Public decision-making is typically the domain of interest groups or highly specialized experts. Generally, it’s the most influential or well-organized group concerned with an issue that is best positioned to steer public decisions to its advantage.
The Role of Experts Versus the Most Organized
When it comes to the role of experts, public leaders often view highly trained experts as the only reliable source for the development of sound policy decisions. The logic of this approach to decision-making is clear and familiar: trained and specialized minds are the best suited to crafting public decisions, while the most organized and influential groups are those with the best shot at translating proposals into public policy.
To the extent that citizens are considered, it is usually as consumers or clients of government. As a whole, the public is most often viewed as an audience to educate or problem to manage. In this framework, citizens are rarely viewed as vital resources or potentially powerful partners.
To be sure, there is sometimes a nod toward gaining a degree of “input” from “customers” or “end users.” In these cases, an advisory committee, a public opinion survey or some form of public hearing might be put into play. In the best case, these measures add a degree of input and legitimacy to a planning process. At worst, empty gestures prevail, as in the rigged “town meetings” with participants screened and questions carefully controlled.
Momentum for Change
Authentic public engagement taps into the powerful resources inherent in any community: citizens. Rather than relegating people to the sidelines, it invites them to join the public dialogue and provides the tools to do so effectively. As a result, leaders know where the public stands as problem solving progresses, while citizens contribute to solutions through their input, ideas and actions.
Authentic and skillful engagement with strategic stakeholders improves results by:
- Bringing together multiple points of view in order to inform decisions
- Creating legitimacy and a sense of shared responsibility by involving stakeholders and the broader public in the decision-making process
- Fostering new allies and collaborations
- Stimulating broader awareness and momentum for change and decisions
While broad-based public engagement is not possible or appropriate for every decision, variations of the theme can be the right move for addressing many kinds of public decisions and initiatives – particularly those whose success and sustainability will depend upon the support and concerted actions of many varied stakeholders.
Based on our experience, the following principles are key to designing effective public engagement:
- Begin by listening.
- Attend to people’s leading concerns.
- Reach beyond the “usual suspects”
- Frame issues for deliberation.
- Provide the right type and amount of information at the right time.
- Help people move beyond wishful thinking.
- Expect obstacles and resistance.
- Create multiple, varied opportunities for deliberation, dialogue and feedback.
- Respect and respond thoughtfully to the public’s engagement.
- Build long-term capacity as you go.
Bottom Line provides services in partnership with organizations. When an organization or community engages us to help them with an initiative, we are deliberate about establishing a collaborative working relationship, in which we respond to the needs of the organization, and learn with the people involved, rather than imposing our methods on them. Our approach is constantly adapted in response to the individuals involved, so that the users drive their own agenda and the process is truly customized to your needs.
The best practice model we deploy defines the different types of engagement (see model below). Each type (Inform, Consult, etc.), has an associated goal and promise. We use this model to help us define together which type of engagement is appropriate for this project or for particular stakeholders or segments of the community affected by the project. Once we have jointly defined the engagement purposes, we can decide which tools and tactics will best meet your goals. Give us a call or send us an e-mail. We’d love to learn about your challenge and what you see as opportunities for true engagement.