Building Coalitions and Networks: Ten Key Talents for Better Public Participation Part 2

Successful public participation is often built on the foundation of strong relationships among leaders and citizens.

Successful public participation is often built on the foundation of strong relationships among leaders and citizens.

Finding and connecting with other potential participation leaders, and strengthening those relationships in coalitions and networks, is an important step in planning and sustaining public participation.

In this post, we describe skills for coalition-building, including finding and building online networks. Next week, we’ll continue the topic of coalition building, examining how to develop cultural competence and work with young people.

Coalition Building.

Whether it occurs as part of a short-term initiative or a long-term plan, public participation should be championed, convened and supported by a diverse coalition of groups and organizations. There are several basic steps in building a coalition:

  • Identify diverse groups. Coalitions are better when they are diverse, in part because coalition members can be critical for recruiting participants. Participation leaders should think broadly about different kinds of diversity, including racial and ethnic backgrounds, age, education, income, religion, political affiliation, occupation and neighborhood. They should also strive to incorporate people and groups with differing viewpoints, those who have an immediate personal stake in the issue, and those who are connected to the issue professionally. It is also important to include people and groups that historically have been left out of decision making and public life. Reaching out to leaders, organizations, and networks in those populations can be helpful in that task. As participation leaders begin talking with potential coalition members, they should continually ask: “Who is not yet at the table that ought to be invited?”
  • Identify roles coalition members might play. Coalition members will have different strengths and may be involved in different ways. Almost all of them can be key allies in the recruitment process, but they also may take on other responsibilities that are suited to their strengths. If participation leaders think through these roles, it will help sharpen appeals to potential coalition members and help identify gaps that should be filled.
  • Talk about goals. Personal invitations are the most effective ways to recruit coalition members. Participation leaders should have a simple pitch explaining why a potential coalition member should become involved and what they might be asked to do. A good pitch describes the engagement initiative or structure and what it is intended to accomplish – and it starts a conversation in which the person hearing the pitch can react and begin to explain their own goals. Participation efforts should be built around the interests and goals of the ‘engaged,’ as well as the ‘engagers.’ These conversations with potential coalition members can help clarify the participation goals of all parties.
  • Bring coalition members together. Participation leaders should consider hosting a coalition-building meeting to make a pitch to a large number of potential members. This meeting can include a short presentation that provides an overview of what is being planned and concludes with an invitation for attendees to offer comments, suggestions and commitments. A coalition-building meeting can help strengthen relationships between potential coalition members, help them understand how the initiative will work and give them a greater degree of ownership.
  • Allow people to ‘sample’ productive participation. In coalition-building meetings and other settings, participation leaders should give people a chance to sample the sort of participation they want to organize. This includes, for example, a sample dialogue on the issue that citizens will address, or a run-through of the online process that will be featured. Because many people have had bad experiences with conventional participation, it is important for them to experience a more productive approach.

Finding or Building Online Networks.

Online networks are versatile tools with many different uses in public participation. An online network can help coalition members work together, sustain engagement, and provide a long-term structure for collaboration, communication and community-building. An online network can be geographically based, or it can center on a shared issue or concern.

Before building a new online network, participation leaders should find out what kinds of online networks already exist. This is especially important if the goal is to strengthen participation infrastructure at the neighborhood level.

Existing online networks include YahooGroups, Google Groups, Facebook Groups and Pages, local forums set up by e-democracy.org, Front Porch Forum, NextDoor, EveryBlock, OurCommonPlace and NeighborLand.

There are trade-offs with each of these platforms. Facebook groups are good for gathering and informing people quickly, but awkward for long-term communication because of the way posts are sequenced, because some public officials may be blocked from participating by open meetings laws, and because older residents may not be Facebook users.

Email lists with web access, such as YahooGroups and GoogleGroups, can reach larger numbers of people, but vary in how easy it is to add new users to the group.

Twitter hashtags are useful for spontaneous communication, but may not build the same feeling of membership in the network.

In general, online networks will struggle if the technology is hard to use, or if there are outstanding issues or conflicts that keep people from wanting to interact.

To extend existing networks, or build new ones, the first step is simply gathering contact information – including email addresses, social media profiles and cell phone numbers. A list of 100 participants is usually sufficient for making an online network viable and self-sustaining.

Size, however, is not the only critical consideration in building and sustaining online networks. Good moderation is also important, as smaller groups may be successful with sufficiently active moderation, and larger networks may fail with poor or inactive moderation.

Participation leaders setting up new forums also face questions about how to set the boundaries of the group, develop ground rules for behavior and clarify roles and expectations. In most cases, networks will be more effective if participants are encouraged or required to use their real names rather than usernames or aliases they have invented.

Finally, participation leaders who want to set up or sustain an online network need to feed it with content that people care about. As Steven Clift of e-democracy.org writes, “If you are going to be that local e-leader, the most important thing to do once you choose your tool is to organize and facilitate people toward sharing questions, information, and news.”

Portions of this post were excerpted with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy by Tina Nabatchi and Matt Leighninger. Copyright© 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.


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