The collective voice is expressed, … and then what?

Posted: July 7th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Civic engagement | No Comments »

What happens after a particular public engagement event ends?

Experienced practitioners spend much time understanding the context of of deliberation — interests, demographics, language sensitivities, and objective framing of the issues — and they bring this awareness and much else “into the room” to ensure that “collective voice” reasonably reflects every participant.

But how well and how often is that collective voice heard outside the room, as the wider process continues? Public engagement is, generally, one milestone, and not the final one, in a longer process that may include a council vote, a commission hearing, an executive signature or veto, a referendum, or political maneuvering.

What would it take to ensure “the room”‘s collective voice, developed so carefully, continues to be heard?

Lessons from the House

The US Capitol, just up the street from where I live and work, provides us with some suggestions. Consider a legislative measure that originates in the US House of Representatives. Savvy congresswomen and -men will, in shaping the legislation, consider what it will take for the bill to be passed by the US Senate and then signed by the President.

The House may take a more extreme position in order to gain bargaining leverage. It may package together seemingly unrelated measures in a single Bill to force Senate and Presidential approval, e.g. by adding “widows and orphans funding” to a controversial measure, to raise the cost to a Senator who might otherwise vote against the measure or the President considering a veto.

In addition to negotiation tactics, the House has structural means to ensure that its collective voice is heard: if the Senate modifies a bill, the House must pass those modifications before the final bill goes to the President. Further, the House — and, similarly, the Senate — has influence even after the bill has passed into law. It can affect implementation by adding or withholding funding and by holding hearings and of course, ultimately, by passing new legislation.

Three suggestions for public engagement practitioners

There are at least three ways in which an awareness of and then what? can inform public engagement.

Be clear.

Practitioners ought to explore the realities of the wider context: What comes after the public engagement process and how does that affect the likelihood that the “collective voice of the room” will be heard? And the results of these explorations should be shared with participants.

Be strategic.

Practitioners and participants should think more strategically about how the collective voice is expressed. Just as the House may shape a bill not just to reflect its collective voice but also to strengthen the hand of its negotiators in their discussions with the Senate and with the President, we should think more carefully about who might speak and act against the collective voice “outside” the room and how that might be countered.

Transform the broader context.

What if practitioners included a follow-up survey to be taken of all participants, one year after public engagement has ended, to assess participants’ opinions of whether their collective voice was heeded as the larger process progressed? What if a public engagement process included a review of past processes and what happened with their recommendations, rather than starting in a kind of vacuum? What other measures could we recommend to government officials and to the public to “strengthen the hand” of public engagement?

End Notes

Of course, there are already wise public engagement practitioners who show how some of these suggestions can be addressed in practice.

IAP2’s spectrum of participation (Inform -> Consult -> Involve -> Collaborate -> Empower) allows practitioners, government, and the public to locate a particular process in a wider context and be clear about how much or how little impact participants should expect to have.

NCDD’s engagement streams framework similarly distinguishes between Exploration, Conflict Transformation, Decision Making, and Collaborative Action as the primary purpose of a public engagement process.

AmericaSpeaks’s 21st Century Town Hall planning always included careful thinking about “linking to decision makers” — one strategy to give the collective voice more impact. And the scope and spectacle of larger town halls was in part intended to transform the context by giving the event and its results more impact politically.

(I acknowledge that the public currently disapproves of the House and, indeed the Senate and the President. But the Constitutional structures and legislative strategies touched on above have been in place for more than a century and long pre-date current dissatisfactions.)

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