd, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

What would it be worth if a solid online engagement effort, say in support of a $10 million transportation project, deepened citizens’ understanding of the issues, created a more robust consensus on what needs to be done, and, because of efficiencies of web-based outreach and discussion, shaved a month off the overall project?

The first two impacts may be hard to measure, but studies from the Texas Transportation Institute show that the time saving, by itself, is worth at least $29,000. That pays for a lot of online engagement.

Details here.

Public engagement: Knowing what we need to measure

Posted: March 16th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Civic engagement, Framework, Metrics | 3 Comments »

What decisions do we face?

Now that we’ve sketched out what one type of public engagement does and how it does it, we can get a better handle on the kinds of decisions that will arise as we manage a public engagement process.

(Cockpit photo byAleksander Markin) Dials and indicators are useful if ...

Image: Aleksander Markin
Dials and indicators are useful if …

In the middle of a public engagement project, the most basic decision a manager faces is “are we done yet?”.

In considering projects in retrospect, for instance if we’re considering what methods or consultants to use for an upcoming assignment, the basic question might be “was the project successful?”.

These big questions break down into lots of little questions, as we can see in our bridge example.

Is more engagement work required to create the needed level of long term support across stakeholders? Can we count on the bridge’s neighbors to see the project out, in spite of the disruptions we expect as a result of construction? What about unrealistic expectations: Have the overly rosy hopes for rush hour traffic reductions been corrected? And what about perceived unfairness: Are the city’s taxpayers likely to continue to fund bridge maintenance though the bridge benefits primarily commuters?

Questions like these could be addressed by polling, surveys, and interviews of the relevant stakeholders.

Of course, since the goal is long-term stakeholder support, the proof of the pudding is whether –  five, ten, and twenty years hence – the support is there. Research centers and foundations that study public engagement should revisit past projects to determine how well stakeholder support was sustained.

Component Processes

As we manage each of the five component processes as the public engagement effort proceeds, we are continually making one important decision:

Have we done enough at each particular stage to allow succeeding stages to be successful?

This is a broad topic, but I’ll illustrate the approach with questions that could, in turn, drive metrics.

OUTREACH: Are we reaching cyclists as well as commuters, low income as well as middle income residents? Does the sample group pulled into the engagement process match the larger stakeholder population in key characteristics? As this larger population changes over time, can we pull the right kinds of new members into our sample group to stay in synch? Have we pulled in enough participants for subsequent processes to succeed, e.g. for a survey to be statistically reliable?

These questions can be answered by demographic surveys of participants, compared to polls of the underlying population of stakeholders.

SOCIAL SURVEY: Can we use our survey of commuters, our interviews with cyclists, our polls of taxpayers to design relevant education efforts and anticipate the key issues in the negotiation phase? Are we assessing all stakeholder groups in a reliable way? Are we following the relevant best practices from statistics, ethnography, and so forth?

EDUCATION, INFORMATION, PUBLIC RELATIONS: Do our presentations to automobile association members in fact bring commuters up to speed about the different needs of cyclists? Do users engage with our website in enough depth to understand the uncertainties in the bridge construction project? Do the bridge’s neighbors have a clear sense of how construction will affect them?

NEGOTIATION: Is the negotiation phase structured to address the concerns we’ve uncovered in the social survey phase? Once the negotiation phase has concluded, are taxpayers ready to support the bridge? Are cyclists comfortable that they’ll be able to use the bridge safely? If we’ve added a park project to compensate the bridge’s neighbors for the construction impact, does the neighborhood understand and accept the relationship between the park and the main bridge project?

OPENING UP: Once we’ve opened up the process, are taxpayers who weren’t directly involved in the previous four phases as supportive of the bridge project as taxpayers who participated in the negotiation? Are the bicycle activists we didn’t reach with the initial public education campaign comfortable that they too will be able to use the bridge safely? Are the stakeholders who participated in the public engagement process directly and those who learned of the process through our dissemination similar in their degree of project understanding and support?

Metrics, Decision-Making, and an Orientation to Results

they get us where we're going.

… they get us where we’re going.

This post demonstrates the value of the view of public engagement laid out in the previous two posts. By fitting public engagement into the larger picture of public infrastructure projects, we have a context for considering the kinds of decisions that will need to be made, and thus what kinds of questions and metrics will be useful.

How does one do (one kind of) public engagement?

Posted: March 12th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Civic engagement, Framework, Uncategorized | 9 Comments »

How Public Engagement  Achieves its Goals

This past Monday, I laid out how public engagement bolsters long-term stakeholder support for large infrastructure projects by creating more realistic expectations and reducing perceptions of unfairness.

In this post, I’ll argue that achieving these results requires five processes:

  1. Reaching out to the full diversity of stakeholders to create a representative sample with whom we can work directly,
  2. Assessing the sample’s experience and understanding,
  3. Informing and educating the sample,
  4. Negotiating among stakeholders in the sample, and finally
  5. Opening up the process to include all stakeholders.

Component Processes

OUTREACH: Stakeholders are diverse.  In planning and constructing the bridge, bicyclists can’t speak for the car commuters who in turn can’t speak for the construction workers or the taxpayers.  Many lead busy lives, like single parents, students juggling studies and work, or older people who stay involved in spite of physical challenges. Some, like commuters, live and work far away. All will have to be brought into the process, and it will take thought and effort to do so.

SOCIAL SURVEY: Stakeholders are generally much more diverse than the project team. It’s difficult to know, in advance, what experiences, skills, and expectations various groups bring to the engagement process and what they know about one another. One way or another, we have to find out,  through polls, interviews, focus groups, public meetings, and similar activities.

INFORMATION: Once we’ve determined what the gaps are, we have to fill them in. For instance, we’ll show drivers what cyclists need to share the road safely, describe construction processes and schedules to residents, so they know what to expect, and bring taxpayers up to speed on the advantages and disadvantages of levying tolls to pay for construction and maintenance. We’ll achieve this through guidebooks, video, websites, discussion, among other ways.

NEGOTIATION: Information begins to address perceived unfairness, but generally more is needed. The city pays for the bridge, but the bridge serves commuters who pay income taxes in the adjoining state. The bridge’s neighbors will bear the brunt of the construction process and the long term increase in traffic without getting commensurate benefits. Negotiation may be required to determine side arrangements, e.g. bridge tolls, commuter taxes, a new park to compensate the bridge’s neighbors, that will draw support from enough stakeholders to underwrite the long-term success of the bridge. In public engagement, these negotiations are often informal, structured as dialogue and deliberation.

OPENING UP: Bridge project stakeholders number in the hundreds of thousands. Even if we’ve reached what’s considered to be “large numbers” in the previous four steps, it’s unlikely to be more than a few thousand. We need the long term support of a much larger proportion of stakeholders. So we must open up the process to reach all stakeholders, well beyond the sample. This is generally achieved through advertising, public service announcements, and large scale events that draw media attention.

“Project Tuning”

So far, we’ve assumed that the public engagement process doesn’t affect the planning, construction, operation, and maintenance of the bridge directly. But, of course, modifying these and other aspects of the bridge project may improve stakeholder support. E.g. a bike path can be added to accommodate local cyclists, the building schedule may be modified to reduce impact on surrounding neighborhoods, and so forth.

Project tuning can, in turn, affect each of the components of public engagement. Changing the bridge design so that it accommodates only cyclists and pedestrians may remove commuters as a stakeholder group, and thus reduce outreach requirements. (Though commuters may have something to say if they expected a new bridge to ease their morning and afternoon travels.)

If we increase the scope of the project, by adding a bikeway to what was before a bridge designed only for cars and trucks, outreach requirements increase. The requirements for each of the following phases may also become more complex.

How do we know that our public engagement efforts have been successful? If we’re responsible for just one component process, how do we determine that we’ve done our part? For these and other questions of decision-making and metrics, come back next Monday.

What does (one kind of) public engagement do?

Posted: March 9th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Civic engagement, Framework | 2 Comments »

Over the past decade, some of the wisest, most experienced practitioners in Public Engagement (PE) have puzzled over three interlocked problems:

METRICS: When PE processes can cost six and seven figures, at a cost per person engaged ranging into the hundreds of dollars for a single day event, how can we measure success and justify the expense to skeptics?

ONLINE: How can practitioners apply what they know about face to face PE and use that to leverage social media, email, and other online tools?

SCALING: Public engagement has been proven to be successful in processes involving thousands of people, but how can we expand it, cost-effectively, to reach hundreds of thousands or millions?

Mosh pit at a concert

In the heart of the work, patterns may be obscured. (Brian Werner photo)

These questions have been intractable, in my view, because of something that’s generally a strength in public engagement work: practitioners are skilled in the fine details of the work, the context of organizations, the particulars of urban settings, the personalities of participants. The view “from the trenches” is critical but needs to be in dialogue with a view that allows us to see broad patterns and connections.

To create a foundation for this broader view, let’s consider one type of public engagement and explore why is it needed.

Long-term stakeholder support is required to make large infrastructure projects successful.

A tremendous variety of activities have been described as “public engagement”.  Here, I’ll focus on public engagement to support large infrastructure projects that have a significant “real world” component affecting tens or hundreds of thousands of people, over decades. These projects require long-term stakeholder support to be successful. For instance, the success of a new bridge over decades depends on construction funded by taxpayers, continued use by drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, and long-term maintenance funded by current and future taxpayers.

What Gets in the Way of Stakeholder Support?

Taxpayers may fear additional tax burdens, neighbors may worry about noise, dirt, and risks during construction, and increased traffic in the long-term, cyclists may be concerned that the bridge will be unsafe for them. In short, stakeholders may anticipate various negative consequences.

Stakeholders may also have unrealistically positive expectations. This will increase support in the short-term, but it will undermine long-term support when those expectations are not fulfilled.

Further, the bridge’s neighbors may feel that, while they’re paying most of the taxes for the bridge and suffering through the chaos of construction, commuters who live outside the city and far away from the construction will get most of the benefit. In general, stakeholders who bear more than their share of costs or garner less than their share of benefits will perceive the project to be unfair.

How Do Large Infrastructure Projects Make Stakeholder Support Difficult?

In brief, the lumpy, inherently uncertain, and irreversible  nature of project impacts collides with the broad diversity and general inexperience of stakeholders to create unrealistic expectations and grievances.

Large Infrastructure Projects Are Challenging in Three Ways

LUMPINESS: The bridge changes the view for thousands of neighbors, the ride for thousands of commuters, taxes and other costs for thousands of residents. This can’t be tuned to affect each person or group differently. You and I and everyone of our neighbors may consume a different soup at lunch, but we all “consume” the same bridge.

INHERENT UNCERTAINTY: As bridge construction goes on, there may be environmental remediation required that no one anticipated. Or perhaps the bridge is completed successfully, but we find that commuting patterns have changed as more people move into the city or switch to public transit.

IRREVERSIBILITY: It’s expensive to “unbuild” a bridge, and impossible to move it. This is true of infrastructure projects generally.  Yet stakeholders generally experience the full impact only after the project is complete.

Project Stakeholders Add Two Further Challenges

DIVERSITY: As I’ve noted, the bridge’s success rests on long term and often intense support from many different groups of people. Investors, commuters, the bridge’s neighbors, construction workers, and people who come to the river to fish and paddle are all important stakeholders.

They “arrive” at difference times, from the planner or civic activist who has tracked the project for years before ground is broken, to the more narrowly focused resident who doesn’t get involved until much later, when the dirt and noise obtrudes into their neighborhood.

Stakeholders differ from one another in age, education, socioeconomic level, income, and so forth, in how they relate to the bridge project, and in how the bridge affects their interests.

INEXPERIENCE: The bridge’s planners, construction workers, and project managers are experts in their work, but most stakeholders will be novices when it comes to large infrastructure projects. And even the recognized experts may lack expertise in other factors that will influence the project’s success, such as commuting patterns in this area, or the past history of surrounding neighborhoods.

Project Challenges + Stakeholder Challenges = Unrealistic Expectations and Perceived Unfairness

Stakeholders don’t have the experience to have realistic expectations, particularly when expectations should be nuanced to reflect project uncertainties. Their diversity combined with the inherent lumpiness of project impacts generates an unfair distribution of project benefits and costs. Further, since the project is large and irreversible, “redos” are impossible. This only heightens anxieties and concerns. Thus, it’s often difficult to garner the long term support needed to develop and implement a large infrastructure project successfully.

So, What Does Public Engagement Do?

Public engagement bolsters long term stakeholder support for large infrastructure projects by reducing unrealistic expectations and  perceptions of unfairness.

Taking a step back reveals new patterns.

Taking a step back reveals new possibilities.

The value of this definition is in what it reveals when we explore the process of public engagement, metrics that can guide public engagement decisions, and possibilities for scaling work to reach many more participants.

The series continues this Thursday.