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.

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.