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From the Phila Inquirer: Why public engagement is more than a feel-good gesture

Harris Sokoloff (an NCDD Supporting Member) emailed me today about a July 28th article by Doron Taussig in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Why public engagement is more than a feel-good gesture.” Harris and I are both quoted briefly in the article.

Here’s an excerpt I thought would be particularly helpful to NCDDers who might need to argue succinctly for quality public engagement in their city:

“To succeed, public engagement must come early enough in a process to influence a decision. And it needs to be structured. Elected officials interact with constituents all the time, but that’s not the same thing as organized forums or hearings where citizens and officials give-and-take with each other. That kind of public engagement makes things happen:

It makes democracy more democratic. Philadelphia had a primary election in May. A few topics that didn’t come up often: redistricting; the school budget; property taxes. Aren’t these issues about which citizens might want to weigh in? But local elections tend to focus on one or two hot topics (see: the Deferred Retirement Option Plan). On other issues, decision-makers hear mostly from interest groups with loud voices or big money. Public engagement creates “another stream of influence,” said Sandy Heierbacher, of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation.

It makes better policy. “There is a lot of wisdom sitting around the city,” said Harris Sokoloff, faculty director of the Penn Project on Civic Engagement, which helped organize town-hall-style workshops on the city budget back in 2008.

There are 17 members of Council, plus their staffers and a few experts they consult. Is it really possible that in a city of 1.5 million, there aren’t a few other smart folks with insights that might improve decision-making? Public engagement can bring some of those folks in, even if you have to sit through the occasional rambling speech. This is especially important, Sokoloff said, because citizens tend to think about issues differently from experts.

It makes Philadelphia smarter. One of the nice things about public engagement is that it builds on itself. If engagement is done right, it’s also an educational process: Not only are participants presented with information about civic issues, but they’re also forced to debate those issues with other participants who have different opinions and interests. Maybe a union guy sees things differently after a conversation with a struggling business owner. Maybe a fiscal conservative changes her tune after meeting a parent who relies on public health centers.

See the full article at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/our-money/Why-public-engagement-is-more-than-a-feel-good-gesture.html.

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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  1. Doron Taussig followed up on August 8th with this post at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/our-money/Getting-Council-to-pay-attention.html :

    Monday, August 8, 2011

    Getting Council to pay attention to the public on redistricting

    Update: Catherine Lucey reports that Council just announced two more hearings, dates and times not available yet.


    When we last wrote about City Council and redistricting, we were heckling Council for its failure to keep commitments to include the public in the process of drawing new districts, and going back to basics to argue that public engagement really does matter.

    Since then, Council has announced plans to hold a single public hearing on the matter, on August 16 at 10:30 a.m. in Council chambers. Ellen Kaplan, of the Committee of Seventy, had this to say about the plan:

    “Holding one public hearing in City Hall — less than one month before a redistricting plan must be in place — essentially says to the public, ‘We really don’t care what you think.”

    So that’s discouraging. But meanwhile, some organizations around town have gotten together to do some public engagement of our own. The mapping firm Azavea has built some cool software that allows citizens to draw their own Council districts. And Azavea, WHYY/Newsworks, the Daily News editorial board and the Penn Project for Civic Engagement are hosting a workshop and contest, to help/encourage citizens to participate. Read Chris Satullo’s explanation of the program. Or listen to the Daily News’ Catherine Lucey and Azavea’s Robert Cheetham discuss the matter on Radio Times.

    Of course, it’s fair to ask: Do the workshop and contest matter if Council — who will ultimately make the decisions here — doesn’t seem committed to using public input?

    Truthfully, there’s probably some value to the exercise without Council’s attention … but not nearly enough.

    That doesn’t mean, though, that this engagement effort will be a waste of time. Because Council doesn’t need to be signed on before the engagement. What we hope happens tonight, and over the next couple of weeks, is that citizens get interested in redistricting, Council notices that citizens are interested, and decides to pay attention to what people are saying. In fact, Sandra Shea of the Daily News will be speaking tonight about ways to put citizens’ maps in front of Council’s eyes.

    So come out: Tonight at 7 p.m. at WHYY’s Hamilton Public Media Commons, at 150 N. 6th Street.

    Also, there are prizes for the best maps, totaling $1,000. So that helps.

    Posted by Doron Taussig @ 11:06 AM

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