Home On the Agenda How Public Engagement Needs to Evolve, Part 5

How Public Engagement Needs to Evolve, Part 5

November 14, 2017

Getting past “every-department-for-itself” engagement.

How can public engagement evolve in order to meet the challenges and conditions of 2017? My previous post explored ways we can give engagement opportunities more authority, so that people are clear on how their voices will be heard and confident that it will make a difference. This time, I’ll address the need for public institutions to collaborate in their efforts to support engagement so that it becomes more efficient, systemic and sustained.

In most issue areas, engagement happens as a temporary, stand-alone activity—and even when those processes or initiatives are successful, participatory practices are rarely incorporated into the official avenues for engagement. So planners conduct participatory charrettes and then go back to contentious public hearings; police departments engage in police-community dialogue even as neighborhood watch groups flounder; school districts mobilize parents to support bond issues while PTAs languish.

Furthermore, the professionals in these different areas rarely work together when they are trying to engage the public. Even though education, health, policing, land use and other issues are inextricably intertwined, and even though a citizen who cares about one of them is quite likely to care about others, engagement rarely happens in ways that people can connect any of the dots. For each issue, there is a separate set of meetings to attend, announcements to track, processes to follow and websites to look at. In engagement, it is usually an every-department-for-itself situation.

This is a problem for several reasons. First, it is inefficient: engagement takes time and resources, and it is a duplication of effort for each individual department or issue area to create its own separate meetings, apps, processes and websites. Second, the people doing all this work are rarely able to learn from each other: instead of comparing notes and pooling community contacts, they essentially reinvent the wheel every time they try to engage citizens.

Finally, every-department-for-itself engagement usually results in lower turnout. Faced with a choice about which of many meetings to attend, busy citizens will usually choose the one that is most relevant to their interests (or none at all). So the parents of school-age children will attend the school meetings and not the ones about crime, while the senior citizens may be active in neighborhood watch but won’t be connected with the schools. It becomes very difficult for any single engagement opportunity to attract a broad cross-section of people. And since much of the power in engagement comes from being able to recruit a large, diverse number of people, all of these efforts suffer.

One way to break out of these engagement silos is to build some “universal pieces” of local engagement infrastructure. These include:

  • Hyperlocal and local online networks. This category of infrastructure (described in previous posts in this series) is already rapidly growing and holds great potential for connecting engagement in many different issue areas.
  • Buildings that are physical hubs for participation. The political philosopher Hannah Arendt is said to have remarked that “Democracy needs a place to sit down.” Communities need accessible, welcoming, wired public spaces for engagement on a range of issues.
  • Youth councils. Perhaps the most undervalued of our civic assets, youth leadership should be cultivated and supported in settings specifically for young people.
  • Engagement commissions. A local engagement commission (or advisory board) can advise a community on the design, implementation and evaluation of public participation tactics, and more broadly on building and embedding a sustainable participation infrastructure. Such a commission could be an official body constituted by local government, or a stand-alone entity recognized and supported by a range of community institutions, such as foundations, governments, school systems, chambers of commerce and interfaith councils and faith institutions.

Instead of always going it alone, officials, experts and activists in seemingly intractable issue areas might profit by working together to build and support these universal pieces of engagement infrastructure. At the very least, they should compare notes about how to do engagement well. But by taking that critical step towards building a participation infrastructure, leaders can begin to sustain and support regular opportunities, activities, and arenas for people to connect with each other, solve problems, make decisions and celebrate community.

Let us help you take that first step towards better engagement. Check out our free resource Strengthening and Sustaining Public Engagement In Vermont. Although created for Vermont, the guide is intended for local municipalities and community leaders across the country who are looking to plan for an overall system of engagement that’s both effective and sustainable.