“Trust me” has no place in public engagement: A lesson from Liberia

Posted: May 14th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

The “trust me” approach to public engagement asserts when it should listen, seeks superficial agreement when it should watch behavior, and in effect treats “trust” as something that’s nice to have when in fact it’s the oxygen that powers community collaboration.

Residents of Monrovia, Liberia, and indeed all of us are lucky that public health officials took a much more serious and robust approach to trust a few years ago.

Here’s what happened.

In 2015,  a young man was stabbed and killed in a gang fight in Monrovia. Routine testing revealed that he was positive for Ebola.

When public health workers identify a new case, they begin to trace the victim’s contacts so they can monitor and treat those most at risk and contain the spread of the disease.

That was much more difficult here. The public health goal conflicted with the police goal (identify and imprison the attackers). In addition, during a prior Ebola outbreak, the government had instituted forced quarantines, making Liberians even more reluctant to come forward.

The public health officials needed to create a kind of transactional trust, fast, with people not predisposed to trust. The officials needed information to trace contacts, and then trust to monitor those contacts for early signs of infection.

So they listened to what members of the community needed, found ways to provide it, brought the high risk contacts into quarantine voluntarily, and contained the outbreak. (More at the link above, including the story of “Time Bomb”.)

What struck me most about this case:

  • Trust was necessary,
  • It would be demonstated (or not) in the voluntary behavior of members of the community, and
  • It had to be nurtured – public health workers couldn’t simply assert that they were trustworthy.

And in this way, Monrovia 2015 is a microcosm of the public engagement challenge: creating operational trust strong enough to allow the community to do what needs to be done, when people have conflicting goals and a shared history that makes distrust a the likely response.

When have you seen public engagement respond to a situation where the community’s trust was a matter of life or death? What happened?




Public dialogue mandatory to maintain trust in value trade-offs

Posted: November 8th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

andre-robillard-298-unsplash smallerMy take on a key point from Joseph Thornley’s interview with Don Lenihan last year on the InsideP2 podcast:

  1. Public engagement as “consultation” served well when we could hold one siloed discussion at a time. The stakeholders more or less shared values, e.g. in the “environmentalist silo” or in the “economic development/jobs silo”, so those not participating may have felt represented.
  2. Today, discussions across silos (and sets of values) are mandatory, and value trade-offs inevitable. Those not participating don’t see how the value trade-offs were made. So they lose trust in the process.
  3. Open dialogue, where not just the input but also the deliberation and decision-making are transparent, is the only way to sustain trust in this situation.

Worth a listen. The remaining podcasts in the series look interesting as well.

Image credit:  André Robillard on Unsplash

Cure for the “incomplete” public engagement RFP?

Posted: August 16th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Frustrated by what *wasn’t* in the Public Engagement RFP you were proposing for? Imagine presenting this response: the types of buyers

Here is our full response to your RFP—everything you were looking for …

However, because we have only 60 minutes together, I’m going to let you read that on your own.

I’d like to use our time to walk you through the three things we believe should have been in the RFP but weren’t, and to explain why they matter so much.

More: https://hbr.org/2012/07/the-end-of-solution-sales

“Public engagement is worthless”, if all the dots aren’t connected.

Posted: August 14th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

If you manage public engagement (PE), sell PE services, or buy them, especially for transportation or other infrastructure projects, take a few minutes to read this post and the comments at Strong Towns.

steve-harvey-698868-unsplash smaller

If all the connections aren’t made, public engagement may in fact be worthless.

Please resist the temptation to sputter or, especially, post an angry comment. These are good folks who need excellent PE support to fulfill their goals, and they’ve written about this at length.

So when they get frustrated and dismissive, it’s worth figuring out why. These are the questions that arose for me, so I put them to you as well. Regarding the PE efforts you have designed, implemented, bought, or sold:

  1. Did you assess, in each instance, whether the extra cost and time required to do PE was likely to have commensurate results?
  2. If so, did you dissect which aspects of PE – outreach, survey, education, negotiation, publicizing results, long term follow-up – need to be emphasized?
  3. If so, did you work with the client or your senior managers to identify the sponsor’s responsibilities for implementing PE well and following up with integrity?
  4. If so, did you identify indicators and devise a monitoring process to ensure that the effort stayed on track, delivered what was promised, and built trust?
  5. If the answer to any of the above was “no”, did you turn down the work or push hard for a better approach?

I’d love to hear your stories.

For more on how to design and manage public engagement to create results and build trust, see the latest from Facilitation Analytics, Navigating With 3D Evaluation: Public Dialogue For Results.

Image credit: Steve Harvey, Unsplash

Showing how online engagement is worth $29,000 or much more

Posted: August 2nd, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

What would it be worth if a solid online engagement effort, say in support of a $10 million transportation project, deepened citizens’ understanding of the issues, created a more robust consensus on what needs to be done, and, because of efficiencies of web-based outreach and discussion, shaved a month off the overall project?

The first two impacts may be hard to measure, but studies from the Texas Transportation Institute show that the time saving, by itself, is worth at least $29,000. That pays for a lot of online engagement.

Details here.

How does one do (one kind of) public engagement?

Posted: March 12th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Civic engagement, Framework, Uncategorized | 9 Comments »

How Public Engagement  Achieves its Goals

This past Monday, I laid out how public engagement bolsters long-term stakeholder support for large infrastructure projects by creating more realistic expectations and reducing perceptions of unfairness.

In this post, I’ll argue that achieving these results requires five processes:

  1. Reaching out to the full diversity of stakeholders to create a representative sample with whom we can work directly,
  2. Assessing the sample’s experience and understanding,
  3. Informing and educating the sample,
  4. Negotiating among stakeholders in the sample, and finally
  5. Opening up the process to include all stakeholders.

Component Processes

OUTREACH: Stakeholders are diverse.  In planning and constructing the bridge, bicyclists can’t speak for the car commuters who in turn can’t speak for the construction workers or the taxpayers.  Many lead busy lives, like single parents, students juggling studies and work, or older people who stay involved in spite of physical challenges. Some, like commuters, live and work far away. All will have to be brought into the process, and it will take thought and effort to do so.

SOCIAL SURVEY: Stakeholders are generally much more diverse than the project team. It’s difficult to know, in advance, what experiences, skills, and expectations various groups bring to the engagement process and what they know about one another. One way or another, we have to find out,  through polls, interviews, focus groups, public meetings, and similar activities.

INFORMATION: Once we’ve determined what the gaps are, we have to fill them in. For instance, we’ll show drivers what cyclists need to share the road safely, describe construction processes and schedules to residents, so they know what to expect, and bring taxpayers up to speed on the advantages and disadvantages of levying tolls to pay for construction and maintenance. We’ll achieve this through guidebooks, video, websites, discussion, among other ways.

NEGOTIATION: Information begins to address perceived unfairness, but generally more is needed. The city pays for the bridge, but the bridge serves commuters who pay income taxes in the adjoining state. The bridge’s neighbors will bear the brunt of the construction process and the long term increase in traffic without getting commensurate benefits. Negotiation may be required to determine side arrangements, e.g. bridge tolls, commuter taxes, a new park to compensate the bridge’s neighbors, that will draw support from enough stakeholders to underwrite the long-term success of the bridge. In public engagement, these negotiations are often informal, structured as dialogue and deliberation.

OPENING UP: Bridge project stakeholders number in the hundreds of thousands. Even if we’ve reached what’s considered to be “large numbers” in the previous four steps, it’s unlikely to be more than a few thousand. We need the long term support of a much larger proportion of stakeholders. So we must open up the process to reach all stakeholders, well beyond the sample. This is generally achieved through advertising, public service announcements, and large scale events that draw media attention.

“Project Tuning”

So far, we’ve assumed that the public engagement process doesn’t affect the planning, construction, operation, and maintenance of the bridge directly. But, of course, modifying these and other aspects of the bridge project may improve stakeholder support. E.g. a bike path can be added to accommodate local cyclists, the building schedule may be modified to reduce impact on surrounding neighborhoods, and so forth.

Project tuning can, in turn, affect each of the components of public engagement. Changing the bridge design so that it accommodates only cyclists and pedestrians may remove commuters as a stakeholder group, and thus reduce outreach requirements. (Though commuters may have something to say if they expected a new bridge to ease their morning and afternoon travels.)

If we increase the scope of the project, by adding a bikeway to what was before a bridge designed only for cars and trucks, outreach requirements increase. The requirements for each of the following phases may also become more complex.

How do we know that our public engagement efforts have been successful? If we’re responsible for just one component process, how do we determine that we’ve done our part? For these and other questions of decision-making and metrics, come back next Monday.