Why the Goals of Citizen Engagement Are Not What You Think

By Otis White.

I know local government officials well enough to know some of their secrets. And here’s one: Many don’t really believe in citizen engagement. Or, if they do believe in it, they don’t think it actually works.

I understand why they feel this way. If I had to depend on what passes for citizen engagement in most places–public hearings and public-comment periods at city council meetings–I’d be skeptical, too. These clumsy attempts at citizen engagement are good at producing three things: apathy, antagonism, and cynicism. That is, either no one shows up or every sorehead in town does. And on those occasions when a citizen with a good idea approaches the lectern expecting some sort of reaction from the city council or the staff, what does she get? Stony silence. (This reaction is so common during public-comment periods that a public-radio show in Cleveland devoted an entire broadcast to it, entitled “Is This Microphone Working?”)

But there’s more to the doubts about citizen engagement than bad processes. Some elected officials genuinely don’t think it’s necessary. That’s because they believe they are how citizens engage with their government, through elections. “This is a republic, not a democracy,” I’ve been reminded by local officials over the years. “I didn’t get elected to run back to the voters all the time, asking them what to do.”

So, where to begin? I’d like to make two arguments to my friends in local government. The first is that citizen engagement can work a lot better than it does today, with much better results. The second is that citizen engagement is a critical part of making governments work better. I’ll talk about the first part, the “how” of citizen engagement, in a future posting. But today I’d like to take on the “why” part–why talking with the citizens is worth the trouble.

To make my case, I need to convince you that the reason you believe the public should be heard from is, if not wrong, then woefully inadequate. You probably think it’s so elected officials can learn what citizens think about a decision they’re about to make. Now, please don’t misinterpret what I’m about to say. There is nothing wrong with hearing from citizens about controversial issues facing a local government. And even if you think it is wrong, you can’t stop them.

But this kind of public engagement has limited value. An opinion is only as good as the information, logic, perspective, and values behind it, and for reasons that are obvious, people who are most affected by a decision aren’t always its best judges. After all, there’s a reason we use impartial juries to decide guilt and don’t leave it to the victims or the accused.

And let me repeat: You can’t–and shouldn’t–stop people from expressing their opinions. They may bring information that others have overlooked or have a perspective that’s worth considering. But opinions shouldn’t be the goal of citizen engagement.

The goal should be something deeper: an understanding of the interests and desires of citizens. And you cannot get that from a public hearing or a public-comment period.

That’s because by the time citizens show up for a public hearing, a proposal is already on the table, and it’s often one they’ve had no voice in until then. At that point, they’re often angry or scared and in no mood to discuss deeper concerns. So pity the poor public officials sitting in the pose I call “duck and cover,” heads down, hands folded in their laps, silent as stones as speaker after speaker assails them.

The better way: Begin talking with citizens before plans are drafted, perhaps even before problems are identified. By doing so, you’ll get a calmer dialogue and a much better sense of interests and desires. (I’ll talk about how to do this in a future posting.) And keep citizens involved at every step in the planning stage. Here is the key concept: Citizen engagement is not an event (a town-hall meeting, a public forum, or a “My City 101” class, and certainly not a public hearing or public-comment period); it is a process.

But a process to deliver what? This brings me to the second goal of citizen engagement. If the first goal is understanding, then the second is recruitment. Local governments need citizens, as individuals and in groups, to become partners in solving community problems and seizing opportunities.

That’s because the healthiest communities are those that share responsibility, where everyone does his part and all are held accountable. You see most clearly how shared responsibility works in downtown business improvement districts, where businesses pay for some things (streetscaping, cleanup crews, additional uniformed security) while governments pay for others. The additional resources are important, but so is the diligence. BIDs work so well because everyone is involved and, therefore, paying attention.

And isn’t that the perfect description of an “engaged citizen”–one who is involved and, therefore, paying attention? Done right, this is what citizen engagement can deliver to your community.

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