by Christopher Dunne
Last month I had the opportunity to spend three days in our nation’s capital talking public participation with fellow practitioners from near (Virginia) and far (Arkansas, Minnesota and Wisconsin). Lead by the inimitable Doug Sarno of the Participation Company, sessions covered planning, communications and more.
In the hours between the conclusion of the training and my late-night flight home, I had the chance to visit the Smithsonian American Art Museum. After checking out some of the exhibits, including the Presidential Portraits, I sat in the Kogod Courtyard and soaked in the sensation of being outside on a temperate summer night (when in reality, beyond the museum walls D.C. was suffering from a seriously bitter cold snap).
Reflecting on the training, there were at least three points that I took away from the session:
1. Avoid public meetings that could have been an email
We’ve all been there: a meeting or conference call where all the key information could have been relayed with the press of a button rather than the physical convening of team members who have plenty else on their plates. The public meeting that could’ve been an email is also a risk.
Doug stressed that, legal requirements aside, the public meeting format should be reserved for instances when you can only accomplish your public engagement goals by having lots of community members in the same physical space all at once. If you don’t have that need, another technique (a pop-up, an e-blast, an online survey, etc.) is probably more appropriate and it’s definitelymore respectful of everyone’s time.
One difficulty we encounter is that the public meeting format has come to be expected by communities, despite how boring, unproductive or emotionally draining the experience can be. We meet that challenge by carefully designing meetings to restore fun and real value, freshening up what I sometimes think of as the default form of public engagement.
2. Give the engagement conversation the right frame
One of the most critical but also challenging parts of any project is having the conversation with the client about what parts of the project can actually be influenced by the community. Doug pointed out that the reason clients often clam up when they hear this question posed is because it is about power. While we don’t use the The P Word, we are essentially asking “How much power are you willing to cede to the public?”
That’s a big ask and Doug stressed that couching these kinds of questions in terms of fairness or transparency is unlikely to move a client. Instead, it’s up to us to point out the risk and potential costs of hoarding power in a public project. Even if you don’t grant one iota of influence to the community, they actually retain the ultimate veto in pretty much all cases: the ability to kill a project through outrage.
I often find that though clients are hesitant to acknowledge it, there is a lot on the table that the public can affect. For me, another key point in this conversation is that concessions to public demands behind closed doors don’t build you any social capital with the community. If instead you are upfront with what the public can influence, you will get the credit you deserve for actually listening.
3. Politics versus Participation
It is tempting to think of the ultimate form of public empowerment as the referendum or ballot measure. Or that we can divine what the public thinks through opinion polling. When these mechanisms of democracy came up, Doug was quick to say these approaches are political, not participatory.
Why? Participation is about connection and dialogue. Politics, as the saying goes, is the continuation of war by other means so it is inherently about winning and losing rather than understanding. That opens the door wide for misinformation and efforts to mobilize the uninformed (because, hey, at least they’re on my side!).
One of the aspects of public participation and engagement I appreciate the most is the redefining of politics as a measure of last resort rather than our kneejerk response to every potential conflict. Let’s try participation, and therefore dialogue, first.
And yes, I fully appreciate the irony of saying this from an event held in what might be the world’s most political city. I will conclude with Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of our 44th President, portrayed serenely standing in the fire.