Creating space for transformative conversations

An Introduction to Next Generation Public Engagement

December 12, 2016

You’ve likely seen the dysfunction in action. Two minutes at the microphone, with each new speaker angrier than the last. The louder they speak, the less anyone listens. The less they feel heard, the more they shout. And so the cycle continues.

When Canada passed its first Access to Information Act in 1983, Apple had just introduced the world’s first graphics-based personal computer. Today, the ability of citizens to contribute to government decisions is supported by unprecedented levels of education and technology. Yet our default methods for engaging the public are too often stuck using last century’s toolset.

If we accept that citizens know their interests and values better than anyone, then how can we maximize their involvement, and what exactly does this “next generation” in engagement processes look like?

While still an evolving field, next generation engagement processes often:

  1. Seek out participants who reflect the full diversity of interests and perspectives
    Legitimate engagement outcomes depend upon input beyond the “same ten people,” and require concerted effort to incorporate missing voices, including equity-seeking communities that are under-served by traditional engagement approaches.

  2. Create conditions for informed and actionable public judgement
    Given appropriate information and structure, citizens have enormous capacity to deliberate and create sound policy recommendations. Such processes invert the traditional role of expert opinion, and call upon specialists to frame trade-offs for participants to consider instead of issuing expert recommendations.

  3. Leverage technology and online tools to increase scale and amplification
    Interactive media, social media, and gamification approaches can create compelling user experiences, and are often accessible to audiences who are less likely to attend public meetings, such as youth, parents of young families and citizens who are satisfied with proposed changes.

  4. Use dialogue to bridge differences and increase shared understanding
    The most powerful forms of public engagement activate participants as communities using professionally facilitated spaces and small group discussion formats. The result is an opportunity for participants to humanize opposing perspectives, mediate their differences, and build community resiliency through increased relationships.

  5. Provide transparency and feedback to sustain a culture of participation
    One of the largest barriers to public participation is the belief by citizens that their input will have no impact on government decisions. Combatting this trust deficit requires decision-makers to communicate limitations honestly, close the loop with participants, and outline in a transparent manner how citizen input was used to shape the final decisions.

Conventional engagement processes such as public hearings will continue to serve necessary functions in our society, such as giving individuals the chance to read their perspectives into the official record.

What is clear though is that the opportunity for more collaborative policy making has never been more real. This next generation in public engagement is being carried forward by a small but growing number of champions who are working to realize the full potential of our democracies, one citizen voice at a time.

Civic Engage suggests the following sources for further ideas and information: