How Does Public Engagement Need to Evolve?

The irresistible force of citizen pressure has met the immovable object of official engagement: the result is a great deal of heat.

Matt Leighninger, vice-president of public engagement for Public Agenda and director of the Yankelovich Center for Public Judgment, has been sharing a series of articles exploring how public engagement should change to reflect the needs of the current political environment here in the United States and abroad.

In Part 1, Matt lays out some strategies to meet the challenges of 2017:

There are a number of promising directions for new innovations: 1) Making engagement more social and versatile so that it is more common, convenient and fun. 2) Finding new ways to ‘scale up’ engagement so that people can be heard on state and federal issues, not just local ones. 3) Giving engagement opportunities more authority so that people are clear on how their voices will be heard and confident that it will make a difference. 4) Helping public institutions collaborate in their efforts to support engagement so that it becomes more efficient, systemic and sustained. 5) Finding better ways to measure the perceptions, processes, and outcomes of engagement, so that people know how to continually improve it. (link)

In Part 2, Matt follows up by exploring how "engagement" can not only be "engaging", but also an enjoyable activity that draws citizens together for deeper conversation:

Engagement can, however, be enjoyable. In fact, when you look at some of the best examples of sustained engagement, it becomes clear that these models work because people find them convenient and fun. The City of Decatur, Georgia, hosts “Budgets and Beer” nights at a downtown bar where city employees bring poster boards to help explain public finance issues and surveys to gather citizen input. “Meet and Eat,” a weekly lunch in Buckhannon, West Virginia, has helped citizens plan and establish a new farmer’s market and new bike trails. The residents and employees of Jun, Spain, use Twitter to communicate about everything from replacing streetlights to matters of EU policy – along with advertising social events, booking doctor’s appointments and finding lost cats. On the Table, an initiative in Chicago which brings people together to discuss public issues over dinner, engaged over 50,000 people and is expanding to ten other cities. (link)

In Part 3, the latest article, Matt turns his attention to the need to consider engagement on various levels:

Though we need people weighing in on national problems like the federal budget and global challenges like climate change, engagement remains largely local. Of the thousands of engagement processes conducted each year, the majority occur in cities, towns and neighborhoods. This is especially true of “thick” forms of engagement, in which people spend time in small groups learning, deliberating and planning for action. Thick engagement is productive, but intensive. (link)

So both the need, the tools, and the desire are in front of us. The $10,000 question then must be: how do we use public engagement techniques to bring people with differing political perspectives together to engage in a transpartisan way? Should transpartisan philosophy be "baked-in" to these tools? Or should the transpartisan efforts begin after we have taught proper engagement techniques to citizens and cultivated safe spaces within which to engage?

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mb121wl
mb121wl

Suggestions such as those proposed by Mr. Leighninger are useful and worth exploring. But while he cites increased participant efficacy ("Giving...opportunities more authority so that people [can be]... confident that it will make a difference"), he neglects the critical question of what kind of process will enable participants to engage each other successfully enough to enable them to speak with a coherent "public voice" as they engage institutions and the persons within them who possess policy-making authority (which institutions, incidentally, should include the policy-influencing news media). The field of public engagement (like the closely related field of "dialogue and deliberation") offers a smorgasbord of largely untested processes lacking sound theoretical foundations, each of whose proponents make vague and unsubstantiated claims (except through unimpressive anecdotal reports) about their effectiveness. Emphasizing the nexus between members of the public and official institutions while neglecting the need for systematic and rigorous efforts to design and evaluate interpersonal political communication-and-decision-making processes is rather like focusing on the problem of how the passengers on a tour bus can better convey their wishes to the driver and tour leader while ignoring the fact that the passengers speak different languages, cannot communicate with each other, and have conflicting views about where to go.

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