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Questions Elected Officials Ask About Public Engagement

We wanted to encourage you to read the great insights that NCDD organizational member Max Hardy of Twyfords Consulting recently shared on the Twyfords’ blog. Max wrote some of his reflections on concerns that elected officials have shared with him recently about public engagement, and we encourage you to read them below or find the original piece by clicking here.


twyfordsI was enjoying a conversation and coffee with a friend the other day. After sharing a few stories with her about my work with executives and elected representatives, she asked, ‘Have you recorded any of this anywhere?’ I confessed I hadn’t.

Of particular interest to my friend were the questions that elected representatives have asked me in relation to collaborating with their communities. Perhaps you’ll find them of interest as well.

  1. ‘How do I know that an active minority will not monopolize the process?’
  2. ‘Collaborating takes time and I don’t have much of it. How can I find the time to do this properly?’
  3. ‘Every time I invite the community to consider an important matter they seem to be after blood. How can we have a reasonable and meaningful conversation about such matters (without getting bashed up)?’
  4. ‘Every time I ask what people want I end up with an unrealistic wish-list. Then when I don’t deliver on all of it people feel not listened to, and let down. How can I work with communities without setting up myself up for failure?’
  5. ‘People voted me in because they thought I could be a strong leader for them. How can I look like a credible leader when I keep asking for their help?’

I could go on but you get the drift I’m sure. It isn’t easy being a politician and I must say that the more time I spend with them, the more I appreciate just how hard their job is. What is clearer to me now is a set of assumptions that underpin many of their questions. This is what some of them are:

  1. People who have an agenda, or interests, different to the government’s, are a threat, and need to be neutralized or managed in some way.
  2. People expect me to be involved in everything and be everywhere to know that I am committed to the process.
  3. People generally behave badly if given an opportunity to influence an important decision.
  4. People are not capable of appreciating complexity, understanding other perspectives, deliberating or making wise judgments.
  5. Strong people need to be seen as having all the answers, and good at persuading others they are right.

What is interesting is that when we are guided by these pessimistic assumptions we are not helping any form of collaboration; invariably they provide the fuel for very unhappy processes that merely reinforce those assumptions.

It is not difficult to write a different set of assumptions that flip those 180 degrees. Just imagine how collaboration could be fuelled in a different way. What if we believed that collaboration with a community of interest with a diverse set of interests would deliver a more sustainable solution? What if we believed that the strongest leaders are those who encourage and support a process that taps into collective wisdom? What if we believed that people can be trusted to really step up when they are invited into genuine dilemmas? What if we believed that people could appreciate other perspectives if given the opportunity?

Like many others, Twyfords have been experimenting with democracy around complex issues for years. We are continually encouraged by what we see when we expect the best of people, which is why we have reason to be very optimistic about new ways to tackle our most challenging issues.

You can find the original version of the above post at www.twyfords.com.au/news-and-media/our-blog/questions-that-leaders-have-asked-me-over-the-past-18-months.

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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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