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What is "Legitimate" Public Engagement?

The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once cynically called involving citizens in local government decisions "a device whereby public officials induce non-public individuals to act in a way the public officials desire," and a Federal official was overheard saying that in public engagement, he followed the "3 I's" : "Include, inform, ignore." In the midst of this apathy, can citizens be involved in ways that truly inform elected and administrative policy-makers? Yes, but first it is important to know what legitimate public engagement is not. Michael R. Wood from the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation frames the discussion this way:

"Sometimes different notions of 'public relations' are included under the umbrella of public engagement. This confusion can lead to misplaced expectations and unaccomplished goals - by those involved. Consider when a public agency might want the community to have a better understanding of what it does and why. In this case, basic communications are in order. At other times, elected officials might want to rally the community behind a sales tax increase (or decrease) or a mill levy to raise resources to fulfill their responsibilities. These circumstances clearly call for advocacy. Public engagement is appropriate when an agency is seeking to learn from the public. But learning is more than simply soliciting input, adding up the responses, and using the data to make a decision that is allegedly supported by citizens. It is about gaining and using public knowledge."

In similar ways, civic organizations can also approach citizens with pre-conceived opinions about a given policy issues, and then approach governing institutions as an adversary, rather than as a partner. Public relations and advocacy are important elements of our representative democratic system, whether practiced by institutions or civil society groups, but they should not be confused with citizen engagement.

The Davenport Institute defines "legitimate" public engagement as having four main ingredients. In different contexts, budgets and timelines can affect the degree to which these elements can be developed; these are not quests of political science "purity." Nonetheless, we believe the following pieces should be integrated to the degree possible.

  1. Incorporating results of engagement into actual decision-making process: The proof of a real civic involvement process is how it informs the policy-making framework. This often means that elected and administrative officials are at a point where they can "take their hands off the wheel" of the outcomes from such an effort. This does not demand that leaders must guarantee implementation of the opinions offered in a public engagement initiative, but it does mean that they formalize how the results will be considered.
  2. Presenting of unbiased information to participants: One way public involvement processes can be manipulated is through the deliberation of slanted or biased information. Most policy issues have two if not multiple considerations. These should be presented in an honest way for the public's consideration. The best way this happens is to involve "stakeholders" in the early stages of the process, having them agree to central information elements, which will then go before citizens. Having participants make the tough "trade off" decisions that officials must make can only occur when they are provided with the same information.
  3. Gathering a representative and diverse group of participants: Engagement efforts can also be affected by the people assembled to discuss an issue. Outreach programs that elicit a variety of perspectives and ethnicities are a vital part of any legitimate campaign.
  4. Facilitating the discussion in a way that involves all participants: Once citizens are brought "to the table", results of deliberations can still be determined by ineffective facilitation. This can often happen in the usual "Town Hall" format, where citizens are restricted to a couple minutes at a microphone addressing an entire decision-making body. Breaking down these discussions into small group dialogues provides a more inclusive and deliberative environment in which to discuss a particular policy issue. It also brings citizens from varying perspectives into contact with one another - an important part of any public engagement exercise.