By Brenda Morrison, Partner, Engaged Public
I was asked a series of really good questions the other day by a foundation executive whose organization has consistently supported efforts to engage the public in policy discussions in Colorado.
She asked, “Do you feel that public engagement efforts really matter?”
I gave her truthful, yet probably unsatisfying, comment:
“Yes,” I said, “I really believe in public engagement, and that connecting the citizenry to its government is critical.”
She went on to ask: “Are there some public engagement efforts that are ineffective?”
“Sure,” I told her, “We have all heard the stories of no one showing up or a meeting devolving into nothing but a shouting match.”
Her questions got me thinking about the features that can really make a difference between an EFFECTIVE public engagement effort and one that is best forgotten. Here are six features to consider before engaging the public:
1. Pre-determined answers
Do the conveners of the meeting (whether it be virtual, telephone, or face-to-face) seriously desire input into the issue or is it just a box to be checked? And will that input actually influence the decision?
People are smart and can sense when a decision has already been made. Also, pre-determined answers are frustrating and add to the public’s already increasing cynicism about government. This is especially true when input appears to not be considered at all in the policy making process.
I’m stating the obvious by saying that all groups differ, but too often process experts are wedded to only one way of designing a meeting. Designing a meeting is both an art and a science. Each public engagement process is unique and should be treated as such.
The politics surrounding a public issue cannot be ignored and must be heavily considered when embarking upon a public process. Often, process experts believe that a good process will trump the politics; and as a result, political realities are ignored or not taken into consideration when designing or implementing a public engagement effort. Those who design public engagement processes should also be politically current and informed.
4. Policy and Pre-Meeting Education
The weight and magnitude of public policies differs, and it is critical that this be well thought out prior to embarking on a public engagement process. There are policies that may be inconsequential to elected officials and other policymakers but capture the imagination of the public. On the other hand, I’ve often heard elected officials bemoan the public’s lack of interest in certain issues that are very important but too esoteric or complex to attract the public’s attention.
Public engagement is multi-directional process between decision makers and their constituents, not two minutes at the microphone. Quality face-to-face meetings are predicated upon the participants wanting to be there. Sure, they may have an agenda or an axe to grind, but a well-designed process that is respectful of people’s time and intelligence can go a long way in mitigating conflict by education and conversation.
At Engaged Public we are proponents of a high-tech, high-touch approach to public engagement; integrating the latest technology into our suite of tools. Currently, there are many online applications available designed to engage the public, in addition to well-known social media forums such as Twitter and Facebook. Are these online tools useful? Absolutely! Do they entirely replace face-to-face interaction and feedback? No. When evaluating a public engagement platform, whether it be face-to-face meetings or an online tool, it is essential that you really spend considering your objectives. What do you really want to accomplish? Is it to get feedback on a proposed piece of public art or a more complex policy change? The first example might be well-served by some kind of online engagement while a more complex policy might warrant both an online tool and well-designed meetings.
20 Mar 2014