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Ten Public Involvement ‘Hot Spots’

This 2-page document was used as a handout for the workshop entitled “Collaborative Governance in Local Government: Choosing Practice Models and Assessing Experience” given by Terry Amsler, Lisa Blomgren Bingham, and Malka Kopell at the 2006 NCDD Conference. While most public involvement strategies offer positive results for all, some efforts are not as effective as sponsors and participants would like. Outlined in this two-page document are a few of the ‘hot spots’ where extra attention may mean the difference between success and failure. Download at https://ncdd.org/rc/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Amsler-PI_Hot_Spots.doc

Ten Public Involvement ‘Hot Spots’

Voices in and outside of government are stressing the importance of involving communities in the public decisions and policymaking that affects them. The Public Policy Institute of California has described “a need to inform and motivate citizens about participation beyond the ballot box.” Local government is responding and collaborative efforts exist throughout California that address budgetary, housing, land use, environmental, and other issues.

While most public involvement strategies offer positive results for all, some efforts are not as effective as sponsors and participants would like. We offer below a few of the “hot spots” where extra attention may mean the difference between success and failure.

  1. Link talk to action. Good intentions and well-run processes are not enough. There has to be clarity from the beginning about how public officials will use the ideas, recommendations or agreements that result from public forums. Wasted resources and a great deal of frustration may otherwise result.
  2. Right issue? Right reason? Is the targeted issue one that’s appropriate for broader resident engagement and justifies the required time and costs? Also, a campaign to persuade the public about a particular solution or path is different than asking what residents think or want.
  3. Too little too late. Engaging in a process when the decision (or a major part of it) is already made – or when it’s too late for meaningful changes – just makes people angry and reinforces apathy and mistrust in government.
  4. New process: same people. Initiating a new approach to civic engagement and public involvement doesn’t automatically mean that more and different residents will take part. Reaching “beyond the usuals” requires a conscious plan and help from those who already have knowledge about and relationships with those communities and constituencies you want to include.
  5. New process: wrong people. This is a variation on #4 above. There can be a problem of “scale” in public engagement approaches. A process that engages fifty or even a hundred individuals in deliberative discussions may result in a growing consensus; but there may be 25,000 people in your city that will ultimately vote on the matter. Also, a broad public involvement effort can sometimes miss key stakeholder groups who will have a major part of any effective solution. The answer is choosing the right approach, along with a good communication strategy.
  6. Fit the forum to the fuss. There are many approaches to public involvement but they don’t all get you the same results. The degree to which you are looking to develop broad public support, generate good ideas, craft detailed plans, develop better relationships among citizens or between citizens and public officials, or get a quick snapshot of current public thinking, will each suggest a different set or package of engagement tools and strategies. Be a smart consumer. Don’t “buy” the first model you see. Comparison shop, and learn how each approach, separately or together, would meet your specific needs.
  7. There’s no magic. Have realistic expectations. Don’t expect that a couple of hours of dialogue are necessarily going to change minds or create consensus. It usually takes longer with real opportunities for deliberation that can give participants other perspectives and a sense of new possibilities.
  8. It feels good but… Sometimes the desire for common understanding and agreement is so strong that real differences are never truly addressed in a civic engagement process. Superficial or vague talk, and hesitancy to broach the real conflicts on the table (due to civility or fear), can leave unresolved differences that prevent real action.
  9. Don’t forget public officials. The appropriate political leadership should be in agreement on the engagement purpose, process and use of the outcomes. It is also usually best if public officials are a part of the collaborative approach that is established. Details depend on the circumstances and purpose of each process, but typically the goal is to more closely join the public with policymakers. Preliminary “homework” within local government will also help assure a clear role for agency staff that will participate in a civic engagement process.
  10. Watch out for old baggage. There are times when a history of mistrust or a recent divisive political battle has caused significant polarization in the community. This may divide elected officials and parts of the community and/or cause serious rifts among community residents themselves. In these cases an “airing out” process may be needed before or as part of a new public engagement approach. Existing divisions also make it more important that a new process is developed jointly, not launched by one perceived “faction” or another.

For information or assistance with civic engagement planning, contact Terry Amsler, Collaborative Governance Initiative director, at tamsler@ca-ilg.org or at (916) 658-8263. Also see the Institute’s website at www.ca-ilg.org/cgi.

The Collaborative Governance Initiative, a program of the Institute for Local Government, supports informed and effective civic engagement in public decision-making and helps local officials in California successfully navigate among the many community involvement options that bring the public’s voice to the table on important issues.

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