Who’s the Public & How Should They Participate?

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In the previous post in this series, I discussed the concept of the public as a network comprised of interrelated groups, some focused on private interests, some focused on larger community concerns or institutions. The approach to public involvement that definition suggests is a collaborative one that draws citizens into the early stages of formulating policies and plans. At its best, such an approach provides the incentives for collaboration pointed out by Charles Leadbeater.

  1. Neutral Space: The convening agency provides a location and structure to facilitate the process, but sets the meetings in a neutral environment separate from agency control. This is a safer, less intimidating space that helps foster active contributions from participants.

  2. Equal Voice: The convening agency provides a central goal to focus efforts but doesn’t try to control the flow of ideas. Participants get equal time to explain their views. There is no hierarchy within the process that might inhibit dialogue.

  3. Recognition: The experience offers recognition for the contributions of individuals and fosters a sense of meaningful involvement in helping to reach the goal.

  4. Creativity and Dialogue: The structure facilitates free interaction and honest dialogue among people with diverse points of view and values. This stimulates creativity as new ideas emerge from multiple perspectives on how to address the issue.

  5. Decision-Making: As Leadbeater points out, creativity alone does not produce a clear result or product. The ideas and options have to become part of decision-making, and this is the critical role of the convening agency. It needs to make a commitment to use the ideas generated by the public as it makes decisions. It needs to be clear to participants that their contributions are actually helping shape the agency’s policies and plans. That’s the point of the whole effort and the primary incentive for citizen involvement.

  6. Looking at current public participation methods with these conditions in mind, it becomes clear that many of them are not intended to reach this level of collaboration.

    The typical public participation plan offers a menu of activities that fall into two major categories. There are, of course, many alternative ways of classifying these techniques, and this one may seem an oversimplification. However, I’m trying to emphasize this major distinction. One set of methods gives little opportunity to citizens to add real value to the decision process. The other encourages a creative interaction that adds considerable value to the formulation of policies and decisions.

    Informational Methods

    Sending information to the public:

    • Publications & presentations
    • Websites
    • Mailing lists
    • Open houses
    • Document depositories
    • Tours

    Gathering input from the public

    • Surveys
    • Hearings
    • Written comment forms
    • “Hot lines”
    • Scoping meetings
    • Interviews

    Collaborative Methods

    • Workshops
    • Planning Charettes
    • Focus groups
    • Advisory committees
    • Joint Fact Finding
    • Consensus Building

    The group of informational techniques – whether the flow is from agency to public or the reverse – can hardly be called participative. Even though a convening agency may commit to consideration of ideas received through commenting, each is treated as the concern of one individual and receives some form of isolated response – or a response that deals with a group of similar comments. What the public gets back, as a means of acknowledging that the ideas have been considered, is a listing and explanation of those responses, in other words, a document for passive consumption. That’s usually the end of the process. There is no attempt at engagement and interaction that could lead to a more creative exploration of public concerns.

    The premise, at least as communicated to citizens, is that public contributions have little value to add in developing a plan or decision. In addition to fulfilling legal requirements for public participation, this form of input signals the agency if its project might be raising red flags and potentially serious opposition. At a basic level, the agency is looking for indications of consent or opposition. From a public perspective, there is not a lot of incentive to invest much time except for the purpose of adding comments to the public record.

    I need to emphasize that this approach may be completely appropriate and not result from any ill intent on the part of an agency. It may be the best that can be done, given constraints on time and resources. The plans or decisions in question may stem from emergency situations that demand the fastest possible response. They might also be required under court order to be completed according to an imposed timetable. Or an agency might be responding to directives from a legislative body or chief executive, over which it has no control. There are many reasons why more resource and time-intensive collaborative approaches might simply be out of the question.

    If they can be used, the collaborative techniques present a much richer opportunity. From the public’s viewpoint, they have incentive to engage actively in the knowledge that their contributions will have a meaningful place in decision-making. For its part, the agency can gain considerable value from bringing diverse interests together for interaction and dialogue.

    By having this level of engagement early on, there is not only the possibility for generating potential solutions that might not otherwise have come to light but also a greater likelihood that a decision will have a broad base of support in the community. The agency also recognizes that the public can be a helpful partner in shaping policy.

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