Public Involvement

Community and Technical Knowledge in Public Involvement


Public involvement sometimes presents a stark contrast between community and technical knowledge. Often public agency representatives, with the best intentions of gathering information about local concerns, may arrive at a community meeting, make a presentation, but find itself facing a lot of frustrated and angry people. The meeting might end with members of the community feeling they haven’t been listened to. The agency team may feel it hasn’t learned anything useful but instead has had to sit through a gripe session.

I once observed a community meeting of this type where one woman in the audience took exception to a statement of the official who was presenting to the group. While he was doing well in translating technical terms into lay language, he responded to this concern, as he did to several others, by saying that the research findings showed that she was mistaken. He then quickly moved on to his next point. But the woman sat down and muttered under her breath:

Everything they say is right. Everything we say is wrong.

That got to the heart of it. The community perspective, based on years of dealing with the issue under discussion, seemed to have no relevance to the presenter. He assumed that technical research provided the only real knowledge, especially for use in decision-making, and filtered out most public comments as anecdotal, impressionistic or emotional. Similarly the research findings seemed to the residents completely at odds with what they had learned from their first hand experience over a period of decades. Neither side found the other to be credible, and both felt they were treated with contempt.

Each had a point. Both had useful knowledge to bring to bear on the problem. What was missing was a means of interpreting between the two and finding a way to allow both types of information to be reflected in new policies.

Knowledge can’t be communicated effectively if there is no respect for the possibility of seeing the world through different frameworks and evaluating information and perceptions according to different value systems. In this example, the community members had a shared culture and a way of talking to each other and gathering information they could trust. They did not feel comfortable or understood by state agency staff, who were strangers and knew nothing about the local community. There were unspoken rules for becoming a part of the community and for building trust with the residents.

The technical staff also comprised its own community with rules for membership. Technical training and accomplishment commanded respect, and participation in decisions was limited to those who could demonstrate the necessary skill and mastery of the discipline. They could trust each other because they could talk the same language.

What can be done to change situations like this? How can these two groups integrate what they know instead of seeing only conflict between their two different forms of knowledge? I was once part of an effort to bridge the knowledge gap between agency staff and a local community. It illustrates one way to attempt this difficult task.

The starting assumption by the sponsoring agency was that both groups had to learn from each other. That recognition in itself was critical, and it came from years of conflict that had frustrated both agency and community and produced nothing of benefit to either.

To facilitate that learning, the first step was to convene community groups and agency staff separately to clarify what their assumptions were about each other and what each side thought the other needed to learn about them. Those conversations, which were captured by facilitators, brought out a combination of accurate insight and faulty assumptions based on limited impressions. Summaries of both sets of meetings went to all participants in a format that compared the assumptions of each group about the other.

After the groups had a chance to discuss the summaries among themselves, a joint dialogue brought them together to explore misconceptions and also to respond to fundamental problems in the relationship. This process required more than one meeting. The groups hashed out many issues and came up with specific proposals for improving communication and mutual understanding. For example, the agency created community internships that would enable residents to get a sense of the technical issues staff had to deal with as well as the complex process of planning and decision-making that had given rise to many misunderstandings. Community participants worked out a way to have staff gain an orientation to local values through regular meetings with nieghborhood leaders. The effort had to be reciprocal to help gain trust through much longer and more indepth experience than had ever occurred before.

There are many other possible structures for dialogue that could achieve similar results, I’d like to publish here other stories about different methods. Have you encountered this problem, and. if so, how have you tried to deal with it?


2 replies on “Community and Technical Knowledge in Public Involvement”

Hi John: “Invonvemental for participation hubs”, in spanish “Núcleos de Intervención participativa” ( I ´m afraid that this translation is not so good as could be) have been working with a relative success here in Spain and in the rest of the European Union.

But nowadays , while The internet is getting into the social dialogue ¿ Do you think it should be possible to resolve the conflicts between citizenry and public administration using, for example, Internet forums?

Idoia – That’s one of the most important questions about citizens and government. We’ve had involvement efforts for a long time and, more recently, deliberative democracy techniques. These have all been face to face and necessarily limited in size. But the question recently has been: How do we scale this to a national level? The internet is the most hopeful opportunity. Recently the Obama administration held an online citizen participation event that drew 93,000 people. That hasn’t happened before, though the format of the event could be improved in many ways. We have a long way to go from that sort of capability to using online forums to resolve problems between public agencies and the people they serve or, as I prefer to put it, to build positive relationships of mutual support.

Thanks for coming by! I look forward to learning more about your experiences.

All my best — John

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