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.