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Transforming Public Engagement: Our Very First Strategy Lab

July 21, 2016

These days, most local public officials recognize the value of deeper engagement with their constituents. Yet the conventional formats they have to engage treat citizens like children rather than adults. Take the typical public meeting for example, in which people have two minutes at an open microphone to speak to officials.

A more effective approach is one in which both parties see each other’s insights and concerns as equally valued. How can local officials transform their engagement efforts so they resemble an adult-adult relationship?

This question resonated with participants in a recent workshop I delivered with my colleague Matt Leighninger. The workshop was our very first “Public Engagement Strategy Lab,” an interactive day-long opportunity for leaders to transform and reinvigorate their public engagement efforts. We offered the Public Engagement Strategy Lab in conjunction with the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, as a pre-conference event for the Frontiers of Democracy Conference in Boston.

Moving toward a more equal dynamic between officials and the public is a long slog. One part of the process is transforming the “two minutes at the mic” public meeting standard. We walked participants through the latest tools and techniques in engagement that can reinvigorate public meetings, including online tools as well as face-to-face formats.

Another common challenge local officials often face: the “usual suspects” dominating most public meetings. Conventional engagement often attracts only a small number of extremely strident voices. At the Strategy Lab, we talked about how to bring large, diverse numbers of people to the table.

We also talked about the fact that the most common interactions between people and institutions, such as parent-teacher conferences, are in fact examples of engagement, even though we don’t necessarily think of them that way. We challenged participants to explore how to approach these engagement opportunities to make them fit more of an adult-to-adult dynamic. For example, we spoke about changing the structure of parent-teacher conferences to student-parent-teacher conferences, so that both young people and their parents are more engaged.

Participants in the inaugural Engagement Strategy Lab were diverse, and included elected officials, city planners, a prominent legal scholar, a democracy activist, a college professor, several public engagement professionals and a graduate student from Latin America who is planning on running for mayor of his hometown. Because of the wealth of knowledge and experience of the participants, we spent quite a bit of time exploring the concepts in the context of their own work. We are eager to hear about the ways they incorporate lessons and principles from the Strategy Lab into their own plans and projects.

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Nicole Cabral

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