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From Fairy Tale to Reality: Dispelling the Myths around Citizen Engagement

Citizen engagement has become increasingly important in the last ten years, but we have barely scraped the surface of what innovative public engagement can do for public services, communities and citizens. Part of what is holding us back is outdated myths about citizen engagement.

FromFairyTaleToReality-CoverFrom Fairy Tale to Reality: Dispelling the Myths around Citizen Engagement” is a collaborative venture by Involve and the RSA. The pamphlet debunks common misconceptions of public engagement such as fears of spiralling costs and dwindling prospects of success, and provides evidence to the contrary. Drawing on six innovative case studies from Croydon to Tuscany and Estonia, the pamphlet offers much needed alternatives to the way in which we deliver our public services.

The RSA and Involve have come together to deliver this pamphlet because both organisations are passionate about its core message: we have barely scraped the surface of what innovative public engagement can do for public services, communities and citizens. This passion is derived to a large extent from our own experiences of public engagement.

At the RSA, we develop practical solutions to pressing social challenges. This includes designing and testing new approaches to engagement that help to build community resilience, encourage active citizenship and foster pro-social behaviour in the places we work. The Citizen Power Peterborough programme is a good example of this. Over the past years Involve has also explored what works in practice when it comes to engagement. We have always said that bad engagement is worse than none at all. ‘Pathways through Participation’, our recent two-and-a-half-year research project, has borne this out. The opposite is also true. Excellent engagement can have a stunning effect on public services. This pamphlet forms a vital part of the RSA’s and Involve’s shared mission to transform the opportunities that citizens have to shape services and decisions that affect their lives.

The pamphlet addresses these 5 myths about engagement:

  1. Engagement is too expensive
  2. Citizens aren’t up to it
  3. Engagement only works for easy issues
  4. Citizen power is a floodgate we should avoid at all costs
  5. Citizens don’t want to be involved, they just want good services

The report outlines 6 real projects that provide evidence to counteract these myths.  Three of the six were run by NCDD members:

  • ’Our Budget, Our Economy’ – USA (2010)
  • ‘Geraldton 2029 and beyond’ – Geraldton, Australia (2009 – ongoing)
  • Citizens’ Initiative Review – Oregon, USA (2010 – ongoing)

From Fairy Tale to Reality concludes with ten suggestions “for the direction of travel for citizen engagement and relations between public agencies and citizens, based on what we have learned from our review of radical engagement practice”:

  1. Start with the practical problems and experience of citizens.
  2. Build the capacity of citizens to problem-solve.
  3. Design engagement with long-term impact and sustainability in mind.
  4. Citizens should be commissioned to tackle long-term social challenges.
  5. Start with the right incentives – don’t underestimate the power of having fun.
  6. Make the most of the behavioural sciences to improve engagement.
  7. Personalise and target engagement opportunities.
  8. Use social networks analysis to make engagement more inclusive.
  9. Diversity is important for engagement to be perceived as accountable and legitimate
  10. Democratise the exchange and distribution of information

A must-read for everyone in our field!  Kudos to authors Edward Andersson, Sam McLean, Metin Parlak and Gabrielle Melvin for creating this valuable resource!

Resource Link: www.involve.org.uk/from-fairy-tale-to-reality/

Download Directly at: www.involve.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/From-Fairy-Tale-to-Reality.pdf

4-page Summary Doc: www.involve.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/From-Fairy-Tale-to-Reality-Summary.pdf (great to use as a handout!)

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Add a Comment

  1. John McGovern Says:

    Wow. What a powerful set of myths and principles towards the facilitation of community engagement. So glad that you recognized “Citizen power is a floodgate we should avoid at all costs”.
    Such a powerful statement to bring to light as this is the very thought that many organizations involved in community engagement have, but never say aloud.