Objections to public engagement just start the conversation

Posted: November 15th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Business development, Civic engagement, The business of public engagement | 1 Comment »

Listen, carefully, so that the challenge may tell you how to meet it.

Politicos object to public engagement

Last week, in an email thread [parts 1, 2, 3], a group of Dialogue and Deliberation practitioners and friends explored some of the barriers they have encountered in attempting to provide public engagement services to government agencies. Among them:

POWER
Officials resist giving up power, in the case at hand, and more generally – if, say, the public discovered that much could be accomplished without the mediation of politicos.

EXPERTISE
Officials fear that citizens lack the expertise officials take to be the key if not the only ingredient in sound policy making.

ELECTIONS
As one person wrote “Officials, directly or indirectly, must still respond to the whole body of voters at election time. If they base their decisions on a small, arguably unrepresentative set of ‘advisers,’ that may not set well with voters.”

The discussion concluded with a thumping affirmation of the power and effectiveness of public engagement, a lament — “We get little chance to do what we do magnificently to any substantive degree” thus “On the average everything in public engagement is getting worse and worse”– and a prophetic call for action:”What can we do about these things?”

I agree – don’t blame the practitioners, the people who put expertise, sensitvity, and experience into the design and implementation of processes that can work so well for participants.

Fine, but these obstacles remain. What to do?

Why? Let’s find out

Insist that the people responsible for business development — for building the bridges between practitioners and government officials — invest similar expertise, sensitivy, and experience into understanding and then addressing the concerns of those officials.

They can begin by finding the legitimate core of each of the issues raised above.

POWER – A WAY TO GET THINGS DONE

The public holds an elected leader accountable for a wide range of circumstances, many of which are outside of her control, e.g. winter storms, the economic policies of her predecessor, the actions of other jurisdictions. Reducing her power subjects her and, in turn her constituents, to these forces.

Worse, power is a fleeting thing, an odd amalgam of law, custom, and perception. Ask any President moving toward the middle of his second term about the challenges of staving off the powerlessness of “lame duck” status.

EXPERTISE – ACCOMMODATING THE BROADER CONSTRAINTS

The will of the people must often be reconciled with an array of constraints. Good policy on, for instance, healthcare and health insurance should be consistent with medical science, the psychology of incentives, economics, and demographics, among other disciplines.

Yet it’s unlikely that the public is versed in these matters. Indeed, people often have a weak grasp of key facts on even hotly debated issues. Recently, a late night entertainer showed how the man (and woman) in the street dismisses “Obamacare” as too invasive and expensive, then, seconds later, embraces “the Affordable Care Act” (the very same legislation under its original name) as a more reasonable alternative.

ELECTIONS – MAINTAINING LEGITIMACY

This concern may be illusory. A little digging suggests that voters often look favorably on public engagement. Chicago Alderman Joe Moore is in a stronger position, politically, for his enthusiastic sponsorship of participatory budgeting. Jay Williams, a planner deeply involved in Ohio’s *Youngstown 2010* effort, used his success there as a platform for a successful mayoral campaign.

So, in the narrow, this may be a misperception — either of the concerns of elected officials or a misperception of risks by elected officials.

However, ensuring that public engagement work is legitimate and is perceived to be legitimate is a plausible concern. The number of people involved in a regional public engagement effort are generally smaller, often by one or more orders of magnitude, than the number of voters in a region.

Apply the remedies we already know

Recasting these objections points to some remedies already at hand. As the prophet mentioned above wrote:”We know how to do public engagement better than anyone, ever has known how to do it.” For instance:

POWER – PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT GETS THINGS DONE

In the context of effective public engagement, political officials often gain sigificant “implementation power” by ceding a little decision-making power. There’s a little more discussion at the front-end of a process, but then the bridge gets built, the teachers get hired, or the social injustice is corrected.

EXPERTISE – PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT ALIGNS CIVIC VALUES WITH RELEVANT CONSTRAINTS

As the IAP2 spectrum (PDF) shows, it’s possible to design a public engagement process so that it conforms to external constraints. E.g. we don’t brainstorm to determine whether a bridge is sound from an engineering perspective.

More powerfully, public engagement processes can bring acknowledged constraints into a process by educating participants about them. Issue guides can be designed to bring participants up to speed quickly on matters of law and fact, and interactive games can be designed to take those constraints into account.

Most powerfully, an elected official can in effect turn the problem, constraints and all, over to a public engagement process. E.g., the city manager of Redwood City, CA turned over a water conservation mandate to a panel of residents who strongly opposed the city’s initial solution, telling them that if they could meet the state’s mandates in another way, and come in within budget, Redwood City would act on their alternative. The panel came up with a better plan, which was implemented harmoniously.

ELECTIONS – PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT AS A COMPONENT IN LEGITIMATE DECISION-MAKING

In those cases where a politician correctly perceives a conflict between re-election and public engagement, there are concrete ways to proceed .

Comprehensive outreach at the beginning of a public engagement process strengthens its legitimacy, by bringing traditionally underrepresented groups to the table, and more closely mirroring the composition of the body politic.

Incorporating traditional electoral measures at the end of a public engagement process creates even broader legitimacy. E.g. the residents of Owensboro, KY began a regional planning process with an AmericaSpeaks 21st Century Town Meeting to set design goals for a revitalized downtown, and then city and county legislative bodies endorsed the decision by voting for tax increases to fund the plan.

And keep listening

Even as they participate in public engagement processes on a particular issue, public officials are following the will of the people on a much broader set of issues, threading multiple needles dictated by science, law, and history, and, often, worrying about the next election.

Business developers, working in support of public engagement practitioners, must work with public officials to understand this wider context, then translate the resulting requirements so that practitioners can apply their vast skills and experience. Those practitioners have already proved their ability to bridge a vast set of gaps to bring people as constituents into public engagement processes.

And public officials are people, too.