ON THE AGENDA | JULY 20TH, 2017 | MATT LEIGHNINGER

How Does Public Engagement Need to Evolve?

How can public engagement change in order to meet the challenges and conditions of 2017? There are a number of promising directions for new innovations.

On all kinds of issues, people want more choices, more information and more of a say. Whether the topic is how schools should work, what should be in the local budget or what Congress should do about health care, citizens want their voices to be heard. “We are in the midst of a profound global Great Push Back against concentrated, monopolized, hoarded power,” writes Eric Liu.

When they’re given productive, well-structured ways to participate, citizens have a lot to contribute: they can not only provide reasonable input and interesting ideas to public officials and staff, they can also devote their own time, energy and skills to solving public problems.

Most official opportunities for public engagement are not productive or well-structured, however. The main official avenues are the same ones we’ve had for over fifty years: writing to your elected officials, signing a petition or taking the time to attend a long, laborious public meeting in which you may have three minutes at the microphone to make your statement. As Jane Jacobs famously remarked, “There is no hearing at public hearings.”

The irresistible force of citizen pressure has met the immovable object of official engagement: the result is a great deal of heat. In this crucible, all kinds of leaders – from public officials and staff to community organizers and civic technologists – have invented new processes, platforms, tools and apps for engagement. Many of these innovations work well, but even when they are brilliantly successful, they are usually deployed as isolated projects or temporary workarounds to avoid the worst bottlenecks of conventional engagement. They are rarely sustained or incorporated into the official systems of democratic governance.

Then there are the less successful attempts to give citizens more say. With Brexit, for example, a government allowed citizens to vote on an issue without providing ample opportunities for people to learn the key facts, deliberate with one another and weigh the trade-offs inherent in the decision.

So for public officials wondering what do about the citizen pressure they face in the Great Push Back, there is one obvious answer: engage the public more productively, on a more regular basis and in ways that augment the tired official venues rather than working around them.

But what else needs to happen? How can public engagement change in order to meet the challenges and conditions of 2017?

There are a number of promising directions for new innovations:

  • Making engagement more social and versatile so that it is more common, convenient and fun
  • Finding new ways to ‘scale up’ engagement so that people can be heard on state and federal issues, not just local ones
  • Giving engagement opportunities more authority so that people are clear on how their voices will be heard and confident that it will make a difference
  • Helping public institutions collaborate in their efforts to support engagement so that it becomes more efficient, systemic and sustained
  • Finding better ways to measure the perceptions, processes, and outcomes of engagement, so that people know how to continually improve it

In the next few weeks I’ll explore each of these directions for innovation in greater depth. Meanwhile, there is still time to register for our Public Engagement Strategy workshop taking place in New York City on July 31 and Aug 1. I hope to see you there!


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