Who’s the Public? Two Views

onecitizen-group

In the last post I outlined a method of public involvement based on a model of interest group competition. The main players in that approach are the sponsoring agencies and the organized advocacy groups. The public at large is consulted but plays a very limited role.

I’d like to add a few more thoughts about that approach and contrast it with a collaborative model of public involvement. But I’ll try to do this from the perspective of one member of the public, namely me. I’d like to get a better understanding of how these contrasting methods might affect my decision to get involved.

1. COMPETITIVE MODEL: THE PUBLIC AS PRIZE

As an average citizen, how do I fit into the competitive model? As I mentioned in the earlier post, I’m assigned to the “general” public, as opposed to an organized interest group, since it’s not clear where I stand on this issue. According to the model, I find that I’m expected to act purely out of personal interests. I’m a passive consumer, so I’m told, meeting my own needs in isolation from every other individual. My preferences, by definition, are not represented by interest groups but by such means as voting in elections, choices made in the marketplace or answers to public opinion polls.

As far as government decisions go, these preferences are usually revealed as responses to yes-no or either-or questions, even if the possible choices are quite numerous. The choice boils down to: pick one (candidate, opinion etc.).

Pick-one choices stem from a competition among limited options. I vote for one candidate over another. I select one opinion on a questionnaire over contrasting opinions. I decide to join a group or not join, contribute money or not, favor a proposed project or oppose it.

How does this work for me as a citizen thinking about getting involved with the public process for this project?

First, I notice that the choices before me have been decided by someone else. I have had nothing to do with putting them together. All I’m supposed to do is – pick one. I may gather as much information as I can before I make my choice, but that doesn’t give me any say in defining the available options.

If I have a chance to attend a public meeting to give my input on a proposal, is it worth my time to go? The stage has been set by more powerful players, and I have only a walk-on part – here’s my pick-one choice.

Information: That choice seems to mean something because I’m bombarded with information from the agency and all the organized interest groups. But all of that is one-sided – however objective it may sound. It has one purpose, and that is to capture my support. It’s not information that gives me all the details about the proposal from a source that I can trust. Since I don’t like to feel I’m being manipulated, I’m not going to any meeting.

Public Meeting: However, if I feel strongly about the issue – say a power plant to be built a mile from my house or a highway through the middle of my town or a higher assessment on my home – I’ll either go to the meeting to scream about it or I’ll join an organization that will do the screaming for me. If I go to the meeting, someone writes what I’m saying in a line or two on a flipchart. I’m promised my point will be considered, and I’ll hear back.

Response: Suddenly, though, I’m only getting information from the organization I joined. No one else seems to care what I think. That’s because I’m now a known quantity. There’s no doubt about my decision, so I’m written off as just another member of a familiar interest group. The same holds true whether my group is regarded as a friend of the sponsoring agency or an enemy.

So either I’m manipulated to make my choice, or I’m taken for granted and my own views are ignored. Personally, I don’t like my choices, and I refuse to play. Well, that means I’m now part of the apathetic citizenry, and experts will write extensively about why I’m not “engaged.”

Is there another way to do this?

2. COLLABORATIVE MODEL: THE PUBLIC AS PARTICIPANT

In a collaborative process, members of the public are regarded as active participants in shaping policy and decisions, rather than passive consumers. The whole dynamic of the process changes. This model assumes that different segments of the public are united by many shared needs and interests. Several of these transcend the realm of purely personal choice and address social values and institutions, such as schools, churches, public services, etc.

These interweaving threads of need link individuals informally and compose a mosaic of shared concerns and interests – whether the individuals are formally organized to advocate for those interests or not. The public is seen as a dynamic entity constantly adapting to new conditions – whether economic or social or political in nature. It’s also assumed that an agency can identify and find a way to represent these widespread social interests within a collaborative process.

The goal is to produce proposals by drawing into dialogue the full range of interests concerned about solving the problem everyone’s looking at.

From my perspective as citizen, that sounds good, but I’m really not clear what it means in practice.

Information: Just as before, I need to get information I can trust that will let me make up my own mind. Instead of receiving prepackaged material designed to sway my thinking, however, I find a notice from the sponsoring agency inviting participation in a joint fact finding process.

That means the different communities of the public and the organized interest groups can help identify the information need to deal with the issue. They’re also supposed to find the best sources to get it from. In addition to gathering that technical information, the fact finding process is going to find out what the different communities and interest groups are concerned about.

I can sign up to track how that’s going, but I don’t have time to get deeply involved. The people who can spend a lot of time on this cover the spectrum of views, though, and include a few who share a lot of my values. So I’m OK with what they’re doing.

Public Workshops: The results of the fact finding work come out in a series of public workshops. I go to one of those, and a technical consultant answers a question of mine. He also explains how that issue could be worked into a potential option.

This is good. I get to see the possible options emerge from all these workshops. I’m not going to have to make a yes-no choice. I feel like I’m in on the ground floor this time. And I’m being listened to.

Consensus Building: After all that’s done, I learn that a study group is forming that’s supposed to have the same cross-section of interests as the fact finding process. This smaller group will try to reach agreement on the best options. Every interest is supposed to have a piece of the action – and they say they’ll have open meetings and public workshops. Still, I’m a bit worried about having this crucial work done by a select group.

Communication: If they don’t keep the doors wide open and stay in touch with people like me, they’ll wind up isolating themselves. It would be easy for them to lose sight of the rest of us and make their own deals with the agency. I need to know what they’re doing and how they’re coming along – I don’t want to hear one day that they’ve wrapped the thing up and have an agreement. So they need to be extra careful about communication.

On the whole, I’m a lot more at ease with this approach than with the other. In that one, I was always pressured to get on one side or another. In this one, I can see how a proposal and different options are put together from the beginning – and every point of view is included.

I don’t have a lot of time to spend on meetings, but I’m definitely going to stay in touch.

There are a lot of other ideas about why and how to engage the public, and I’ll get into some of those in an upcoming post.

In the meantime, let me know what your experience with public involvement has been. What’s the most effective process you know about? Do you think the collaborative approach is feasible in most cases or something to be used only in especially controversial ones?

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