Dealing with the pachyderm in the public participation process

Posted: March 18th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Democratic businesses, Ethics | Comments Off on Dealing with the pachyderm in the public participation process

We expect that the citizens who show up will feel a sense of entitlement. What if we don’t take that at face value?

Can we talk about what’s going on?

The previous post buried the most important point. Consider:

  1. In public, the planner suggested that public participation was effective and worthwhile.
  2. In private, he disclosed that it had little impact on government.
  3. The difference between the public and private views is huge, but few people reading these words will be surprised.

So why is it difficult to discuss the value of a participative governance in a particular context?

Planners, consultants, government officials and others cant be sure what to make of the role of the particular citizens who show up.

Who are these people?

The previous post suggested that there is a general expectation, at least for PR purposes, that the citizens wishes be honored and even implemented. But its easy to argue against that. Who, after all, are the particular citizens who show up?

  • Government officials, themselves either directly elected or specifically responsible to elected politicians, can ask: how can these folks claim to represent anyone other than themselves?
  • Developers, who have money, time, and reputation on the line, can ask: what stake do these folks have in the outcome?
  • Planners, with their training, analytical tools and data, and specific professional responsibilities, can ask: what expertise do these folks bring to the table?

And yet government officials, developers, and planners are all supposed to treat the citizens as their superiors. (And consider that some of the criticisms offered from the floor would never be tolerated with such outward good humor if the roles were reversed.)

Lessons from democratic businesses

Businesses that attempt to run on democratic principles have to confront both of these problems: theyve got to find ways to make participative governance work not just once, but over and over and over again, and they are generally structured so that participants in the process have vastly different expertise, face different risks, and come from unique and distinctive roles. What can we learn from them?

This will be an ongoing theme, so lets start with just a taste. Worldblu recently convened a roundtable of democratic businesses to consider lessons learned. What emerged thats most relevant to us is that democratic business processes work best when all participants

  • Feel accountable, not entitled
  • Are comfortable with transparency
  • Recover from their mistakes quickly and with grace
  • Understand their role in making the organization perform

How to placate support?

So lets forego the temptation to placate the citizens who show up for our public process, or put them on a pedestal, and ask a different question: what are their specific responsibilities, and how can we help them fulfill those responsibilities?


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