I recently finished a pretty-decent draft of Chapter 2 of the Online Public Engagement Book, due out next year from Routledge Press.
In this chapter, I’m trying to address one of the basic problems of public engagement, on- or offline: We don’t all mean the same thing when we use those words (or words that sound a lot like them). People who live and breathe public engagement often think about different types of public engagement via two frameworks, or taxonomies, that divide public engagement into an ascending system of more meaningful involvement.
But what I’ve found is that (1) most non- academics don’t know those systems, and (2) when most non-academics do encounter those two systems, they seem to find them confusing. And they misinterpret them, which isn’t helping anyone.
In this draft chapter I created a simpler system of types of public engagement, focusing on two factors: what kind of experience the public has, and what kind of problems staff and officials hit in each type. And there’s only four basic types, which is less than in the other two. That in itself should count for something, right? But the purpose,of course, is to make sure that I have a common language with the reader when we start talking about different kinds of online public engagement — and to keep them from having to memorize the minutiae of those more complicated structures first.
So take a look at this and let me know what you think. I’d particularly like to know if the divisions make sense to you, if the descriptions are off-base, or if anything seems muddled.
Chapter 2: Defining Public Engagement: A four-level approach.
We have available to us about a dozen ways that we could define the basic work of this book: engaging people in the public life and public decision-making of their community. As I have learned over the years, talking about “public engagement” or “public involvement” or similar terms can become a quagmire, because it often turns out that people do not mean the same things by those terms.
For people working for transportation firms in the US, or for “consultation” specialists in UK Commonwealth countries, public engagement typically means presenting information on an project or draft plan and addressing questions or comments. For planners working on long-range issues, such as a comprehensive plan, typical public engagement actions may include feedback questions, such as “what should this area look like?” or “what is your vision for the future of the neighborhood?” Such questions, while inviting participants to take a more active role in the community decision-making than the largely passive viewer/commenter in the first example, still places the resident in a peripheral role: that of an information source, functionally similar to the demographic data and GIS map layers that the professionals use to develop plans.
In a relatively small number of cases, planners and community advocates have found more robust and more direct means of engaging residents in decision -making around the future of their communities. Public engagement specialists, often originating from a community development or academic background, have developed a variety of methods, such as World Cafe and the Fishbowl, that are designed to facilitate more meaningful sharing of information among community residents, often as much with the intent of building connectivity and mutual understanding among residents of different backgrounds as for the purpose of making policy decisions.
Finally, a small but growing number of strategies have begun to emerge that place the work of making community decisions directly in the hands of private residents. Participatory -based budgeting allocates the decision about how to use a portion of a community’s budget to a citizen – based process, and participants work collaboratively through a process that determines what projects or initiatives will be funded in then coming budget cycle. And in the collection of tactics generally known as tactical urbanism or [other names], residents directly intervene in the physical appearance or function of the community by building and placing street furniture, changing parking spaces or driving lanes to pedestrian use, creating and installing new signs, or making other kinds of physical, typically temporary, changes – sometimes with, and sometimes without, the approval of the local government. The purposes of tactical urbanist interventions are twofold: they physically demonstrate the potential impact that more permanent features would have on the community’s transportation and quality of life, and they give residents a concrete and immediate opportunity to impact their environs.
The direct impacts of either participatory budgeting or tactical urbanism intiatives tend to be limited – the amount of budget available for a participatory-based budgeting initiative is usually a fraction of the total budget, and the physical area impacted by a tactical urbanism event is generally limited to a few blocks. Anecdotal evidence from both types of activity, however, seems to indicate an increased understanding of community needs and an increased sense of agency -of having the power to influence one’s community’s future – among participants.
Online public engagement methods have the potential to facilitate a wide variety of public engagement, from making detailed project information more readily available to enabling crowdsourced decision-making around budget and policy choices. However, any discussion of online public engagement methods will soon run up against the same basic challenge: when we use that term, what kind of engagement – what kind of participant experience– are we talking about?
We could divide public participation tasks according to one of several existing organization systems, or taxonomies. The two most commonly used in public engagement theory and practice derive from Sherry R. Arnestein’s 1969 academic paper, “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” and the International Association of Public Participation’s Public Participation Spectrum. [Footnote that IAP2’s spectrum is copyrighted]
Although these two taxonomies reflect the same basic idea – that one’s options in selecting public engagement activities range along a spectrum from generally less to more active engagement on the part of the public – they divide and label the classifications differently. Figure 1 gives a summary comparison of the two systems:
[Figure 1: Relative Structure of Arnstein and IAP2 taxonomies]
From my perspective, both of these frameworks capture the central issue of recognizing more to less intensive public engagement options, but the number of divisions and the sometimes abstract wording appears to have made it difficult for these insights to find widespread use outside of an academic context. Practitioners who need to think though these options seem to have some tendency to become tangled in the fine-grained differentiations, and the terminology can both make these distinctions harder to think about and lead to mistaken assumption that one is doing higher-level engagement that is actually the case. Among commercial online public engagement platform providers, blog posts claiming that their tool addresses the whole Spectrum appear on a relatively regular basis, even when the tool in questions is designed for feedback, not decision -making.
For these reasons, this book will use the following framework of engagement types, which is detailed enough to demarcate what I think are the most crucial differentiations while at the same time keeping the framework simple enough to use in routine process planning.
The four engagement types we will talk about are:
Figure 2 summarizes the engagement types in terms of the roles of citizens, professional staff and elected officials, as well as common key words that may appear in materials about a public engagement event of that type. More detailed descriptions follow.
Telling public engagement efforts focus on informing and sharing information. The primary purpose of the event is to make sure that the information that has been deemed pertinent to the public has been expressed in a public format and has been made available for public consumption. Common information types shared in a Telling engagement includes existing conditions, professionals’ criteria for making a decision, design options developed and selected by professionals, and the legislative or administrative approval process. Information is presented in a lecture or other narrative format, or through a self-guided review of maps and posters at an in person meeting or online.
The public’s options for response, and especially for influencing the outcome of the initiative, is heavily limited when a Telling format is used. In a conventional meeting format, attendees may (or may not) have the opportunity to ask questions in front of other members of the public, and depending on the question and the authority or knowledge of the presenter, the answers may be factual or vague, direct or obscuring, definitive or noncommittal — and the attendees may be anywhere from satisfied with to incensed at the quality of the results. In an open house format, where maps and other information may be available for the attendee to review at her leisure, questions may be asked one-on-one of project staff, which may enable more personal discussion but eliminates the opportunity to publicly challenge the project or its decisions or assumptions.
Perhaps most importantly, Telling public engagement is a largely one-way street. The emphasis on answering (or avoiding answering) questions carries the implicit assumption that, while the public must have every opportunity to make sure they understand, they are not necessary or active participants in the decision. If some kind of response is enabled (such as a generic comment form to complete at the end of a presentation), there is no expectation and no structure to enable those comments to influence the decisions
This point about structure requires a small digression. Professionals leading public participation efforts often tell participants that “we want to know what you think!” and “your voice matters!” and other such truisms, even when the intent of the effort is clearly focused on Telling. What typically happens to any such comments in a Telling situation falls into one of three categories:
1) The comments are not recorded or incompletely recorded (for example, they were spoken at a public meeting where there was no complete record being made of the comments, or they were spoken in semi-private or in front of a small group at an Open House and were not recorded). In either case, any chance of that comment influencing the project’s outcome depends entirely upon whether it was interesting or colorful enough to stick out in the memory of the persons who heard it. In most such cases, the comments simply vanish into the air.
2) The comments were recorded (via video, transcript or written comments provided by the participants). The comments are dutifully collated and prepared as a supplemental documentation – a report, an appendix, or a post of the video of the event. However, there is no requirement on the part of the decision-makers that they review the comments or give them any serious consideration. As a result, the largely unread supplemental document has no effect except to indicate to a future planning student that the public had little actual say in the project.
3) The comments were fully recorded and reviewed by the decision-makers, but they do not know what to do with it. In some cases, the Telling public engagement has been done at such a late point in the process that making any significant changes as a result of an issue identified by the public would require significant cost and negative publicity. In other cases, the decision-makers may have no guidance for weighing the value of the public’s comments against the interests of other groups, such as a developer, political leaders, etc.
At the core of this conundrum is the fact that the process itself did not allow for the possibility of the public’s comments having the potential to shed significant insight onto issues relating to the project. This is why I have termed this type of public engagement Telling: even if there is some ostensible comment opportunity, those comments are an afterthought, not of significant importance to the process and not the purpose of the effort. Telling public engagement, at its core, is a one-way process, with officials doing the speaking and the public taking the passive role of a listener.
Asking public engagement turns the direction of the flow of Information to the reverse. In an Asking inititiative, the organization leading the project is asking for the public’s ideas, wishes, desires or recommendations. Surveys, both in-person and online, may be used to gauge the public’s opinion, and brainstorming-type activities may be held to generate lots of new ideas, potentially also getting public feedback on those ideas at the same time. Public participants may be asked to identify their vision for the future of their communities, to compile a list of wished-for improvements, to mark maps to indicate where they think certain land uses should go, etc. Asking events are often described by participants as exciting and fun.
While the public is largely passive in a Telling public engagement activity, Asking activities usually involve silence from public officials and staff, once they have opened the initiative. Background information may or may not be provided; if it is, it may be rudimental and understanding of it isn’t required from participants. Little guidance or direction is given to the public: statements of wishes from residents are treated the same whether they are realistic within the physical and legal realities or not.
As a result, Asking public engagement often creates diverging results. On one hand, participants often feel at the time of the engagement that they have done something enjoyable and exciting– they may feel energized, enthusiastic, and optimistic about the future of their community. However, participants may become discouraged later when they realize that their ideas were not incorporated into the plan, or when their vision fails to come to pass. This can lead to growing cynicism about public engagement, often manifested in statements like “all that public stuff is just for show” or “they didn’t really care what we wanted.” This can also make future public engagement harder, as people may be less willing to participate or support future efforts.
From the staff and official perspective, this breakdown may manifest in one of two ways. In some cases, staff may find that many of the items on the public’s “wish list” are not feasible under current or expected future conditions — laws will not permit it, required conditions are beyond the control of the agency, market economics will not work and public funding on the scale that would be needed isn’t available. In such cases, the public desires that were elicited through the Asking activity are quietly ignored, or consigned to a document appendix and not referenced in the rest of the plan or project. In other cases, a plan or project document may consist of little more than a list of the public’s desires, with no mention of the fact that the “vision” may not be achievable and little information on why that may be, or the conditions that would be necessary to act on it.
In either case, the results are the same: the final plan or project does not achieve the public’s desires as articulated during the Asking event, and this silence is interpreted by the public as an indicator of the irrelevance of the Asking-style public feedback event.
Discussing public engagement activities create a two-way exchange of information and ideas between members of the public and officials, staff or others who have some form of official capacity (such as developers or nonprofit staff). Often conducted using smaller groups of participants than the typical Telling or Asking event, Discussing activities include more exchange of information between public and official participants, and one of the primary goals of the public engagement initiative is to build a more comprehensive and more nuanced understanding of the variety of perspectives and priorities that different people in the community may hold regarding the issue. Mutual understanding and respect for different perspectives often ranks as one of the highest priorities of these initiatives. A number of the strategies used by public dialogue and deliberation professionals, including World Cafe, Fishbowl and others, are designed to foster Discussing-style public engagement.
While Discussing public engagement can certainly lead to greater understanding among differing perspectives, these strategies can present some challenges. One crucial issue is that Discussing efforts may require more time, and the number of persons who can logistically participate is often limited to a small subset of all potential participants. Perhaps more importantly, from the perspective of professionals and officials who are trying to inform a plan or public policy decision, Discussing-style public engagement can generate a wide variety of insights and ideas, but not necessarily a strong sense of direction or priorities. Without a concerted effort to identify a shared desired direction among participants, potentially by adding an additional activity to the Discussion, planners and other officials may find that the public engagement has left them swamped in information and nuance, but that they have no clearer sense of public direction than before.
Deciding public engagement extends the two-way dialogue to employ both public and officials in collaborative decision-making. This may include priority-setting regarding guiding principles, collective choice of specific projects to be included in the program or budget, insight into the best strategies or community partners to assist in implementing a chosen strategy or others. The key difference between a Discussing and a Deciding public engagement effort is that the Deciding work generates a clear, well-informed and defensible guide to next steps, allocation of resources and other public decisions that has been directed and to a great extent generated by members of the public.
Deciding public engagement clearly has some advantages, both in terms of political defensibility and in terms of the potential to make use of the insights and knowledge of the public, in addition to that of planners and officials. It does, however, present some significant challenges, especially if process leaders cut corners in the name of time or money. If the participation is anything less than fully inclusive and representative, the results could be attacked as skewed toward certain special interests. If the participants are not fully informed about the pertinent issues, the decisions they make could be off-base in terms of what the community actually needs. Effective Deciding will require sophisticated process planning and facilitation, both to maintain fairly distributed involvement and to manage common collaborative decision-making pitfalls, such as groupthink.
While it could be argued that public engagement initiatives that involve the public more actively are more valuable or more “right” than those that confine the public to a more passive role, all four types of public engagement have appropriate uses. While active community input on the priorities that will govern a public infrastructure project may be highly appropriate, placing decision-making around the size of drainage pipes in the hands of the public is neither feasible nor likely a very good idea.
As we will see, the current state of online public engagement includes a strong complement of tools and platforms that provide robust opportunities for Telling and Asking types of online public engagement. Just as Discussing and Deciding strategies are arguably not used in real life public engagement as often as they could be, online strategies for these more active engagement strategies also represent a small proportion of the tools currently available. This is probably due to a combination of perceived market demand and the fact that many online public engagement tools depend heavily on text inputs, which do not always lend themselves well to discussion or large group decision-making. As we will see, however, tools suited to these kinds of public engagement are beginning to develop.