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Learning from NYC’s Engagement

PublicAgenda-logoIn the last month, Dr. Will Friedman of Public Agenda, an NCDD organizational member, has written two great pieces sharing his reflections on public problem-solving in his native New York City that were too good not to share wanted to share.

In his first piece on civic inclusion, Will shared a number of inspiring examples of ways that New Yorkers from traditionally marginalized groups and backgrounds have engaged in addressing the issues in their communities. And his second piece on post-Hurricane Sandy engagement in NYC, he shares reflections on the need for public, collaborative problem solving as the city grapples with the changes it needs to make to become more resilient after such disasters, and it included some choice nuggets of insight, not only for New Yorkers, but for all of us working in public engagement.

On grappling with the challenges posed to communities by major climate events, he writes:

The challenges we face are unprecedented and involve not only rebuilding and renewing, but adapting and reinventing. We have options to choose from, including constructing a flood barrier, changing building codes, or limiting waterfront development.

These are only a few of our options, and none of them are easy. Choosing the fairest and most effective approach will take creativity and collaboration, and a high-functioning democratic process that builds authentic public will and support for bold action…

The task will require more than just smart designers, power brokers and public officials influencing and making calls on policy. A challenge at this level will take thousands of small efforts on the parts of individuals and communities. It will take a number of big ideas, things that people can’t do by themselves, and things that the government can’t do without the support of the citizenry. Above all, it will require real collaboration, not only among national, state and local authorities, but also among leaders and citizens.

Importantly, he notes that what will not work is if “business-as-usual” continues, but also acknowledges that we also aren’t ready to engage publics at the scale and depth that is needed:

The age of backroom powerbrokers making the big decisions for the little people is over. At the same time, the mechanisms for engaging citizens in productive consideration of, and participation in, solutions are not in place.

The solutions we need do, in fact, lie in building the “high-functioning” democratic processes that Will points to. And building such process, ones that are suited to the urgent but complex decisions facing our society, is a challenge that fields like ours must be taking on.

But how do we get there? Will has some suggestions:

We do, though, know some of the principles and practices that can make a real difference in helping leaders and citizens collaborate to overcome arguments and move toward sustainable solutions. These include:

  • Knowing when to include the public. The public feels more strongly about having a voice in some decisions more than others. Taking the time to understand which is which saves time and energy.
  • Presenting the practical choices. Residents need to understand the realistic choices the city faces in ways they can understand and relate to. In particular, they need to understand the practical pros, cons and tradeoffs of different solutions. It’s not enough to explain what these options are to citizens, they need to know what they mean for their own lives and for the life of their city. In practical terms that all residents can understand, what are the benefits, downsides, costs and unknowns?
  • Providing the time and space for stable judgment. People need opportunities to not only consider the choices, but to talk to people about them, to hear others talking about them, and to let them sink in and percolate with their values, concerns and interests. Well-designed community dialogues, online discussion groups and thoughtful television and radio discussions are some of the ways in which raw public opinion becomes more stable and responsible.

We can’t afford for the current fruitful conversations to bog down in wishful thinking or petty bickering. To move forward, we must face our choices, weigh their tradeoffs, and work together to shape a vision for New York’s future.

If we succeed, we’ll not only do great things for a great city, we can also become an example of working through disagreements to make progress on a tough public problem together.

He may be right that the lessons that come from New York City’s attempts to work through its public problems can be instructive for the rest of the country, and indeed, the world. Certainly, the Big Apple has its own quirks and nuances, but if residents and communities in a city as large and diverse as NYC can build effective, equitable, and creative processes that genuinely engage the public in solving shared problems, it bodes well for the rest of us and the futures of our communities.

New York has enormous challenges ahead of it. But with collaboration-minded leaders like Will and many other NCDDers hard at work, it is absolutely possible that the city’s experiments in big, new forms of deliberation and engagement will provide a model that folks in our field can build on and adapt successfully to our own local realities.

We will be pulling for them.

You can read Will’s full articles at PublicAgenda.org. Find his civic inclusion piece here, and his post-Sandy piece here.

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Roshan Bliss
An inclusiveness trainer and group process facilitator, Roshan Bliss serves as NCDD's Youth Engagement Coordinator and Blog Curator. Combining his belief that decisions are better when everyone is involved with his passion for empowering young people, his work focuses on increasing the involvement of youth and students in public conversations.

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