Managing the Axe-Grinders Deep Dive Workshop at National APA conference!

This post is especially relevant to two groups of you readers:


  1. People who will be at the American Planning Association Conference in Phoenix this week, and
  2. People who don’t like ugly and unproductive public meetings.

I realize that there’s probably more of you in that second category than the first. Read on for more!


I have the wonderful opportunity to present a Deep Dive workshop on Tuesday morning, April 5, called

Manage the Ax-Grinders: Do Better Public Participation

 This is an expanded version of a training that I’ve done a few times before that draws from my years of experience running high-tension public meetings.  It’s based on a chapter in my book, Crowdsourcing Wisdom: A Guide to Doing Public Meetings that Actually Make Your Community Better (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come).book cover
Here’s what we’ll be doing:

This Deep Dive will cover two related topics: how to manage public meetings to defuse confrontation and enable fair participation, and how to re-organize the public participation process, when feasible, to avoid problems and create a better experience in the first place.

Both sections of the workshop will use a combination of discussion, role-playing, and analysis to highlight how different meeting management strategies change the behavior and experience of participants.  

We’ll laugh, we’ll cry, depending on how good the role-players are, we might throw things…

OK, probably not that, but I guarantee you’ll laugh and have fun while you’re learning.  Unless you’re looking to be bored. In that case, you shouldn’t come.


The session will be at 9:30 and last until about noon.  Check the conference agenda for location.

If you’re not going to be there, but you think this might be useful for your organization, staff, members, or others, let me know.  It’s a lot of fun, and you will never dread a public meeting quite so much ever again!



Join me and Price Hill Will for “Lights on the Hill” tomorrow!

For those of you in Cincinnati, you’ve got a great opportunity to geek out on transportation and urban design visions tomorrow night. I’ll be serving as Mistress of Ceremonies for a presentation/discussion/cocktail party (yes!) to explore ideas for reinmagining Price Hill’s historic incline, which transported Cincinnati’ streetcars from the downtown basin up the steep hillside to Cincinnati’s western neighborhoods.  Even though the incline itself is long gone, three imaginative designers have come up with visions of how that hillside and others could be reused — ranging from creating lighting of the architectural remains to a full-blown gondola.  

We’ll hear from the three young designers behind these concepts, and then we’ll discuss the Price Hill Incline site’s potential — not just for transportation, but for a distinctive identity, creative placemaking and economic development catalysts.  We’ll also have opportunities for you to share your wild ideas… with a little prize, to boot. 🙂

Lights on the Hill starts at 6 PM in the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater in East Price Hill.  You can learn more about a few of the concepts and the story behind the ideas in this article, and you can get more details on the event here.  Bring your thinking cap, your good ideas and your readiness to have fun, and I’ll see you there!





Della does a 360 Review that you might actually like ….with GIFs!

A 360 review doesn’t sound like a good thing to get for Christmas, but when the Emerging Local Government Leaders’ Network ( posted their interview with me right before the holiday hiatus, that was a nice way to end 2015 — in part because the wizards behind the site are masters of the GIF meme, and they gifted me with an extra little GIF of my favorite song in the interview!

As ELGL describes the feature:

Who doesn’t love a good ol’ fashioned performance review? ELGL loves them so much that we’re embarking on a “360 Review of Local Government.” We’re going to evaluate every single inch of the local government arena by talking to ourselves (a.k.a: other local government professionals), tech companies, journalists, professors, and anyone else who hasn’t blocked our email address.

OK, maybe that last part indicates that I shouldn’t be so happy about it…

It’s a wide-ranging discussion, and it touches everything from civic technology to working parenthood.  And it includes GIFs from Parks and Recreation and The Office, so you know you have plenty of reason to read it.  And in case that’s not enough, here’ s a little taste:


Wave a magic wand – what three wishes would you grant local government?


  • Stop being afraid of residents and start pulling them into the process —  it could be like having your own community think tank, if you open up and create a structured process that pulls people into constructive collaboration and participation.

  • Develop a laser focus on growing the local-based, local-owned, economy, instead of spending all the budget and energy chasing shiny things from Somewhere Else.

  • Elected officials and bosses who are always perfectly well-informed, entirely benevolent, scupulously public-serving and modestly brilliant.  :-)


If you haven’t joined ELGL, make sure you check them out — you’ll be glad you did.  Thanks again to ELGL for the fun!

Design won’t fix it alone

I like designers — urban designers, architects, landscape architect, even database and user experience designers.  I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and being befriended by and working with a whole lot of people who have that eye, that sense, that skill for making things look good and function.  As a very non-design-skilled person, I like to watch designers work: it’s a fascinating, mysterious thing to me, to create an image or a model of something out of thin air.  I can write all day, but I cannot do that.
But because I have spent so much of my life working with and watching design solutions unfold, I have reached a point where I can’t avoid saying this any longer:
Ladies and gentlemen, please stop thinking that you’re creating the Magic Solution to complex problems.  I’m especially looking at you, architects and urban designers and impassioned urbanist types.  Good design can help solve problems, but it does not do it alone.  And when you believe that — and worse yet, mislead the public into thinking your design solution will Fix That For Them– then you make it all the harder for all of us to actually solve the deeper issues: the ones that we cannot simply build our way out of.
Some of the designers that I have most admired are the people who work for a handful of downtown revitalization organizations across the country.  They get no CNU awards, they often don’t have letters after their names, and very few of them write books stuffed with glossy photos.
A lot of their job consists of drawing or Photoshopping a historically-correct facade onto an old building that has been altered – usually in ways that look awful, and are now decreasing the building’s value and that of those around them.  Their renderings are lovely, but they’re not High Art, or even particularly innovative.  Since they’re trying to return the building to something near its original character, there’s not a lot of room for out-of-the-box thinking.  Typically, their renderings are given to the owner of the building as a means of encouraging him or her to improve their property.
Here’s the important part: these designers don’t just draw something, dump it on the community or property owner, and expect Magic To Happen. The rendering is a door-opener for the conversation, the exploration of new possibilities, the collaboration. When this process works, it’s because the property owner comes to realize that there are options available to them beyond what they previously knew.  The drawing helps, but the drawing does not make that happen.

What we often fail to do in urban design and planning in involve the people who should and need to be engaged in a collaborative search for the best solutions.  We hold meetings, even charrettes, but too often, we simply give them a presentation, let them ask questions, or even ask them what they want, like we would ask a kid what they want for their birthday.
We do that because we assume that they don’t want to do any more, or that they can’t contribute at any higher level than we would ask of a first grader.  And both of those assumptions are wrong.
Here is my increasingly big concern: that we blame the failure of planning or transportation improvements on short-sighted local government executives, or greedy developers, or NIMBYs.  We do that without ever turning the thought process around, and exploring how changing the way we engage people might change the rest of the equation.
My personal hypothesis: we don’t do that, and as a result we default to If You Build It They Will Come, because we don’t know how to design or manage a constructive collaborative process, rather than a lecture, a hearing, or a “what do you want for your birthday?” initiative.
And we don’t do that because no one ever taught us to.
We need to start learning from the extension agents, the dialogue and deliberation experts, even good school teachers, to fundamentally rework the role of community members in planning and governance. Planning and architecture and landscape architects – anyone who designs for civic or public use – should be learning how to do constructive public engagement activities, crowdsourced collaboration, more transparent work, how to pull the public into the process as their own type of subject matter experts on their own communities, similar to the way that we include economists or zoning specialists or other related professionals.
And this needs to be a central part, not only of undergraduate and graduate training, but continuing education as well.  We require professionals to learn law and ethics; should we not also require them to know how to work with the public constructively?
That’s not some Polyanna sentiment, based on an idealized belief that everyone is important.  It’s a very practical sentiment, based on experience:
When I have built collaboration with the community into the planning and design projects that I myself have managed over the years, tensions have dissipated and misunderstandings had faded, and plans that no one ever thought would get approved have had unanimous adoptions.
That’s happened more times than I can count.
And it’s not that the plans themselves were better, or the designs more innvative, or the pictures prettier, than the ones on the project that fell apart in a cloud of fear and anger.
It’s been because the community helped build the plan, which means that they owned and championed it..  And because they were embedded, we found solutions to problems that a team of blue ribbon outsiders would have missed. And we found those before the draft plan was printed.
Those plans succeeded because we recognized that the people of the community are experts on their own community, and we because we knew that we needed to employ their expertise, just as we employed our own.
So my challenge to my design friends is this, borrowing a bit from the inestimable LaurenEllen McCann:
Design with, not for. 
When you do that, you’ll get closer to designing real solutions.

How to do Effective Online Public Engagement when you need to Ask

This selection comes from the upcoming book, Online Public Engagement, due out in 2016 from Routledge Press.  This section uses the framework for understanding different types of public engagement that I laid out in an earlier chapter, summed up as Tell, Ask, Discuss, Decide, and talks about how to do effective Telling-style public engagement in an online context, such as sharing background information or proposed alternatives that are being considered.

You can learn more about the Wise Economy Workshop’s strategy for doing more effective public engagement — whether online or in real life — in Crowdsourcing Wisdom: a guide to doing public meetings that actually make your community better (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come).  


As we discussed in Chapter 2, Asking activities shift the direction of participation — we move from the agency as the sole speaker in Telling, to the public as largely the sole speaker in Asking.  Asking participation usually takes the form of what we call “feedback” activities — this includes a variety of surveying methods, which can range from conventional written surveys to feedback on photographs, road cross-sections, what-if scenarios, and others.  Almost every known online public engagement app or platform includes at least one method of Asking, and typically several.

Asking in-person public engagement methods typically involve a wider variety of methods than Telling presentations, and online Asking strategies tend to closely replicate print or in-person methods.  A brief selection of online Asking strategies available at this time include

  • Opinion surveys
  • Visual Preference surveys
  • Scenario or what-if surveys

and others.

Most commercial sites and platforms enable some variation of the online survey, either independently or through integration with a dedicated site such as SurveyMonkey.  In many cases, a second form of open-ended survey forms the first step in the process called Ideation; this is discussed in the next session.

As most readers have probably learned, effective survey-writing is a science unto itself, and the difference between a reliable survey result and a result that is skewed can depend on seemingly minor issues of phrasing, question placement, etc. Social sciences research methodology and marketing research has given significant amount of attention to the presence of unintended (and sometimes intended) biases embedded in survey question design, which can lead participants to respond in a manner different from what they would do if the question had been worded differently.  Additionally, the length of a survey and the types of feedback options it offers can make a significant impact on the response and completion rate.

Effective surveys rely on questions that will produce quantifiable results to the greatest extent possible so that total results can be reported in a relatively objective fashion (for example, demonstrating the percentage of respondents who agreed with a statement and the breakdown of those responses by such factors as age and location of residence). However, in a public sector context, the option of open-ended written responses should be offered whenever possible, both because people may feel the need to respond in a manner that the pre-programmed response options do not permit, and because, having opened the gates to participation by Asking, not providing an open-ended response option would appear insincere  — and deprive the agency of some of the information to be gained from Asking.

Drawing conclusions from a collection of open ended responses, however, can drag a community into dangerous terrain if the comments are not understood in an appropriate context and used correctly.  Even for experienced and trained surveyors, it is easy to become disproportionately swayed by one well-written, pithy, angry or funny response, or to unconsciously give extra weight to a small number of comments that agree with your preconceived notions or preferences.  The risk in interpreting written comments, then, is that the project staff or elected official may create for him or herself a skewed internal interpretation of what “the public says,” mistaking a small number of comments that stand out strongly in her or his mind for a larger community consensus.  This is a difficult challenge to meet, and it is made more so by the ease with which hundreds of open-ended comments can be created and compiled in an online format.

In general, it is often best to present a collection of open-ended comments to decision-makers behind an introductory section that frames the common themes and overarching issues noted across the entire collection of comments.  An even better strategy would be to conduct sentiment analysis of the body of comments and share a summary of that as a framing to moderate interpretation of the individual comments (sentiment analysis is an algorythm-driven method for analyzing the opinions or emotions attached to particular words or concepts across a body of text.)

Text-dominated survey methods also pose significant challenges for people who have difficulty writing, whether that is because of lack of fluency in the language, physical difficulties in reading or typing long passages, or perceptual disabilities, such as dyslexia.  Additionally, many persons who are otherwise capable of communicating fluently in a text survey may not prefer to do so, and may choose not to participate rather than experience the annoyance and frustration of completing a text survey.  For these reasons, and because of the fact that many people interact with visual information more readily than with written information, survey methods that elicit responses to images should also be incorporated into Asking public engagement whenever possible.

Two common methods for Asking participation using visual information include the Visual Preference Survey and map or image mark-ups.  In both of these contexts, the usual methods for using the technique in person are directly adapted to the online context with relatively little difficulty.  Both, however, present additional challenges in interpretation when used onlinr: for Visual Preference Surveys, the difficulty results from the inability to conclusively identify the reasons for peoples’ choices, while most map-based Asking activities face challenges in terms of compiling results and avoiding the risks of over-emphasizing a small number of participants that may not accurately reflect the overall concensus.

A Visual Preference Survey presents a series of photographs or other images (typically of a physical site) and asks the viewer to indicate his or her preference for the setting portrayed by marking on a number line that extends from a negative number (indicating various levels of dislike) to a positive number (indicating varying levels of support).

A Visual Preference Survey works in an almost identical fashion online as off, but that means that it is also subject to the same limitations that have led some practitioners to challenge its use since it was invented in the 1970s.  The most significant issue with a Visual Preference Survey is that one can seldom be sure exactly what the viewer was responding to – did they like the design of the house, or did they like the tree in the front yard?  Did the negative response reflect the fact that participants didn’t like the building, or that they thought it was too big to fit in well with their own community as it exists today?  Did the cloudy sky in this picture, or the weeds along the crack in the sidewalk in that picture, lead people to give it a lower preference score, even though that was not the element of the photo that we wanted them to respond to?  Short of a detailed debriefing or a focus group follow-up, most visual preference survey administrators never get conclusive answers to those questions, which can make the use of their results problematic, and the potential for a much larger number of participants in an online visual preference survey means that this uncertaintly may also compound.

Similarly, a map-marking activity can also be structured to mimize the need for written comment.  In general, two types of map-marking online public engagement activities have been developed to date.  The older, and potentially more common, is a sort of perceptual mapping activity, in which participants may use a set of icons to mark specific locations as unsafe, valuable, in need of repair or redevelopment, etc.  In general, the responses are limited to the pallette of icons made available by the platform’s designers and selected by the agency, although some specific tools may permit a note of explanation to be attached to the “tag.”   Feedback maps of this type date (at least in concept) as far back as the Google Mash-up technology of the mid-2000s, although almost no one except for diehard technologists could use that system.

A second, more intuitive method derives from the architectural charrette method, in which Post-It notes are often used to attach comments, recommendations, etc to a map or drawing. In the online version, a virtual input can be dragged from a sidebar and “stuck” onto the map; unlike real notes, the online version can incorporate text, images, or even short embedded video clips.  In a situation where this method is being used with a small number of participants (again, after the model of a traditional charrette), the process of vetting and incorporating the feedback into the project can be relatively straightforward, but, as with other types of open-ended feedback, drawing defensible overall conclusions about the participants’ areas of agreement or consensus becomes difficult in the face of a wide range of individual inputs – and made all the harder by the variety of media that the participants may use.

How to do Effective Online Public Engagement when you need to Tell (Part 2)

This selection comes from the upcoming book, Online Public Engagement, due out in 2016 from Routledge Press.  This section uses the framework for understanding different types of public engagement that I laid out in an earlier chapter, summed up as Tell, Ask, Discuss, Decide, and talks about how to do effective Telling-style public engagement in an online context, such as sharing background information or proposed alternatives that are being considered.

You can learn more about the Wise Economy Workshop’s strategy for doing more effective public engagement — whether online or in real life — in Crowdsourcing Wisdom: a guide to doing public meetings that actually make your community better (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come).  

Videos. Use of videos in online materials of all types has exploded within recent years, as both expotential increases in digital storage capacity and ubiquitous devices for making and consuming video have proliferated.  Video can have substantial benefits for online public engagement — the ease of video consumption can draw in viewers who might otherwise not linger on the site, and the visual nature of video can definitely increase information retention for some participants.  But video can create some challenges for effective and meaningful Telling:

  • Because of both upload considerations and viewer preferences, short videos of no more than a couple of minutes tend to predominate in online sites of any type, and thus potential viewers may be predisposed to regard anything longer as too long (unless it is something that they came to the site with the intent to watch, such as a presentation or a documentary).  As a result, video as a first-line Telling tool can lack effectiveness because the amount of time needed to convey the same amount of information as in a 300-word written section may take too long, especially if it is not produced in a visually interesting manner.  For “deeper” parts of the information hierarchy, which may be accesseed mostly by people who are invested in the topic and willing to spend some time on it, a longer-form video may be useful.  For the main page of information, however, video is typically best limited to a very broad (and brief) invitation or orientation materials.
  • While some communities and organizations may be comfortable with the more casual style of informal video that may be captured via cell phone, many agencies will want to present a more polished appearance in their Telling videos (even if a more casual approach might have the benefit of humanizing the public engagement initiative).  While casual social media-style video can be filmed and uploaded in a manner of minutes, video that has been even semi-professionally edited, color balanced, audio enhanced, etc. takes both time and either staff skills or the budget to retain professional assistance.  For a public engagement effort with a tight budget, video that requires editing and production may not offer sufficient benefit to be worth the cost.  Instead, it may make sense to use mobile technology to record brief person-on-the-street type interviews as a supplement to other forms of information.  A long selfie-style explanation of a technical topic, on the other hand, will probably only benefit the initiative if extremely well done.
  • Many agencies may find it easier to use one of the comercially-available sites for producing animated online presentations, such as Presi or GoAnimate, to create simple video presentations.  Many of these sites will enable audio voice-over and can incorporate graphics, animations and other presentation methods.  Producing video in this manner can require some technical skills, and may require a subscription to the animation platform, but this method also eliminates potential problems that often plague amateur videography, such as poor lighting and  audio or stiff performances.  If using music, remember that, unless specified by the source, most recorded music is copyrighted and may not be legal to use without permission.


Infographics.  Infographics are basically visual presentations of complex information. An infographic can take the form of a chart or a collection of simple charts, or it can be an image that combines text snippets, illustrations, symbols and other design to convey relatively complex information in a manner that is easier and more visually appealing than conventional lines of text. Infographics are often easier to comprehend because they leverage the highly-refined human cognition trait of pattern recognition – they visually demonstrate patterns and connections in information in a manner that we have honed to understand through generations.

While a number of infographic generators have become available in recent years, producing an infographic that actually aids understanding of a complex topic is not necessarily as intuitive as selecting from a site’s templates and dumping in a data set.  Without thoughtful consideration and some awareness of graphic design and user interface issues, an automatically-generated or poorly-designed infographic can mislead as much as it helps.  For example, many chart wizards will automatically set the axes based on the range of the data provided, but this can skew the visual appearnance of the results by over-emphasizing small differences or otherwise distorting the information.  Similarly, an automatically-generated word cloud (an infographic that renders key words in different sized type based on the frequency with which the word appears in a text) can lose its informative value to the reader if its algorhythms automatically highlight obvious words, such as the name of the city or the project).

Most commercial online public engagement platform providers are likely to have built governors into their infographic generators that should lessen these kinds of errors, if the app or platform offers that capability.  But if you are creating your own infographics, or using an online infographic generator, you should check the results carefully, and ask: if I did not know anything about this project, what conclusions would I draw from this infographic – and are those conclusions correct?  It will also be helpful to consult with an experienced graphic designer and data analyst to make certain that you are not creating an infographic that risks misleading your public.

Interactive graphics. While these are not entirely common within online public engagement at this time, interactive graphics are becoming more and more ubiquitous within online platforms of many kinds, for the same reasons that short text and images are easier to digest online than print-style long form linear text. A common example of an interactive graphic is a Google map: you can pan from the section you see on your screen at one moment to another section, you can zoom in and out, and you can click on a single item on the image to access more information, see photographs, link to information about that location on other sites, etc. ] Interactive graphics can be maps, infographics with links embedded, or any other kind of online feature, and the interaction available may be as simple as a hyperlink or as complex as a pop-up embedded browser screen that pulls in real-time information from another site.

Unless you have a savvy programmer on staff or your online public engagement provider can enable interactive graphics, you may be limited to embedding or linking to interactive graphics on another site.  Whenever possible, however, interactive graphics will probably increase your public reach and accessibility.

Visualizations.  Visualizations are a specific type of interactive graphic that is usually designed to model complex information, such as geographic data or a future site build-out or long-term change in a dimension of the environment, in a two- or three-dimensional manner.  Typically, visualization technology requires a significant level of computing power to manipulate a very large set of data (for example, several GIS files and a few thousand point measures) in a manner that either renders the information in a complex chart or overlays the data onto a base map.  A visualization can usually change on demand if the data sets informing it are manupulated (for example, if the proposed building height in the design is raised from 35 to 40 feet).  Visualizations are particularly valuable for creating 3-D renderings of potential physical spaces, demonstrating how changes in one dimension (such as building height) may impact other issues (such as population density), or showing how complex phenomena (such as tides) may impact other complex situations (such as coastal construction).

Visualization technology has been available for as long as GIS and digital spreadsheets have been around, but recent advances in computing power, online data storage and software has enabled technology providers of all types to generate powerful in-office and cloud-based tools for visualization.  However, few public agencies have made the visualization models that they use available to the public to date; in most cases, any sharing of the findings of the visualization are limited to stills embedded as static images  This may have to do with the amount of computing power and data stream required to render a visualization, but it also appears to indicate a lack of willingness or overall awareness of the potential benefits of enabling the public to rotate and examine the visualization in a manner similar to what staffers do in the office.

Mini Asking activities. We have defined Asking as a different kind of public engagement than Telling, but even in a context focused on Telling, brief and targeted Asking activities can have at least three benefits:

  • They provide an additional opportunity for the user to interact with the information being provided.  Again, the advantage (and the necessity) of online communication methods is that they lessen the need to constrain users to a long-form, text-dominant information-conveying method that poorly fits how many people best gain and retain information.  A brief survey gives participants a different, more active way to interact with the information being presented, and may help increase understanding.
  • They provide a means by which agency staff can evaluate whether important content is being conveyed effectively.  Crafted carefully, a brief survey asking for responses to the information that the site provides can help determine whether content needs to be tweaked or if a graphic is not being interpreted as intended.
  •  They provide a small measure of humanizing the process.  As we have noted previously, one of the problems with relying on a Telling strategy for public engagement is that it does not build a sense of trust or common purpose with members of the public, which becomes necessary when one is trying to address a difficult or costly challenge, or engage the private sector in addressing public needs, or lessen angry or hostile behavior in the public arena.   A small amount of Asking could begin to crack the sense of Us vs Them, especially if this small act in itself represents a divergence from business as usual.

As we discussed in Chapter 3, however, one of the greatest risks to effective public engagement (online or off) is the hypocritical effort – the one that claims that the public’s input is valued and honored and important, but which then ignores the public’s input in the recommendations and shunts it into an obscure appendix to the final report.  Not only does this kind of fake public engagement make participants angry, but it reinforces distrust of governments and agencies and public participation initiatives, and sets the groundwork for future drawn-out, ugly confrontations between public sector officials who fear the public’s anger and members of the public who believe that they will be steamrolled unless they react loudly and vehemtly.  Since we see on the national and international stage, as well as locally, the damage that this confrontational mind-set has been creating, it is crucial that even a Telling-focused public engagement initiative strive to avoid making this situation any worse.

As a result, if you plan to incorporate a brief survey or other Asking-type activity into your online information reporting, make certain that you do not Ask about anything that the project and the public engagement efforts cannot deliver.  A “What do you want to see here?” question is inappropriate in a project whose public engagement efforts are limited to Telling, because if there is no possibility that the public’s feedback will be considered in the solution (for example, the site physically cannot support a building due to its unstable soils or flood risk), then asking a question that allows for something that cannot happen is not reponsible public engagement.

Instead, surveys or feedback questions in a Telling context should be limited to issues where public feedback can actually be used.  Questions such as “what was the most important thing to you about the Floodplain section?” or “Was there anything in the Soils section that surprised you?” would both give you a sense of the public’s priorities and allow you to assess whether they are understanding the information correctly without creating unfair expectations of influence over the results of the process.

For this reason, and because the purpose of a brief survey or question in a Telling context is in part to create a new opportunity for viewers to interact with the content, such mini-surveys should not be open-ended, but should be formatted as a radio button multiple choice, a ranking of three to five brief items, or another simple response activity.  While even the most diehard Telling online engagement initiative should allow open commenting somewhere on the site, written comments here will again create the mistaken impression that a higher level of public engagement is desired.  Again, the point here is certainly not that public engagement should be limited, but that if the project leadership or agency is unwilling or unable to accommodate more open public engagement, enabling limited feedback opportunities is preferable to creating expectations that the agency does not intend to keep.

How to do Effective Online Public Engagement when you need to Tell (Part 1)

This selection comes from the upcoming book, Online Public Engagement, due out in 2016 from Routledge Press.  This section uses the framework for understanding different types of public engagement that I laid out in an earlier chapter, summed up as Tell, Ask, Discuss, Decide, and talks about how to do effective Telling-style public engagement in an online context, such as sharing background information or proposed alternatives that are being considered.

You can learn more about the Wise Economy Workshop’s strategy for doing more effective public engagement — whether online or in real life — in Crowdsourcing Wisdom: a guide to doing public meetings that actually make your community better (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come).  


Most Telling public engagement focuses on conveying information to a general public audience.  For in-person public engagement, Telling typically tends to take the form of lecture-style presentations illustrated with slides of maps and bullet points, accompanied by printed handouts that may be one-page summaries or simply print-outs of the presentation.  In an online context, Telling public engagement often consists of text descriptions, PDFs of reports (or the same slildes as were shown at the public meeting), maps, etc.

Both the online- and offline versions of this type of Telling public engagement may meet the project or legal minimum requirements of making the factual information available, but they do so poorly and in a manner that few people are likely to consume or make sense of. Not only do poor Telling methods negate the intent of the engagement (building awareness and understanding of the facts, options, analysis etc. surrounding a public need),  but they can create additional suspicion or distrust on the part of the public, which may believ that the agency is intentionally trying to make the information difficult to understand. This tendency may be likely to increase as people become accustomed to more sophisticated and visual presentations of information from media sources and marketers.

The reasons why this style of Telling public engagement is particularly ineffective in online public engagement stems from many of the issues we discussed in Chapter 3: established knowledge about how people learn and deal with information; changes in communication technology and users’ assumptions resulting from the rise of digital media; and the increasing diversity of the participants that we need to include in public processes.  These and other trends indicate the increasing ineffectiveness of lecture-based in-person public engagement, as well as long-form written communications in a digital format.

Good Telling public engagement is crucial to any public project and to any public engagement effort that intends to build higher level engagement, since we increasingly strive to understand existing conditions and project considerations in a comprehensive manner and seek to avoid creating the kinds of inintended negative impacts that public projects have too often engendered.  As a result, every online public engagement strategy, whether primarily focused on Telling or endeavoring to build a base of knowledge to enable a different kind of engagement, needs to convey relevant project information in a format that will be fully accessible to viewers in a digital format.  Here are some specific tactics to consider:

Text designed for internet consumption.  Recent studies back up what many of us have discovered in our own lives: reading long blocks of text in a digital format is for many people a more difficult and less appealing task than reading the same length of text in a book or other printed material.  Online format readers have been consistently shown to favor short pieces (hence Medium’s decision to estimate reading time on entries), concise statements and short paragraphs, and they have less compunction than print readers about leaving a passage of text before finishing it if the passage does not seem to promise a payoff proportionate to its length.  While some writers trained in more traditional formats may grumble that this trend reflects a lack of attention span, it could be alternatively interpreted as a sign that readers have higher expectations for clarity and directness, and less tolerance for impersonal passive language, florid showing off, or inability to get to the point than they may have had in generations past.  In either case, however, the public agency’s tendency to long, abstract, jargon-filled prose fits about as badly with an online format as an Elizabethan philosophical diatribe.

To present written information effectively in an online format, one should:

  • Write in short paragraphs, typically less than four sentences, and often as short as one.
  • Avoid the typical impersonal bureaucrat voice (“The City believes that”) in favor of sounding like a collection of humans (“We believe that”)
  • Avoid the passive tense (“the schedule has been set”) and use the active tense (“We set the schedule”)
  • Avoid jargon or, if a certain technical term is necessary, define it — not in a footnote or in an appendix, but in a call-out text box next to the paragraph where the word occurs, or in a “hover” box that appears when the reader places the cursor over the word and then vanishes when the cursor moves away.
  • Organize the information that you need to share with the public in the style of an journalist’s inverted pyramid, not the way you would write a traditional report. Journalists put the most important information into the first paragraph of the story – the lead paragraph gives the overview of the subject matter, an explanation of its importance, and any other critical information, and then subsequent paragraphs fill in details that add to the basic understanding that was established in the first paragraph.  The farther down the page you read in a traditional journalist’s article, the less crucial the information is to understanding the topic (this is because editors who have page or word count constraints will typically cut from the bottom). Place only the first section of information on the site’s landing page or at the top, most visible and accessible level of the site, and make that page the parent to the sections that contain less immediately relevant details.
  • Limit each section to no more than one-half to one traditional word processed page (150 to 300 words).  Given that you are using shorter paragraphs than you may have been taught to use in school, your online sections may consist of only two to three short paragraphs.
  • Cull the information to be included to the minumum needed to comprehend the topic.  If the topic is complex or potentially controversial, give the high-level information in the first-level overview and then provide hyperlinks to more detailed explanations, background information, etc.
  • Use hyperlinks generously.  Online readers do not typically navigate a site linearly, and a statement in one section may trigger the reader to want to re-read a previous section, or reference a map, or jump to a deeper explanation, or review a reference source outside of your site.  The purpose of a hyperlink is to decrease friction in accessing the desired information, so you will be best served to make the entire collection of information as free of friction as possible.
  • Do not post PDFs, unless it is of background materials that only a few people may want to study, or if you have something that you would like people to be able to print for themselves, such as a poster announcing an upcoming event.
  • Wherever possible, embed visual materials that enhance, elaborate or illustrate the topic within the text.  This not only breaks up the text and makes it less daunting to the reader, but it also enables viewers to interact with the information in different ways that may be more useful for certain viewers.  As we discussed previously, only a very small proportion of the population learns best through written text; most people retain information better when it is presented visually or in ways that allow them to interact with it.



How to Do Effective Online Public Engagement: Administering and Managing the site

This selection comes from the upcoming book, Online Public Engagement, due out in 2016 from Routledge Press.  You can learn more about the Wise Economy Workshop’s strategy for doing more effective public engagement — whether online or in real life — in Crowdsourcing Wisdom: a guide to doing public meetings that actually make your community better (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come).  

Of course, the most user-friendly public engagement interface will be of minimal value if you cannot readily create the experience and obtain the information you need from the software within the real-world constraints of your time, expertise, staff and capacity. Although it is sometimes easy to become entranced with the aesthetics of a particular interface or the uniqueness of a particular approach, it will be to your benefit to give close scrutiny to the administrative or back-end functions of the app or platform you are considering.  Here are a few aspects to examine:


Appearance customization. The extent to which you can control the visual appearance of an app or platform depends on two related issues: the “skins” you can apply and the degree to which you can modify the provided skins; and the number and size of visuals, such as graphics and photographs, that you can insert easily.  Skins are preset design configurations for fonts, text and background colors, icons, page layouts, etc.  Within the settings or configurations, one can typically select from a number of design packages, and with one click the entire appearance of the app or site can be entirely changed.

Since all of the design work has been pre-set, a client without expertise in site design can easily select a skin with the confidence that the colors will be compatible, the fonts will be legible, and the page design will generally work.  Most reasonably mature sites will have enough skin options to enable the administrator to select an option that will be compatible with other existing design materials (logos, report graphics, main web sites, etc.).  However, a limited skin pallette or particularly unusual existing design materials could create a challenge for you, since you may not be able to find a pre-set option that is satisfactory.  Given that skins are typically built into apps as a way to avoid costly and time-consuming customization, your options in such a case may be limited.  If you have set design standards for your organization’s web presence that are embodied in a CSS file (a programming language used to set the appearance of a web site), you may be able to convince the app or platform developer to add your design standards to their master CSS, which would make those design characteristics available to you within the app or platform.

At the other end of the spectrum, some low-cost or free apps may provide no or limited skin options.  In this case, it may be obvious to the user that they have moved from the agency’s site to something that is owned by someone else.  In some communities, this visual disconnect may be of no concern, but in others it may not only prove visually jarring, but it may raise questions among the public participants about the safety of the site and the privacy of their responses.


Visuals and graphics.  As we have noted throughout this book, use of graphics, including photographs, charts, maps, infographics, interactive media and video are becoming increasingly important to site and app users, especially as they continue to migrate the majority of their participation to mobile devices with smaller screens and touch interfaces.  In most contexts, visuals increase conventional web engagement measures, such as page opens and click-through rates.

Apps and sites that run on older platforms may present a more text-heavy interface, allowing only small spaces for photographs and limited or difficult-to-use interfaces for adding videos or interactive graphics.  Newer apps and platforms, on the other hand, may emphasize these types of content, which may present a learning curve for you or your staff and generate some additional need for training and support from the provider.  Again, the challenge facing you revolves around striking a reasonable balance between the need to create an experience that invites your community to participate and your obligation to create an interface that you can manage, given your organization’s capacity and the assistance that the provider or others can make available to you.

Participant geography. This is an issue that will matter intensively in some communities, and not at all in others.  Standard social media – type platforms are largely location agnostic – they may permit you to identify your geographic location, but you can still post and comment if you do not, or if you do not identify yourselve as belonging to the area that is the subject of attention. But for some local planning, development, policy-setting, and similar initiative, whether or not commentators live or work within a target geography may make a big difference between political and popular acceptance of the legitimacy of the public feedback, or an accusation that the responses do not represent “true” public opinion.

Online public engagement platforms and apps to date have developed a variety of strategies for addressing the question of a participants’ geography.  Many of the simpler apps do not identify a participants’ geography at all, which others use self-reported information, such as a ZIP code or street address provided as part of a registration that the member of the public must complete in order to participate.  At this time, one public engagement provider, Vancouver-based PlaceSpeak, pursues the most intensive strategy: the app uses a combination of self-reported information and other data, such as a phone number or an internet connection’s IP address, to verify and pinpoint a participant’s location precisely on a digital map.

As one can probably imagine, the degree to which you can verify a participant’s “claim” to a geographic area can be either valuable or unnerving, or both.  One one hand, it may be perfectly legitimate from a public perspective to know whether a participant or a commenter is likely to be directly affected by a decision that impacts a specific area.  On the other hand, participants who do not live in a specific area, such as former residents or nearby observers, may have valuable insights to offer, even if their official address does not fall within the subject area.  Public agencies and organizations holding public meetings very frequently ask participants to identify their location of residence when signing into meetings, but making fundamentally the same request in an online setting can also trigger hesitation or resistence for two additional reasons. Not only are people often not accustomed to providing this information in an online opinion-sharing platform, but they may be hesitant to do so for fear that their information will be stolen, that they will find themselves on a spam mailing list, or that their anonymity or privacy may be compromised.  This also ties into the question of public identify of participants, which was discussed in the previous chapter, and moderation, which is discussed below.

Moderation.  Moderating online public participation can mean two things, one less commonly than the other.  One form of moderation is similar to moderation of an in-person discussion: leading and guiding a real-time conversation between multiple participants by asking questions, nudging participants to stay on topic, rephrasing, encouraging quiet participants to be heard, etc.  However, since most online public engagement does not happen in real time at this point, this type of moderation is rarely needed.

The more common meaning of moderation in terms of online public engagement is more targeted: monitoring for and addressing inapprpropriate online behavior. As we discussed in the last chapter, unpleasant, unconstructive and even threatening or intimidating online commenting behavior, while relatively uncommon can occur in an online public engagement platform in the same way that it can occur in article comments on a news site or a Facebook feed.  Effective moderation requires three key elements: a statement of rules of behavior that participants must agree to before participating, a statement of penalties for infractions of those rules, and a method of identifying participation that violates those rules.

Most commercial online platforms use some combination of in-person review, peer review and software that scans new comments for specific words or phrases to try to identify unacceptable comments quickly (ideally, before many other participants have seen them).  The more mature online public engagement apps and platforms typically maintain staff or contractors who are on call to monitor flagged comments around the clock, since online public engagement can occur at any time.  When identified, comments and commenters that are determined to violate the rules become subject to penalties, which typically range from removing the comment, to placing the perpetrator’s account on a probationary status, to blocking the participant.

As you can imagine, moderating comments can become tricky in an online public participation context, for the same reason that disruptive or incendiary behavior can be hard to manage in an in-person setting: public sector agencies typically perceive an obligation to protect free speech and will tend to err, to a point, in the direction of permitting problematic behavior rather than risk being perceived as being tyrranical.  However, even in a public meeting context, certain levels of behavior typically necessitate rejection or removal, and the same general principle applies to online public behavior.

Most online public engagement platforms establish rules similar to those that cover public meeting behavior: prohibitions against hate speech, threats, personal attacks on non-public officials, etc.  On the rare occasion when an infraction occurs, the site’s adminstrator may remove the comment and send a message to the participant identifying why the statement was unacceptable (that is, which provision of the rules for site use had been determined to be violated) and what additional penalties may be incurred if similar comments are posted.

You may note the term “on the rare occasion when…” in the last paragraph. Despite the popular media furor around trolling and uncivil online behavior, the experience of most commercial online public engagement providers indicates that the number of comments requiring any moderating attention at all comprise a tiny fraction of total comments.  Although some providers emphasize moderation (especially those whose marketing focuses on confrontational environments, such as zoning appeals), most consider it a necessary element of doing business, similar to maintaining servers, and do not emphasize it.

In general, sites and apps that use structured methods to elicit public participation and do not rely on open-ended comment fields have several significant advantages: not only do trolls and others intent on being hateful find fewer opportunities to spew off-topic vitriol, but users also find the overall process more constructive, more meaningful and more engaging than when they are faced with a torrent of open-ended comments.

Most commercial online public engagement apps and platforms maintain the moderation function in house, treating it as an element of the software application rather than as a responsibility of the client organization.  This is generally prudent on a variety of fronts, including maintaining objectivity and avoiding any perception of bias.

Reporting. For organizations that are new to online public engagement, it can be easy to become enthralled by the novelty of a survey tool, the aesthetic appeal of an app’s user interface or the success story that they hear from another organization.  But one critical element that can be easily overlooked in the evaluation stage is the question of reporting.  As noted previously, most mature online platforms place less emphasis on long-form written comments and rely on feedback methods that are more readily collated and summarized, such as surveys, simulation results, upvoting and others.  This is important for two reasons: first, it works against the human tendency to read a string of narrative comments and remember out of it only those comments that either surprised us or confirmed our pre-existing conclusions.  Second, it gives us the opportunity to more clearly understand the full scope of the public’s opinions and priorities in a relatively objective manner by quantifying or visually demonstrating areas of concensus or disagreement.

To achieve these benefits, however, the results of the public participation effort must be able to be understood comprehensively, fairly and quickly, particularly if it is to have any significant impact on public policy and decisions (which is what the participants wanted).  As a result, the online public engagement app or platform needs to enable a relatively frictionless, and preferably highly visual, download and summary of the participation.  Charts and infographics should dominate the output; the full results should be available, but an executive summary will often be helpful.

Technical Support.  Finally, serious consideration should be given to the type and extent of technical support that your online public engagement efforts are likely to require, both at the beginning of the initiative and during its operation. Commercially-available online public engagement apps and platforms, particularly those that operate on an SaaS model, often limit support to a Frequently Asked Questions page and a comment submission form.  While many can respond quite quickly, especially during their location’s traditional business hours, few have the capacity to staff around-the-clock live help, either in person or online. With smaller providers, you may find yourself exchanging messages with one of the developers, who may investigate and address your issue personally, while larger companies may employ customer service staff who can walk you through common fixes but have to hand off bug reports or service failures to a technical specialist.  The largest providers, or those attached to nonprofits with a civic technology mission, may provide occasional user training via webinars or tweetups, and it is possible that large providers in the future may borrow a page from other online service providers and begin hosting user conferences.

As we discussed in a previous chapter, part of the business case for devising an app-style delivery method for an online public engagement tool is its simplicity and efficiency — instead of customizing for every situation, the developer creates a small number of basic options and limits the user’s ability to change the function and presentatation to a limited number of predetermined, thoroughly vetted choices.  Ideally, an app approach also limits the amount of onboarding or start-up training that new users need – with a few introductory slides or a brief video, users should be able to import content, set use conditions, select preferences, etc.  Although consumer applications can often work in this manner, effective use of online public engagement platforms and apps may require a somewhat higher level or orientation, particularly if the product includes multiple engagement tools or is designed to enable complex content, like interactive graphics.

Social media connections.  Just as users should be able to share elements that they find interesting or useful on social media, the adminstrative functions should make it easy to share new engagement opportunities, trends in responses, updates and announcements to your organization’s social media networks.  Again, shares should use the social media platform’s reach to draw viewers to the public engagement site, not ask them questions or invite participation that they may then leave on the social media site itself.


Doing Effective Online Public Engagement: the User Experience

This selection comes from the upcoming book, Online Public Engagement, due out in 2016 from Routledge Press.  You can learn more about the Wise Economy Workshop’s strategy for doing more effective public engagement — whether online or in real life — in Crowdsourcing Wisdom: a guide to doing public meetings that actually make your community better (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come).  

the user experience

Of course, a sound technical underpinning that enables a poor user experience will hardly meet the intentions of any legitimate online public engagement initiative.  For an online public engagement strategy to meet its objectives, the process has to not only create an appropriate public participation effort, but it must avoid creating any unnecessary barriers to participation.  A few common risks to effective public engagement include the following:

Mobile access.  As discussed in a previous chapter, use of smart phones and tablets to access online public engagement sites (as well as pretty much every other kind of internet content) continues to grow at a prodigious pace, to the point where public participation managers in many communities should probably assume that the majority of participants may be accessing the engagement activities through mobile devices.  At this point, this claim appears as likely to be true of impoverished neighborhoods as wealthy ones, and as common in rural areas as urban.  In fact, in locations where “digital divide” issues exist in terms of access to standard computing tools and internet, mobile access may largely replace conventional computer-based internet.

Many online public engagement providers offer an interface that is designed for mobile devices – generally, the software senses whether the device accessing it is mobile and delivers the content within the mobile interface automatically.  In most cases, the mobile user can opt to change the configuration to the desktop site — an option that may be necessary if the mobile site leaves off functions that the user needs, but an alternative that usually results in a difficult-to-use, hard to read or otherwise unsatisfactory user experience.

Mobile interface design appears to present a two-edged sword: although web-based pages may prove hard to read or navigate, or load poorly onto a mobile device, the limits of mobile device memory and screen size often lead mobile interface developers to leave off some functionalities.  In certain cases, such as a simple survey or an app that asks for limited text entry, the functions that are not included in the mobile version may not be missed by the user.  But if participants are being provided with complex information, or asked to give long text responses, or being provided with multiple options and functions, a mobile interface that different substantially from the desktop site can not only create frustration, but it can imply that mobile users are not of equal value as desktop users.  Since there may be an age, race, economic or other divide between desktop and mobile users, this can be particularly problematic.

Narrative vs. visual participation methods.  Conventional, in-person public participation primarily (although not exclusively) relies on two communication methods: public speaking, and written commentary.  As we have discussed previously, online public participation methods have the potential to overcome many of the barriers that these methods present to several segments of the population, from those who are not fluent in the dominant language to those who are afraid of public speaking.

However, many online public engagement methods still over-rely on written commentary.  Interfaces that require written comments, especially those set up to prefer longer-form responses (such as by providing an paragraph-length block for the user to type in) may have the unintended impact of discouraging participation.  For many participants, the prospect of writing a paragraph seems intimidating or unpleasant, or the participant’s use of a mobile device may make a lengthy response physically difficult.  This can also be the case for elderly or disabled populations, and even persons who know how to write a paragraph may find the prospect so undesirable that they avoid doing it, particularly if they fear being embarrassed.

Online public participation interfaces have the ability to enable a wide variety of public engagement methods, ranging from photo-based surveys to budgeting simulations that require no typed commentary at all.  With relatively little technological development, it should be feasible to develop public engagement strategies that fully capitalize on mobile devices’ ability to use touch screens, record audio and video responses, provide feedback through photographs, etc.

Accessibility.  As we discussed in another chapter, online public engagement methods can be more accessible for a wide variety of community residents than in-person engagement, but a poorly – designed site can also create barriers to engagement. To avoid unintentionally creating such barriers, the client should make sure that the following are addressed:

  • All web sites, apps and platforms should be designed according to the  Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium.  This standard makes certain that persons using audial access (for example, persons with visual impairments) do not miss elements of the site that rely on visual features, such as photographs, graphics or videos. It does this by embedding a text summary in any items that are visual in nature and managing how those are presented so that they do not disrupt the main content.
  • Similarly, any video or audio content should be accompanied by a text summary for non-hearing users.
  • While Google Translate and similar services can provide a roughly intelligible automatic translation of a site’s  content, the translation can often be garbled and difficult to sort out.  If you expect to have a number of users who are speakers of the same language, or if participants may come from a language group that is not clearly translated by one of the standard automatic translators, you may find it beneficial to recruit guidance as to the best way to faciltiate the population’s online engagement from members of the community.


Online identity.  One of the overriding current challenges with online commentary of any type is the issue of anonymity, which is frequently implicated in confrontational exchanges, trolling and other unconstructive commenter behavior.  As recent studies have begun to indicate, the public anonymity provided by many comment platforms (where one may  use a pseudonym and an avatar to hide one’s true identity) can lead some  persons to express statements, insults or threats that they would not voice if their true identity were known.  Not only can trolling be insulting, hurtful, frightening and threatening to the participants, but it can also destroy the potential for constructive exchange of ideas– and chase people seeking a constructive experience away from the site.

Although these issues would seem to indicate that online public engagement platforms should not permit anonymous participation (and some do not, although most of those do not attempt to verify the identity that a participant provides), it should be noted that the option to remain anonymous can be crucial to some people’s participation.  If a participant feels that they must voice a concern that may be unpopular, or they fear retribution from an elected official (or employer, or landlord, or parent), or if for any other reason they feel that they cannot speak freely under their own name, then not providing an anonymous option may stymie their participation – and prevent their potentially valuable insights from coming to light.

As a means of balancing these two concerns, some sites require an internal sign-in that identifies the participant’s true identity but allows that to be shielded from the public site.  While this approach may prove satisfactory, it should be noted that recent internet history is littered with sites that promised to keep sensitive data private, but were later compromised.  At this point, it is not clear whether such exposures will lead the public to view data privacy breaches as a fact of life, or as an issue so threatening as to lead people to place additional protections on their online identity.  Since most types of public participation do not represent urgent and immediate needs, it may be reasonable to expect that participants who fear making their identities public may be more likely to resist online public participation when they do not feel confident in their ability to remain anonymous.

Of course, one way to address the impacts of bad behavior while also permitting anonymous or pseudonym-based participation is to employ consistent moderation, which will be discussed in the next chapter.

Security:  As noted previously, online public engagement apps and platforms are the creatures of private for-profit businesses and nonprofits, and they can range in technical sophistication from very robust to well-intentioned but under-capitalized.  As any casual computer or mobile device user knows, software of any type carries its own variety of risks, from introduction of worms or viruses onto a user’s device to enabling someone to steal private data.  Most online public engagement app or platform providers take these risks very seriously, and maintain the best available protections against hacking or other sources of trouble.  However, the safety and security of a web presence can never be assumed, and even something as innocuous as an expired SSL certificate can scare off participants.

Social media connections. As we discussed in a previous chapter, social media outlets generally do not work effectively as an online public engagement platform in themselves, despite their ubiquity.  However, it is this pervasiveness that gives social media a crucial role in online public engagement: it allows participants to help publicize the public engagement effort, drawing additional attention and participation to something that these people have already deemed important enough to them to spend time participating in themselves.  Most commercial public engagement platforms make it relatively easy for users to share questions, activities, and even their own comments across various social media platforms.  Since social media outlets rise and fall in popularity, these sharing functions must strike a reasonable balance between providing a sufficient range of options (a sharing function that only offers Facebook, for example, may discourage young adults, who have generally shifted to other platforms), and overwhelming the viewer with choices.  As the initiative’s adminstrator, you should also have the ability to share with your organization’s followers, an issue that we will discuss in the next chapter.


Trends driving demand for online public engagement

This is a draft Chapter 3 for the upcoming book, Online Public Engagement, due out in 2016 from Routledge Press. I’m looking for your observations, challenges, corrections, and other commentary. Please have at it!

Although in the introductory chapter, I made a relatively flip assertion that the debate over whether or not online platforms for public engagement are necessary, some readers of this book are likely to face query or opposition from bureaucratic or elected officials for whom online technologies generate some level of unease (as may the spectre of public engagement itself). Officials who have witnessed or been the object of angry social media responses, as well as those who have been regularly subjected to raucous or unconstructive in-person public engagement, may view the prospect of doing public engagement via an online platform through some combination of unease with technology and fear of trolling, mob mentality and other widely-documented and unpleasant online behavior. Because most officials who do not have positive online public engagement experience are not aware of the differences between those platforms and social media, it is not unusual for a council member or city manager to point to the latest nasty Facebook comment war as a reason to stick to the tried and true, if ineffective, in-person public engagement methods that they can, at least, predict.

Popular reliance upon online technology, coupled with changing work and school patterns and increasing awareness — and demand for — fully inclusive public decision-making means that citizens across the full range of age, demographic, income, ethnicity, ability and other factors increasingly expect convenient and constantly-accessible online methods for everything from reporting potholes to expressing opinions about future land uses. Although not everyone will choose to participate (a factor that long-range planners know well), people increasingly expect that when they do wish to do so, they will be able to at a time and place that is convenient for them, just as they watch television shows and communicate with friends when it’s convenient to watch a streaming video or send a text.

Growth of access

Although it is not uncommon to still hear public engagement specialists raise concerns about the “digital divide” — the perception that certain population groups do not use and do not have access to internet-based communication — studies increasingly indicate that this divide is in most cases closer to myth than reality, especially when access through mobile devices is included. According to the Pew Research Report, “Americans’ Internet Access: 2000–2015,” 84% of all American adults had internet access in 2013, 2014 and 2015, with rates as high as 96%, which statistically represents full saturation, among some segments of the population. Historically non-internet using populations had by 2015 become majority internet-using populations, with 78% of rural residents, 81% of Hispanic residents and 58% of senior citizens using the internet in 2015. Among persons who had not attained a high school diploma, 66% of survey respondents used the interent, and 74% of households earning less than $30,000 yearly were using the internet. Interestingly, these two populations represented the fastest-growing internet usage across Pew’s longitudinal data, a factor that may be influenced by the increasing availability of mobile devices.[1]

Although most mobile devices still struggle to provide the same range of options as computers, reliance on mobile devices has grown at an incredible clip in the past 5 years. In 2015, the estimated number of primarily mobile device users globally reached nearly 2 billion, and the number of mobile users surpassed the number of desktop users for the first time. A study commissioned by the venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers found that average amount of time using mobile devices reached 51% of the total time in 2015, while the amount of time using desktop devices remained unchanged.[2]

In particularly disadvantaged communities and developing nations, a significant proportion of the population may rely on SMS-based, non “smartphone” devices that have limited capacity to display conventional web sites, but residents use these devices to get news, pay bills, and even provide public feedback through surveys, as we will discuss in Part 2 of this book.

More diverse participant populations

Conventional public involvement and deliberation techniques, as practiced in most of the Western democracies, were designed for use by a much narrower range of the population than we profess to want to include today. At the time when town hall meetings and most of our forms of public feedback were developed in the 1700s and 1800s, particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States, the proportion of the population that had the right to participate in community discussions or policy debates was limited to only white males of a certain level of prosperity and status — which also meant that they could spend extensive time at public meetings because they had family members, employees, slaves or other workers who would keep the operations of their farm or business going during their absence.

In the United Kingdom, property ownership standards for being able to vote were not fully lifted until 1918,[3] and while most states effectively eliminated property ownership standards by the 1860s, property requirements in some United States communities were not eliminated untilHarper v. Virginia Board of Elections in 1966. And of course women, persons of color, immigrants, and persons with disabilities were consistently denied the right to vote across the Western democracies well into the 20th century. While some persons who did not have the right to vote certainly did participate in public meetings, one can certainly see that lack of voting rights would curtail both the potential speaker’s sense of opportunity and the willingness of decision-makers to listen to them.

Today, the conventional in-person public meeting, typically held in the evening and requiring attendance for one to three hours, creates almost insurmountable challenges for a large number of persons from all types of economic, personal and cultural walks of life. Consider:

People whose employment does not fall into traditional office hours.

Although definitive documentation is lacking,[4] employed adults in the U.S. work in professions and jobs that require them to work at least some of the time during evenings, nights and weekends. These range from emergency room doctors to manufacturing technicians to fast food workers, and include virtually the full spectrum of professions, income levels and ethnicities.

For these workers, attending a typical evening public meeting may require extensive logistical arrangements, from finding a colleague willing to cover the time when the person expected to be working, to managing transportation, child care, client information and a host of other factors necessary to make the person available for the meeting. In the face of these challenges, it is likely that only a significant crisis will merit the personal work, anxiety, and spending of a person’s social capital necessary for these residents to attend a traditional public meeting.

Senior Citizens

While many traditional public meetings in the United States and UK often appear to be dominated by seniors, this perception often masks the very large population of seniors who cannot attend an evening public meeting due to difficulties travelling. Whether the challenge is walking, driving at night, navigating the steps to the building or accessing public transit, senior residents may face significant challenges to in-person participation.

While, as discussed previously, internet and social media usage among seniors tends to lag other segments of the population, an increasing majority are not only using internet resources, but are relying on them to keep abreast of family, community and the world. By 2014, more than half of all persons aged 65 and older regularly used the internet, and of those nearly half used Facebook.[5]

People with small children.

Several factors have made attendance at traditional public meetings more difficult for residents with small children in recent years. First, the changes in work patterns, including both the issue of non-traditional hours and the increase in both single head of family households and households where both parents work means that people who want to attend a public meeting are less likely to have a spouse who can take care of the children at home during a meeting. Second, both the increase in working parents and changing standards of parenting mean than parents may be reluctant to leave their children in someone else’s care while they attend a meeting.

Although a few communities do demonstrate the foresight to provide child care for attendees of a meeting, some parents may worry about the quality and safety of the ad-hoc child care arrangement. Since sitting through a long and serious public meeting with an active small child may appear to be the only feasible option for many parents, the barriers to attending a traditional public meeting may prove insurmountable for members of a population that many communities are highly anxious to keep in their city.

Persons who have physical disabilities.

Physical access to and attendance at a traditional public meeting can present a massive barrier, not just for some elderly residents as noted previously, but for persons who may live with a range of physical conditions. Although most public buildings in the U.S. have provided building and transportation access improvements in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, these accommodations may be limited or require advance requests, as may be the case if a sign language interpreter is needed. This may limit the ability for some disabled residents to participate in traditional public meetings, for example if the person finds out about the meeting too late to make arrangements for transportation or other accommodations.

Persons for whom spoken English is difficult to understand or speak. Traditional public meeting methods rely extensively on the spoken word — and their structure assumes unquestioningly that everyone who wishes to participate will be able to understand and clearly speak in front of an audience in the dominant language. While this would have been a relatively valid assumption in most 19th century civic settings,[6] it is not today. Barriers range from physical to learning to psychological — persons may not be physically able to speak, they may not be fluent speakers of the dominant language, or their may experience debilitating fear of public speaking.[7]Persons on the autistic spectrum, for example, can often express themselves quite articulately in writing, but may not be able to speak in a public setting. With approximately one in 68 U.S. children currently identified as falling on the autistic spectrum,[8] relying on traditional public meetings has the effect of largely silencing these and other participants for whom public speaking is not possible.

Shift in expectations around communication between individuals and businesses, organizations and institutions.

This is the most difficult trend to objectively document, but it’s also the one that has the potential to have the most pervasive impact on the relationship and expectations between governments and citizens. Within the past 10 years, the practice of consumer marketing has been extensively disrupted by the changing communication expectations fostered by the advent of the internet. First through blogging, then through social media sharing, then through sharing economy platforms such as Yelp, members of the general public discovered that they now possessed the ability to share their opinions on products with hundreds or thousands of other consumers, directly influencing both the success of a product and often the company’s choice of actions. Marketers have responded to this shift by efforts to build relationships with users — participating in the same social media channels, engaging users directly, seeking crowdsourced feedback on products and events.

This shift in power in the business-consumer relationship has had far-reaching impacts. People of all ages expect that tagging a business in a social media post will generate a direct response from the business, or at least from the marketing person controlling the social media account, and that some acknowledgement or redress of a wrong will be made, in a direct, immediate and one-to-one manner. And as we discussed in a previous section, consumers increasingly expect that this connection can occur at any time of day or night, and from any location. At the same time, as routine transactions ranging from bank deposits to refilling prescriptions to purchasing household staples have moved online, the prospect of not having the choice or freedom to select an online option has the impact of making in-person public engagement meetings seem all the more foreign and archaic to the majority of the population.

[1] ANDREW PERRIN AND MAEVE DUGGAN, “Americans’ Internet Access:2000–2015.” Accessed July 2, 2015.

[2] Accessed July 2, 2015.

[3],_1918. Accessed July 2, 2015.

[4] Indeed, the lack of a catchall term for “people whose work does not solely occur during conventional office hours” probably tells us something about the very wide range of employment situations this point covers.

[5] “Demographics of Key Social Networking Platforms.” Accessed July 2, 2015.

[6] To be sure, local communities in large parts of the US have at some point in their past conducted public meetings in other languages, when the majority of the local population were recent immigrants with a shared linguistic background, in which case the English-speakers would have been at the disadvantage

[7] Public officials tend to forget that, among the general population, public speaking consistently ranks as one of people’s strongest and most common fears, often ranking ahead of airplane crash and other deadly situations. The 2014 Chapman University Survey on American Fears, in fact, listed public speaking as the most common fear, with more than one-quarter of respondents naming it. (, accessed July 2, 2015)

[8] Accessed July 2, 2015.

Managing Town Hall meetings so that everyone benefits (and relatively few are miserable)

This is a selection from the new book, Crowdsourcing Wisdom: a Guide to Doing Public Meetings that Actually Make Your Community Better (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come). Learn more and get the book for yourself at Thanks.



As I said in the last chapter, I don’t think town hall-type meetings are effective because they’re so easily dominated by a few loud voices.  But there are ways to improve the experience and the value of the meeting — for both you and for the people who choose to attend.

Let’s walk through a few of the specific tactics I have used for making these meetings more meaningful and more productive:

Have a pre-meeting workshop where you use Crowdfunding Wisdom techniques to build the base of information that you will use during the formal meeting. Just because the rules specify that you have to do a formal meeting doesn’t mean that’s the only type of meeting you can do.  A workshop done before the formal meeting can have all sorts of benefits – it can provide an understanding of the concerns and priorities of a larger group of people, it can give you a measuring stick to help gauge whether a single speaker is actually representing a majority or just speaking for himself.

It can allow you to understand and demonstrate whether speakers at the formal meeting are significantly different in age, gender, race etc. from the larger population, and it can place a confrontational speaker in the position of having to respond to the input of a body of people who may have come to a different conclusion – without those people having to be there in person.

On a particularly confrontational issues, the pre-workshop may also result in some proportion of formal meeting attendees who are better informed, have better grappled with the information, and may be more deeply invested in the outcome than they would have been if only the formal meeting were held.  It’s even possible that the pre-meeting workshop can defuse a speaker who would otherwise be domineering or confrontational, because she has had to think more deeply about the issue, and debate it with her peers, than she normally would when approaching that microphone.

An outside moderator isn’t a bad idea.  As the outsider, I have a lot of aces up my sleeve.  Since I don’t know any more than the broad outline of any previous confrontations, I can plead innocence.  As an outsider, I don’t have any explicit stake in the ground, and I probably don’t have any history with any individual or group who may be inclined to get confrontational.  Although of course anyone can in theory say anything, no one has any sound reason to accuse me of bias, as long as I treat everyone involved fairly.

Chances are, if I watch the crowd closely before we start (just like with Crowdsourcing Wisdom, it’s a good idea to try to build some understanding of the people you’re going to be working with), I may be able to get a sense of who the person with an agenda may be—especially if they stick in a group, which is often the case.

Many times, staff may feel the need to point out to me people who have given them heartburn in the past.  If I had the same history with those people that the city staff has, I’m sure it would be very hard to not fixate on them.

But since I don’t have that baggage, and since I am going to be careful to spread the chance to participate as widely through the whole audience as possible, I have a better chance of a more fair process, and less risk of specifically ignoring or focusing on one person or another based on some history they have had with the agency.

The other benefit of being an outside moderator is that I can take a strong leadership role, because I don’t have to worry about offending anyone.

After all, when this is over, I am going home, people.   If I had been in the city I live in, with people I knew in the audience, I would have found myself in a very different situation.

Never let go of the microphone.  I almost never take public questions via a stand mic or podium in the front of the room.  That seems to bring out the worse “Look At Me,” reflex in people – and as we discussed before, it scares the hell out of way more people than we probably realize.  Again, two consequences that completely undermine what we’re trying to do.


I almost always go at it Phil Donohue-style.  I wade as deep into the audience as the cords will let me. I either hold the mic for speakers, or I repeat their questions over the sound system.

In addition to giving me an additional measure of control over the situation (more on that in a minute), doing it this way provides three additional benefits:

  1. Having someone moving around the room means that people will pay more attention than if you simply stick behind a podium. If you want people to engage in the discussion, you need them to be paying attention.  It’s the same reason why teachers walk between the desks in a classroom – it creates a modest level of uncertainty and unpredictability, and that makes you more inclined to pay attention.


  1. If someone is rambling – either because they’re nervous, or because they’re trying to dominate the time, or they’re just not an organized public speaker – it’s a lot easier to manage that situation if you’re face to face. You can gently interrupt with a clarifying question, or rephrase the question (especially useful if someone is going off on a tack that isn’t within the meeting’s purpose and you need to pull it back in), or grab hold of the germ of their comment and flip it back out to the rest of the audience to comment.


  1. Sound systems can be a real pain. The mic’s too far away from the speaker, no one can hear them. The mic is too close, and it squeals.  The sound is fuzzy and the person’s accent is hard to make out.  The result of all of these: no one is happy with the experience.


You of all people are the most likely to know what you need to do to make the sound as good as possible for everyone.  At least, you will after the first five minutes.  So it makes sense for you to have as much direct control as possible.  And you can always use “sorry, the sound system is pretty touchy” as a reason why you’re hanging on to the mic.

Just because someone puts their hand up doesn’t mean you need to call on them.   We have this assumption from our days in school that the first one with the hand up is the one that should get to show off his or her knowledge.  But we all know that teachers select who they will call on, and after a while the kid who knows all the answers doesn’t get called on anymore.

Teachers don’t do that to be mean to the smart kids.  They do it for the good of the whole class: only calling on that person wouldn’t do the rest of the students much good.

We don’t want to ignore people if we can help it, but a forum whose purpose is to help us understand the cross-section of public opinion is not going to fill that purpose if we play by those elementary school rules.

It is critical to cover the meeting space – both in terms of taking questions from all over the room, but also taking questions from people of different ages and genders and ethnic groups and any other divisions that you can pick up on.   When I manage these kinds of meetings, I am constantly tracking the characteristics of the people I have already talked to versus the people who have their hands up.   If I simply stick in the corner where the most hands went up, I will both turn off the rest of the crowd and prevent us from getting a useful picture of the full range of public opinion.

ED Now Feature: How to Do Public Meetings That Aren’t Miserable – and Actually Make Your Community Better

The International Economic Development Council’s ED Now  ran an article last week that I wrote to explain why economic development people should be thinking about how to do public engagement more effectively — and why the ways we’ve been taught (or not taught) to “engage” the public so often end in anger and misery — for the public, and for you.  It gives you a little introduction to the Crowdfunding Wisdom approach to public engagement, which is designed to give you more useful information and your residents and business owners a more positive and more constructive experience.


If you’re an IEDC member, you can check out the article here.  For the rest of you, I’ll post an earlier and somewhat longer draft here.  If you want to learn more, check out the book at  


We have a problem with how we deal with the public.  We have this problem in all types of government and community professions, but the more economic developers find themselves required to work with business owners and residents and community groups, the more this problem threatens to further impair economic developers’ ability to help their communities.

The Problem

The methods, the assumptions that we rely on to figure out what people want their governments to do, to try to get them to understand why we’re building this or that, to get people involved in decisions the way we know we should…

They’re not working.  Too often, the only response we get is a useless, ill-informed, sometimes crazy response.  And on top of that, we fail to hear from the thousands who could very well know something crucial to developing useful plans, setting effective policy.  And whose support we need to build political support for the hard decisions that our communities increasingly have to make.

Those people are not failing to participate because they don’t care about the places where they live.   They’re not failing to participate because they don’t care what we do.

They’re failing to participate because the way we do these meetings gives them a pretty clear message that we don’t want them to have a meaningful role in the process.

What we really want, in the depth of our guts, in the place where the reasons why we went into this profession or ran for office or went on this committee still live, is to help make this community better.  We want to make the right decisions, anticipate and address the issues that might affect the community in the future, use the money and people and other resources that the community has as wisely as we can.

And if we’re really honest, we often have to admit: we don’t know how to do that.

Ten or 30 or 40 years ago, our predecessors in these roles hired Experts – Big Deal Architects, Big Name Economic Development Types, Big Budget Think Tanks, people who offered Big and Easy Solutions.

As you might have noticed, a lot of those haven’t worked.  When you look back on the projections, the visions, the promises, what they said and what came to pass very often don’t match up.   And for many of us, the great challenge that faces us today consists of trying to fix or undo the damage that those Big Solutions caused.

As the era we live in becomes more and more unpredictable, as we start seeing ever so acutely how one issue in our community unexpectedly impacts another, as we realize that the future, whatever it will be, probably won’t be a simple linear extrapolation of past growth…

We come to realize that expertise based on the past has less and less relevance.  Even major business publications are questioning the purpose, the most rudimentary value, of expert advising.[i]  They’ve been lead down the wrong path a few times as well.


Private sector businesses, from the largest to the smallest, are increasingly turning to crowdsourcing to try to get a handle on the emerging issues, the disruptions and the out-of-left-field new ideas that have the potential to catapult them into a market lead (or, if they miss it, shatter them to bits).  Crowdsourcing enables businesses to gather ideas, solutions, designs, sometimes even blueprints, from a wider range of people than they could every employ or contract on their own.

And even more surprisingly, businesses increasingly use the “crowd” to sift through the options and select the ones that will work best.  Academic research[ii] has been demonstrating for a few years that the Crowd does these two steps better than the Experts, and that crowd-designed and crowd-selected results tend to perform better on a variety of measures than when experts design and select them.

Businesses have to work like fury to attract their Crowd.  They put a huge amount of effort into reaching their Crowd, convincing their Crowd that it’s worth their time to participate, keeping their Crowd plugged in and participating.  Their ability to provide value depends on their Crowd, and when you’re crowdsourcing for T-shirts or motorbikes, you’re competing for their attention with a lot of other shiny but not all that important products.

In our world, where we’re trying to make communities better, we’ve got a Crowd that’s eager and waiting for their chance to participate.

We already have what those businesses are spending so much money to build.

We just need to open the doors, to give them a way to participate, in a way that matters.


But just asking isn’t enough

If you’ve been around the block a few times, you know what happened the last time you asked residents what they wanted. I often compare the responses we get to the lists that my kids used to prepare for Santa Claus:

“I want a dollhouse… and a pony… and a rocket launcher… and a baby brother…and a unicorn…” 

Kids eventually figure out that Santa Claus can’t actually deliver the way he promised, and that’s when they start questioning our whole system of magic-holiday-gift-givers.

Adults who respond to a civic invitation to identify their “vision” or give their “recommendations” often don’t know that what they’re offering is at the same level of realism as that baby brother or unicorn.  If you don’t know the ins and outs of zoning regs and state enabling regulations and nonprofit funding sources, you’re not going to know that what you’re asking for isn’t feasible. And the way we community leaders handle those uninformed requests looks a whole lot like how we as parents handle Santa Claus questions: we sidestep, we hem and haw, we make empty promises to “see what happens,” and then… we fail to deliver, with no comment.

If we want to meaningfully engage the power and potential of our people, we need to give them a channel.  We need to enable, empower them to do much more than spout ill-informed NIMBYisms or buy into knee-jerk cause-effect assumptions.  We need to

  • Draw on the unique knowledge, perspective and expertise of everyone we can get,
  • Get them reasonably up-to-speed on the issues, and
  • Engage them – get their hands deeply into – the search for solutions… solutions that are realistic and address the complexities and ambiguities of real community life.

We often shy away from that, because we don’t trust the public.  We’re afraid they’ll say something crazy, they’ll have different ideas, that they won’t Get It.  But chances are, there’s something we’re not Getting, either.  The crucial, and too often missing piece, is that we have to create a structure in which constructive collaboration between us and them can happen.


How to CrowdSource Wisdom

Every Crowdsourcing Wisdom event works a little differently, and the details of how you fit the process to the people cannot be overlooked.  But here is the basic structure:

  1. Meeting attendees work together in small groups. Whenever possible, it’s good to make the groups random so that people are less likely to be working with people who are exactly the same as they are.
  2. Establish some basic rules of engagement – guidance as to treat each other, how to make decisions, how to resolve disputes, and so on. Basic rules of engagement give everybody some confidence that they will be able to participate, and have a fair chance to be heard – and it gives them the power to stand up if someone is trying to hog all the attention.
  3. The group has a specific activity that they need to complete together. This is more complex than “do you like this design or not?” The group activity might have to do with analyzing the factors behind an issue, designing a potential solution to a thorny problem, or setting priorities for future programs.  Each group does its work together on a large paper that walks them through the process.
  4. The groups work largely independently. My big work was on the front end – planning the activities, preparing the materials, setting up the groups and framing the rules. Once the activity is underway, I focus on monitoring, sensing emerging issues, fine-tuning and redirecting if a group gets lost in the weeds or can’t seem to come to a conclusion.
  5. The group shares its work with the rest of the participants, so that everyone gets to understand what the other groups did.
  6. Everyone has an opportunity for individual response. This might involve “voting” for their top priorities across all of the groups’ solutions, or allocating “money” to indicate where they think the majority of the effort should go.
  7. The results of the meeting are clear for everyone to see. Since everything was done on paper, there’s no question about whether some staffer with an agenda accurately reported the results, or took a colorful quote out of context, or mis-interpreted a minority position as The Conclusion.


The Results

I learned to use methods like this during my early career as a middle school teacher, and I’ve used Crowdsourcing Wisdom methods in dozens of communities and with thousands of people over the last 20 years.  And this is what I consistently find:

  • The people who participate feel like they’ve been asked to do something worthwhile. They feel like the participation has been worth the time and effort they invested.
  • The officials and staff feel like they have gained useful information. They have a clear picture of what the community values, where its priorities, lie, what it should focus on.
  • Officials, staff and participants feel like they have been part of a positive experience. They’ve built relationships with people, they’ve been able to focus on positives instead of just complaining, and they feel like they might actually have some power to help make their community better.
  • Even just one Crowdsourcing Wisdom event seems to start to overcome all those decades of bad public meeting experience. Suddenly, attending a public meeting doesn’t look like such a bad idea.


Learn more about Crowdsourcing Wisdom  at


[i] Ron Ashkenas, “Change Management Needs to Change.” Harvard Business Review, April 16, 2013.

[ii] Brad Power, “Improve Decision-Making with Help from the Crowd.” Harvard Business Review, April 8, 2014.

Welcome to Crowdsourcing Wisdom!

I’m delighted to announce that the book



(and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come)

is done, published, ready and waiting for you!

This book is the culmination of over 20 years of my work with cities, regions, governments, nonprofits and developers all over the country.  It gives you a clear, no-nonsense run down on why it is exactly that our public meetings so often end up feeling so miserable — for everyone involved.  It then gives you a step-by-step process for designing and conducting public meetings that actually generate wisdom, and it concludes with tactics for managing confrontational public meeting situations in a way that’s fair to everyone involved.

If you’ve been doing public engagement for years, I think you’ll find this book both useful and refreshing.  If you’ve never run a public meeting before, you’ll find that this book gives you a set of tools for doing that better — tools you probably didn’t even know you had!  book cover

And if you’re frustrated with how your community does public engagement, or you’re looking for a way to start overcoming the build-up of frustration and apathy that’s preventing your town from finding new solutions to your tough issues, this book will give you the first steps of a new way forward.

Pretty good deal for a few bucks.

You can find this book, and other Wise Fool Press publications, in any format you want:

If you like print, you can order copies from right here

If you use a Kindle, you can buy it for Kindle right here

And if you want a PDF or an EPub file (the kind used by Apple products and NOOK), you can get those right here.


And learn more about the book and upcoming trainings, samples and other good stuff at

Of course, reading a book about how to do something isn’t anywhere near the same as trying it out yourself.  I’ll be giving workshops on how to Crowdsource Wisdom in different places over the next few months. If you’d like a workshop for your organization, staff, conference or upcoming meeting, send me a note at In-person and online video training is available.

To Build an Entrepreneurial Community, Listen to the Entrepreneurs – from Tech.Co

While I was at South By Southwest Interactive last week, the tech news and event platform Tech.Co very kindly invited me to come in and do a video interview.  I love Tech.Co and its folks because they do such an excellent job of not only documenting emerging trends in technology nationwide, but of also exploring how technology ecosystems work and how they can be better fostered.

I was particularly impressed with how Tech.Co reporter Ronald Barba pulled the sense and theme of what I’ve been thinking about out of what I said — better than I said it myself:

And, according to her, what they’re finding at EngagingCities is that there’s an overall higher emphasis on communities nowadays; people want to connect across different kinds of industries, across different tech sectors, and want to get involved in many different ways. This has really contributed to a kind of organic growth of several ecosystems.

Policymakers, however, can help push that growth further, and enables people to turn the ecosystems in which they live into their preferred kind of community. These policymakers can’t make that happen, though, when they’re the only ones developing the plans for these new communities. In order for a tech community to fully develop, legislators need to actually listen to the demands of those tech entrepreneurs.

I think good listening and community-building is actually more of a two-way street, and that in a lot of places the most robust tech startup communities are the ones that are also bringing new solutions and new energy to addressing bigger community problems.  But I’m often surprised at the kinds of assumptions we sometimes make about what “those tech people” need to thrive in our community, and how often we don’t get into meaningful conversations with them about how to really catalyze those emerging opportunities.  As I’ve said in the Small Business Ecosystem talk that I do fairly regularly, both parts of the equation need to understand each other — and flexibly lead or feed the ecosystem, based on what it needs and who is available to do it.

You can read the summary article here, and watch the video below:




More of the Crowdsourcing Wisdom approach to public engagement: first part of Chapter 12

More draft parts from the upcoming Tools book on doing better public engagement: This section opens Chapter 12, which is after we have gotten into the details of the process (chapter numbers subject to lots of change between now and publication). This section walks through the crucial beginning elements of the public meeting, which has to both set the right tone and give people the information they need (without killing them with it).

As before, I’m glad to hear your feedback.


Chapter 12: the meeting


This chapter outlines the basic process I use in crowdsourcing wisdom meetings.  We’re focusing here on the process — we talk about developing the content in the next chapter.  Right now I want you to get a sense of the experience – what people do and how they go about doing it.  And as we noted in the last chapter, the likelihood that everything will go just exactly as it should is…. about nil.  So I’ll try to give you some sense of what might happen, and what to do about it, as we go.


We start with the public having come into the space, gotten the materials they needed at the Welcome Table, and taken a seat, either in the large-group seating area or at the small group tables, depending on how you’re set up.  At this point, they probably don’t know what they’re in for, but hopefully they have some sense that something different is in the works.  Some might start looking through the orientation handout you gave them, but most will talk to the people they came in with.  This is a good time to watch the participants and observe the sociology at work.  How do people seem to be sorting themselves?  Do participants seem to be sticking together by age, race, family group?  Are there any groups that look particularly uneasy, angry, agitated?  Are there any who seem out of place or not welcomed by others?  Your goal at this point is not to do anything or directly intervene.  You’re doing what a good teacher does — trying to understand the context of the people you are working with so that you can adjust your actions to best meet the needs of everyone in the room.


Don’t start late, since that’s an insult to the people who got there on time, but be reasonable.  If you know there’s still people coming in from the parking lot or getting through the Welcome Station (a particular bottleneck if your legal staff insists that you have to get EverySinglePieceofInformationfromEveryone), then just take the mic at the time you were supposed to start and tell the people who are ready to go that there’s a few people on your way in, we’re going to hold on just a couple of minutes before we get started.  That’s not just a nicety, that’s also another little step in the process of communicating that you respect them and that you value their time and efforts.  But don’t start more than five minutes late, or you will blow that good will and raise doubts that anything you tell them can be trusted.


You’re going to start with a welcome and an overview of the plan of action, just like you would at a conventional public meeting.  But you may wish to consider changing this up a little bit, both to focus the participants’ attention and to reinforce the kind of atmosphere you’re trying to create.  What exactly you do to tweak these expectations will depend on your specific context, but here are some possible ideas:


  • Instead of having the welcome delivered by an elected official or a department head, in some cases that welcome might be more meaningful coming from someone else. That could be a representative of the community where the meeting is being held, someone who personally cares about the outcomes (like a resident of the neighborhood), or someone else who is outside of the norm.  Make sure that the person who will do this job understands the need to encourage discussion and isn’t going to use the introduction to advance a particular opinion on the issues to be discussed.


  • The plan of action for the session should be not only spoken, but written into the handout and projected on a screen. You can, however, also ask the participants if anyone wants to recommend any edits to the proposed process.  That can be an important way to give ownership of the process to the participants, and again it demonstrates both not-business-as-usual and a desire for collaboration.  But, this isn’t a good idea in every situation.  If the group is very large, if tensions are strong or emotions are high, if there are potentially contingents among the participants who might be looking for an opportunity to take over the meeting, then opening the agenda to editing could massively backfire.  In these cases, it’s better to go over the agenda with representatives of groups that might have particular needs beforehand.  You may also want to avoid this strategy if you are dealing with people who may have little experience with group discussions of that type, because that discussion could readily get bogged down in minutiae — and that can mean that you lose the attention and participation of people who are hard-pressed for time.  One way to manage that issue is to allocate a very short amount of time — less than five minutes — for discussion of the agenda, and only make changes for which there is clear consensus.  If it’s a matter of process, most people will be willing to accept someone else’s recommended changes, as long as they don’t appear to impact the fairness of the process.

In all cases, though, keep that introductory stuff quick.  Ideally, less than five minutes.


The next thing on the agenda should also be done as quickly as you can.  Since it’s probably not likely that the participants studied your exhaustive documents online before they came, and since it’s also unlikely that they’ve done much more than glance at the packet you gave them at the Welcome Station, you need to orient them to the information in their hands.  Note that I said orient, not lecture.  Very few grown people want to have someone read out loud to them, especially when they’re extracting time from their busy lives to come to your meeting.


Your inclination will probably be to go through the whole thing, sharing all the interesting facts and minutiae that you have found out on the journey to this meeting.  Don’t do it.  As we discussed in the previous chapter, the point of this exercise isn’t to teach them everything that you know.  The point of this exercise is to give them enough information to orient them to the issues, to help them leverage their knowledge to be joined with yours, to know enough to ask the right questions.


Focus your presentation on showing them what’s in their handout, and secondarily on why you are drawing this particular information to their attention.  It’s completely OK for you to speak to what you have learned and understand, but does it as objectively as possible – if a certain trend is a concern, explain why it’s a concern in very pragmatic terms.  Don’t assume that people know what you mean by sprawl, or where the city’s tax revenues come from, or that sewer pipes cost a lot of money.  When you talk about a potential impact, frame it in terms of quantifiable impacts — money that will have to be spent from a tight budget, loss of future revenue, etc.  Whenever possible, show them the math.


Finally, make sure that they know that you are available to help them, to answer more questions, etc. while they are working in their small groups.  Answering questions that arose from your presentation to people while they are in their small groups is likely to be more effective — not only will it allow people to target their questions more specifically to the issues that they are trying to address, but it lessens the risk of losing participants’ attention waiting through a Q&A session full of comments that they are not finding of interest.  And if you have high tensions in the group, an open Q&A may open the door to people who are just looking for a soapbox.  However, you also don’t want to risk a perception of not being transparent or not caring what people have to say.  If this is the case, you might want to put a period for whole group questions and answers in the agenda.  Keep that time frame short, and promise to answer any additional questions during the small group work.


After the orientation, it’s time for the folks in the room to get their hands on the work.  Point them to the tables that match the numbers in their hands, and give them a few minutes to get situated.  You might have a few cases at this point of people who want to change their table assignments because of reasons like we discussed in the previous chapter.  It’s generally best to accommodate those with as little fuss as possible, as long as your previous observation of the participants doesn’t make you think that someone might be trying to game the system.  If you do think that’s going on, then you should not let them change — if you point out that everyone else has gone to the tables where they were assigned, and you make clear that the objective is to have as many different perspectives at each table as possible, even the most stubborn will probably have a hard time arguing against that.  But again, your goal is to reasonably protect the integrity of the process, not to be a hard-nose.  Be nice, be compassionate and be transparent.  It’s hard to argue against that.


Once the tables are situated, give out the instructions.  You should have one one-page set of instructions for each participant.  You can place them at the table seats before the session starts, or you can pass them out after people get situated, if you have enough passers and a small enough group of participants to allow that to happen smoothly and unobtrusively.  We’ll talk about writing the instructions in the next chapter.  When everyone has their instructions, you should read through them.  I know I said before that adults don’t generally like to be read to, but your instructions will be short and people remember what they read and hear at the same time better than if they read or hear it alone.  If you have participants who cannot read or cannot read English, make sure that an interpreter or another assistant is available to help.


The instructions should have two parts:


Stay tuned…

Your Help Needed! Help me continue the discussion about Downtown Las Vegas… in Las Vegas!

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m looking hard these days at the Downtown Project in Las Vegas as a potential new model, and certainly a source of some pretty exciting new ideas, about how to revitalize communities.  That initiative has been getting some national press, but I’ve been frustrated with that because most of what’s been written is either simplistic hero worship/hero failure crap, or focused solely on the tech startup component, which is only one small part of the story.  I’ve been spending as much time there as I can, and reading and following along and trying to understand when I’m not, and I’ve had the huge privilege of developing lovely friendships with some of the folks who are part of that landscape.

I’ve written about the Downtown Project here and here and here, and my plan is to do a slim book trying to make sense of that experience in the context of traditional community revitalization.  I gotta get the current book out of my hair first (a whole ‘nother story), but the Downtown Project one is definitely in the works.

But it’s scary to write about a complex, multi-piece thing when you’re not really a part of it, and I know that I could very easily get it wrong.SXSWv2v logo

That’s where you come in.

The folks who stage South By Southwest have a smaller, tech and media-focused event that they host in Las Vegas during the summer, and I have proposed a talk for that conference that would lay out my findings and give me a chance to get better feedback from the people who are living there every day.  The organizers seem to be interested, but part of their selection criteria is based on a popular vote system.  Which means….

I need votes.

You don’t have to plan to go to SXSWv2v in order to vote.  But you do have to do a very simple sign in before you can vote.

Here’s the link:  If you are willing to vote, or leave a comment, or share this link to your friends and cronies, I’ll be very grateful.  But you only have until Friday, January 23!

Come to think of it, that’s my birthday.  Your vote would be a pretty nice present.


Draft Chapter 7: The Pieces Parts of Crowdsourced Wisdom

I have been continuing to plug away at the Crowdsourcing Wisdom book — it’s amazing what a handful it can be to try to get something written that you actually know stone cold.  But it’s coming—not as fast as I might like, but it’s coming.


Here’s the draft of Chapter 7, which starts to lay out exactly how to structure a public meeting so that it enables everyone to participate productively and meaningfully.  As before, I’d be grateful for your good ideas and constructive criticisms.

Chapter 7: The Basic Ingredients of Crowdsourced Wisdom:

  • People.  How many doesn’t really matter.  Preferably more than five.  The most important thing is to get as much of a cross-section of participants as possible – different ages, different ethnic backgrounds, different special interests, different parts of town.  You do not want to do this with the five usual suspects who show up for everything.  This means that you are probably going to need to think pretty hard about who you need, how to reach them, and what you need to tell them to overcome the fears and suspicions that have kept them from showing up before.  More on that shortly.


  • A room. Ideally, a room that doesn’t look like the set of Judge Judy.  Really ideally, a room that isn’t in your city hall council chambers.  There is absolutely no reason why you should be stuck choosing from two windowless conference rooms and the council chambers with the really uncomfortable bench seats that happen to be in your building.  Moving elsewhere will probably get you a more flexible, more comfortable space, and it will send an important message: it will signal to all concerned that this isn’t the same old thing, that this isn’t just another droning useless meeting.  If you haven’t held meetings outside of your facilities before and you’re wondering where to go, the choices are probably much more extensive than you think.  Check out church basements, school cafeterias, office building atriums.  Someone might complain that you’re messing with church-state separation, or giving extra publicity to a business, but you can make a pretty strong case that you’re making participation more comfortable and accessible to the public.  And if you’re lucky to have more than one space available to you that fits the bill, and you’re worried about looking like you have picked favorites, no worries.  Select the one that fits today the best, thank the others and promise to hold meetings in their spaces soon.  You’ll probably be surprised at how must they really, honestly, just want to help.


  • Tables and chairs. This is pretty important, and it’s another reason to move out of the council chamber type space any chance that you can get. You need the kind of space where people can move from paying attention to the whole group to a small group work setting and back again without it requiring an act of Congress.  Having all or part of the space set up with small round or square tables and moveable chairs makes a big difference, not only in how well the small group portion of the activity functions, but in terms of the message that the participants derive from the space. Think about it: fixed auditorium-style seats force people to take a confrontational stance.  You’re either a watcher or a performer, and whichever you are, you have certain things that you do, and that you don’t   That’s kind of what got us in this problem in the first place. Ideally, the table settings should be small enough for five or six people to work together comfortably – not so small that they are on top of each other, and not so large that they can’t hear each other.  If you don’t have room for two separate spaces – a whole-group space with seats in a circle, for example, and a separate space for the small group work, then your priority should be the small group space.  You can do what talking and sharing you need to from those small group tables if necessary, although having the ability to move from one kind of space to another has the same benefits for adults as it did for the first graders in Chapter 3.  But more than anything else, avoid auditoriums, lecture halls and chambers with fixed seats any way possible.   Each of those small group tables should have a tent card on it with a number – give each of the tables a separate number.  I’ll explain why in a minute.


  • Big Sheets of Paper. I still call the papers that the small groups do their work on “”  But I’m a little uncomfortable with that – everyone knows exactly what you’re talking about when you say that they’re going to do a “worksheet,”  but it’s not like that’s a word that any of us respond to with glee.  Whatever you call them and whatever activity you’re going to do, I recommend that you plan to print out the things that they’re going to work on at a size bigger than a normal piece of printer paper.  If possible, I’d go with a 24” by 36” plot for each sheet, since that makes it easier for the whole small group to see what’s going on and it makes it easier for the person who does the writing to do that as well.  But that requires having access to a plotter.  If you absolutely cannot get access to a plotter, then I’d recommend you print at 11” by 17” at minimum, and pay attention to how the sheets are laid out so that they are as visible from across the table as possible.


  • This is really getting picky, but I speak from experience: you don’t want the group’s recorder filling out the sheet with a ball point pen.  Not only will it be hard for the other group members to see what’s being written down, but you are more likely to have trouble reading it later, too.  And when you try to take photos of the sheets (more on that later), you will find any done in ball point pen really hard to make out.   I usually try to give each group a few different colors to work with (sometimes groups like one contrast better than another, or want to use different colors for different tasks).  But unless you’re doing a Cognitive Map exercise (later, later…), I would not recommend assigning colors.  It gets too confusing – you’ll be giving them enough rules as it is.


Also, use the Crayola-type washable markers, even if that feels a little juvenile.  My closet full of jackets with Sharpie on their sleeves, lapels, etc. will testify to that.


  • And walls.  Again, an operational detail: make sure you have walls that you can stick the groups’ work up on so that everyone can see it, and make sure that you have masking or painter’s tape that will play nicely with those walls.  And make sure that you have permission to be taping things on those walls.  You might also want to test the tape beforehand to make sure it’s not going to pull off a hunk of paint and plaster (not like that’s ever happened to me, of course…)


  • Sticker dots. Urban planners and anyone who’s ever been through more than two strategic planning sessions will probably roll their eyes when you crack out the dot stickers. But there’s a beautiful advantage to the dots: people know what they are and what they mean.  And “but if you leave early, you won’t be able to place your dots” is a surprisingly effective means of getting grownups to stay to the end of the meeting.


Online Public Engagement Book Coming!

Just got confirmation from Routledge this morning that I will be writing a book about the selection and use of online public engagement tools for release late next year!  The book has only a working title so far, but I did write a draft introductory chapter for the editorial board to consider.  It will give you a bit of a sense of where I think I am going with this thing.  Stay tuned for more news as it develops….

Introduction:  online public engagement.

Let’s start by answering the basic question:  Yes, your community, your department, your non-profit, needs to do online public engagement. No question.  Done.




How do people in your community deal with real life?  How do they find answers to questions that worry them?  How do they shop, or at least research what they need?  How do they talk to their friends?


I don’t mean that some people aren’t more comfortable with, fluent with online communication than others.  Our that some people don’t have better access than others.  Agreed.  Understood.


But use of online technologies, on the whole, cuts across age groups, income levels, ethnicities, living conditions, to a degree that renders the old line about a digital divide, by and large, a relic of yesterday’s news.  Research conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust had documented this trend: Use of online technologies, especially through mobile devices, climbs steadily across the US and the world every year.  Ninety percent of Americans have at least one cell phone.  Planners working in rural communities tell me that their homebound elderly interact with the community through Facebook on tablets, rural people worldwide seek out places where satellite signals can reach them, and urban poor residents rely on cell phones for everything from news to paying bills.


So let’s put that part of the debate to bed.  Your residents and businesses live in the online world, just like they live in the real world. So if you want to get their engagement, to understand their concerns, to help them to play a meaningfut role in figuring out the future of their community, and get the benefits that you should be getting from public engagement, you need to use online tools.  They’re not a magic bullet; they’re not a replacement for in-person activities.  They’re crucial extensions of how you work in your community.


That said, however, online engagement looks to many communities like an overgrown path through an unfamilar forest.  There’s dozens of different types of strange plants with a whole range of leaves and blossoms and smells, and branches reaching out to implant  their burrs on your clothes.  You can’t tell by looking at them which ones are safe to touch or eat, although you know that the animals who live in the underbrush somehow understand the color and scent signals that differentiate safe from unsafe. And as you look ahead, you realize that the profusion and tangle of the flora prevents you from being able to clearly differentiate one type of plant from another, especially from a distance.  And, perhaps most disturbingly, you realize that your lack of knowledge means that you can’t distinguish a safe way forward from one that will give you a rash.


New technologies, whether cars or plows or internet communications, always seem to go through a period of explosion of options in their early years.  In the 1910s, automobile buyers had a choice of a huge range of vehicles basic operation choices, from gas and electric to steam engines, kerosene or electric lamps, crank starts or electric, wooden wheels, rubber tires, etc. And dozens of very small companies all over the world — visit an antique car museum, and you’ll encounter an array of names that you’ve never heard of, or names of companies that you never knew had once made cars. Some had gotten their start in making household appliances, or sewing machines, or other items, while others had evolved from carriage makers and horse-drawn bus suppliers.  And since the basic assumptions about how a car should work hadn’t yet fully congealed, they way they would by the 1950s, each of these companies made cars a little differently, often using what they had learned in their other industries to differentiate their models from others.


From where I sit, it looks to me that online public engagement is in that phase today.  I wouldn’t necessarily assume that there’s any major consolidation on the horizon — we’re talking about software, after all, not manufacturing — but we are in a period where common language, common assumptions, and a common taxonomy and selection heuristics have not taken hold.  That’s in part because “public engagement” itself doesn’t have a clear definition or universally-shared assumptions (except for the Town Hall Three Minutes at the Mic Model, which pretty much everyone admits doesn’t work).


So this book faces a tall challenge:


  • It needs to give you a reasonably clear view of the landscape, at least in this still-shifting moment.


  • It needs to give you practical strategies and tools for figuring out the best fit between your community and project needs and resources, and the various providers who may be reaching out to you.


  • And it needs to establish a way for us to talk in common about online public engagement, which means that we need to establish a shared understanding about what we mean by public engagement, to begin with — the reasons why we may do public engagement, what people who have put some thought into this know about how we pull people in or push people away, and the full scope of ways that we can do that more effectively than we often do (spoiler alert: the Three Minutes at the Mic model isn’t it).


So.  We have a lot to cover.  Here’s an overview of how we’re going to get there:


In Part 1, we’re going to develop that shared understanding.  We’ll explore many of the common missteps, mistaken assumptions and blind spots that lead community leaders to chose online public engagement strategies that don’t meet their needs. Then we’ll look at some of the reasons why communities often feel obligated to do online public engagement, focusing on how our residents’ lives and daily experiences tend to clash with our usual approaches to public engagement.  After that, we will unpack those experiences and use them to illuminate a new way of thinking about public engagement, both online and offline, that draws on what businesses and researchers know about how groups make decisions and how people engage with democratic processes, and we’ll establish a simple framing that we’ll use to understand our options throughout the rest of the book.


In Part 2, we will work out a comprehensive guidance for planning an online public engagement initiative.  We will start with the crucial foundational elements, such as clarifying your desired results, honestly assessing your organization’s capacity to manage an online initiative, and evaluating potential platforms against technical considerations, such as application vs. open-source approaches and ensuring accessibility.


Those first two sections will include some brief examples, but remember, online public participation as an industry is in that early churn-and-experimentation stage as I am writing this, and probably still as you are reading it. That means that an example that makes perfect sense when I wrote it might be defunct or extensively changed by the time you read about it.  Sorry about that.  To try to give you some more concrete examples, but not risk them interfering with the basic guidance of the book, Part 3 is given over to case studies of specific projects that were carried out using one of more of the commercial online public participation providers available at the time of this publication.  These case studies identify what worked — and didn’t work, or didn’t work as planned — in that context, and some indication of lessons that the participants learned from that experience.


You’ll also find URLs for the providers and information resources listed in the back, as well as a glossary of the few but probably unavoidable technical terms that work their way into the book.



Why am I writing about this?


That’s a question that I personally think any author should answer, so that you understand where that person is coming from and whether he or she is probably worth reading.  So here’s the thumbnail sketch of my story.


I usually identify myself as a planner, but my undergraduate degree is in education.  I was trained to teach English to secondary school kids, and because of where I went to college and when, the teaching methods that I learned made heavy use of a technique called small group collaborative learning. The theory behind that approach is that people understand information and learn it at a deeper level when they figure it out for themselves, and when they do that work of learning in partnership with a small group of their peers.  In the couple of years that I taught, my classrooms were generally very loud and pretty chaotic-learning, but it was pretty clear to me that the students “got” the material in a much more meaningful way when I could do that than when I was stuck having to lecture.


Like a lot of young teachers in my generation, a combination of lack of good jobs and frustrating bureaucracy led me in search of my Act II by the time I was 23.  After about eight years of doing historic preservation work, I did a masters in planning and went to work for a consulting firm.  Soon I found myself managing comprehensive plans, and since my masters concentration was in economic development, I can admit today that I wasn’t going into them with the usual enthusiam over land use densities and zoning implications.


What I did relate to almost immediately was that whether or not a comp plan did anything constructive (like, get passed), depended heavily on whether or not the community’s residents, business owners and the like understood what the plan was intended to achieve and played an active role in supporting it.  So I decided that getting the public as actively involved in the planning process as possible was the best way for the clients (and me) to end up with a success story.  And since the last time I had been responsible to managing the activities of a bunch of people had been in a middle school classroom, I ended up adapting the methods I had used with 13 year olds to steering committees and auditoriums full of adults.  And it worked surprisingly well.  Well, maybe not that surprisingly.


At about the same time as I was managing comp plans, I had also become the mother of two small boys. Between a demanding job and the usual chaos of a toddler-driven household, I became a pretty avid technology adopter.  I know that a lot of people who are knowledgeable about online technology have a background in programming or IT, and get excited about the gee-whiz elements of new apps and platforms.  I don’t know how to program and am generally suspicious of gee-whiz.  I started using online technologies for a very basic reason:


I was overextended, over-scheduled and overwhelmed, and anything that could let me get something done faster looked like, in all seriousness, a thread of a lifeline.


So when people tell me that they don’t think that communities need to use online technologies to engage with their residents, that it’s too hard or too complicated or too risky, and it’s good enough the way it is, and we’ll get to it eventually maybe, my first reaction is not to think about applications versus Drupal platforms, or Javascript or CSS.


My first reaction is to think about all of the hours I wasted in my clients’ council meetings waiting for the two minute update I had to give.  Or the town hall session I ran one evening where no one my own age showed up at all.


Or the sidewalk that I wanted to be installed in my neighborhood, that wasn’t because a few people protested at a meeting that I couldn’t attend… because I was either working or chasing a loud and cranky toddler that night.


As I’ll articulate more in a later chapter, we need online public participation not because it’s cool or convenient or it makes our town look like we know what’s going on.  We need online public participation — good, thoughtful, meaningful online public participation — because we need the insight, the feedback and the wisdom of the huge cross section of people who cannot or will not fit the 19th-century model that we lean on unreflectively when we assume that the people who didn’t come to the 7PM Tuesday Open House… well, they’re apathetic. They’re disengaged.  They just Don’t Care.


They might not care. Or they might care a lot.  And they might have a valuable insight, a new solution, a way to make your community better that you wouldn’t have known about without them. If you can’t hear them, you don’t know what you have missed..


So that’s why I have paid so much attention to online public engagement over the past few years, and why have researched and written about these platforms, and used them in my own work, and maintained the only web site so far that provides a central information hub about the platforms and providers that communities can use to do online public engagement today.


And it’s why I hope you picked up this book. Thanks for doing that. I hope it does you good.


Crowdsourcing Wisdom, Beginning of Part 2

After a few weeks of trying to catch up on everything else from the Fall Travel Palooza, I am trying to get the Crowdsourcing Wisdom book finished before the end of the month.  The book has three parts — the first section, which I’ve shared previously, tries to frame up why our current public engagement methods aren’t working.  This selection is from the beginning of the second section, which will be more of a how-to.  The third section will have some activities and exercises for people to try on their own.

I felt that I needed to give some basis for where this method was coming from, instead of  just launching straight into it, so I felt like I needed to talk a little bit about the education methodologies that underlay the approach.  But I don’t want to take the time to do a whole lot of research, so I kind of cut corners.  So I don’t know if this is too much background, or too little.


As before, please let me know what you think. Thanks!


Part 2:    How to Crowdsource Wisdom

OK, so we’ve established that our new approach to public engagement needs:

  1. To tap the wisdom of our crowd, reaching far beyond the “do you like this?” kinds of feedback that we’ve been doing
  2. To make the act of being involved in public engagement worth it – worth it for the people who come and for the people who set up and manage and are supposed to carry out the results of the thing.
  3. Break down a few generations’ worth of mistrust, built up by confrontational meeting formats, uncontrolled soapbox-hoggers, meaningless fake “participation,” a pervasive sense of wasted time, and so much more.


In addition, from a practical standpoint, we need to do the following:

  1. Get enough information into their hands to be able to apply their experience and wisdom in an intelligent fashion (spoiler alert: a droning Power Point of the project minutiae won’t cut it).
  2. Give them decision points that they can actually affect (not setting them up to fall in love with recommendations that would involve a rearrangement of the solar system to be able to come to pass). This is, pragmatically, so that we can get information that makes the plan better – and avoids pissing them off.

3) Give us ways to clearly understand what they’re trying to tell us – and give us fact-based political cover when we change a policy or a zoning based on what we heard from them.

4)Build a network of people who understand where the things we end up doing came from – and have enough of a personal stake in what happened to stand up for them.


In this section, we’re going to examine a new method for doing that – it’s not really a new method, because teachers have been using it for a couple of decades.  And it’s not even all that new in public engagement, because I and a few others have been using this for a couple of decades.   But chances are, it’s new to you and your community.

New things are unfamiliar things.  They unease people, they scare people, they sometimes make people want to push the system back to the old ways.   And for those old-timers who are used to being In Charge of Everything, who expect the public to stay passive and let the experts run the show, who see nothing wrong with how our public engagement and our community decision-making has been done… they might have some strong opinions about what you’re doing.  But I’ll make you a promise: if you shift your public engagement to crowdsourcing wisdom, you’re going to discover some very happy and very dedicated local people.  And they will have your back in ways that you might not anticipate today.

A little background: Small Group Cooperative Learning

This book is not intended in the least to be a scholarly, well-researched thing – but I think you need a little background on the basis of this approach.

Small group cooperative education is one of a collection of related methods that were developed in the 1970s and 1980s as a means of enabling children to learn more deeply and meaningfully – to get beyond simple rote repetition of facts, and to give students the opportunity to grapple with the content more deeply and to develop interpersonal and collaborative problem-solving skills.

In many manifestations, small group cooperative learning and its sibling teaching methods were developed to enable students to gain experience and mastery in using higher level thinking skills, often drawing on Bloom’s Taxonomy of Critical thinking.  Bloom’s Taxonomy framed critical thinking as a tiered system of increasingly independent and complex approaches to information; the Taxonomy starts with simple knowledge of facts and progresses through Comprehension and Application of information,culminating in the higher level skills of Analysis (taking the information apart and understanding its pieces), Synthesis (putting facts and information together in a different way to create something new), and, finally, Evaluation.

Interestingly, Bloom’s Taxonomy and other similar framings of how we think indicate that we aren’t actually ready to evaluate something until after we’ve taken it apart and thought about how to put it back together differently.  Looked at from that perspective, it’s no wonder we get such crappy evaluations of community plans and proposals via our usual methods.  Most of the time, we barely help them build any basic knowledge of the proposal, let along apply, analyze or synthesize it.


Small group cooperative methods were initially tested on elementary school children, since it was understood that kids at this level often need help learning not only their subject matter, but how to work together effectively as well.  By the time I was learning to be a teacher in the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, small group cooperative methods were being used somewhat widely in secondary school classrooms.  From what I understand, mandated testing has made it harder to use these methods in school classrooms, but even in my own kids’ school work, I have seen cooperative small group strategies pop up fairly regularly.


The basic pieces of a small group collaborative teaching activity look like this:

1) The kids work together in small groups.  Most of the time, the teacher assigns the groups.

2) The kids in the groups are intentionally mixed in terms of their academic ability – a weak reader is put in a group with two average readers and one strong reader, a math whiz works in a group with three kids who are doing OK and one who is struggling.  This mixing is to tap the benefits of peer learning – the kid who is struggling may be more inclined to listen to a kid his own age, and that kid will probably gain a deeper command of the content through teaching it to someone else.  As every teacher quickly learns, you often learn more from teaching than you did from being taught.

3) The group has some basic rules of engagement – guidance as to how they are to treat each other, how you help someone (as opposed to doing the work for them), how they should resolve disputes, etc.  Typically these ground rules are laid down by the teacher, but smart teachers often crowdsource some of the rules from the students as well.  That gives the classroom more ownership of the results.

4) The group has a specific activity that they need to complete together – a diorama demonstrating the impact of a historical event, a complex math word problem to solve and be able to explain to the rest of the class, peer editing each person’s essay and giving recommendations on how to make it better.  They know what they need to do, what the final results need to look like.

5)The group does the work, largely independently.  The teacher is around, checking in every so often, giving guidance or correction or encouragement when the groups need it.  The teacher’s big work was on the front end- planning the activities, preparing the materials, using her or his expertise to set up the groups and frame the rules, and now the teacher’s work focuses on monitoring, sensing emerging issues, fine-tuning and redirecting if a group gets lost in the weeds or can’t seem to come to a conclusion.

6) The group shares its work with the rest of the class, so that everyone gets to experience some of the benefit of what they did.


Researchers have done all sorts of experiments and analysis on how small group cooperative education works in certain situations, certain subject matter and age groups, etc.  But let’s cut to it.  When I was a teacher, and I used small groups cooperative methods with middle school and high school students, I found that the classes that I used these methods with worked better than the ones where I did not.   The kids seemed to consistently gain a bunch of advantages:

  • Kids that were too shy or insecure to speak up in front of the whole class found it much easier to express their opinons in front of three or four other kids. Which meant that they talked more and participated more.
  • The existence of clear rules and group expectations put everyone on a more level playing field, since no one was the boss.
  • Kids that wanted to avoid participating in the class didn’t have that choice, because their classmates knew that everyone needed to participate and held them to account.
  • Kids that would have found it easy to act out, to make a scene in front of the whole class, found it much harder to do so when face-to-face with their peers, who felt empowered in that context to demand that they participate.
  • The tasks that they were doing as a group were more interesting that any worksheet or essay that they would have been doing otherwise.

Did my students complain sometimes?  Yup.  Did some of them resent being forced to work with kids they didn’t like?  You betcha.  But 19 times out of 20, the bellyaching gave way to doing good school work.  My classrooms were noisy, messy, sometimes argumentative and usually chaotic-looking.  But when you looked closer, you could see that the kids were generally focused, concentrating, working on something that they cared about.  And with middle school kids, engaging them in caring about their work can be the hardest thing of all.

And as the teacher, I reaped some pretty sweet benefits, too:

  • I could manage the classroom more proactively– I could separate kids who reinforced each other’s bad behavior without making it a thing about them, and I could give a kid who was trying but having a hard time a group with the kids who would be most supportive, giving him or her the best shot I could at a productive experience.
  • I could shift my classroom time from crisis management to guidance. Which, as you might imagine, feels a whole lot better.
  • I could get them (and me) engaged in the subject on a much more interesting level – and believe me, the 10th time you’ve taught Beowulf or split infinitives, the teacher can get every bit as bored as the students. Much more fun to hear groups give their own interpretations of how Grendel relates to modern human fears than to grade 40 worksheets.

When my teaching career demonstrated a strong urge to go nowhere and I eventually morphed into a planner and public engagement specialist, it made sense that I brought that small group cooperative learning skill set with me.  You see, even when you have a degree in planning, and you’ve been taught how important it is to  “engage” with the “public,” no one actually teaches you how to do that.  So I used what I had.

Over the past 15 years, I have done public engagement sessions using these tools and tricks with groups of several hundred, and with groups of ten.  I’ve used them in very rural and very urban, very highly educated and very disadvantaged neighborhoods, and I’ve used them on boring comprehensive plan updates and on issues that were so hot topic that participants told me that they thought it would be impossible to come to a satisfactory conclusion.

This is why I say that the ugliness, the nastiness, the ineffectiveness and the uselessness of how we do public engagement – it does not have to be that way.  There’s no reason it should be that way.   With a little forethought, a better toolkit, and a little determination, we can create more constructive public meetings, rebuild the relationship between the government and the community, and make our plans and public decisions better.  All we have to do is to crowdsource wisdom.

Here’s how.






Draft for feedback: Introduction to Online Public Engagement book

While I’m currently working on a new book for Wise Fool Press tentatively titled Crowdsource Wisdom: [Deeply Profound and Yet to Be Finalized Subtitle], I’m also in discussions with a different publisher to write a book spefically about online public participation tools, methods, and other guidance.  Not sure yet when that’s going to come out, but it will be much farther in the future than the Crowdsource Wisdom book (also providing reason #937 why I need to get that one done: writing both at the same time would probably make me bald.  No one wants to see that.)

I’m struggling more with tone with this one — I want to keep it direct and personal, but I need to be a little less informal than when I write for my own platform — this publisher is a little more traditional, and while I do not want to shift back to Consultant-Speak, I do want to make sure that the voice doesn’t get in the way of the message.

So I’d be grateful for your feedback, particularly relating to that.  As you’ll see, this in an introductory chapter — designed to lay out the premise, give a sense of the structure and direction of the book, and also help the reader to understand who the author is and where she is coming from.

Feel free to give me your comments below or via email at  Thanks!


Introduction:  online public engagement.


Let’s start by answering the basic question:  Yes, your community, your department, your non-profit, needs to do online public engagement. No question.  Done.


How do people in your community deal with real life?  How do they find answers to questions that worry them?  How do they shop, or at least research what they need?  How do they talk to their friends?

I don’t mean that some people aren’t more comfortable with, fluent with online communication than others.  Our that some people don’t have better access than others.  Agreed.  Understood.

But use of online technologies, on the whole, cuts across age groups, income levels, ethnicities, living conditions, to a degree that renders the old line about a digital divide, by and large, a relic of yesterday’s news.  Research conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust had documented this trend: Use of online technologies, especially through mobile devices, climbs steadily across the US and the world every year.  Ninety percent of Americans have at least one cell phone.  Planners working in rural communities tell me that their homebound elderly interact with the community through Facebook on tablets, rural people worldwide seek out places where satellite signals can reach them, and urban poor residents rely on cell phones for everything from news to paying bills.

So let’s put that part of the debate to bed.  Your residents and businesses live in the online world, just like they live in the real world. So if you want to get their engagement, to understand their concerns, to help them to play a meaningfut role in figuring out the future of their community, and get the benefits that you should be getting from public engagement, you need to use online tools.  They’re not a magic bullet; they’re not a replacement for in-person activities.  They’re crucial extensions of how you work in your community.


That said, however, online engagement looks to many communities like an overgrown path through an unfamilar forest.  There’s dozens of different types of strange plants with a whole range of leaves and blossoms and smells, and branches reaching out to implant  their burrs on your clothes.  You can’t tell by looking at them which ones are safe to touch or eat, although you know that the animals who live in the underbrush somehow understand the color and scent signals that differentiate safe from unsafe. And as you look ahead, you realize that the profusion and tangle of the flora prevents you from being able to clearly differentiate one type of plant from another, especially from a distance.  And, perhaps most disturbingly, you realize that your lack of knowledge means that you can’t distinguish a safe way forward from one that will give you a rash.

New technologies, whether cars or plows or internet communications, always seem to go through a period of explosion of options in their early years.  In the 1910s, automobile buyers had a choice of a huge range of vehicles basic operation choices, from gas and electric to steam engines, kerosene or electric lamps, crank starts or electric, wooden wheels, rubber tires, etc. And dozens of very small companies all over the world — visit an antique car museum, and you’ll encounter an array of names that you’ve never heard of, or names of companies that you never knew had once made cars. Some had gotten their start in making household appliances, or sewing machines, or other items, while others had evolved from carriage makers and horse-drawn bus suppliers.  And since the basic assumptions about how a car should work hadn’t yet fully congealed, they way they would by the 1950s, each of these companies made cars a little differently, often using what they had learned in their other industries to differentiate their models from others.


From where I sit, it looks to me that online public engagement is in that phase today.  I wouldn’t necessarily assume that there’s any major consolidation on the horizon — we’re talking about software, after all, not manufacturing — but we are in a period where common language, common assumptions, and a common taxonomy and selection heuristics have not taken hold.  That’s in part because “public engagement” itself doesn’t have a clear definition or universally-shared assumptions (except for the Town Hall Three Minutes at the Mic Model, which pretty much everyone admits doesn’t work).


So this book faces a tall challenge:

It needs to give you a reasonably clear view of the landscape, at least in this still-shifting moment.

It needs to give you practical strategies and tools for figuring out the best fit between your community and project needs and resources, and the various providers who may be reaching out to you.

And it needs to establish a way for us to talk in common about online public engagement, which means that we need to establish a shared understanding about what we mean by public engagement, to begin with — the reasons why we may do public engagement, what people who have put some thought into this know about how we pull people in or push people away, and the full scope of ways that we can do that more effectively than we often do (spoiler alert: the Three Minutes at the Mic model isn’t it).


So.  We have a lot to cover.       Here’s an overview of how we’re going to get there:

In Part 1, we’re going to develop that shared understanding.  We’ll explore many of the common missteps, mistaken assumptions and blind spots that lead community leaders to chose online public engagement strategies that don’t meet their needs. Then we’ll look at some of the reasons why communities often feel obligated to do online public engagement, focusing on how our residents’ lives and daily experiences tend to clash with our usual approaches to public engagement.  After that, we will unpack those experiences and use them to illuminate a new way of thinking about public engagement, both online and offline, that draws on what businesses and researchers know about how groups make decisions and how people engage with democratic processes, and we’ll establish a simple framing that we’ll use to understand our options throughout the rest of the book.

In Part 2, we will work out a comprehensive guidance for planning an online public engagement initiative.  We will start with the crucial foundational elements, such as clarifying your desired results, honestly assessing your organization’s capacity to manage an online initiative, and evaluating potential platforms against technical considerations, such as application vs. open-source approaches and ensuring accessibility.

Those first two sections will include some brief examples, but remember, online public participation as an industry is in that early churn-and-experimentation stage as I am writing this, and probably still as you are reading it. That means that an example that makes perfect sense when I wrote it might be defunct or extensively changed by the time you read about it.  Sorry about that.  To try to give you some more concrete examples, but not risk them interfering with the basic guidance of the book, Part 3 is given over to case studies of specific projects that were carried out using one of more of the commercial online public participation providers available at the time of this publication.  These case studies identify what worked — and didn’t work, or didn’t work as planned — in that context, and some indication of lessons that the participants learned from that experience.

You’ll also find URLs for the providers and information resources listed in the back, as well an a glossary of the few but probably unavoidable technical terms that work their way into the book.


Why am I writing about this?

That’s a question that I personally think any author should answer, so that you understand where that person is coming from and whether he or she is probably worth reading.  So here’s the thumbnail sketch of my story.

I usually identify myself as a planner, but my undergraduate degree is in education.  I was trained to teach English to secondary school kids, and because of where I went to college and when, the teaching methods that I learned made heavy use of a technique called small group collaborative learning. The theory behind that approach is that people understand information and learn it at a deeper level when they figure it out for themselves, and when they do that work of learning in partnership with a small group of their peers.  In the couple of years that I taught, my classrooms were generally very loud and pretty chaotic-learning, but it was pretty clear to me that the students “got” the material in a much more meaningful way when I could do that than when I was stuck having to lecture.

Like a lot of young teachers in my generation, a combination of lack of good jobs and frustrating bureaucracy led me in search of my Act II by the time I was 23.  After about eight years of doing historic preservation work, I did a masters in planning and went to work for a consulting firm.  Soon I found myself managing comprehesive plans, and since my masters concentration was in economic development, I can admit today that I wasn’t going into them with the usual obsession over land use densities and zoning implications.  What I did relate to almost immediately was that whether or not a comp plan did anything constructive (like, get passed), depended heavily on whether or not the community’s residents, business owners and the like understood what the plan was intended to achieve and played an active role in supporting it.  So I decided that getting the public as actively involved in the planning process as possible was the best way for the clients (and me) to end up with a success story.  And since the last time I had been responsible to managing the activities of a bunch of people had been in a middle school classroom, I ended up adapting the methods I had used with 13 year olds to steering committees and auditoriums full of adults.  And it worked surprisingly well.  Well, maybe not that surprisingly.

At about the same time as I was managing comp plans, I had also become the mother of two small boys. Between a demanding job and the usual chaos of a toddler-driven household, I became a pretty avid technology adopter.  I know that a lot of people who are knowledgeable about online technology have a background in programming or IT, and get excited about the gee-whiz elements of new apps and platforms.  I don’t know how to program and am generally suspicious of gee-whiz.  I started using online technologies for a very basic reason:


I was overextended, over-scheduled and overwhelmed, and anything that could let me get something done faster looked like, in all seriousness, a thread of a lifeline.


So when people tell me that they don’t think that communities need to use online technologies to engage with their residents, that it’s too hard or too complicated or too risky, and it’s good enough the way it is, and we’ll get to it eventually maybe, my first reaction is not to think about applications versus Drupal platforms, or Javascript or CSS.

My first reaction is to think about all of the hours I wasted in my clients’ council meetings waiting for the two minute update I had to give.  Or the town hall session I ran one evening where no one my own age showed up at all.

Or the sidewalk that I wanted to be installed in my neighborhood, that wasn’t because a few people protested at a meeting that I couldn’t attend… because I was either working or chasing a loud and cranky toddler that night.

As I’ll articulate more in a later chapter, we need online public participation not because it’s cool or convenient or it makes our town look like we know what’s going on.  We need online public participation — good, thoughtful, meaningful online public participation — because we need the insight, the feedback and the wisdom of the huge cross section of people who cannot or will not fit the 19th-century model that we lean on unreflectively when we assume that the people who didn’t come to the 7PM Tuesday Open House… well, they’re apathetic. They’re disengaged.  They just Don’t Care.

They might not care. Or they might care a lot.  And they might have a valuable insight, a new solution, a way to make your community better that you wouldn’t have known about without them. If you can’t hear them, you don’t know what you’re missing.

So that’s why I have paid so much attention to online public engagement over the past few years, and why have researched and written about these platforms, and used them in my own work, and maintained the only web site so far that provides a central information hub about the platforms and providers that communities can use to do online public engagement today.

And it’s why I hope you picked up this book. Thanks for doing that. I hope it does you good.











Crowdsourcing Wisdom: possible Chapter 3 (visit to First Grade)

This potential chapter for the upcoming Crowdsource Wisdom book attempts to use a first grade classroom as an example of how people need and respond to giving them a structure within which to work.  But I’m not sure it works itself — analogies are the devil.  I’d be glad to know if you think this works, or can be salvaged, or… chuckeroo.


Chapter 3: Mrs. Brenner’s classroom.


As I said in the Introduction, I started out my professional life as an English teacher.  I taught middle school for a couple of years before I started down a rather winding career track.  When I was in my undergraduate, I learned the teaching method that’s going to form the foundation for the how-to recommendations later in this work.

But before I get there, let’s contrast our usual public meeting, the way I’ve described it in the last two chapters, with Mrs. Brenner’s first grade classroom. A particularly good first grade classroom.  My older son’s first grade classroom, where I filled the age-old Room Mother responsibility, about 10 years ago.


Have you ever been around a first grader?  20 of them?  At one time?  In one room?  If you haven’t, or it’s been a while, let me paint a picture of what we’re dealing with here.

The kids come into the room more or less in a crush.  Backpacks, boots, jackets, hats, umbrellas everywhere.  Most of these kids still have to be reminded constantly to put their things away at home, let alone in school, where everything is still strange and new.

Each comes in with his or her own mental baggage, in addition to their stuff.  Some are not used to leaving their parents yet, and their fear distracts them from what they’re supposed to be doing.  Some are so excited that they can barely sit still. Some talk like grown ups.  Some suck their thumbs.  Some do both.

Skills for getting along with other kids are still works in progress.  Basic manners, like raising your hand when you want to say something, frequently get lost in the excitement, and when hand-raising does work, sometimes the hand goes up in the air before the brain knows what it was going to say.  Activities that require taking turns have less than ideal odds of turning out the way they were intended on the first try.  Tears over some slight, some bump, some quabble, occur pretty much every hour.  Impulse control is hard to come by when you’re 6.

Academic skill levels are all over the map, too.  Some kids already know how to read.  Some can’t consistently identify their letters yet.  Some struggle with the fine motor skills needed to hold a pencil and trace the dotted shapes in the notebook.  Some can do pages on pages of arithmetic problems without looking up.

In this context, with this potentially chaotic mix of strengths and instabilities, skills and limitations, a first grade teacher is supposed to enable each child to reach a level of skill and content mastery by the end of the year.  Each of these hugely varying creatures must participate actively and as fully as possible in achieving that goal.  The teacher cannot do the learning and growing for them.  And at any moment, one of these buggers might burst out with something inappropriate, or fall off a chair, or spill the glue, or start wailing over a boo boo, or who knows what.  They’re cute, but they’re incredibly unpredictable.

How do you educate anyone within that context?  Here’s how.

When the kids come in with their backpacks and hats and all, each has an assigned place to put them – a hook, a shelf, labelled with their name.  At the beginning of the year, they were shown that this is where their things belong.  And that gets reinforced every day – visually and verbally.  And since most of the other kids put their things in similar places, each kid sees his or her peers modelling what they’re supposed to do.

The kids go to assigned seats (again, with a name placard on them, both to make it clear whose desk it is and to reinforce reading and writing skills).  When they walk in the room, they can see that there is an activity for them to do right away.  Maybe it’s a sentence to copy down, maybe it’s a simple math problem, maybe it’s a puzzle of a bear made by connecting dots.  The expectation is clear, and (with a little gentle prodding for the more excitable ones), the activity gets done.

On the board the kids can also see a daily schedule.  Even if they can’t read all the words and numbers yet, they soon develop a sense of the routine.  There’s a whole-class activity at the beginning where they talk as a whole group about some major issues, like what day of the week is it and whether the sun or cloud sticker should be velcroed to the Daily Weather Chart.  Then they move into a different activity – a reading group, or a math lesson, or a book read to the class by the teacher or a guest.  Some activities involve smaller groups, some the whole class together, some the students complete by themselves.

Most activities have different spaces in which they occur – reading out loud happens in a corner with a rocking chair and a fuzzy rug, group math activities in a circle of chairs with flashcards, art at a long table near the teacher’s desk.  Each activity, each space, has specific rules and expectations – we sit crosslegged on the rug, we show the flash cards to our friend on our left, we put our worksheets in the purple box when we are done.  And each activity only lasts a short time before the participants move to a different one.

For a lot of the tasks, the teacher stays nearby in case someone needs help or mediation, but the students work together or independently.  Students create their own answers, but the rules within which that task is set up quietly guide the students.  Those rules, those expectations, give the kids a structure.  It helps them understand what they are supposed to be doing and when.  Their work is their own, but they know what they are supposed to be doing and how they are supposed to do it.

And here’s the most impressive part.  That classroom, with all those little chaotic marginally-controlled humans, runs about as close to clockwork as you can imagine.  Kids move from one activity to the next with a relatively low level of fuss, they need only minimal reminders of how to do the tasks, they know where papers and musical instruments and glue go when they’re done.

The kids follow the routine not only because it’s what they were told to do, but because it gives them a sense of predictability, of clear expectations, of control.  Of being in a place where they know how succeed.  They were consistently the happiest first graders I had ever seen.

We’re going to unpack what we might learn from how good teachers work in future chapters, but for a moment, think about what the first graders learn from this classroom, beyond the reading and writing and math and all:

  • I know what I need to do to be successful.
  • I know what’s going to happen next.
  • I know how to do the work that’s in front of me
  • I know that this activity (which I might or might not like) isn’t going to last forever
  • I know that I’ll get to do something different soon
  • I know that I can do it right.

First graders have a whole lot more faith in their teachers than most adults have in their local government.  And what we ask of adults can (and should) be a whole lot more challenging than what we ask of first graders.

But that first grade classroom shows us a few fundamental things about what people, big or small, want out of group experiences – especially when they take the time to participate in a group activity that is supposed to result in something beneficial:

  • Ground rules and fairness
  • A predictable pattern of events
  • A variety of activities that use different skills
  • A situation that is set up to enable me to succeed.


In my talks, I have sometimes referred to what Mrs.Brenner did as channeling  — guiding a powerful force so that it flows in the direction where it can make the most positive impact. Think about a river: if it bursts its banks, the river waters flow uncontrolled into places where it wasn’t supposed to be – fields, cities, houses.  The flowing water has power, but it’s wasted, in a sense.  If the river flows within its channel, it can power a water wheel or a turbine, grind grain, make clean power.


My premise to you: if we want to meaningfully engage the power and potential of our people, we need to give them a channel.




Crowdsourcing Wisdom, Draft Chapter 2: The Roots of the Problem

I’m continuing to work on a new Tools book focused on how to do more effective public engagement, and I’m posting chapters here for your feedback.  I’m a little frustrated with this one and the fact that I came up with a lot fewer facts about public engagement than I thought I could.  So if you know of something I should be including here, please let me know!

Chapter 2: The Roots of the Problem


We know pretty definitively that people are not participating in local government decision-making, of any type, at anywhere near the levels that professionals and pundits would prefer.  Take a quick scan of two recent studies and findings:

  • In a survey done by the National Research Center for Governing magazine, 76% of respondents said that they had attended no public meetings in the past year.


  • Voter turnout for non-presidential elections holds consistently at under 60% of total eligible, and multiple local elections nationally have experienced voter turnouts of 20% or less.


How much public participation in local government is enough?  There’s no set answer, no easy target or simple rubric.  But general consensus is, “enough” equals… a whole lot more than this.

And while there isn’t a definitive answer for why people aren’t participating, there’s a whole lot of evidence indicating that it’s not because they’re blissfully delighted by everything that their governments are doing:

  • Frustration with government at all levels has remained at high levels for more than a decade
  • 66% of national voters currently believe that “the country is headed down the wrong track.”
  • A “survey of more than 1400 public officials and local community leaders in California reveals both groups feel that public comment agendas are dominated by narrow interests and negative remarks.”

So.  Significant portions of our communities aren’t participating in even the most basic ways, and significant portions of our communities aren’t happy with how things, in general, are going.  What do we make of this?

You can find a thousand pundits, professors and assorted talking heads who will give you their learned advice on this topic.  And from having read and heard a whole lot of them over the years, I’m going to posit to you a relatively unproveable hypothesis: If you polled all those august figures, I suspect you would find most of them assuming or asserting the following root causes of that disaffectedness:

  • The nasty tone of Politics, with its smear campaigns and sound bites, has turned people off on government.
  • People increasingly limit their interactions to people who agree with them, and avoid situations where they might have to interact with people who have different opinions than they do.
  • Public policy questions are more complex than ever, and as the media and politicians over-simply issues and focus on trying to yell louder than the other, people give up hope that they have any ability to understand or influence the situation.
  • People are apathetic.  They just don’t care about the future or their community. They’d rather pay attention to celebrity gossip and cat videos.


Probably some truth in all of those.  Angry politics clearly energizes a party’s base and alienates most others, residential patterns and social media channels make it easier to only deal with people who look and think like you do, the Big Issues that face us are complex and we’re not getting much useful help understanding them, and…


well, we do like those cat videos.  You have to admit that.


The problem with these assumptions are threefold: First, they’re blanket statements, which by their nature means they’re going to be wrong a lot.  Second, they assume that the poisons affecting political participation in national issues are the same as those impacting the local communities that you and I must deal with directly every day.  As we’ll discuss, I don’t think that’s fully the case.  Third, and worst, they infer that the issues are Just Too Big.  Impossible for little you in your little burg to fix.  C’est la vie.


I’ve spent 20 years working with communities.  I’ve worked with the very large and the very tiny, wealthy and desperately poor, on issues that have ranged from routing cars to rebuilding a local economy.  And this is what I think is probably keeping your residents from making it to your meetings and participating in your community:


  • They’re so overextended that making your meeting means they have to give up something else important.  Our models of how we do democracy date from an era when the only people who participated in democratic debate were white men – typically, white men with a farm or other business that someone else could keep operating while they were at the meeting.  Think about it: for every man who showed up at a township/school board/ city council meeting in the 1800s, how many wives, women, children, workers, slaves, hired hands, you name it, were back home running the shop?  If you’re the white male in that situation, you can sit and debate ad nauseum.  No classes to get to, no emails to answer, no children to pick up from soccer, no jobs with evening shifts.  How many of us have that today?


That means that the opportunity cost – the value of what else we could be doing with our time – is a whole lot higher than it was for the people who sat through our council meetings 120 years ago.  When we want them to come to a meeting, we forget all about the very high cost of their time.


  • They figure out quickly that we’re not really trying to talk to them.  When our residents do come, they find themselves in a web of jargon.  Remember that comprehensive plan meeting?  What impact are different levels of residential density or Floor Area Ratios going to have on their everyday lives?  Why does it matter whether that square on the map has the residential or the industrial color on it, if we’re talking about 20 years from now?


Why should I spend my time on this?  No one has really explained how it impacts me.  And don’t forget, I’m paying a high, high price in terms of my time to be here.  Looks pretty soon like I made the wrong decision.


  • We’re subtly (or not subtly) insulting them.  We tell them that their feedback matters, and then we ignore what they tell us in the final report.  We invite them to an hourlong meeting, and then we leave 5 minutes for questions (then we tell them that if they didn’t get to talk they can give written feedback, but they have to do it on a note card with one of those golf pencils that never works.  Then we use all our responses to defend the Plan, no matter what).  We ask them to help us create a vision, to “dream,” to “Think Big!” but then we quietly sidestep the fact that those dreams that we invited talked about things that we don’t have the power, or the resources, or the political will, to do.


We kinda hope they just forget.


In a sense, we’re treating the adults of our communities the way we too often treat children – even worse, “problem” children.  We assume that they have nothing better that they could be doing with their time, we assume that it’s their job to figure out how to fit into our world, and we assume that We Always Know Best.


Good teachers know that this approach usually doesn’t work.  Good teachers figure out how to meaningfully engage the students.  Good teachers don’t always do that perfectly, but they do it a lot better than other teachers.  And a lot better than we often do.  So perhaps we should go back to school.




Questions and Answers about Online Public Engagement (Part 2: Chat-a-palooza)

Last week I had a great time teaching a webinar with Susan Stuart Clark of Common Ground for the National Council on Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD).  We were talking about online strategies for getting people involved in local government planning and decision-making, and we had close to 100 people participation.

During the presentations there was a great chat stream going on the webinar platform where participants were asking questions and even answering each others’ questions — even when I ask the presenter couldn’t do the talk and keep up with them at the same time.   We only had an hour for the session so there were a lot of questions that probably got lost in the wash of participation.  So I went back through them after the webinar and made sure that I had at least given some kind of response to each one.  I initially did this so that NCDD could share it with the participants, but I figured many of you would find it interesting as well.

As most of you know, using online methods to improve how people participate in the life of their community is a major interest of mine.  It’s led me to edit EngagingCities, and it also led to the creation of a web site called the Online Public Engagement Emporium. If you’re interested in using online platforms but don’t know where to start, I might humbly recommend you start there… because I made it to fill the information gap and start to address the confusion and chaos that comes with a whole new field of practice that’s being populated by tech start-ups.  It’s a recipe for energy, and innovation, and a good deal of confusion, and a modest helping of chaos

I’m currently working on a new book about doing better public engagement, both on- and off-line, and I’m also talking with a publisher about doing a book about online public engagement methods specifically.  So if you have burning questions, or issues that you wish someone would address, or other general bright ideas, please let me know.


The participants’ chat lines are preceded by >.  Sometimes there’s more than one.  Names are removed to protect the innocent.  My responses are in bold italic type.


>I would be curious to know how many individuals on the call actually work with local govt officials. And if they are using online….we are main center in Illinois and there is little that is done electronically.

> It seems like a lot of communities are using online material, including twitter accounts to bring residents into the discussion

>We are not seeing that they are utilizing in decision making.

I’ve seen surveys regarding incidence of use of online tech platforms by local governments, but I can’t think of a methodologically robust survey of local governments asking about barriers – why they’re not.  A lot of us have our own working theories, but I don’t think anyone has been asking that.  Does anyone know of one – or know of an organization that might be talked into it?


>Won’t most jurisdictions want to purchase one tool and use it for all purposes?

>I think that in most cases that strategy would be ill-advised. there is no one-size-fits-all tool. some consolidation is natural, so maybe aim for a few select tools to cover your bases (think few-sizes-fit-most).

>I agree… I just know what happens in government

One question I have been asking myself has been whether we need a more sophisticated/robust system for fitting various platforms together.  Right now Granicus has an “app store” that offers a few things like Textizen, and some one-off combinations have been occurring, but it’s not systematic.  Very catch as catch can. 


>How do laws regulalting public meetings, such as the requirement of providing advance notice, affect online engagement, especially if it’s live (synchronous)?

I’m not a lawyer or a legal expert, but I am not aware of anyone trying to apply public meeting rules to an asynchronous online engagement.  My suspicion is that those situations are not legally differentiated from a survey.  If it’s live – and I don’t know of many significant live online engagements other than perhaps a tweet-up – I would assume that public meeting notices would apply unless some legal wizard tells you otherwise. At least, that’s the direction I would go for a truly live event. From a practical standpoint, however, I haven’t seen a live platform that I would expect to work very well with a diverse group.  A chat group like this one, dominated by professionals, is chaotic enough. 


>Would love to hear some suggestions/strategies on how to connect people, populations and places that are historically disconnected from technology.

>For any particular audience, first check their level of access. technology unevenly distributed, yes, but sometimes in surprising ways. homeless/poor/minority might still be on cell phones, so use of texting could be a good option. starts with research.

Exactly. I didn’t get very deep into this, but SMS (texting) is emerging as probably the most important strategy for reaching deeply disadvantaged populations.  This is a central component of the technology leapfrog that I mentioned that we have seen in Africa (we’ve covered some of that at EngagingCities).  As far as I can tell, many platforms have built platforms that work reasonably well on a mobile device (I think that’s a core need today), but Textizen is the only one I know of that has put significant effort into meaningfully including people who use non-smart phones. SMS is becoming kind of the universal language, in a sense. 


>Not to mention, public meetings can be scary!

Amen, sister.  J   We who deal with them all the time forget that.  I always remind myself of how my mother, who would have been 81 this year, would have felt about public meetings.  Scary is the right word for it.


>Also, something that I come up against is determining when in-person engagement is best and where digital engagement is the best strategy or more complementary.

This isn’t the definitive word on the topic, but for what it’s worth here’s my rules of thumb:  (1) Online options need to be available as much as possible for the sake of people who can’t do in person meetings, like the homebound or people who cannot speak in public.  (2) Deliberation – rich discussion, idea-sharing, collaborative decision-making—seems at this point to still work best in an in-person setting.  That doesn’t necessarily mean a large group or a town hall – I’m a big fan of cooperative small group activities myself, even with big crowds.  (3)  Online tools are great for sorting, prioritizing, voting – methods that rely on aggregation of individual results.    


>We have also had good success with libraries as venue to have small conversations that then let people enter their online input at the library’s computer.  This is why the community partners are essential conduits to help reach people where they are and help make the link to the online input mechanism.

>Don’t forget that almost ALL public libraries offer public access computers.

>But librarians need to be asked about how many people come into the library for the purpose of using the technology…

> Partner with public libraries to reach people who aren’t online

>We’ve had good luck engaging people using kiosks at libraries. We’ve also convinced the library to make the engagement tool the home screen of library computers and in that case we engaged about 13,000 people.

Yes – the only thing I would caution against is using the public library as the default method for reaching a non-computer-owning population. Again, the relative inexpensiveness of smart phones and tablets, and their ease of use, might cut into the need for reliance on a library computer, depending on the task.  And do remember that there is sometimes a time limit on using library computers. 

Like he said, the most important part is partnering – not just with the library, but with the population that you might _assume_ would be likely to use the resources at the library – to make sure your assumptions are actually borne out by reality


> Mulitlingual engagement?

>If you don’t have multi-language capcity in-house, consider partnering with other organizations and ask them to host your engagement process on their digital turf.


To be honest I haven’t seen many local governments handle this well.  I’m not sure how clearly this part came out in the presentation– there’s been a tendency to rely on Google Translate, but as I’ve learned at EngagingCities, about half the time you end up with total garble. There is no replacement I know of for actual human translation.  Interestingly, your local or regional economic development people might be a good source for translation guidance, as more and more of those sites are working on this.


>Conference calls using ordinary phone lines are another “virtual” way to engage, especially if they make use of some of the better call-management technologies out there.

Has anyone seen a local government use a conference call for general public engagement?  I haven’t.


>Seconding … that many “hard to reach” communities are online but their technology or platform of choice may not be one that municipalities are familliar with. At City of Toronto, we had good success connecting with graffitti community by building relationships with them on their own message boards. Unlikely they would have participated on a City-built platform

Excellent!  I was really glad to read this!  Marketing people always say that you have to put the message where the audience you want will see it.  Great example of that.


>Good ideas/points, folks…thanks. Generally, using multiple engagement methods is how I approach this…what works with who, and how. We’re after a balanced, representative data set…sometimes it takes a LOT of energy and resources to get thatr kind of data so the decision around what to engage the public on is a critical, early decision point. Has anyone experienced public engagement events using a large tech setup using clickers, which would get around the access issue for some.

The clickers have been around for probably 15 years. The problems I see with the clicker technologies are (1) you have to be there in person, which gets back to a lot of the core participation barriers, (2) they are only useful for basically real-time surveying, not for getting any richer feedback or ideation, (3)They can actually backfire on efforts to look “inclusive” because peoples’ only option is the multiple choices given in the survey.  I’ve seen them irritate an audience on occasion, rather than engage them.  Again, it depends on the context, including the level of public interest in the topic and the range of other opportunities to engage more deeply.   


>Shouldn’t government demand of its online engagement suppliers to make their technologies talk to each other better? I don’t see so many platforms integrations yet (UK perspective) but maybe this is the sustainable future for the industry and will make the customer choice easier and safer?

I think this is a very interesting point.  There is some early thinking in the online engagement supplier community around this, but frankly a lot are still trying to find their footing.


>Our regional transportation entity has been asking the public for their vision for transportation. However, an individual (IP address) is only permitted to respond once, so I couldn’t add second thoughts. Is this a good idea?

>Tracking/restricting participation via IP address is probably not the most elegant way to do this. however, the alternative is proper user registration, which may pose a sligthly higher barrier to entry. trade-offs, trade-offs… 😉 

I agree with Tim on this one – and an IP address restriction would be particularly more problematic because I would suspect that it would eliminate more than one person responding from a public computer, like in the library, or even in a household, where multiple people may use the same laptop.  So I’d definitely push back against anyone who proposed that.  Most of the commercial platforms I am aware of have some sort of login – a username, at the minimum. Obviously if someone really wanted to game the results, they could create multiple usernames, but they could use multiple IP addresses, too. 


>Is there a matrix of the different tools and what objectives they help with, such as geography?

I’m trying to work on one.  The Online Public Engagement Emporium was a first step toward getting all that information together.


>Oh, significant problem if people are participating/commenting and don’t see that their comments are being read/used…

>Like many things in digital engagement, this may not primarily be a technology issue. it’s first and foremost a planning/design and, ultimately, a culture issue. if you value letting your participants know how their input was used, you will find a way to do so. does not have to be tightly integrated with the same tool you’re using for collecting that input.

Absolutely!  A couple of the platforms actually have that built into them – they basically establish a way for a moderator to identify things like “we’re working on that” “we don’t have that power, but X does,” etc. 

The problem that I have encountered comes back to that capacity issue: responding like that requires that staff take the time to create those responses – and since the staffer responsible for that probably doesn’t have all those answers in his/her head, there’s a research and coordination requirement, which can be very time consuming.  Plus they’re afraid of giving out the wrong information.  I know that MindMixer, for example, pushes hard in its training to encourage administrators to do that, but I know that when I have managed projects I’ve also gotten significant resistance from the local government staff not wanting to. 

>In the evolving landscape of social media, what is ethical? Two attorneys look at the law as it stands and compare it with the AICP Code of Ethics. Explore the ethical considerations for both planners and planning commissioners  at:

I have not done this webinar myself, although I have taught AICP Ethics a bunch of times.  Here’s the short version that I always tell my clients: anything said on social media is basically the same as talking to a person who is recording you on video while you are talking.  A choice that would be ethical in that context is probably going to be ethical on social media.  Be transparent, admit what you know and don’t know, disclose any conflicts of interest ASAP.  My guess is that would cover the majority of situations.


 The most crucial piece I think is to make sure that people have both online and offlne options. One approach I’d like to see tried more often is to target in -person participation to higher level deliberation and use the online tools to gather the ideation .


>Can you say anything about the value of gaming in online civic engagement? I got the idea from World Without Oil…or encourage creative responses

We talked in the webinar about gaming as an incentive to get people to participate on an ongoing basis through points, leaderboards, rewards for participation.  MindMixer has done a particularly good job of that, although I don’t know that anyone has _proven_ that these tactics increased public involvement in the platform or changed the quality/frequency/type of participation.  I think that would be a very interesting study. 

The other piece of gamification that came up briefly are more scenario-navigating “games” that are designed to walk people through information and options in a more accessible manner than giving them a big document to read.  Any of the scenario-evaluating tools, including the budget simulators that a lot of platforms offer, can be considered “games” in this manner. We’ve covered some pretty interesting models in Brazil and eastern Europe that are using gaming strategies.

If people are particularly interested in this topic, I’d recommend two sources to explore.  One is the Emerson Game Lab at Emerson College —  The other is the United Nations Development Programme, which has been doing interesting work using gaming tools on a whole range of issues.  I’d search for the term “game,” which will get you a variety of projects if you look through the results.   


>ULI uses Legos for urban planning

Just as an FYI, I’ve found that old-fashioned wooden blocks work better than Legos.  People get to the essence of what they’re trying to get across faster and they don’t get as bogged down in whether they need an eight-bump piece or a ten-bumper to finish their masterpiece.  J



Questions and answers about Online Public Engagement from NCDD (Part 1: Pre-questions)

Last week I had a great time teaching a webinar with Susan Stuart Clark of Common Ground for the National Council on Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD).  We were talking about online strategies for getting people involved in local government planning and decision-making, and we had close to 100 people participation.

In the week before the webinar, NCDD asked for questions from the people who would be attending, and man… we got a ton. We only had an hour for the session so there were a lot of questions that probably got lost in the wash of participation.  So I went back through them after the webinar and made sure that I had at least given some kind of response to each one.  I initially did this so that NCDD could share it with the participants, but I figured many of you would find it interesting as well.

As most of you know, using online methods to improve how people participate in the life of their community is a major interest of mine.  It’s led me to edit EngagingCities, and it also led to the creation of a web site called the Online Public Engagement Emporium. If you’re interested in using online platforms but don’t know where to start, I might humbly recommend you start there… because I made it to fill the information gap and start to address the confusion and chaos that comes with a whole new field of practice that’s being populated by tech start-ups.  It’s a recipe for energy, and innovation, and a good deal of confusion, and a modest helping of chaos.

Tomorrow’s post will share my responses to the very lively chat that occurred during the webinar –which I also think you’ll find interesting.  I’m currently working on a new book about doing better public engagement, both on- and off-line, and I’m also talking with a publisher about doing a book about online public engagement methods specifically.  So if you have burning questions, or issues that you wish someone would address, or other general bright ideas, please let me know.


The Pre-webinar questions about Online Public Engagement (my responses are in bold italics)

We use [a couple of platforms] but are looking at new options. We’ve done live chats but don’t get much response….much better with these tools.  The most challenging part of online civic engagement is developing the questions/format.

That’s very true…worthy of a whole ‘nother training!


Prior to moving to the US I worked with a number of local government groups in the UK who were utilising online engagement methods. I’m keen to hear about how Local Government is doing it in the US.

I’m no expert on UK and Commonwealth public engagement methods, but here’s my two shillings: UK and Commonwealth countries seem to be bound by a pretty formal definition of “consultation.”  As you have probably found, this isn’t a term that’s used in the US.  Without having memorized the details, it appears to me that UK/Commonwealth governments are required to do “consultation” on a very wide range of government decisions, but that the “consultation”  obligation is largely limited to public comment and surveying.  I’ve seen some idea-generating exercises (you’ll sometimes see the term “ideation” coming from some of the platforms developed in the Commonwealth, but it seems relatively limited in scope–more focused on generating responses to government-initiated questions than in generating totally new ideas. 

The downside in the US is that, except for transportation projects that fall under FWHA requirements, the obligation to do public participation is pretty scattered –higher in some places, all but nonexistent in others.  And depends a lot on the type of issue,the type of government or agency, etc.   The upside to that is that US providers don’t seem to be specifically trying to meet a mandated process, but rather trying to address a need that they perceive in communities on the ground.  So I think you get a rather wider range of  different approaches, once you start digging into them. 


I would be interest in some discussion about public sector transparency re: data collected via these web based tools. Can you provide examples of what you consider to be best practices regarding the ways in which government shares its findings or closes the loop by making stakeholder feedback available for stakeholder review?

Most web based tool providers would probably tell you that all of the results should be made available to the public – that’s basic good government and good surveying methodology.  Some of the platforms facilitate that more than others. In general, I think the best strategies are the ones that allow you to (1) connect the sharing of results directly to the initial idea or feedback, (2) makes it easy to generate charts and infographics, such as through a built-in wizard, and (3) allow you to generate a full report of the results easily.  You need to provide both a summary and a full detailed results for both accessibility and transparency. 


What are the best tools for online engagement and prioritization of issues (allowing for viewable conversation and ranking)?

A lot of them accommodate some form of ideal-generating, conversation and priority-setting.  MindMixer probably has the best overall interface right now – graphically appealing, well organized, lots of options for responses, and the ability to add on to or supplement someone else’s proposal.   But that doesn’t mean they’re the best fit for every situation.  BrightPages from Urban Interactive Studio, for example, allows you to tie feedback directly back into a bite-sized section of a document, and Crowdbrite’s sticky-note based interface makes feedback on physical planning issues pretty easy, even for people who don’t want to write a paragraph.  And there’s several others.


What barriers do you see regarding the open meetings act and Freedom of Information Act in utilizing on-line and virtual portals for government engagement. I’m concerned about how local government use of online engagement tools meets the requirements of “Open Meeting Laws” or “Sunshine Laws”.

I’m not a lawyer, but it has been my understanding that anything in an online or virtual platform is subject to FOIA requirements.  Since it’s all online, such a request should actually be easier to respond to than paper files, but unless there’s something really special going on, it’s as subject to public scrutiny as any public meeting record. With regard to open meeting requirements and public notice, so far it looks to me like it probably depends on whether the online activity is at a specific time or available to access on demand over a long period of time.  

 In the case of a specific online event (I can’t say I’ve seen many local governments do this, but I suppose it’s possible), my presumption would be that you should adhere to your usual public meeting notice requirements, including making provisions for anyone who may not be able to participate due to disability (for example, someone who can’t type or needs a translator).  In the case of  a site that invites participation whenever people want to and is available for a long period of time, it seems like it’s most likely to be treated like a survey.  But I’m not aware of any definitive case law yet.  


It would be great to have a list of online engagement tools and resources you use and recommend

The best source I can point you to is  I made that site because I couldn’t find anything else that summarized the current state of the industry – except for a white paper that I used to produce that was a pain in the neck because it was always out of date about three seconds after I released it. The web site doesn’t try to give formal recommendations, but it does try to give you a narrative sense of how each platform works and what it seems to be best suited for.  No guarantees it’s perfectly up to date either – in fact, I can more reliably guarantee that it’s not – but it’s the best source I can point you to.  We’ve got plans for more, but just keeping it reasonably up  to date is a big challenge. 


Do you know of any analysis of the ROI of online engagement compared to more traditional engagement tactics?

I don’t.  Like a lot of areas of local governance/public engagement, we as a profession generally haven’t done a great job of measuring impacts.  I do think that the overwhelming practitioner experience, however, has been that it’s not an either/or – online alone would miss some important voices, just like in person-only methods do. I thnk of it this way: we talk to people, and send emails, and tweet and text and use lots of different communication methods in the course of a day in our regular lives.  There’s no reason why an online/offline divide should exist in our community lives that doesn’t exist in our real lives. 


“Question 1: The City of Toronto is just piloting an ideas manager tool (e.g. Mindmixer, Ideascale, etc.) and so I’m especially interested in understanding success factors for this kind of tool – what issues are most engaging, what audiences are most engaged on this kind of platform?

Idea generation and management seems to need the following the most:

  • A clear and energetic interface that doesn’t look overly “official” – that gives the visual impression that new ideas are welcome.
  • A clear and energetic interface that is as intuitive as possible for people to understand and use.  You don’t want to create a big learning barrier – you want people to feel like they can get their ideas down without having to learn a whole software system first.
  • An interface that allows for types of input other than a big block of text.  We tend to forget that a very large number of people aren’t fully comfortable writing a paragraph of text.  They might find typing burdensome, or they worry about their spelling and grammar, or they simply don’t do that in their everyday lives and it looks like a huge an onerous chore.  Even highly-educated people can look at a web page that asks them to type a block of text and their immediate reaction becomes “Ugh, I don’t want to do that!”  Depending on the issue, strategies that allow people to upload photos or videos, write brief statements or lists, etc. can keep us from losing a big piece of what we do idea-generating activities to do
  • A system that allows people to respond to other people’s ideas in a whole variety of ways.  “Liking” is important because that helps generate support, but the opportunity to expand on ideas, extend them, challenge assumptions, etc. is critical to creating a rich and meaningful body of information. 
  • A mechanism for measuring the relative level of support for different ideas.  If you don’t have some sort of sorting process to identify the top priorities or the strongest areas of concensus, then what you come out of the process with is a laundry list – an undifferentiated assortment of demands, dreams, wishes, etc. that doesn’t give the people who have to make decisions about policy any intelligent place to start.  When that happens, the process is usually dead in the water. 

With regard to the types of questions that get higher levels of participation, obviously anything that has a clear and direct impact on their lives is going to get more response than things that are abstract or vague.  Most of the time, if we frame the issues in terms of things that people care about, rather than in terms of our usual technical jargon, we can get much more participation.  I did a project one time where we were trying to get people’s engagement in questions around a zoning code rewrite… about as boring as you can get.  But by shifting the questions away from the usual talk of density, non-conforming uses, etc., and focusing instead on how people live and work every day in your communities, we ended up getting a ton of very valuable engagement… and the final project had huge community support.  Participation in idea-generating seems depends more on the ease of use of the platform and the relevance of the issue than anything else.  MindMixer does a regular evaluation of the aggregate participation characteristics across all of the projects that are using their platform, and the average age of participant nationwide is usually around 40.  So it’s not particularly skewed to younger participants, like some people theorized early on.  


Question 2: One of the issues we sometimes have when using online engagement tools is an overwhelming response from one particular group/perspective. I’m interested in learning about strategies and tactics for managing that kind of situation within an online environment.”

There’s a mechanical  strategy, as it were, and there’s a tactical strategy.  And there’s a philosophical question as well.   

Mechanically, it may be possible to design the feedback so that people have to identify their areas of interest.  To use a relatively simple example, if it’s a survey tool, there might be a required question that asks people to identify whether they support a particular organization or perspective.  As long as it’s anonymous, that should not be threatening (although sometimes people don’t believe you when you say a survey is anonymous, so that may be a point that needs to be proven).  But you should be able in most survey tools to cross-tab responses and see whether two responses were highly correlated, which should make clear any bias.   

Tactically, the most important step is to make sure that a strong invitation to participate is made to a wide cross section of the community, including the particular group that is most interested and others as well.  This gets back to the in-person elements of good engagement: building relationships, partnering with organizations that represent overlooked populations, engaging with people in the way that has the most relevance to them, not just what has the most relevance to you. 

Finally—and this is probably controversial and doesn’t  fit everywhere – but it might be worth considering whether the overwhelming response from a subgroup might indicate that the issue matters to these people and not to others.  And sometimes that’s valuable information in and of itself. 


I am interested in hearing from people:  Which single online tool is sorely missing, in general, from use by local governments?

The biggest thing that is missing so far is a user-friendly, non-high-literacy-dependent platform for facilitating deliberation.  And no, I don’t know exactly what that will look like.  But I think we need it.  I’ve seen a little bit of use of things like Google Hangout, but that’s still pretty inadequate.  Ideally, I’d like to be able to see us do more online than ask for ideas and set priorities.    


How can we use technology to get citizens talking with each other, not just at government?

The MindMixer ideation strategy that I mentioned earlier is probably the closest thing we have to that talking to each other strategy that I’ve seen so far.  I’ve seen some interesting conversations develop on that platform as people respond to and expand on each others’ ideas.  And there’s one called Ethelo that is getting some limited use in government deliberations settings, and a platform in development that’s based on the National Issues Forum deliberation process.  And there is a platform called e-Deliberation that does do a methodologically robust deliberation process online, but it’s an approach that’s very text-focused and designed for smaller groups.   But all of those involve such a high level of fluency in online written communication that I’m not 100% comfortable recommending them for general public engagement yet. 


“Looking forward to dialing in. You probably know both these folks but they are two of my Herod of participating and tech, Tiago Peixoto and Hollie Gilman:

Two of the best.  I excerpt them both at EngagingCities all the time.  J


Is dumbing down a necessary part of public online engagement?

No.  Speaking in layperson’s language, yes.  Communicating clearly, yes.  Establishing a process that allows everyone who’s participating to understand what they’re trying to achieve and what the end goals are, yes.  Dumbing down, no. 


While so much is being done with technology to engage every day citizens there are still so many who are not “plugged in”. How do we use technology to reach those citizens?

I think the key thing to remember is that (1) people are much more plugged in than we might think they are, and (2) they’re plugged in in a whole host of different ways, from computers to tablets to touch screens in the supermarket to apps that let them pay bills and give feedback via text from a basic cell phone. 

The key is to reach in a multi-faceted fashion, and not assume that everyone who’s not sitting at a desk all day is somehow “Not doing technology.”  The assumption of a have/have not digital divide is pretty outdated now.  They’re probably using something – the key is to understand what they are using and how, and take the conversation to them there.  

Come see us! Why This Work Matters hits the road

Sorry for the double post, but in case you didn’t see this on the blog for the Why This Work Matters book — wanted to make sure you knew that we’re developing what I think will be an interesting and rewarding way for people to explore their own frustrations about their work in communities — and reconnect with their passion for doing it.  If you’d be interested in doing this in your own community or at your own conference, let me know.


I’m thrilled to say that you have two upcoming opportunities to join in the discussion of Why wtwm cover ebookYour Work Matters with your colleagues and some of the authors this fall!

On October 3, I will be moderating a panel at the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Planning Conference with Jason Segedy, Mike Hammes and Bill Lutz.  We’ll be talking about the experiences that they shared in the book and their experience managing the demands of working to make communities better on their time and their energy.  Knowing these guys, this will be a no-holds-barred, brutally honest discussion.  To learn more about attending, check out

On October 17, Kimberly Miller and I will be leading a discussion at the Texas Chapter of the American Planning Association’s Annual Conference.  We’ll be sharing our own insights and selections from the book, but more importantly, we’ll be able to have a discussion of frustration, burn out and determination among all the participants.  I think this will be an amazing experience, and I’m intensely looking forward to aving a deep, free-flowing conversation!   For more information, check out

I’ll also be preparing audio, and maybe video, of the sessions, so if you can’t get to these, stay tuned.

I’m slow but I get there: new presentations and stuff now on Slideshare

Even a tech hound like me gets overloaded with “platforms” sometimes.  I’ve been resisting posting to SlideShare because… I don’t know, because I post a hell of a lot of stuff all over. And I could never get the login right.  And whatever.


So, I finally dragged my butt into the new millenium and uploaded several recent presentations to SlideShare.  As you know if you’ve seen me speak, my presentations tend to run to lots of pictures and few words.  So while I think the uploaded presentations will give you a sense of what the session was about, in a lot of cases that by itself isn’t going to lead you to a high level of enlightenment.  The good news is that for a lot of my talks, you can

  • view video,
  • listen to an audio recording,
  • read a summary of the thing that I had previously written on that topic, and (soon)
  • pick up a Wisdom Single that gives a brief but more detailed write-up on that topic.

I’ll try to do a better job of keeping the SlideShare updated.  Really and for true.  In the meantime, if you want to check out a few of my recent presentations, you’ll find a few embeds below.

Have fun!

[slideshare id=38456237&doc=ridingthewaveaug2014-140828102456-phpapp01]

[slideshare id=38458043&doc=leadersorfeedersrucker072314-140828111159-phpapp01]

[slideshare id=38456083&doc=publicpartic20ncdd082614-140828102108-phpapp01]

[slideshare id=38456707&doc=strategicplanningannotatedoedamar2014-140828103631-phpapp01&type=d]

[slideshare id=38456504&doc=economicdevelopmentsjunkfoodignite-140828103118-phpapp01]

From…well, me: Asking for your Support in Testing a Way to Get More Tech People Involved in Making Communities Better

I posted this last week at EngagingCities.  We’ve got a potential to demonstrate to a lot of tech people how they could actually make a difference in their communities.  But to get that chance, we need help.  As in, your help.

Here’s the lowdown:



I usually try to keep a relatively low profile at EngagingCities, but we need your help with something.

We have proposed a session for South By SouthWest Interactive (the tech conference part of the mega-event SXSW, held yearly in Austin, Texas.  The session that we’re proposing to do is called

Hey Techs: Yes, You Can Help Your Town. Here’s How

Here’s the game plan:

Lots and lots of people who design software, produce music, make videos, do social media stuff and lots of other types of things show up for this event.  Thousands.  There’s usually sessions on all sorts of app development, open data use, and even a few that get into social impact, but not many that actually help tech-oriented people understand exactly how they can use their skills in the places where they live to help improve the lives of the people who live there.

As a lot of the articles we’ve posted here over the last couple of months has indicated, people increasingly realize that using technology to make a difference takes more than just building a cool app — it requires understanding how local governments work, where their pain points and points of resistance are, and how to craft and maintain an online tool that makes an impact on people’s civic lives.  And for people who aren’t in the biggest cities, that can be extra tough.

So what we’re proposing is part eye-opener, part demonstration and part group exploration (in true hacker style).  If it works, it may also be a training/engagement model that we can share with you to help you open the doors to your tech/community potential in your town, as well.  We’ll post the materials and either audio or video here for your use as well (depending on what SXSW will let us do…)

A big piece of the SXSW selection process is popular vote.  So if that sounds like it might benefit you, please give us a vote — even if there’s no way you’re going to Austin. We’ll make sure you get to learn from it.  When you go to the SXSW PanelPicker, you will be prompted to create an account, but that’s just an email and password, and then you can search all of the session proposals.  You don’t have to be in the USA.  And they don’t spam unless you want them to.

Here’s the description of the session — and if the link in the last sentence doesn’t work for you, it’s

If you work in technology, the world of local government and real estate development can seem completely foreign – even though you know it affects everything around you. Learn why your local government people don’t seem to get it, understand why they have such a hard time getting things done, and how you can use your skills and connections to help make your community work better. We’ll share stories from across the world from people just like you in communities a lot like yours, and we’ll discuss together how you might be able to make a difference. Bring your good ideas and your frustrations, and get ready to discover how you can make an important difference where you live.

Voting is only open until September 5, so if you’d like to see this session offered, please vote today.



Thanks.  You’re very nice.

Della Rucker

Managing Editor, EngagingCities



Join me and NCDD to talk about the state of online public engagement (free!) August 26

The good folks at the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation are kindly hosting Susan Stuart Clark and I for a free webinar exploring how communities across the world are using online public participation tools to plan better, solve problems better and get people meaningfully engaged in the life of their community.  Here’s the description from NCDD:

An increasing number of local governments are adding different forms of online engagement to their public participation activities. There is a proliferation of tools being offered by different vendors, each trying to establish a unique positioning. Join Della Rucker and Susan Stuart Clark as they review examples of how local governments are using online engagement, the state of the industry, key factors to consider in planning and implementing online engagement – and how online engagement can be used to complement and enhance in-person dialogue.

The session has been designed to allow for plenty of time for Q&A and group discussion. We are especially interested in NCDD member experiences with online engagement and local government. Click here to register.

Want to do some reading ahead of time?

By the way, you do not have to be a dues-paying member of NCDD to participate in our FREE Tech Tuesday learning events — though we greatly appreciate the support! You can join NCDD here or upgrade to a supporting membership here.


It’s a fascinating topic and Susan is a dynamo and a half, so this should be just about the most exciting webinar you’ve every encountered (I know, consider the competition…).  Like it says, you don’t have to be an NCDD member, but it’s cheap to join and they do good stuff.  Check them out at

Hope you’ll join us!

Fall 2014 Speaking/Running Around Update

Just realized that I’m overdue to give you an update on upcoming speaking / tapdancing gigs.  There’s a few that are still floating around, so expect to see some updates in the next few weeks.  Here we go!


  • From September 12 to 14, I’ll be hanging with the cool kids at the Strong Towns National Gathering in Minneapolis, helping Strong Towns supporters figure out where they want to go and how they can best make a difference.  I’m pretty excited about the way Strong Towns is growing and evolving, and it will be a blast to get back to Minneapolis proper for the first time in a few years.


  • On September 17th, I’ll be teaching two sessions at the Great Placemaker’s Lab event in Columbus. Ohio.  The first one, “Managing the Axe-Grinders,” is an exploration of methods for facilitating more effectiveand fair public meetings (spoiler alert: we do role playing!  You get to be the meeting’s wing nut for a change!).  The second one, “Hack Your City,” focuses on techniques for enabling grassroots civic tech to help communities make better-informed decisions and share the burden.


  • On September 21 and 22, I’ll be at the Heritage Ohio Annual conference in Kent, Ohio.  Any speaking I do there will be to help uncover information to guide a client’s project, so I’ll send more targeted information on that when I know more.


  • On October 1-3, I’ll be at the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional American Planning Association Conference in Lexington, Ohio.  As a result of, I suppose, karma coming back to bite me for something I don’t remember doing, I’ll be givng my best Phil Donohue impression for two sessions.  One in the veeery first time slot, and one in the veeery last.    The first one is with Martin Kim, Jason Segedy and Steve Strains in a tough heart-to-heart about the real-world struggles and victories that come with trying to create a regional land use plan.  This will be the first time Martin and I have had a chance to talk about the Going Places process since it wrapped up in May, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to set that complex and often emotional process within a larger framework.  And all three of those guys rock.

At the end of the conference, I’ll be leading a discussion with three of the contributors to Why This Work Matters, talking honestly about frustration, short-staffing, burnout, and remembering why we do what we do.  This will be the first time we’ve done this kind of a discussion, and it won’t be the last.


  • On Friday, October 17, I will be doing a second conversation based on Why This Work Matters with Kimberly Miller at the Texas APA conference in Plano.  That one’s scheduled for late afternoon — more when I know more.


If you’re going to be at any of these events, please let me know!  And if you’re looking for a speaker to give your peeps a push on economic development, entrepreneurship, tech or public engagement, just say the word.  Beats heck out of sitting in the office…



Crowdsourcing Wisdom: the Introduction

I have been working on a new book about how and why we can do public engagement or public participation that actually develops useful information, doesn’t make most people miserable and actually helps people help make their communities better.  My evolving shorthand for that approach to public engagement is Crowdsourcing Wisdom, and it’s the probably title of the next Wise Fool Press book (there’s already one in the universe with that title so I’m going to have to mess with subtitles a good deal….)


As I continue to slog my way through this, I thought it might be interesting for you (and helpful for me) to have the opportunity to read my drafts and give me your feedback.  Think of it as a review committee of whoever feels like it.

The current draft of the introduction is below.  Feel free to tell me whatever you want to tell me in the comments, or you can email me at della.rucker at if you really want to take it apart but don’t want all the other readers to know how mean you are.  🙂

Thanks, and have fun!




This ain’t working.  We all know that.


The ways, ideas, methods that we use to do that day-to-day democracy stuff – figure out what people want their governments to do, try to get them to understand why we’re building this or that, get people involved in decisions the way we know we should…

It’s not working.  In all but a few rare cases, we get no response, or we get a useless response.  You know, The Crazies.  The Insistently Misinformed.  The Unicorn-Chasers.  People who have their own agenda , or (more often) haven’t had to think critically about the real world in which they want their bright ideas to live.

The bigger worry is the thousands that we don’t hear from.  Who may see and understand things that we, the Professionals, are missing.  Who have expertise and insights and experience of their own that could show us a door through the brick walls of the tough problems that We the Professionals have been slamming our heads through for decades.   Who are the very people that Good Ideas need to support them, to advocate for them, to carry them through the debates and nitpicking and indecision that come part and parcel with life in a democracy.

Those people are not failing to participate because they don’t care about the places where they live.   They’re not failing to participate because they don’t care what they do.  They’re failing to participate because we’ve given them a pretty clear message that we don’t want them to have a meaningful role in the process.

It’s easy to blame that message on Big Money Politics and the Big Media – dirty campaign ads, PACs, etc.  National and state stuff,  Not My Fault.

But look at what we do to those people who do try to participate in our own cities, our own counties – the places where political involvement is most direct, where it should be easiest.  See through their eyes for a minute, and see what it looks like from their perspective:

Meeting rooms that look and feel like courtrooms.  I must have done something wrong… did I do something wrong?  I don’t remember doing anything wrong.  But this place feels like I did something wrong.  I’m getting nervous.

A stage-fright-inducing microphone in the middle of the room.   Dear God, I’m going to have to go up there and talk… my stomach hurts….  I’m afraid… Do I know enough?  Part of what that other guy said could be right in some cases…  I, uh… what do you mean, my three minutes is up?

Be there in Person or You Don’t Count.  I know I should go, but I’d have to miss my continuing ed class… who can I get to coach the kids’soccer team while I go?  If I ask for that night off from my job, will my boss punish me later?  Who can I find to watch the kids?

An agenda that could go on for hours.  Can I get there at 7:30, after my class, or do I have to be there right at 7?  How long is is going to take to get to… oh, no one knows?  What am I going to do if they’re still talking about other things when I have to leave to get the babysitter home?  Dear God, these chairs are uncomfortable….

A confrontational, argument-focused environment   I have to be right. They have to be wrong.  I’m white hat, they’re black hat.  I can’t admit that they might have some good ideas.   I can’t propose a compromise… what do you mean, my three minutes is up?


And even when we’re not doing the conventional zoning commission or City Council or other standard government meeting, we’re still sending that same message:

Welcome to the Open House!  Here’s a whole lot of maps, and here’s what they’re going to do.  I’m no good at reading maps… where’s my house?  Maybe finding that will help me make sense of it.   But this map shows the “Preferred Alternative…” In that case, why did I bother to come?  OK, the sign over here says “We want your feedback!!!”  So I guess I’ll give them some feedback.  Can I ask a question?  How would I ever know what the answer was? How the hell are you supposed to write on this card with this little golf pencil anyways??


Vague, disconnected-from-reality questions, like “What do you think this spot on the map should be?”  Geez, I don’t know… what’s there now?  What is around it?  What do we need?  Am I really supposed to just pick something out of the air?  I’d like an ice cream shop, but is that really a good idea for that corner?  Am I just supposed to say anything?  Are they just going to build whatever we say?


We make clear that whatever real opportunity to influence what we’re doing depends on you being at the meeting in person. OK, there’ no way I can make it to that meeting (thank God… only crazy people show up for those things.  I’m pretty uncomfortable with the whole idea).  They said I could send an email.  But how do I know if anyone ever read it or thought about what I had to say?  Will they use that online survey thing to actually maybe change the plan?  Does anyone look at that stuff?  Is anyone actually listening.


When we do try to open the doors of participation, we let a few people get crazy.  No way am I going to that public meeting.  The last time I went there was this guy who wouldn’t let anyone else talk.  He kept interrupting other people, he kept insisting that he was the only one who knew what was really going on, and the people running the meeting didn’t do anything to give anyone else a chance to talk.  It was totally frustrating – a complete waste of my time.


None of this works.  None of it makes our plans and decisions better, makes our governance better, makes our communities better.

In fact, it has probably made a lot of things worse.

Got a hated urban renewal project from the 70’s in your town? Then you’ve got an object lesson in the damage that a bunch of Experts can do without the moderating influence of residents who know the community.

Got a development proposal in front of your committee that is bringing out a rabid NIMBY attack from the neighbors?  Then you have a demonstrated case of inadequate or lip service public involvement when the project was first being developed.

Have an economic development strategy that’s been recruiting businesses that the residents fight over and over again? Chances are you have an economic development strategy developed by a Star Chamber that was, of course, way, way smarter than the average resident.

Have public meetings, Open Houses, council sessions, where only two of three of the same nut jobs as always ever show up?

Do you wonder where all the reasonable voices went?

The reasonable voices didn’t come because they are not dumb.

We have made public involvement miserable.   We have make it painful.  And we’ve held out to them a lousy return on the investment of their very limited time.  And we’ve been giving them that message for decades.

No wonder that they avoid us until something happens that threatens them.  And no wonder that when they do, they don’t trust us, they don’t want to cooperate with us, they get fearful and angry and confrontational.

It’s almost like that’s what we wanted to teach them.


What we really want, in the depth of our guts, in the place where the reasons why we went into this profession or ran for office or went on this commission still live, is to help make this community better.  We want to make the right decisions, anticipate and deal with the issues that might affect the community in the future, use the money and people and other resources that the community has as wisely as we can.

And if we’re really honest, we all have to admit: we don’t know how to do that.

Ten or 30 or 40 years ago, our predecessors in these roles hired Experts – Big Deal Architects, Big Name Economic Development Types, Big Budget Think Tanks, people who offered Big and Easy Solutions.

As you might have noticed, a lot of those haven’t worked.  When you look back on the projections, the visions, the promises, what they said and what came to pass very often don’t match up.  Not even close.  And for many of us, the great challenge that faces us today consists of trying to fix or undo the damage that those Big Solutions caused.

And as the era we live in becomes more and more unpredictable, as we start seeing ever so acutely how one issue in our community unexpectedly impacts another, and as we realize more and more that the future, whatever it will be, probably won’t be a simple linear extrapolation of past growth…  expertise based on the past has less and less relevance.   Even the leading business publications are questioning the purpose, the most rudimentary value, of expert advising.  They’ve been lead down the wrong path a few times as well.

Private sector businesses, from the largest to the smallest, are increasingly turning to crowdsourcing to try to get a handle on the emerging issues, the disruptions and the out-of-left-field new ideas that have the potential to catapult them into a market lead (or, if they miss it, shatter them to bits).  Crowdsourcing enables businesses to gather ideas, solutions, designs, sometimes even blueprints, from a wider range of people than they could every employ or contract on their own.  And even more surprisingly, businesses increasingly use the “crowd” to sift through the options and select the ones that will work best.  Academic research has been demonstrating for a few years that the Crowd does these two steps better than the Experts, and that crowd-designed and crowd-selected results tend to perform better on a variety of measures than when experts design and select them.

The funny thing is, many businesses have to work like fury to attract their crowd.  They put a huge amount of effort into reaching their crowd, convincing their crowd that it’s worth their time to participate, keeping their crowd plugged in and participating.  Their ability to provide value depends on their Crowd, and when you’re crowdfunding T-shirts or motorbikes, you’re competing for their attention with a lot of other shiny but not all that important products.

In our world, where we’re trying to make communities better, we’ve got a Crowd that’s eager and waiting for their chance to participate.  We’ve got what those businesses are spending so much money to build.

We just need to open the doors, to give them a way to participate, in a way that matters.

In preparing this book, I’ve been heartened by discovering people all over the world who are using both old methods and brand-new technologies to enable meaningful public engagement – to CrowdSource Wisdom from communities, to rebuild that trust.  But I’m  frustrated: these improvements too often happen in pockets.  One town Crowdsources Wisdom in a way that addresses tough challenges and makes the whole city better, but the next town over continues to operate like it’s 1850.  Or one organization figures out how to transform public engagement in their town, and their residents have a powerful and transformative experience, but the good ideas don’t get out – or don’t get any farther than an academic paper dutifully read by the author’s mother.

We don’t have time to dink around on the edges anymore.  Our ability to do the work we got into this to do – to make communities better – is being hamstrung by a toxic relationship between governments and the people they serve.  It’s squandering our scarce money, it’s choking off our ability to make rational collaborative decisions, and it’s draining the emotional reserves of people (public and private) who want to make communities better.

In this book, we’ll do a very brass-tacks examination of the ways that many of our public engagement assumptions and methods backfire on us.  We’ll then examine a high-level outline of some ways that we can reboot public engagement at the local/regional government level, and we’ll conclude with a section of step-by-step guides for activities to Crowdsource Wisdom.  These aren’t the only ways to do it – just enough to give you a taste and help you get started.  At first, doing these activities will probably feel weird – both for you and for your residents.  And they probably won’t all turn out right away.  Remember that we’ve been giving them a pretty off-putting message for a few generations.  One press release, one meeting, probably won’t change that.

But keep at it.  Both you and your community need to Crowdsource Wisdom.



Web 2.0 Tools for Public Engagement: Annotated slides

I went looking for this presentation to share with a colleague today and was a little surprised to see that I had never posted it here before.  So we shall correct that, and hopefully you’ll find it useful.

Public partic 20 APA rev n annotated

I’ve done this talk about using online public participation tools at least three or four times.  The goal here is to help people understand why our usual public participation methods don’t work — and how online tools can help bridge those gaps.  Since my slide decks usually consist of a large (often goofy) image and minimal text, I find that I need to do sort of a version with notes in order for them to make sense to someone reading it after the fact.

Especially with the launch of the Online Public Engagement Emporium last week, and plans in the works to enhance EngagingCities, I think finding this  document probably reflects where my brain has been.  And, although some of the images are probably a little out of date, and there’s a lot more examples I could use if I remade it today, I think the guidance in this is definitely worth sharing.  If you want to learn more about the (relatively) latest and greatest in online public engagement tools, check out

So, here ya go.  Enjoy!


The Online Public Engagement Emporium launches

Yes, I know I needed something else to do. As I’ve mentioned here before, I have a longtime interest in online technologies and tools designed to help communities do better, broader and more meaningful public engagement.  That interest has led me all sorts of interesting places — including a bunch of speaking gigs, friendships with a lot of very cool tech people that I would never get to hang out with otherwise, and my current gig as editor of EngagingCities. And I think I can safely say that much of that grew out of a white paper on online public engagement tools that I wrote initially to just keep my own head straight.

But I’ve learned that using the white paper format on a fast-moving, constantly-changing field is kind of like trying to ride a bicycle in a Formula One race… you can try your best, but it just ain’t gonna work.

As a result, I just moved all of the last white paper’s content over to a new web site:


In my mind, I’d like to have kind of a circus theme on this thing to go with the “Emporium” language — big top, lions jumping through rings, elephants, etc. (No clowns – they’re creepy…).  But since I don’t know if thing can pay for itself yet, it will have to wait for the dressing-up.

On this site, you’ll find a summary of several online public engagement platforms, some definitions of terms, and a few options if you decide you’d like some help with selecting the platform that will best fit your needs.  I believe that each tool has unique advantages and limitations, and my intent when I am advising is to find the best match between client and platform.  So I worked out a pretty simple (and cheap) way to help you get that advice. One of the things that I’ve learned from my tech friends is that you don’t have to know exactly where you’re going with something before you throw it out into the internet universe.  Sometimes you’re just throwing spaghetti.  So

I don’t know exactly what this site is going to turn into.  We may add content to help readers better understand the different options, but none of that is worked out at the moment.

In the meantime, if you have an online public participation start up that fits the Emporium’s criteria, send me a note at  If you represent one of the sites that’s already on here and something’s out of date or just plain wrong (Really?  That could happen? Damn right it could), please send me a note as well.  We’re not going to list every tiny widget and setting here, but I want to make sure this thing gives people the right place to start.

And if you have invented cloning lately, I definitely want to hear from you.

I learned something: Cincinnati Form-based code team wins CNU Grand Prize

Last week I had the pleasure of being one of the people who got to represent the Cincinnati Form-Based Code consulting team at the Congress for the New Urbanism’s annual meeting in Buffalo. I had the pleasure of leading a team on that project that managed public engagement and public relations — that included Tammy Monroe, Northlich LLC, Sam McKinley’s Sustainable Places Studio and Patrick Whalen.

While I have some ongoing ambivalence toward the New Urbanism movement -(Ok, more with some of the tone and tenor, which I am planning to explore in an upcoming post) getting back together with the team gave me a chance to think through again what I learned out of that process, which finished more than a year ago.  And since the next Wise Fool book will be on public engagement, the timing is pretty good.

So here’s a few of the things I am remembering:

  • People need graphics to build understanding of their physical environment.  I kind of knew that, but I am such a verbal person by my wiring that I tend to forget that.  The power of being able to show people graphics – and revise them on the fly – I think does get through a lot of the mental barriers that people encounter when they try to think about what a different future would look like for their community. Most of us only have whatever stock of mental images we have in our heads, and that sense of unknown is probably a big part of what we often tag as recalcitrant NIMBY-ism.  Perhaps it’s not NIMBY, it’s frustration at lack of vocabulary.


  • BUT, showing people pictures isn’t enough.  The planner/designer has to be like a good teacher — part guide, part leader, part collaborator.  The team that worked the charrette process in Cincinnati (largely consisting of Opticos and Urban Design Associates staff) seemed to me to honor and value the eye-to-eye feedback they got from the community members.  That’s also a humongous part of the reason why a citywide form-based code passed in what’s historically a pretty cautious community. The people of the communities understood what the code was doing – it wasn’t done to them, it was done with them.  Based on about a million other proposals that I have seen choke and die once they get out of the designer’s hands, both in Cincinnati and elsewhere, that real collaboration is probably the single most important reason why this project actually came to life and is being used.   We the professionals (of whatever stripe) forget that way too easily, and get caught up in the castles we built in the air.  If the people who have to live in those castles don’t come to own the castle themselves, you have wasted your time.  And they will not buy it based on your illustrious resume or your assertions that it will all be lovely.  That might have worked 40 years ago, when both professionals and communities were more naive, but not you’re dealing with people and places who have probably been burned more than once.  And as every person becomes their own potential publishing platform, your ability to snow them withers fast. That didn’t happen in Cincinnati on this project, because people didn’t feel like they were being snowed, but the speed and vehemence with which people can push back if they feel they’re being talked down to — and the number of people they can reach overnight –continues to amaze me.  I’ve seen that kind of backlash across different geographies, demographics and education/income levels, and it seems like it gets more intense every time.  So there’s really no rational reason to think you can get away with pushing your project over on them.  If that had happened in Cincinnati on the form-based code, I assure you that you would have never heard about it again.


  • Gaining the trust and collaboration of the community is more about soft skills than hard skills.  The guys who could draw the best technically weren’t necessarily the best charrette managers.  The design professionals who empathized with the residents, probed honestly, explored transparently, and explained patiently…those were the ones where you could see the energy flowing through the whole group working together.  And those were the groups whose communities are moving forward today.


  • People get economics.  And economics matter a hell of a lot to their willingness to take risks with their community.  One of the things that surprised me when my team first came on the form based code part of the job was that the lead firm had already lined up two economic development specialists.  I will admit now that my nose got just a skotch out of joint — like a kid saying “Hey! I can play in that sandbox too!!!”  But being in the public engagement/ PR role gave me a chance to watch the interactions in a way that I probably couldn’t if I were doing that part.  And what I saw was that Ed Starkie of Urban Advisors and Kathleen Norris of Urban Fast Forward were able to connect with the residents, through logic and data and through stories, and help them understand and articulate the latent potential of the places.  They were able to give these folks a very practicable, take-to-the-bank counter to the negative press, the narrative of disinvestment that had come to tag their communities.  And even though many of them sensed, sort of knew intuitively that the bleak picture wasn’t accurate, they didn’t have the tools, the rational foundation, to give them a basis for pushing ahead, and pushing back on the doubters.  That’s a crucial element — and I came to the conclusion that giving people this sort of mental re-framing turned out to be every bit as important as deciding how tall buildings should be and what kinds of porches fit the environment.  Designers, understandably, don’t always get the importance of community economics.  But in this case, paying close attention to how the designs might interplay with the community’s economies gave residents and political representatives the intellectual foundation to be able to support potentially risky proposals.  And again, if that happened, you would be reading something else now.

So my deep thanks again to the City of Cincinnati and to my friends and partners on the consulting team for this great experience.  And thanks to the more than 700 people who turned out to get their hands into this process.  Y’all did good.

The slide. We knew the project was getting an award, but we didn’t know it was getting one of the big kahunas.


Am I full of it? Explaining a new (old) consulting service

I had to write some new text today explaining how I do public engagement — in the consulting world, we call this “boilerplate” because they’re the pieces of general information that you can drop in when you need to and supplement with more specific details.  As I was going through this, I ended up inventing a sort of brand name or catchphrase for how I do this, since “get people-together-and-help-them-make-the-decisions-directly” got pretty tiring to type over and over again.

So I’m not wedded to StratSet (and it may indicate that I’ve been hanging out with the tech guys too much), but I think the description is on task.  At least, if it says to the rest of the world what it says inside my own head, then I think it describes how I do strategic planning and public engagement pretty accurately.  Problem is, though, I’m kinda stuck inside this thing…

Would you be willing to take a read through this and tell me what you think?  Does it make sense?  Does it sound like something that might be beneficial?  And while I don’t want you to obsess over it, does the StratSet name work?

I’ll be watching the comment box below eagerly… and hopefully.  Thanks.

Decisions that Matter, Decisions that Hold: the Wise Economy Workshop StratSet  Method

Governments and nonprofits need to make good plans, but they also need to do something much harder: they need to set strategies that can survive.  With crunched budgets, stretched staff, competing demands and more and more voices in the discussion, a plan’s decisions have to not only make sense, they have to earn the ownership of more people and more partners than ever before.

But conventional methods of plan development and public engagement around plans doesn’t do this well.  Here’s the first issue: we limit the real decision-making to just a handful of insiders, and we gingerly reach out to anyone else, asking for their “feedback” or their “ideas” or their support.”  By doing that, we have cut our planning efforts off at the knees.  Lots of people care about our community, and they want to do more.  And many of them have the power, the resources, or the connections to help the plan’s recommendations happen – or prevent them.  But they know when they’re not being offered a seat at the table, and if you exclude them, they’re naturally not going to participate.  When you need it, they’re not going to help you.  And they may fight you instead.

Similarly, the way we conventionally make plan decisions with our insiders doesn’t do much to build a personal or professional stake in the outcomes – the kind of ownership needed if people are going to stand up for the plan during a debate over the funding it needs, or advocate for your Big Ideas to the rest of the community.  We make it far too easy for even our insiders to play nice, to let us interpret their silence as support.  No wonder we are so often surprised when those insiders who served on the steering committee, who supposedly “supported” the plan, are nowhere in sight when we need them.

The Wise Economy Workshop StratSet method pulls from the best teaching and team-leading tactics to turn plan-making into a powerful launchpad into the community’s future.  StratSet methods create a clear set of shared, prioritized actions that come from the collective work of everyone we can bring to the table.  But that doesn’t means it’s a free-for-all or a parade of impossible ideas.  Instead, the StratSet method uses carefully-designed activities and shared group objectives to channel the participants.  The StratSet method enables them to understand real constraints, develop real-world solutions, and create them in collaboration with people they have never met.

No more showboating, no more grandstanding in public meetings.  No more “public feedback” that has nothing to do with reality.  No more plans that become unusable because no one truly supported the recommendations enough to take a stand.  No more claims of “that was their idea,” “they didn’t really listen to us,”  “The whole thing was a waste of time.”  Instead, StratSet builds a prioritized plan of action that everyone owns.  Your community and political leaders can trace how it was developed, understand the choices and their reasons, and see the range of support behind the recommendations.  And the people who worked on it will be more likely to support the hard decisions that a meaningful plan will create.

We can all do better, together.

How does the StratSet method work?

Economics matter.

People understand that economic issues are some of the biggest factors in the long-term viability of a community — and that even supposedly non-economic issues, like parks or internal operations, have big economic implications.   StratSet draws out the economic implications of the issues that are driving the plan through carefully-selected information sharing and group evaluation.  This gives participants a deep understanding of the importance of the issues that they will be working on, and gives them an immediate reason to stay at the table in the face of all the other demands on their time.

The Participants make (and own) the plan.

When professionals or a Star Chamber of insiders are allowed to make the plan decisions alone, the plan probably won’t do what it was intended to do – make the community better.  Plans need more than good ideas; they need support. Broad support, committed support.  The kind of support that you will only give when you have deep personal, intellectual and emotional ownership of the recommendation.  With so many competing demands and so few resources, only the recommendations that have these kinds of supporters are going to come to life.  Since Stratset participants grapple with the issues and evaluate the options themselves, they understand the potential of those recommendations better than you will ever convey in a written plan.  And that’s a powerful ownership that will make the difference in whether your recommendations get set in action or sit on a shelf.


Part of the reason why planners fear involving the public is because we’ve all been through too many useless free-for-alls or wild imagination sessions.  No one wants to be part of that kind of public engagement – not the planners, not the residents, not the elected officials.  In trying to give everyone a chance, we end up hearing from only a few, and no one gets anything beneficial out of it.

StratSet draws on a method that school teachers use to enable students to work together to build a rich understanding of complex issues.  Cooperative small group methods have been used for over 30 years in classrooms ranging from pre-K to graduate school, leveraging a mix of small working groups, group operating norms and structured sets of activities to guide participants through the process of working together, learning together, and developing well-informed, intelligent results together.  And after more than 10 years of using collaborative small group methods across the country, the difference in the quality and support that these plans generate is unmistakeable.  Just like water needs to run through a channel to power a turbine, channeling the hopes and ideas of people through a collaborative small group process gives us access to a powerful way to make smart and meaningful plan decisions.

Setting Priorities: Systematic, Transparent, Fair, Useful

Plans that don’t establish priorities don’t get anything useful done, but we often avoid setting priorities because we don’t want to offend someone.  But in an age where demands far exceed money and time, we don’t have that choice anymore.  StratSet methods make the process of setting priorities clear and transparent to everyone.  It does this by using participant-led systematic activities to guide people through the process of evaluating the choices and impacts, and by showing transparently how those priorities were made – not only for the participants, but for anyone else who wants to know in the future.  People might not personally agree with everything, but when you can see how the group made the decision, it’s hard to argue against it.






Audio: Open Data, Apps and Planning (APA 2014)

In my post of the videos from the Open Data, Apps and Planning session that I moderated at the American Planning Association national conference last week, I promised that I would post audio of the whole thing for those of you who are particularly gluttons.  You’ll find that audio at the end of this post.


But there’s an additional bennie: We had several excellent questions and answers in the second part of the session, and these are not captured in the videos. So if you haven’t watch the videos (or if my mad camera skills made you motion sick…), you might find it useful to listen to the whole thing. If you did, I’d recommend that you advance the audio to the 45:00 mark — you’ll hear some great insights that you won’t get from the videos. And no erratic zooming, either.

Here’s a few of the insights you’ll gain from the audio:

  • Planners tend to make a few basic mistakes in setting up public engagement.  One of them is that they forget that many people won’t read maps the way the planners intended.  Brad Barnett of PlaceMatters made a comment in his opening comments about the need to take a “layered” approach to helping people learn about the issues that planners want them to address played out in several people’s descriptions of using maps in public engagement: if you simply give people a big map and expect them to pull out big themes or trends, chances are many people won’t know how to do that — instead, they’ll go looking for their house.  That’s not where we wanted them to start, but that’s where they can find an anchor, a place to explore the map from.  No wonder they so often get obsessed over the parcel level – we didn’t help them start anywhere else.


  • Frank Hebbert of OpenPlans noted that planners have a “blind spot” when it comes to grasping the power and then game-changing potential of open data, since they already know how to find the information they want.  But that’s an over-simplified view of how communities work — and it overlooks what a powerful partner residents can be if they can get to the same information on their terms.


  • The tension between controlling participation and data and keeping it open seems to represent an ongoing issue.  Michelle Lee of Textizen noted that they think making data available to everyone is so important that they actually give a discount to communities that commit to keeping Textizen data open to everyone.  And Frank said that one of the first things they usually have to work through with planners is how open a process they should use.  Frank said that the planners usually want controlled access and sign-ins, Frank usually pushes back against that, and the planners and officials usually end up very happy with the amount and quality of feedback they get, even when they don’t exactly know where every comment came from. 


  • Sometimes people assume that there’s an either-or relationship between online and in-person engagement.  Once you’ve listened to these folks, you should realize that it’s not — online engagement is part of the continuum, just another set of tools for getting to the same big objectives.  Whether you buy a shirt in a store or on a web site, you still end up with a shirt, right? And even the most diehard techies still go to stores.  Similarly, online and in-person engagement are just different ways to enable people to participate.


  • Finally, Alicia Roualt of LocalData said that she thinks one of the biggest needs in this space right now is some guidance for people to help them identify which of the dozens of online tools best fits their community’s needs and their work’s objectives.  Having tried to get my head around the range and variety of platforms and apps through my white paper, I probably know as well as anyone how important, and how difficult, that is.  And I’m continuing to try to figure out how to do that.  If you have any bright ideas or want to be part of developing that solution, please let me know.

My deep thanks again to Alicia, Brad, Frank and Michelle for their great insights and willingness to schlep to Atlanta.  I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation with these bright minds sometime soon.

The Near Future of Open Data, Apps and Planning

I had the great pleasure and fun of moderating a great session at the American Planning Conference in Atlanta earlier this week.  The session was called “Open Data, Apps and Planning, and it featured four of the brightest minds in the field.  So I could introduce them, sit back and shoot some video of their comments, which you’ll find below.

Here’s a few of the bright insights that came out of this session (in a very, very dark room…)

  • We’re starting to realize the critical importance of not just creating an online widget thing, but making sure that it’s designed and presented in a way that makes it usable and accessible to the general public.  That sounds self-evident, but there’s a lot of online tools out there that only make sense to you if you’re an insider (for example, the person who designed the thing).  The importance of what tech people call the User Experience (UX) came through in comments from Brad Barnett, Director of the Decision Lab at PlaceMatters, who noted that we have to start designing for “layered learning” — the realization that people need to be able to start at an accessible place, such as a high-level overview or an issue that’s directly relevant to them, so that they can get a mental toehold, look around and understand their options for proceeding.  Think about how that differs from some of the things we often do, such as provide an online map with a lot of parcels and layers and other data.  No wonder people start looking immediately for their house — we haven’t given them a toehold or an orientation, so they go in search of one.


  • Just putting the thing out there is no where near enough, which is something we should have learned after decades of making jokes about legal notices.  Frank Hebbert of OpenPlans notes that “how will you promote the tool?” is one of the first questions they ask new clients — if you’re not going to promote it adequately to the people who need to know about it and use it, you’ve wasted your effort.  Similar to the issue raised in the previous bullet, this is such a critical element of effective public engagement — of this type or any type — that we really, simply, just have to do it.  We just do.  I don’t know why we’re so often reluctant to effectively promote our public engagement opportunities — whether we just don’t know, or we think that’s somehow too “commercial” an action for a civic event, or what.  But the fact of the matter is that we have to.


  • Several of the speakers demonstrated that use of technology-enabled tools and open data isn’t just a cool thing: propertly designed and enabled, open data and online tools allow residents to directly impact the things that they need — the things that make a community better.  Michelle Lee of Textizen told the story of how newly-integrated parcel and tax data was used to overcome an old assumption that chasing delinquent taxes would cost the city more than they would get — a realization that allowed the city to capture more of the tax money they had been missing, and lessen the burden on everyone else.  Frank also told a powerful story about a neighborhood in New York that responded to children being hit by vehicles to crowdsource a map of places where people felt unsafe — and then shared that map with local police officials to help them target speed enforcement.


  • Michelle also encapsulated the important relationship between open data and apps better than anyone I have ever heard: she described the need for apps to function as the “ViewMaster” for open data, which in
    View Master and photo discs

    the form that we get it is usually unusable to anyone except for the hard-code coder.  As she put it, “the data is like the disc with the photos on it.  You can hold it up to the light or throw it at your brother, but unless you put it in the ViewMaster, you can’t really benefit from it.”   And most importantly, when we can see the data through the ViewMaster, we can use it to create a meaningful outcome that will last.  This is one of the issues that I think the open data movement has struggled a little bit with so far, but all four presenters were able to clearly demonstrate the power that open data, combined with a good user interface app, can create.


  • Along the same lines, Alicia Roualt of LocalData very articulately noted that communities can actually use data to bridge between governments and citizens.  In describing LocalData’s work with blight surveying in Detroit, she pointed out that the on-the-ground surveying was done by people who live in the community using an app on a phone or tablet, and that the data in the main project databases and maps was updated in real time.  This allowed both staff and advocates trying to deal with the messy, multi-moving-piece, often immediate issues of the city’s vacant and abandoned buildings to understand the situation with the highest level of accuracy possible.

Videos of each presentation are embedded below.  By sheer dumb luck, this session was followed by another conversation about the larger issues of technology in planning.  Stay tuned for some selections from that.

Spring/Summer speaking gigs added!

The Wise Economy Workshop Tour of Schlepping Around A Lot of Places is underway… and the house already looks like a cyclone hit it.  Perhaps by June someone else will learn to put the bowls in the dishwasher.  A girl can hope….

If you’re near one of these locations and you’d be interested in a hosting me for a presentation or a training, let me know and I’ll waive the travel expenses.

  • May 10, I will be back in Middlesboro, Kentucky for Better Block Part Deux, exploring how a small city can use a comprehensive, resilience-focused approach to community development to build a strong local economy — in a place where a strong economy has long been elusive.  I had a visit with Middlesboro last fall (you can learn a little about that here and here), and I’m looking forward to seeing more good stuff take hold here.
  • May 15, I will be keynoting the Clermont County Township Association’s annual dinner.  I’m talking about the challenges of doing meaningful public engagement, and how we can change how we involve the public to make it better for everyone involved.

Managing a contentious public meeting requires a sophisticated set of tools to keep potential conflicts under control and to make sure that everyone gets a fair chance to speak up. It also requires knowing when to use those tools and how to do it in a way that makes all participants feel that their involvement matters. This session will explore various group management techniques used by successful facilitators to foster fair participation, lessen the likelihood of confrontational or counter-productive behavior, defuse conflict, and more. Participants will gain experience in using specific tactics through role-playing scenarios with fellow peers and colleagues.

This will be the third time I have done this session — which gets the participants out of their chairs and taking on roles like their favorite local crab and the dude who just wants to hear himself talk.  And gives them ways to manage that in conventional public meetings, and ways to restructure public meetings so that you don’t need to do that!  I’m looking forward to this — it’s not like Main Street people are shrinking violets anyways, so this should be something to see!

Ignite has become a fixture at IEDC’s recent conferences, but never has it been tried like this. In two separate Ignite-style panels, attendees will witness a succession of five minute, rapid-fire, get-to-the-point presentations, with time built in for speakers to answers questions on stage after they’re all done.

Ignite Presentation Sessions: The Power of Ideas: A brave new economic development idea. A twist in how people consider their roles within the profession. From new ways of thinking about impact to new functions for economic developers within their communities, these presentations are about dreaming big.

No idea what I’ve gotten myself into here, but it should be interesting!

  • June 17, I am leading a book discussion around the Local Economy Revolution  in Xenia, Ohio.  This is a test run for a discussion series I’m considering doing this fall.  Stay tuned!


  • July 23, I’ll be giving a webinar for Lorman on strategies that local governments can use to support small businesses.  That one hasn’t been formally put on the registration schedule yet, but I’ll let you know when it is.


  • August 21, I’ll be giving a keynote for the Michigan Economic Developer’s Association Annual Meeting on Sea Changes, partnerships and streamlining.  That one also hasn’t been formally announced yet, but I will let you know as soon as it is.


  • September 12-14, I’ll be doing something with regard to the new Strong Towns annual event in Minnesota.  More to come.


  • Somewhere between September 19 and 21, I’ll be leading a session on public engagement technology at a new and very cool-sounding event in Columbus, Ohio.  More on that when details are available.


  • October 9, I am speaking at the Ohio CDC Association Annual Conference in Columbus.



And here’s a few recent ones:

  • April 25, I did a training for the Greater Dayton RTA on managing public meetings and using collaborative small-group methods to get better public involvement.  It wasa great chance to learn more about the world of transit — and try out the training that I’ll use at the National Main Street Conference in a very different context!


  • April 28, I moderated a panel called Open Data, Apps and Planning” at the American Planning Association national conference in Atlanta, GA.  This session includes four amazing panelists, including the CEO of LocalData and Textizen, the director of the Decision Lab at PlaceMatters, and the Director of OpenPlans.  That was a fascinating examination of the bleeding edge of technology and public engagement in planning, and the speakers were fabulous.  I’ve got video and audio to share, so be sure to check out these links.

There’s  several others floating around, so if you’re thinking about a speaker for your summer or fall events, please let me know soon.  Thanks!

New Book: Why This Work Matters launched!

I am delighted to be able to share a very important and beautiful new book with you — important and beautiful because it comes from people like you. 

Why This Work Matters was envisioned as a way of encouraging people who do the hard work of running and improving our communities.  My goal with this book was to give you a portable, on-demand shot of that encouragement, sympathy, and reinforcement that you might try to get from your professional peers… if you have people around you who understand what you’re facing.  I know that not everyone who does your work has that.  And it’s also a way to start changing the too-common popular perception of government employees, and showcase the dedication and determination that doesn’t show up in the popular press.

In Why This Work Matters, I asked 11 community professionals to reflect on why they keep doing the hard work that they do — and what they think about or call upon when they get frustrated, when they want to give up.  These folks come from all over the United States, they work in everything from local nonprofits to federal agencies, and they do urban planning, community development, government administration, downtown revitalization and a lot of other things.

These reflections are written in some of the most personal, heartfelt voices you have probably ever encountered in writing about work, and the honesty, the power of what they wrote continues to amaze me.  As editor, I did my best to polish up their gems, but the beauty of the raw materials is the real power of this book.

You can learn more about it at  You can also buy the book for e-reader or print, and you can read selections from the book and link to the authors there as well.

I’m really proud of this book, and I’m really proud of these authors.  Some are experienced bloggers, but for others, this was their first experience in writing anything other than a zoning report.

I think you’ll find them unforgettable.  Kind of like you.




Updated White Paper on Online Public Engagement Platforms

Sometimes you create something that you just can’t kill….

Over a year ago I did my last update to a white paper summarizing online public engagement platforms that I had been updating through most of 2012.  I stopped doing it for a variety of reasons — there were a whole lot more platforms than I knew of when I started, it was starting to get very messy figuring out what should be included and what shouldn’t, and while it seemed to be of some benefit, I was always worried about not giving the right information, or writing something that is incomplete or inaccurate.  And trying to do all that research and keep it up to date was, to be honest, a real pain in the butt.

But a couple of weeks ago I was contacted by a person who was writing an article about online public engagement for a magazine.  And she wanted to cite the white paper.

So I’ve done a quick update to it.  If you want it, you can get it below.

Two — nope, four caveats:

1) If you know of a commercially-available platform that help people engage with their community’s decision-making, and it’snot on here, please let me know.  There are a couple, like Nationbuilder, that I purposely left off this one because I didn’t feel like it fit my internal definition, but my internal definition of what belongs in here…well, it’s squishy, to say the least.

2) If you’re favorite platform (or God forbid, your platform), isn’t on here….I’m sorry.  Don’t hit me.  I doesn’t mean I don’t love you.  It does mean that I don’t have infinite time for this.  But do please let me know.

3) If your platform is on here and something is wrong our out of date, please let me know.  I don’t want every technical detail — you people put out new iterations so fast I’ll never keep up — but if there’s been a big change in functionality, pricing, etc. please let me know.

4) I’m looking for a better (read: less onerous) way to make this information available to the public, since there seems to be some demand for it.  If you have some bright ideas along that line, definitely do let me know.


Online Engagement Platforms White Paper



Field Notes: Downtown Project, Las Vegas

Note: for regular readers of the Wise Economy Workshop, the following is going to look like…

well, a rambling mess.  

The purpose of Field Notes is to be able to put out some early observations about a community or orgainzation that is doing something interesting and new in the world of community revitalization, but to do it at an early stage where you can be part of the conversation (and while I’m still at the point where I haven’t figured out what I’m saying yet…)

If your dedicated enough to find this and slog through it, you’re definitely someone whose opinion I want to hear.  I know you will probably have lots of unanswered questions, but…

  • what looks interesting or intriguing to you?
  • what sounds crazy?
  • what just plain ‘ole doesn’t make sense?
  • what else would you want to know?

These are always a little bit of an experiment, so who knows what will happen next.  But as you will be able to tell, I’ve been looking very closely at what the Downtown Project is doing, and there’s something — really, a lot of somethings — here that I think we could all learn some very valuable lessons from.  And I think they’re showing us a new way to do this work — one that probably makes more sense with the sea changes going on in the world than the way we have been approaching community revitailization.  But at this point, I am mostly checking my understanding and my early interpretations.

If you don’t know what I am talking about, you might start by browsing through

So, I’d love it if you’d leave your comments below.  If you want to say something to me that you don’t want to go all public, however, please feel free to send me an email at

Also, for truth in advertising, I made some revisions to this on March 21 – partly to make sure I caught some things from a conversation that I had neglected to include in the first version, and partly to include a few observations from a conversation I had after this was initially written…. well, perhaps I should say regurgitated.  And then I went back and tried to start organizing around some broad themes, which may have helped or may have made it more confusing to anyone not inside my head.  There’s still a pretty good mess going on here — I mean my writing, not the project.  

Per my usual habits, my commentary is in brackets [.]  Well, at least some of it, since this is partly notes on things people told me and partly my ruminations.  My old journalism professors would be unhappy.  But I dropped out of journalism school, so who cares…

Thanks.  You’re awesome.  Enjoy.


Field Notes From Downtown Project Las Vegas



“we think of what we are doing here as increasing efficiency, productivity, happiness.”

There’s an emerging awareness: in larger companies, as you grow, how do you stay innovative?  One important way is to seek innovation from the outside. Emphasis on working with and integrating with a wide variety of people.  In a sense, vision is to apply that to a city.

[That certainly jives with the strategy I’ve seen Procter & Gamble and other big corps using.  But I think it’s critical not to forget how much that upends conventional bureaucracy and hierarchy — it’s been hard enough for companies to make that shift.  For community-based initiatives, with at least some who have interest in stability….interesting perspective to consider why this kind of collaboration becomes so hard]

Downtown Project is really a start up itself.  There was no way to really exactly know how to do this [that’s refreshing, given all the supposed experts who claim that they do!].  So the mandate was always Go, Go and Figure it Out — figure it out while you are doing it.  That implies an assumption of iteration, an expectation that some things will not work out as planned or outright fail.

 Goal of DP as articulated by city ED staff: try to get 10,000 additional people to live and work in downtown in the next 5 years. 

The concept of organizing around collisions takes what we have heard from people like Glaser and Jacobs to a new level. Instead of passively assuming that the power of a city is in some inherent, natural ability to foster connections, DTLV seems to be purposely designing the spaces and the experiences to generate interactions.  And I think it’s important that attention is being given to the physical spaces and to the events, like the Speaker’s Series.  A lot of downtown organizations do special events, but they’re usually designed to attract attention, not to build internal capacity/collisions.

Organization, strategy, culture

Observation of what’s unique about DP: “It’s not operating as a closed system.”


This basic decentralized model seems to drive the whole range of activities.  At least some of the space improvements have been driven by people—e.g., the dog park.  Process as described: someone says “we need X.”  Community, including Tech leadership, takes the fact that a person raised that idea as an indicator that it’s worth pursuing (a lot of trust in the people on the street!).  Person with idea is encouraged to go do it.  Person with idea gets as far as they can with it on their own resources, comes back to the DTLV organization when they have hit the limit of how far they can go and lays out what is needed to complete.  Then, only then, DTLV helps. As it was described to me: you get as far as you can with what you can muster and then get help to get over barriers… “I need a check for X in order for this thing that’s going to be good for the community to happen.”  People are expected, it seems to take the initiative to make the place better.  Italics are my emphasis.  People are expected to take the initiative!


Compare that to how communities usually do physical improvement projects….that’s a massive, revolutionary, almost inverted model compared to what we usually do.  It implies that the person on the street is just as likely to know the right answer as the leadership, and that’s a huge leap of faith. It implies that everyday people can and should take that initiative.  It implies that trying and risking failure is OK, and that a messy, maybe fumbling, maybe disorganized start as the people who want to do it try to figure it out, is OK.


Part of me thinks this should be applicable anywhere, but I also wonder a little bit what happens when you try a model like this in a more dense environment, where the experimenting and fumbling, at least with some activities, could have a much more direct impact on other people.  Part of what might make that a little easier here is that there is a lot of open space – vacant apartments to shoot the podcast in, vacant lots to figure out how to do a dog park without causing chaos for the house next door.

Tech funds select projects based on peer assessment of compatibility.  Firms being considered spend time with others who are already in the system so that its peers can determine whether the potential founder is “compatible.”  For the Tech Fund, that is putting a lot of faith in the feedback of people to whom your ties, at least conventionally, are relatively tenuous (of course they are getting funding from you…but a fund like this does not imply a long-term relationship.  It’s not like the conventional employee relationship).

There’s high emphasis on very intensive seeking of collisions. High emphasis on being engaged part of the community – for Tech Fund people, clearly being part of that community, but there seems to be an intent to at least blur those boundaries as much as possible.  I wonder how the social pressure to do that falls out – there’s clearly a strong internal set of norms around that.  How much do the people who are not funded by the Tech Fund or are not seeking funding buy into that?  The funding element definitely puts a different angle on it compared to the conventional community-building strategies.  It’s an intensification of the conventional culture building method.  Was that part of the intent?

Person from Tech Fund business said that funded businesses were not obligated to locate in DTLV, but that they did so from being convinced of the value of the environment and the network.  He described it as being a vision that was laid out to them that they decided that they wanted to be a part of.  It was an invitation, not a requirement.  If that’s true, that’s a powerful testimony.

At this point, about half of the companies in the ecosystem are not connected to the Tech Fund—they just came. Some are probably trying to get in position to get Tech Fund funding in the future, but some, like the woman working on the real estate thing, aren’t.  And I met at least a couple of guys who were sort of freelancers, who could live anywhere but chose to come here, even though they aren’t formally associated with one of the businesses.  That sounded like a very new development.  Is it just going where you think the jobs will be?  Is it some kind of cachet?  Or is it attracting the people who understand and want the environment that is being built?

Cultural difference implied by the hug vs the handshake…you never get hugged by a person you’ve just met back east.

Still amazing how strongly they cite the Speaker Series as this collision creator.  The new ideas cross fertilization.  Interesting that the low tech approach is so effective in this context.

Activities, Programs, Events

There is a lot going on here.  The sheer number of specific programs, initiatives, activities, going on far outstrips any other downtown I know of.  And if you look at it from the entry point of those activities, you see pretty quickly that they’re connected, aligned somehow, but they’re not coming from a central source.  Different things have different leaders and participants, not all of whom are formally obligated to be doing what they’re doing in the traditional sense (for example, the podcast).

“Companies” within the project [I’m not sure if they’re officially established as conventional separate corporations or if they’re sort of subsidiaries or departments]:

Gold Spike [former casino, gathering space and restaurant].

Bunk House [temporary visitor lodging; is this the upstairs of the Gold Spike?]

Mixed Use [I don’t know what this means in my notes]

Container Park


Also communication team — “People Ops” and construction management

Around this group — sort of the nucleus — are the companies that the TechFund etc. have invested in.   And there are an increasing number of new people coming in as well.


Connecting to the rest of the city

There seems to be a priority on building that web of connections beyond the tech community.  Based on the information that goes out from the Ticker and the Downtownzen magazine, there’s a lot of performers and musicians and artists who seem to be pulling into this.

Note importance in approach of restaurants and coffee shops — building and engaging community.  Gives people a reason to come downtown.  Also note the fact that young families come downtown because of the Container Park — a “sea change” in how residents view Downtown!  [Note that this observation came from DTLV staff!]

Relationships with other parts of the Vegas community: Bridge-building with the arts community, which is about a mile away.  There was an initial sense of competition or overshadowing, but there’s been work on building bridges.  DTLV took over the First Friday event from the people operating it [not clear if that was a person or an organization] because they didn’t have capacity to keep it running.

It’s been easier for DTLV to connect to younger [assuming non-tech embedded] young people  “seems natural.”

As a whole, this is definitely a town that has come recently to a pretty sharp awareness of its own history.  There’s a marketing sensibility that perhaps people here might pick up on more intuitively, so perhaps it’s simply a matter of pragmatically realizing what they’ve got to work with.  But it seems like a very different sense of itself than during the era when things were imploded without concern.

Relationship with other organizations and government

Trying to convince the community that they are not taking over!  Hence shifting focus to connectedness and collisions, and away from “community.”  [They were hitting that old problem of everyone thinks they know what the “community” is and what the “community” needs, but they’re all actually looking at different communities within the space.]

Staff noted that people started coming to them “like we were government.” [Given pressures on the local government in recent years and the length of time where there’s been this lack of investment in the downtown area, that’s not surprising.  Happens a lot, even when it’s not widely know that an organization has money.] Staff noted that the City has been a great partner [not a funding partner, of course — no public funds in any of this.  Wonder how that changes the actual work and choices…].  City has been willing to learn and change.  When started the Container Park, zoning wasn’t anything near what was needed.  Worked through all the waivers and variances… joke was that is was “waiver world”  [The fact that a City was even willing to take this on, and didn’t just shut it down with no’s, says something very profound..]

City identifies its econ dev strategy as “young tech” firms — past the VC stage, in need of an environment where they can access talent [flexibly and efficiently]

City treats parking as an economic development service, not an a utility.  Effort to increase willing payers and decrease citations.  [interesting angle on it — not sure how /if it fits in with the rest, but interesting insight and a potential good idea for elsewhere.]

Emerging issues:

  • Lack of empty building inventory [especially building types that can be readily adapted to white collar tech].  Mostly not there, but City concerned with marking sure new development occurs at the right scale.
  • Current downtown-convenient housing = mostly “inner ring single family neighborhoods.” Conventional western city scale.  Much old [meaning, in that awkward age between not new and not old enough to be charming.  Also, since most of it is post-1930, my guess would be that quality of construction/materials may make revitalization harder.] Need for urban infill and rental at different price points.
  • Transit [discussed Cleveland BRT]
  • Higher education: UNLV not downtown, not dowtown higher education presence yet, UNLV “aspires” to be a Tier 1 research institution.

But what happens when the rest of the city catches on, when they want it to be “their” downtown too?  My guess would be right now that most City residents don’t go near downtown unless they work there.  Which is the case in lots of towns.  But is there a risk that this downtown approach makes downtown a district for one subset of the population — more like a district than the idealized downtown?  Certainly the Container Park sort of pushes against that with its inclusiveness of children, but what happens if you don’t look like the rest of the clientele?  Is a lower income African American family going to feel welcome going in there?

It’s not technically a public space.

But in a downtown that maybe hasn’t had that idealized “downtown” since before World War II, is that actually a loss?  Or is it a loss that anyone will care about?  Or is it just another piece of the mosaic, fitting one niche, like Eastern Avenue or Chinatown fit their niches?

There is a certain irony in the fact that the critical (and rather vacuous) general media coverage lately (the  Las Vegas Sun article and the  LA Times article) both cast everything in the same molds that I’ve heard in the Downtown PushMe-PullYou in I think every town I have ever encountered.  Everyone bemoans what poor shape downtown is in, New Guard comes in and starts making change, old-timers protest about being pushed out.  New Guard is the hero of one side and the demon of the other.  It’s Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine, Cleveland’s Euclid corridor, Pittsburgh’s south side, Chicago, Louisville, Boston, etc. etc. etc. over again.  In terms of the complaints in the articles, they could have been talking about 3CDC, or the Gateway, or any of a thousand other urban revitalization projects in a hundred cities.

The really strange thing here is that the coverage to date (at least those two articles) has been so intensively personality-driven – completely insisting on a Puppeteer somehow pulling every string.  Usually the spin is that there’s some cabal of somewhat shadowy figures who are supposedly pulling all the strings.  But it doesn’t take long, actually paying attention to what’s going on on the ground in DTLV, for that story line to come apart.  This is the most non-Big Money Guy Forcing Everyone To Do What He Wants revitalization in a city of this size that I have ever seen.  The level of decentralization – the acting out of, really, the basic principles of holocracy in a community environment – that I think is what actually sets this apart.  For DTLV, money buys speed of change,  but not all that much control.  Compare that to most places – most efforts spend the bulk of their money on controlling and molding the environment into what they want. Midtown Detroit is probably Exhibit A.  There is stunningly little master-planned activity, seemingly of any type, going on in DTLV.

What is going to mean to the regular (non Zappos) residents?  Does it remain just a little foreign thing that they’ve heard about?  Does it change the perception of career choices for kids?

As a whole, this is definitely a town that has come recently to a pretty sharp awareness of its own history.  There’s a marketing sensibility that perhaps people here might pick up on more intuitively, so perhaps it’s simply a matter of pragmatically realizing what they’ve got to work with.  But it seems like a very different sense of itself than during the era when things were imploded without concern.

The big question for Hsieh himself, I think, is what’s going to happen when he finds himself in Gilbert’s shoes.  There’s no one else in this town to do that — not the Wynns or any other old guard—there’s been a definite community leadership vacuum, and Hsieh is about to find himself thrust into that whether he’s ready or not.  Gilbert in Detroit took that on willingly – he was ready to step into the void, probably because he was tired of the downward spiral and had the conventional CEO type mind set of making it happen.  I think there’s a very different model between these two.  And Hsieh is clearly more at the beginning phases, and in some respects working in a less ossified, less clearly formed environment.  But there will be a cry out here for broader help – so much vacancy, so little educational attainment, etc.  It already appears to be happening around broader downtown things – the water fountain story being a key example.  At least that part of the community has moved to that phase pretty fast.    What happens when he gets dragged into a citywide initiative?

His little bet, light-touch, community-led and community-enabling strategy might work.  It will probably not look real glossy, but it might work.

Physical Spaces

The treatment of physical spaces is fascinating to me.  All kinds of space treatments, from the offices to the Container Park, generally treated very flexibly, temporary, inexpensively.  There is an implied expectation of flux.  Emphasis seems to be on use and repurposing of temporary spaces – intentional design and construction of Container Park, description of how space is allocated for the Tech Fund businesses, Use and relatively minimal changes to buildings with a different past.  The Gold Spike is fascinating on that point.  It’s cleaned up, but it hasn’t been massively reworked. They didn’t even take down the “Casino” part of the sign, even though there’s no casino activity anymore.  I don’t know if that’s coming from a preservation ethic – I think it’s a very pragmatic, tactical approach to using what’s available, what you can get your hands on and rework quickly.  Remnants of the past remain because there’s no compelling reason to remove them, I guess.

Part of the reason this is happening in Vegas is probably because you can do it so damn cheap.  And cheap, adapted, small, flexible…

Is it because it’s cheap, or because it can be done quickly?

Is the Ogden, Container Park, Gold Spike etc. more about the time value of showing progress, rather than making showplaces?  $350 Mil could build a pretty decent-looking building….

Is rough around the edges, adapted, temporary, small… about facilitating innovation, about not allowing things to get stuck in stone? About maintaining the ability to shift?

Temporary in this context doesn’t mean short-lived.  It means stepping stone.

Pragmatically, I think the provision of little spaces is more critical.  My guess is that the “small” spaces in Ogden are a lot bigger than the ArtBOX half a container.  But that tiny little space, allowing 31 (!) artists to make at least part of a living…that’s a huge impact.  And the fact that they had nowhere else to sell before indicates what a game-changer that is.

Perhaps this is the challenge to city planners: the space isn’t in itself the thing that matters.  The think that matters is how the space enables the people.  Dammit, I’m spouting PPS’s line again.  🙂

In both planning and ED, physical building becomes less and less important (and this at a time when we have so massively overbuilt…).  Flexibility becomes even more so.  And connecting people, enabling collisions, building intellectual capacity seems to become most.  Maybe that’s the real paradigm shift.

Relationship to Vegas reputation/cachet

The placement of this connection/collision-focused model in the context of a place whose reputation is built around the relatively anonymous good time…that’s an interesting contrast.  Impact of Gold Spike –even before I knew that it was actually owned by the Downtown Project, I noticed pretty quickly that it’s the only public space around without slot machines.  Note that D said that the reason isn’t anything against gambling, it’s a desire to preference conversation and interaction.  Which is interesting given that this is a generation for whom video gaming is a fact of life (and Dave thought Caesars reminded him more of Dave & Busters than anything else…or maybe I said that…).  But I’ve also noted with my kids that a large part of video gaming is an intensely social activity.    That’s a sea change, probably even from when we were kids, and it may explain the lack of interest in slot machines.

Do the tech people even play the in person games, or does the social structure frown on that?  Do you lose “Trust points” if someone sees you in a casino?  Keep in mind that a lot of these people are living on Tech Fund money, and that would be seen as frivolous and certainly wasteful or irresponsible. At what point do people start realizing how much potential energy, funding etc. the whole gaming entertainment thing siphons away.  Probably not because right now they are using this environment’s underused resources but drawing markets and talent from other places.


My Other Assorted Rambling Observations

Part of the challenge here is that the folks most closely associated with the Downtown Project are all newcomers.  That may be less of an issue overall in a western city, which has had so many newcomers over the past few years (in an eastern city it would have probably been hard to get this level of traction at all in the face of the often inherent distrust of outsiders).  But one of the other trends that I have been noticing in Vegas is that there is at least a subsection of the community (largely outside of DTLV) that is clearly thinking a lot more and a lot harder about the city’s history, its heritage, its meaning and their relationship to it, than probably would have been the case 30 years ago.  The guy I met at the Mormon Fort site who was telling about how they would come to that hill from the city as a kid… I bet there were few people who were at the age to reminisce like that and had been in the city long enough to have that length of memory 20 or 30 years ago.  Post-2008 Vegas seems to have a much different relationship to its past, more of a sense of self-identity based on its heritage.  So perhaps the city as a whole is starting to develop that characteristic of older cities that we see in lots of eastern revitalization efforts: people who have a long-time stake in the place, who do not relate to change easily because they have internalized something of the place that you’re proposing to change.  God knows that’s a tough challenge… and probably more so in a place where the very act of claiming that heritage, instead of acting sheepish about it or imploding it, has to still feel unfamiliar.

The conventional media is clearly still trying to fit this into the conventional Great Man/Big Money storyline.  And that’s really getting under my skin because there’s clearly so much more going on here.  The tech money is definitely a driver, but it’s a feeder, not leader. There is something profoundly different in how this is being organized, led (or not led), managed, than the kinds of downtown initiatives I have seen over and over again.  I found this insight from a Tech Fund entrepreneur pretty revelatory: the Tech funds select projects based on peer assessment of compatibility.  Firms being considered spend time with others who are already in the system so that its peers can determine whether the potential founder is “compatible.”  For the Tech Fund, that is putting a lot of faith in the feedback of people to whom your ties, at least conventionally, are relatively tenuous (of course they are getting funding from you…but a fund like this does not imply a long-term relationship.  It’s not like the conventional employee relationship).  What is the benefit to the tech fund members?  They clearly take this job seriously – it’s part of the value of the environment and the collisions, I guess.


What the hell are they trying to do here anyways? Build a tech-talent-attracting magnet?  Test out the business organization ideas on building a community?


It seems like there is some synergy developing between the creatives and the tech folks, and that’s probably not surprising.  Ticketcake would be most tied into that of the startups, but Life is Beautiful and etc. are probably part of that too.  LIB isn’t directly connected but clearly allied.  And both tech and artists are all kind of startups, so there is probably at least some sense of kindred spirits.

I think the story from the Tech Fund veteran contains an important kernel of wisdom: he referenced the need for a champion — someone who makes you feel like it’s possible, reinforces, encourages, promises to have your back as you go out and try something.  But then you realize that you didn’t really need that support, that you can do it yourself.  That’s potentially very powerful.  It’s almost an inversion of how we have conventionally handled city leadership and community revitalization.

Is there any connection between this and the educational systems yet?  What potential is there to start growing local talent — especially when so much of the talent that is there holds, in some sense, to the idea of being from a Place so lightly?  They are all from Somewhere Else, and they seem to take the ability to move easily from one town to another for granted.  Is the community they are building among themselves enough to keep them here if something falls down?

Important parts:

Building trust in members -holacracy model

Highly flexible strategy

Catalyst, rather than seed funding (or do-it-all funding)

Small flexible modular scalable spaces

Temporary as stepping stone


Role of leader-encourage enabler.  A little wizard behind the curtain (Oz) in the good way.  You could do it all along

Conscious building of cultural norms

Culture of organization as a niche

Pragmatic approach to using what’s available-money and time.  Existing allows fast adaptation.  Avoid getting stuck.



From Cincinnati’s own Soapbox: Launching the Resilience Revolution

After years and years of reading Soapbox, the excellent online magazine from Issue Media Group, I was delighted to be invited to write a feature article about how the lessons of The Local Economy Revolution can be applied to Cincinnati.  The timing couldn’t be better, either — Cincinnati is on the verge of hiring a new city manager and a new economic development director.  And at the same time, a string of great urban revitalization successes means that enthusiasm around Cincinnati’s assets and potential has never been higher.

My charge in this essay was to outline a high-level directive for where the city’s economic development should focus, and I built most of the piece around the concept of resilience — and the role that Cincinnati’s dozens of neighborhood “downtowns” and hundreds of small businesses can play in building the city’s ability to bounce back.  It’s a strategy that emphasizes the city’s incredible existing assets assets and the power of massively broad-spread mini-revolutions.  But as I noted at the end, it takes the willpower of a city’s leaders and its residents to allow a sea change like this to happen.

Take a look, and check out other Soapbox and Issue Media work while you’re at it.  They do good stuff.

garden with city in background

We’re not all white males: we need more voices in planning and economic development

Last week a colleague of mine publicly took a popular professional publication to task for not having any women (and few non-white males) among their regular contributors. As the editor pointed out, they do have several who have contributed in the past, but they’ve gone quiet. Probably too busy.This morning, then, I run across an essay from one of my favorite writers, Richard Longstreth of the Midwesterner, who introduced me to insurance agent, essayist and former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser of Nebraska. Haunting and beautiful Midwestern -based stories, powerful in their simile and metaphor. What I am always looking for in a writer who deals in the character of a place and its people.

Except for one thing.

He’s a guy.

They’re all guys.

Let me run down the list of some of the current writers/bloggers i follow whose professional interests intersect with mine. I guess you’d call these kind of folks “thought leaders.” I’m not sure what exactly that term means–when someone calls me by that term, I’m never sure how to react. But here’s my go-to list:

Aaron Renn
Richard Longstreth
Chuck Marohn
Otis White
Richard Florida
Nicholas Talib
Philip Auerswald
Umair Hacque.

Note the first names (and for those who are unfamiliar with it, “Umair” is a common male first name in the Urdu language).

Jane Jacobs.  From Wikipedia
Jane Jacobs. From Wikipedia

We hold up Jane Jacobs as this patron saint of urbanism, as this person who re-defined what makes a place work, what makes a place matter, what makes a place worth caring about. But the reason why she did that, why she had the ability to do that, is because she came to the question of what makes a community work from a profoundly different perspective than her male contemporaries.

And a big piece of that difference, although certainly not all, was her gender. She saw, she understood, the community around her in a different and illuminating way, not just because she wasn’t trained as a planner, but-

Because she was a woman.

Claiming that the genetic fact of being female gives you some kind of inherently valuable perspective is admittedly thin ice for skating. On the one hand we assert our intrinsic equality, and on the other hand we end up claiming that we’re different. Even my two sons, raised with a mom who is about as similar to June Cleaver as a Martian, challenge me on that. But they understand, they perceived early on, that something is definitely different over on this side of the chromosome divide.

What part of that difference is genetic? Cultural? Psychological? I sure don’t know. But look at the studies of gender differences in leadership styles, communication methods, collaboration patterns, urban bicycling, perceptions of how safe an urban space is. Mentally chart the divides.

At the end of the day, though, I don’t care what the reason is or why women and other non-white male voices aren’t showing up in planning and economic development and urban thought leadership. I’m not looking for some kind of forced equity for the sake of equity.

What worries me is this: we have to figure out how to make communities work better in this generation. We have to figure out how to untangle this welter of wicked problems that we have inherited, that are robbing the communities that we care about is their life and vitality and resilience and health.

If we only have one set of voices, we’re only going to find one set of solutions. And those could turn out to be just as wrong as the urban renewal damage that Jacobs fought against.

So where are today’s Jane Jacobs’s? Who is going to join the thought leader brigade and give us more perspectives, more information, more ideas on how to make this all work?

Where are they? Are they too busy, too overwhelmed with making a living, too overextended?

Too frightened?
Too intimidated?
Too unconvinced of the value of their own voice?

I don’t know. But I know we need them. Lots more of them.

And frankly, it’s getting lonely out here.

I don’t like to complain, and I generally suck at playing the victim. So I want to ask you for two pieces of help:

1. If you know of any women or non-white males who are writing thoughtfully and insightfully about any of the issues involved with helping communities do better, please leave names, links etc in the comment box below. As much as I love all of the guys I named in that list, I think I need some new reading material.

2. I’d be very interested in your thoughts about what we can do to bring more voice into the community building discussion. You can leave them below or email to me directly, whichever your prefer.

Thank you!

We Need Better Public Engagement in Economic Development, here’s why and how (Podcatalyst)

The good folks at Podcatalyst asked me back recently to do a second interview with them.  This time, host Clay Banks wanted to focus on one element that gets a fair amount of attention in The Local Economy Revolution: why making our local economies work better requires real, meaningful, and broad public participation, and how to do that.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, people who are trying to improve a local economy often tend to rely too much on a small group of insiders — whether staff or business leaders of some stripe.  But in an economy that is changing so quickly, what worked in the past probably has little in common with what we need for the future.  We’ve found over and over again that “Crowdsourcing Solutions,” as I call it in the book, is probably the best single strategy we have available to develop a real understanding of our challenges — and our resources.  That doesn’t mean, though, that we should just throw open the doors and let anyone say anything (that would be Crowdsourcing A Mess, not Crowdsourcing Solutions).

At any rate, you can listen here to the conversation on “Crowd Sourcing Wisdom From People Outside Your Box”  And don’t miss the great resources that Clay listed at the bottom of the page.

Peek behind the curtain for Wise Fool Press

Since the launch of The Local Economy Revolution, people have been asking me about the Wise Fool Press.  So I wanted to make sure you knew that an overview of what the Wise Fool Press is about has been posted here.  This page also introduces a few upcoming publications, including

  • A how-to for creating more meaningful public engagement events; 
  • An exploration of how economic development might learn from the Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper approaches to urban planning, and
  • A collection of personal essays from people all over the country about why they work for the future of their communities, and how they keep going when it gets tough.

So I hope you’ll check the page out, and let me know what you’re excited about.  And as I said, we’re looking for partners to help make all these things happen faster and better, so let me know if you want to help us.



The Tornado at work: excepts from my interview at Strengthening Brand America

I was so honored that Ed Burghard of Strengthening Brand America asked me to do an interview with him about The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  That interview ran this morning.

A lot of SBA’s work is structured around the idea of reframing economic development work in terms of how it will impact existing local residents, and (being a good branding guy), he refers to that as helping residents reach their “American Dream.”  I wrote last week about how my own experience makes me deeply uneasy with even those words, and I think you’ll pick up on that if you’re paying attention.  That tension between Ed’s vision and my past experience creates a question that I’d like to hear from you about sometime: Do we know what residents are looking for, and do we actually have the ability to help them achieve it?  And should we?

Ah, yes, the interview.

The Local Economy Revolution is one of those packages of ideas that’s simple on the surface, but sometimes hard to fully get your head around.  As a result, I’ve been slowly learning how to explain what this book is about,, and do it in a way that balances the hearfelt and the head-worthy.  I think I’m getting better at it.

You can read the whole interview here (including the part where Ed describes me as a terrible destructive force feared by all Midwesterners…hm), but here’s a taste:

So what I most wanted to do with this book was peel back, get underneath the level of the programs and methods that we tell people they should be using, and get to the deeper place of why it matters.  Why is it that we need to change what we do so fundamentally?  What’s driving the need to discard some of our familiar old approaches and strike out in directions that are unfamiliar and scary?  Why should I keep trying when it’s hard, so very hard?

The book was designed to give people an underpinning, a deep framework for understanding why all the new methods and change are necessary. And hopefully find some encouragement to keep at it when the work of being a changemaker gets tough.

…I am starting to conclude that the attraction model of economic development, at its core, has largely outlived its usefulness, and I think that simply transferring economic development’s historic dependence on attraction strategies from businesses to people… doesn’t fundamentally impact the root of the problem.

Here’s what I mean:  If a community is going to focus on “becoming a magnet for top talent,” it’s going to find itself in tighter and tighter competition for a pool of “talent” that, if it’s growing, isn’t growing at anywhere near the rate necessary to appease the huge and growing number of places trying to jockey for a piece of that action. ….

The goal can’t be simply making your community a magnet for talent. I think we have to shift internally, to focus on making the best possible use of the community and human assets we have in our communities. That means growing our own talent based on the unique environment that each place individually offers.   And we have to start with the raw materials that we have to work with.  Otherwise we have just shifted the hunt for big businesses to the hunt for fancy degrees, while the places we are trying to attract them to fall apart.

I want to not only see the denizens of the other local government silos at the economic development plan table, but I want to see the shop teacher, the high school student, the immigrant mom, the environmental whacko who opposes everything….they all need to be part of it, or at some level, it doesn’t work.  It won’t work, it will miss something important. That doesn’t mean that they’re allowed to drag the work off track or overturn the objectives. It does mean that a structure is used to engage them in the search for solutions that everyone knows we need.

I don’t claim to have a magic answer to all our community economic woes.  What I have concluded is that our usual simplistic approaches – shoving on two or three levers and insisting that our tweaks on those will generate the complex results that we said we wanted – that’s not working.  As humankind, we have methods for understanding and dealing with complex interrelationships, but we’re not using them on the public policy level yet.  My long-term objective for the Wise Fool Press is to help us do that better.  But we have to make that mental shift, step out of that simplistic paradigm first, before we can do the rest.


Thanks again to Ed for the very kind opportunity to continue to share this message.

Tactical Economy?

I have written a few blog entries and posted a few videos at the Local Economy Revolution book web site this week about an event that I participated in last weekend in Middlesboro, Kentucky.  This small town on the edge of the Cumberland Gap held an event called Better Block Boro, and I was one of three national figures who were invited to come, participate and share our expertise.  The other two, Mike Lydon of The Street Plans Collaborative and Matt Tomasulo of Walk Your City, helped the participants implement some tactical urbanism strategies to demonstrate the impact that some relatively simple improvements could make in terms of the downtown area’s quality of life.

I, on the other hand, spent most of the day in “pop-up” conversations with Mike, Tom, Isaac (the downtown program manager) and many others about how low-cost, low-risk improvements like these impact local economies.  With everything that was going on, we had a lot of food for thought.

You can review some of the photos and videos from that event at

Tactical urbanism at work.  Guerilla historic markers.  Makes you realize the potential right in front of you, See more examples at
Tactical urbanism at work. Guerilla historic markers. Makes you realize the potential right in front of you, See more examples at

As I was driving away from Middlesboro that afternoon, I started thinking more directly about how the principles behind tactical urbanism might be applied to revitalizing local economies as well.  There’s several spoken and, sometimes, unspoken assumptions behind tactical urbanism that drive this strategy’s relevance and increasing importance for communities these days.  Without cribbing from any of the standard sources, here’s my interpretation of why Better Block/tactical urbanism efforts have become such a powerful part of the urban planning landscape:

  • They focus on improvements that are achievable in the short term.  Rather than waiting to pull together the funding, the plans, the approvals needed to do a Big Project, they emphasize doing what they can do with what’s available.  Pallets get turned into chairs and bike racks and tables and hanging planters (how many uses can you think of for a wooden delivery pallet?  A whole lot more than I had come up with, apparently).  Vacant lots get turned into outdoor dining spaces and music stages, and extra parking spaces turn into community gathering spots.
  • They place emphasis on the community education that comes from the improvements as much or more so than the actual thing they build themselves.  The goal of a pallet street chair isn’t just to give people someplace to sit.  It’s to give them a real-world lesson in the impact of making public spaces comfortable for people to hang out in.  The implicit realization: many places have had such paltry human-scale public space investment over the last couple of generations that building support for meaningful investments means physically demonstrating what we can do and how it can impact the community.
  • They know that iterative is OK.  A Better Block event is by its nature a little messy.  You have volunteers working on a dozen little projects, things being built out of castoffs, “scavengers” hunting for more wood or tarps or whatever, and a constant stream of “Where can I find an extension cord?” “Do you know where the staple gun is?”  “What do you need me to do?”  The goal isn’t to do everything.  It’s to do enough, this time, with what we’ve got, to move things forward, to spark some understanding and some energy, to get farther down the road to something better than we are today.

One thing Mike Lydon told me is that when his firm proposes to design conventional streetscapes or park improvements or the like anymore, they add a tactical urbanism piece to their proposal — they want to build something physical, something temporary, to maintain the community’s desire to implement the full plan during the long period between finishing the pretty pictures and getting the funding and approvals together to build the permanent project.  They’ve come to understand that people need to see forward momentum, that simply designing something to plop into a space often doesn’t empower the change in minds and hearts necessary to make real community change happen.  After decades of working with urban planners and designers across the spectrum, I felt like a veil had been lifted.


The broad conditions that I think have led to the growth of tactical urbanism pull from the same zeitgeist that is impacting how we do a lot of the work that we find ourselves needing to do with our community’s economy.  That includes:

  • Not enough money to do the big projects that we relied on in years past
  • Increasing awareness of the complexity and interrelated impacts that those big projects can generate
  • Increasing levels of peoples’ ability to access and spread their own information (or misinformation) about your Big Project’s feared impacts
  • Increasing distrust that the Big Project will have all the benefits that its supporters promise.

For physical planners, those Big Projects might have been multi-million dollar streetscapes or parks.  For people in economic development and revitalization, that might be big commercial building projects, things that require big financial incentives, big business recruitment.  Just like the streetscapes and the parks, those kinds of economic projects still happen in many places, but the broad trend seems to be that they are getting harder to do, demand more and more money and staff time and community energy, and too often fail to live up to their promised impacts.

So, this is the germ of an idea, and I’m putting it out to you for your ideas, thoughts, brick-throwing exercise, whatever.

I think that we need to start developing a Tactical Economy toolkit.  When people want to do Better Block stuff, a quick Google search can give them all sorts of ideas for projects to try and stuff to build.  Part of what people find when they do that search is simply ideas that they might not have come up with otherwise (how often do you think of putting up guerilla historic signs?), while the other part is specific plans and step-by-step instructions, such as to build a chair.  Not exactly something you want to just take a flyer at and then leave out for people to sit on.

We need both of these in  Tactical Economy toolkit.  Some of the tools might be pretty straightforward to implement – the challenge may be simply helping people think of them.  Others might require some how-to instructions.

What do you think?



You can’t please all the people all the time. And it’s probably not worth trying to.

If you’re interested in improving how local governments and community organizations work, check out The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  You’ll be glad you did. Available for digital and print.  


In local government public engagement, we tend to rely on a very simple– simplistic, really– metric for public engagement:

How many?

How many showed up? How many logged on? How many names on the sign in sheet? How many butts in the chairs?

sleeping students in lecture hall


Like many of the metrics we use in local government, we use this one because it’s easy to see, easy to grasp. Economic developers, for example, tout the number of jobs the agony new project will create. Don’t ask most of them what old jobs those new jobs are creating, or whether the pay our tax levels will justify the money spent on them (off topic rant hereby derailed.)


What we fail to measure–or, often, think about– is the quality of the public engagement. In the case of public engagement (different from economic development), that’s partly because of our deeply-rooted democratic principles. Everyone’s voice matters, right? Therefore, everyone needs to participate…or at least as many as we can possibly drag in there.

After a couple of decades of trying to drag everyone and their mother out to my public meeting or onto my online platform, I’m wondering if we’ve been thinking about this all wrong. Face it: not everyone cares about everything. We just can’t– and as people work harder, and work longer, and have more and more demands on their time, and as the issues we have to deal with become more and more varied and complicated…how much can we realistically expect?


Confession time: I haven’t attended a council meeting or planning commission or public open house or whatever for the village I live in in the past four years. And I’m the one in this little burg who makes an living quoting chapter and verse about the importance and virtues of public engagement.


So why haven’t I?


Well, I got other things to do…


The fact of the matter is that there’s been nothing going on that I feel like _needs_ my attention. There’s nothing going on regarding which I have anything unique or particularly beneficial to offer–for myself or for the community. So I choose to put my time somewhere where I think it can make a bigger impact.


Maybe we need to stop assuming that everyone should want to come to our public meeting–and stop assuming that if they don’t, it’s because they are “disengaged.” Like many other issues, we’re probably viewing that too simply– as too much of a binary choice. People make choices with their time just like they make choices with their money- and they make alot of those choices based on the expected return on investment. If they’re not coming to your meeting in droves, that may simply mean that the droves don’t think that they will get an adequate return on investment for their effort.


Maybe they’re wrong, maybe they’re right.


But within the droves, chances are that there is some subset that cares about the issue, and cares about it a lot. And I’ve reached this conclusion: all other things being equal, and assuming that every possible person has been informed and warmly invited to your public engagement event…


A small turnout might not be a bad thing. Especially, and perhaps necessarily, if those people have the opportunity to make deeply constructive contributions. Maybe even more constructive than if a hundred people who didn’t really get it showed up.


I’m not trying to be an elitist….I know as well as anyone the risks of letting the diehard obsessives make the plan. It’s easy, way too easy, for The Passionate to feed off each other and turn into The Nut Jobs. And that’s where it becomes critically important to use strong activity structures and active group management methods to keep the people who care enough to participate within the bounds of reality. That’s making sure that the interests of those for whom this issue didn’t have sufficient ROI still get recognized.

My main point is that engaging a small number of the dedicated should be counted as a success…If we have engaged them constructively. Sometimes the main thing we need is to crowdsource a little wisdom from those who are willing to invest it.


Miles to go before I sleep: Events & appearances this week (Oct. 23-26)

Having just come through a presentation and great discussions at the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) North American conference in Salt Lake City, and then a moderated session and lots of great discussions at the International Economic Development Council Annual Conference in Philadelphia…

you’d think it might be a good idea to stay near home for a while.  And my landscaping and half-empty freezer would agree with you, not to mention the other humans in the house:

(“What do you mean you can’t pick me up this afternoon?”  “Um, I’m in Utah, for one thing…”)

However, that’s not gonna happen.  Next week I’ll be roaming all over, switching hats on the fly and burning up my tires as I go.  Here’s the itinerary:

  • Wednesday and Thursday morning (October 23 and 24), I’ll be at the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City Economic Summit in my role as Managing Editor of Engaging Cities.  My plan is to record interviews and conversations with as many interesting people as I can during the time I’m there. If you see anyone on the agenda that you’re particularly interested in hearing from, let me know and I’ll work on it I’ll cross post what I learn both here and at EngagingCities.



  • Friday night, I’ll be heading from Columbus to Middlesborough, Kentucky to participate in their inaugural Better Block Boro event on Saturday, October 26.  I’m not exactly sure what I’m getting into, but it promises to be a combination street fair, unconference, urban hack, and DIY urbanism event — all in a (formerly) quiet Appalachian town.  I’ll be leading a pop up talk/discussion around the learnings from my new book, The Local Economy Revolution:What’s Changed and How You Can Help, signing booksdesk, and nosing around and recording as much of the other stuff going on as I can.

Then I come back and try to remember where my office is!

desk by window
The desk at The Clearing in Wisconsin where I wrote The Local Economy Revolution. If I end up here, I’m in big, big trouble.

Best Practice, Emerging Trends in online public engagement

Note: a version of this article is also running at EngagingCities.  Just so’s you know.

About two weeks ago I spoke on a panel with Chris Haller of Urban Interactive Studio and Tim Bonneman of Intelletics at the International Association of Public Participation’s North American conference.  Tim had organized the session as a conversation around the topic of “Navigating the Online Public Engagement Space,” with the intent to explore the issuess and challenges facing communities and organizations who are trying to figure out how to use online public engagement in their work, and navigate the dozens of potential ways to do that.

This was a fantastic opportunity for me personally to think big with two guys who are among the leaders in the U.S on this topic.  Even though I work with Chris in his role as founder and publisher of EngagingCities, as well as on client projects, it’s great to get some space to talk about the big issues.  And the experience was made all the better by Tim’s session leadership and the involvement of our colleagues from communities and tech providers across the continent.
Since I’m not a programmer or a tool-maker, my role was to frame up the big issues and the big trends– the stuff that I get to see by virtue of my role with EngagingCities and with my other consulting and publishing firm, the Wise Economy Workshop.

So I set my own comments within the two perspectives of my professional life: as a user of several online public engagement tools through my consulting work, and as an observer of the field through Engaging Cities. And I thought it might be useful to share those big issues with you.

Here’s what I told them from underneath my consulting hat:

1) The most important thing you can probably do is make sure that you have matched the tool you choose to your  objectives.  One of the most consistent errors I have seen is people selecting an app or platform because they like how it looks, or it seems cool or exciting, or another town use it for their project and loved it.  But it is not a one size fits all, or even an easy off-the-rack kind of situation.

The project or initiative leadership needs to ask a lot of questions and dig deeply.  Are we trying to do something ongoing or project specific? Are we talking to the general public or a more targeted subset? Are we seeking feedback or something more engaged?  The broader it the scope of the work, the harder it is to get it right.  And while three years ago, you may have had few practical choices, that’s not the case today.  There are dozens of great tools out there, designed for different purposes and audiences, but not all of them have the same level of visibility or marketing reach. The best-known one might, or might not, be the best choice for your specific needs.  And chances are that a long or complex initiative may need more than one approach.  Chris noted how often he sees communities looking for “uber-tools,” and we all agreed that no tool can pull that off.
2) One issue that we often overlook in that process of figuring out our online public engagement is fitting our tools to our capacity.  Online public engagement often looks appealing to a local government or organization because we don’t have to have our staff spend time printing boards and staffing evening meetings.  But online public engagement also requires staff capacity, just a different kind.  And often communities don’t account for that in the process of deciding what tools to use.
Here’s an example: I recently managed an online public engagement process that used one of the most well- known ideation tools in the US public sector today.  This platform is very well developed, and one of the most powerful things it does is enable project staff to respond to ideas generated by the public.  The power in this is the fact that the responses help people know that the agency is listening and actually pays attention to what’s going on with the site.  Without that response, it’s hard for people to know whether the feedback they’re taking the time to share is actually getting anyone’s attention or not.   This client, which wanted to use the platform because of its reputation, didn’t have the political willpower or the staff capacity to respond…and as the consultant, I didn’t have enough information to do it for them.  So this critical element of the platform went unused, they received a dwindling amount of public participation as the project progressed, and the silence became noticeable.

3) Channel, channel channel.  I harp on this in all public engagement, whether online or in person.  A wide open platform does no one any good.  Good teachers manage their students’ ability to meet their objectives through how they structure the learning process.  They don’t just throw it open and let whatever happens happen.

A public engagement process that doesn’t leverage social media and provide some opportunity somewhere for open public comments will probably garner complaints, but feedback through wide open channels is more likely to be an antagonistic, stress-level-jacking waste of time than anything else.  If we want people to give us feedback that has value, that helps us figure our what to do and what not to do, we need to take a page from those teachers, and structure the feedback activities and channels so that people participate with us, not just throw up random responses that may or may not have anything to do with what we all need to figure out.
4) Wherever possible, crowdsource wisdom, not just opinions.  Give them something meaningful to chew on.  People don’t want to be just asked their opinion.  They–at least a sizeable number of the they’s — want to be part of the solution.  So take a page from crowdsourcing:  enable them to contribute to solving the problem.

In my role as EngagingCities’ Editor, I focus on the leading edge of interface between technology and public engagement.  We try to bring our readers the information, trends, new ideas that they might not find otherwise.  As a result, I read a lot of pretty obscure blogs–and learn a lot about online engagement trends across the world, including many that I would have never encountered otherwise.

Here’s what I see as the strongest emerging trends at this moment–I’d be very interested in whether you see the same, or if you’re perceiving something else.

1) Visual interfaces. as the technology matures, I find the growth of interfaces and interaction methods that rely on maps, photos and graphics fascinating.  They’re being used more and more to not only improve people’s grasp of the information, but also to give them new methods of participating.  I’m a verbally-oriented person myself, but I know enough to know that I am the minority.  Most people do not want to read a paragraph, let alone write one to get their opinion across, but historically that’s what we have defaulted to.  Accommodating other types of communication, both for people who can’t write and those who just don’t want to, is critical to broadening engagement.  The fact that Pinterest and Tumblr are the two fastest growing social media sites tells us a lot.

2) It’s a multi-platform world.  I swap between my phone and tablet and computer without thinking about it, including flipping over to one when the other is running slow.  If that’s the case for an old lady like me who still has a computer, how much more is that the case for the increasing number of people who have learned to default to their mobile–or who, among less privileged populations, do most or all of their internet access through mobile? We provide interpreters for public meetings, but a community that decides to use only web-based methods is excluding a large subset of their population in exactly the same manner they are trying to avoid.  And typically the ones that they’re excluding are the young and disadvantaged.  An unintended but undesirable side effect.

3) We’re starting to move past using online for only idea-generating or feedback.  If you’re thinking about developing an app, I would say, don’t do something that looks like a survey or a “hey! Tell us your great idea!!” thing.  I assure you, it’s been done and done over again.  But we are starting to see platforms that actually enable discussion, consensus-building, meaningful evaluation of alternatives, deliberation, decision making.  The higher order tasks that we truly need if we are going to, as I’ve been pushing for all over, crowdsource wisdom.   We’re starting to see some interesting tools that take people through the impacts of different choices, and we’re stating to see the development of platforms that actually lead people through a deliberate process, much like a professional facilitator would.

4) Open data is moving swiftly from a “gee whiz, look what we can do!” to a transformative tool that’s starting to live up to its long-vaunted potential.  I am all in favor of hackathons, especially if they pull people into thinking transformationally about the way communities work and how they can meet their new and articles challenges.  But hackathons alone won’t develop the deep fixes that we need.  They’re just a first step.  But we’re starting to see more and more that people who have gotten a taste of how open data can help connect people more meaningfully to their communities, and that’s yoking a much-needed new set of skills and, more importantly, perspective, to the challenges that face us.

Thanks again to Tim, Chris, and the other participants for what I hope will be the beginning of an ongoing conversation.  If you want to hear the whole session, you can listen to or download the audio here. (warning: it’s a conference session, so it runs over an hour).
You can also check out the Hackpad notes developed during the session, and add to the conversation yourself, at

The Book is DONE! The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help

Woo Hoo!

After much head-thumping against online publishing systems and my own levels of distraction, the first Wise Economy publication is finally on sale!

The book is titled The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  It’s designed to do the one thing that the piles upon piles of economic development/local government/planning books out there don’t do:

It’s designed to give all  of us a deep understanding about how what we need to do in our communities has changed, and help us summon the bravery and determination to go do it in the face of all the frustrations and resistance that any change-maker is going to encounter.

For that reason, I wrote it in the most accessible, personal style I could muster.  You’ll find some talk in here about economic structures, measurement systems, downtown revitalization strategies and economic development incentives, but you’ll also find stories designed to bring that abstract stuff down to where our guts live — to families, personal histories, loves and loss.  cover of book

Longtime readers of the Wise Economy blog will probably recognize some of the stories, but you’ll also find new stories and a new sense of comprehension, structure and meaning that becomes possible when you work in something bigger than 600 – word chunks.  And more importantly, I think you will find something here that you can share – with your colleagues, with your board members and volunteers, to help encourage them to see the big picture of what you’re trying to do, and maintain the willpower to keep it going forward.  I think, and hope, that this book gives you a platform to support your own local economy revolution.

I’m obviously not just doing a charity here, but writing this book, like most of the writing I do, isn’t a great money-making proposition.  The market for books is glutted and even with all the online tools, it’s hard as hell for one little voice to get itself heard.  But after a lot of years of listening to the resolve and fight and  heartbreaks of many of you, and watching what works and what seems to be failing, I think this book is a message that we all need right now — that engages the head and the heart together and strengthens us to keep pursuing what we know our communities need.

So, I’m hoping you’ll help.

First, if you want to buy the book, you have four current options:

  • You can buy it for your Kindle e-reader here.  You can also download a free Kindle Reader app for your smartphone or tablet or computer here – it works well.
  • You can buy it for a Barnes & Noble Nook e-reader here.
  • If you’d like a hard copy, nicely bound and all pretty-like version, we got’cha covered right here.
  • AND, if you want to go relatively old-school and don’t mind doing your own printing, you can get a PDF version el cheapo here!

I’m still working on the Apple iBook edition.  But that’s coming soon.


Second, if you do get a copy and read it (and you don’t completely hate it), I’d be grateful for your positive review on any of the sites.  Even a couple of sentences would be helpful.  If you’re really sweet, I might ask your permission to put your quote in the front of the next version!

Third, if you want to learn more about how exactly we can get this hard and important work done, bookmark  We’ll be sharing real-world examples and having important discussions over there.

Fourth, if you have colleagues, bosses, junior staffers, elected officials, volunteers or random humans that you think would benefit from the paradigm-shift and encouragement that this book offers, please share with them.


As I wrote somewhere near the end of this thing, we who are trying to make our places better often feel like a violin in the void.  But in our communities, a strong violin can change the void.  We can do that.  We have to do that.

It’s a job for the head and the heart.  My deepest hope is that this book feeds both.


So vive la revolucion.  And thanks for joining me on the adventure.




You think you have tough public meetings? How about handling 10 languages? (Audio interview)

I did an interview in my role as Managing Editor for EngagingCities that I thought Wise Economy readers would also find interesting.  This half-hour discussion focuses on what an organization called CDF in Clarkston, Georgia is doing to build its residents’ ability to prioritize and addresses the community’s needs– and they’re doing it in a community that’s about as challenging as I can imagine.

You think it’s hard to have a productive public meeting in your town?  Imagine having a 42% foreign-born population, most of whom are refugees from civil wars, and running small group discussions among people who speak 10 different languages.  And then asking them to set priorities, designate representatives and figure out what to about them with a small but not insignificant pot of money. CDF’ s story will give you a good sense of what rising to a challenge like this takes.

I wrote a little more about this at Engaging Cities if you want a somewhat more detailed summary.  But stream or download from the link below to hear the story.  You won’t regret it.

When consultants get it all wrong, and how to get it right

I’m really not an angry person.  Honestly.  That whole red hair thing is just a myth.  You know that, right?  Right??  Hm.

This essay was revised and included in The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  If you like this, chances are you’ll like that book.  Learn more here.

As I’ve been reading through my old blog posts here while getting ready to finish the economic development revolution book, I’m noticing a theme that I didn’t expect:  Anger. I hate to say it, but good old fashioned redhead answer — especially at consultants.  I asserted that one of the biggest names in planning was all wet, I marched around a conference fuming at a presenter talking about economic impacts, and I insisted that you needed some  non experts if you wanted to actually make something change.

Um, Della.  You’ve been a consultant for close to 20 years.  You still make money consulting.

You like to eat, don’t you?


I’m starting to understand why I might not be the biggest money maker among consultants.

Traditional consulting relies on the expectation of the know-it-all expert.  The glossy

Victor Gruen portrait
My favorite dead expert to beat up on. Click the image for the Wikipedia link.

haired genius in the sweeping cape who tells you exactly what your town needs and withers you with his glare if you dare to question him.

The Guy With The Answers.  The Oracle. The Fixer. The Big Name.

But here’s the problem: we all know how many times the people we (or our predecessors) thought were Experts in the past turned out to be… wrong. Sometimes badly wrong.  Sometimes painfully, decades-long wrong.  The kind of wrong that we spend generations trying to dig out of.

And yet we buy the next set of promises. The next expert.  The next promised easy answer, wrapped in a flowing aristocratic cape.

Naveen Jain laid the basic problem out in one of the posts I just mentioned.  It’s essentially a problem of methodology: traditional experts rely on historical trends, on what worked in the past,  on their own, often unexamined assumptions.

That’s how we define an “expert,” after all.  How many years have you been doing this? How many projects have you done that were just like ours?

The problem is this: if much of what has been done in our consultants’ lifetimes hasn’t worked, if much of it didn’t really do what we hoped for, and if the challenges we’re facing are wicked and complex and new and interrelated, then what makes us think that a past book of  experience alone counts very much?

Part of what gets me so mad is that neither the consultants nor the people who hire consultants admit or face up to these limitations.  Both sides keep pretending- one that it has all the answers, the other that there are simple answers to be had.

In their guts both sides have to know that neither charade is true.

Or maybe they don’t know that.  Maybe they know but don’t want to know.  Do they?

Now I’m not sure what to get madder about.

Years ago, I managed comprehensive planning projects for a consulting firm.  When you start one of those, you get to review pretty much every plan that town has ever done.  And sometimes what you find yourself reviewing is a case history in delusion.

One community, struggling to find a bright future for a run-down suburban strip, spent a huge sum on a beautiful drawing of lovely new buildings lining the streets.  They also bought a rudimentary market analysis that indicated nothing about whether the lovely buildings could ever be funded through the private investment that the drawing promised.   And then the community threw significant sums of money and effort into finding the people who would build that grand vision.

Thirteen years later, the corridor hasn’t changed, except for continuing to fall apart.  I drove down it last week.

If you’re a former client of mine, and you think this is your town, it’s probably not.  I can tell that same story about 15 different communities.

So, Consultant as Wizard doesn’t work.  Should you ditch them entirely, rely just on yourselves, figure out all out the best you can?  Are the non-experts enough?

No.  Chances are you definitely need outside help.  You just need a different type of help than many consultants have been giving.

In this era, I think an intellectually truthful, community-benefitting consultant has to hang up the cape, drop the all-knowing charade, and take on jobs like this:

  • Trackless Waste Guide.  Adventurers like Robert Perry, who trekked to places people had never been, took people with them who had experience in that type of environment, although not in that exact situation.   Chances are, you Ms. Consultant don’t know the path any better than they do, but you’ve at least moved through an environment somewhat like this before.

So you don’t charge into the underbrush, pretending that you know where all the rocks and rattlesnakes lie, but you walk with them and help them figure out how to best navigate.

  • Framework builder.  When we can’t plug and play easy solutions, when we have to find our way through unknown territory, building mental frameworks gives us a way to evaluate options, think through the potential impacts of our choices and plan ahead for risks.  A consultant’ s experience can help build intelligent and flexible frameworks.  But a framework is not a blueprint, and it’s not a Magic Solution.  It recognizes that it might be wrong and it might have to shift and evolve over time.  It’s an exercise in managing uncertainty with the best intelligence we can bring to the table.   And since the framework is designed to enable shifting and evolving, it might actually continue to fit more than three weeks after the consultant’s last bill gets paid.
  • Tough question asker.  People who lead communities often fail to ask hard questions — you know, the unpleasant ones where we suspect the answers are not what we want to hear, or where the answers aren’t clear at all.  In far, far too many cases, communities get into deep trouble because no one asked the hard questions–either because no one knew what to ask, or because no one summoned the bravery to ask it.

By rights, and as a matter of integrity, the consultant should be the one to ask the hard questions when no one else can or will do it.  After all, the consultant is the one who gets to go home to Somewhere Else when the meeting is over.  More importantly, thought, the consultant can draw on that expertise, that guiding capabilty, to call out and articulate the questions that no one from the community wants to own.

But too many consultants never ask the tough questions — because they don’t want to piss off the client, they don’t want to knock themselves out of consideration for the next project.  Mostly because, at the end of the day, consultants really, deeply want you to like them.

So they let the client believe what they want to believe, and avoid the problems they don’t want to face.  After all, the consultant is the one who gets to go home to Somewhere Else when the meeting is over.  And there’s always another rube, some town we can convince that this project was Fantastic!! somewhere around the bend.

  • Decision pusher.  Communities often don’t ask tough questions, and lots of them try to avoid making decisions.  That’s where the laundry list comprehensive plan failure that I’ve talked about before comes from, as well as a lot of other problems ranging from underfunded pensions to broken water lines.  Decisions are hard, you know… they mean saying yes to some things and no to others.  And we won’t even talk about setting priorities.  Ow.

The consultant’ s job has to include guiding, structuring, pushing and cajoling a community to make a decision.  It just has to.  It has to be done, and I don’t know an honest consultant who hasn’t been around the block enough times to know that in their guts.  If the community doesn’t make important decisions, if you haven’t done everything in your power to get them to do it, I don’t think you’ve earned your fee.  If they flat out refuse, so be it.  But too often we who have the experience and framework to make out the rocks in the water ahead are too timid to tell the captains that they need to change course.

Consultants don’t want to push people to make decisions,either, for all of the same reasons as above.  But unless they do, the effort is probably wasted.

Communities definitely need consultants.  The difference I see is this:
The consultant communities need is a collaborator, a fellow-seeker who brings a new set of expertise, a new collection of tools, to the work of improving your community.

We who do consulting work for communities have to deeply rethink what we provide as consultants, and we who work for communities have to deeply rethink what we demand from our consultants.  Settling for a pretty picture of an imagined future, or a kum-ba-yah list of all the happy things everyone in town said they wanted,  is worse than a waste of money.

It’s setting up the community for a future crushing of hope, a long-term trend of growing cynicism and tuning out.  And it’s setting up the community for painful opportunity costs- wasted resources chasing unachievable pipe dreams.
Letting a community persist in mistaken optimism or pessimism or inertia is not morally, ethically or fiscally acceptable, for consultants or for community professionals.  We simply don’t have that much slack in the system anymore.  Consultants should — and must — help fill a community’s gaps in capacity to make wise choices and tough decisions possible.

Do you tell your region’s story? Agenda 360’s Story Project (Podcast)

We do this thing in economic development and community promotion sometimes, and it’s kind of stupid: we assume that “selling” our community’s benefits to people and business means that we have to dumb down everything that makes us unique into one cute logo and a catchy catch phrase.  In the process, we often end up with something inane — anice drawing and a sentence with “Liveworkplayeatsleep” stuck in the middle of it….or “the Present in the Future of Our Past,” or “We’re within 800 miles or 60% of the universe,” or something equally…

meaningless.  And I do mean “meaningless.”  Come on: how many of those things have you seen that actually made you think, “this place might be worth my attention?”  And yet we keep spending that money for those minimal, at best, results.  Probably because we have no clue what else to do.

The Agenda 360 initiative in Cincinnati did something very different last year, and something that I think will be much more beneficial to the region in the long term.  Instead of trying to mash everything you would ever want to say into one meaningless phrase, Agenda 360, in partnership with its Northern Kentucky partner Vision 2015 embarked on the Story Project: an initiative to uncover and articulate the themes, the characteristics, that make Cincinnati Cincinnati, and create a communications tool kit that enables everyone in the region, from small businesses to large corporations, local governments to nonprofits, to talk with their contacts about the region in a way that has meaning, real meaning.

It’s kind of the anti-marketing: it’s an articulate statement of the fundamental characteristics that make the place different from other places.  And it’s not a command-and-control marketing campaign; it’s a basis for networked, share movement, whether that’s a big corporation talking to potential relocating talent or community staff trying to think about context – sensitive design characteristics.

The Story Project is a powerful tool in the deepest sense: like an underground river, it’s feeding a multitude of marketing efforts and enabling them to work in concert.  It creates an alignment that none of the participants could have created on their own, and that might be more beneficial than any single marketing campaign could achieve.

Mary Stagaman, Executive Director of Agenda 360, gave this presentation at a local conference in February 2013 (I said September on the intro…my bad).  In this presentation, she gives a great overview of why the Story Project was undertaken, what they found and how they’ve been using the results.  It’s 40 minutes that you’ll be glad you spent.

Thanks again to Mary and Agenda 360.  Enjoy!



The real power of civic hacking lies in the delicate balance

As many of you know, I recently became the editor of EngagingCitiesan online magazine that focuses on the intersection between internet technologies and public engagement in government planning and decision-making.  This piece is excerpted from an opinion piece I recently published over there.  I’m sharing it here because I think it’s relevant to the work that many of you do, and because I’d like to invite you to be part of the EngagingCities conversation if you’re interested.


If you want to read the whole piece, you can check it out here. Thanks.

I met Josh Kalov and Elnaz Moshfeghian, two of the founders of,  at the American Planning Association Unconference in April 2013.  Over the meetings and dinner, I learned two things that continue to impress me about their efforts– points that I think are critical for us to understand if we want civic hacking efforts to truly make a difference in our communities and countries.

First:  the power of their work lies in its transparency– and it’s apparent  lack of predetermined agenda.

Here’s the part that surprised me most when I met them: these guys, at least these two out of the seven listed collaborators, do not have children in the Chicago Public School system.  I don’t exactly remember the story of how they got started– I seem to recall that they were turned on to the issue by someone who was more of a local politics insider, but I probably don’t have that quite right.  The point is, they didn’t start  doing this because they had a specific axe to grind– like people who have been around local governments for a while typically expect to see.  People who get involved in school district politics usually consist almost exclusively of folks who either have kids in that system, or used to have kids in that system.  And the people who get up in arms about school closures are almost always people whose children will be directly affected.

Why, the conventional wisdom goes, would anyone else take the time and invest the effort?  Why would you bother?  But it’s that assumption of a predetermined agenda that makes real engagement, real collaboration between government and citizen, impossible in these emotionally charged contexts.

In a sense, this is the paradigm that civic hackers frequently turn on its head.

Here’s the second element of the Chicago story, and the one that I think presents the deepest challenge to people who want to use technology to improve democracy:

As the story alluded, building an app is nowhere near enough.

Since we’re just at the beginning of this movement, much of what civic hackers are doing still falls into the category of Proof Of Concept.  In many cases, the greatest impact coming out of civic hacking efforts can be less what the new app actually does, and more about trying out new tools and techniques for dealing with the data or communicating with people.  The data set you get to work with, or the amount of time you have to work up something, can be minimal.  But the nature of hacking culture is to try, test, adjust, borrow, try again, repeat.  I get that, and I see the value.

But here’s the lesson from Chicago – and the challenge for those of you who got into this to make a difference in the places you care about:

Making a difference takes more than making an app.  If you truly want to move the needle, you have to stay with it.  You have to refine, shift focus, adjust….And communicate.  Communicate a lot.  As I often tell people who run local government programs, the greatest program you can think of won’t change anything if no one knows it’s there.  The same goes for apps.

The real power of civic hacking lies in the delicate balance that is starting to show us.  On the one hand, the great potential– and the thing that can make civic hacking so much more powerful than conventional advocacy– is that objectivity, that trustworthiness, that comes from the emphasis on transparency and open data.  Frankly, that’s a power, a level of standing, that those of us who have been advocates wish we could claim.

The other side, though, is that enabling that change to happen, living up to that potential, is going to require determination and consistency– and an internal personal or organizational answer to a tough question:

How do I sustain this effort, keep investing my limited time and energy, if I don’t have a personal stake in the outcome?

Concerned, Communicating, Connected, Commitment: Building Community-Local Government Relationships

My old – but-not-so-old friend Bill Lutz wrote to me recently about his perceptions of how local governments should pursue community engagement, and as usual he brought a perspective and insight to the issue that went well beyond anything I would have thought of.  His differentiation between transactional and relationship-based interactions, and his framework for building those relationships, captures a significant and necessary sea change in how we should relate to our residents.  And as Piqua has demonstrated through its impressive Citizen’s Academy, building those relationships takes a pretty small investment for a pretty substantial payoff.

Let me know what you think, and I’ll share with Bill.  Thanks!


Local government officials and staff tend to think about community engagement as a purely transactional exercise, and that’s not surprising.  Think of our typical experience: our residents, businesses or stakeholders come to us and want something, such as a service or asolution to a problem.  Once that need has been met, the transaction is over and the other person vanishes from our offices.  To be fair, the reverse is also true.   When local governments need public input for a project or an activity, we publish notices or get the local paper to write an article and (hopefully) residents come and provide input… and then leave.  In both cases, citizen engagement is reduced to a series of transactions.

While working in terms of transactions may be efficient and effective, they are, in a sense, damaging to the business of local government..  Every day, our residents make judgments and assessments of our community and those thoughts lead to a well formed (although, yes, not necessarily well informed) perception of the community in which they live.

It’s hard to influence those perceptions when our rules are reduced to a series of transactions.

Here in the City of Piqua, we struggled with that very issue:  How can we change the dynamic of local government being seen not as a transactional relationship but something more transformational?  We made a concerted effort to increase citizen engagement strategies, to create situations where residents felt more ownership in their community and had a better understanding of what our city staff does, with the expectation of engendering trust and confidence within the city government.

We’ve come to understand community engagement as a circular process,  –as four interrelated steps  that build an ongoing relationship on the foundation of  mutual understanding, not transactions.

Diagram of public engagement process

In the first step, we need to find residents who are Concerned about their community.  Many times, residents in this stage are those who are coming to the public hearing or a council meeting to voice their perceptions on a particular issue, sometimes in a negative fashion.  Often these residents are afraid of the future consequences of a proposed action, and that fear calls them to action.  At this point, we think local governments should not treat the interaction as  a transactional event, but rather the beginning of a relationship.

In Piqua, we encourage this relationship by Communicating to these residents that our local government is concerned about the well being of the community and has their concerns at heart.  This stage can be difficult because, at its root, it is not transactional, but relational.  A local government manager or an elected official can’t simply state from the dais that they have the community’s best interest at heart – like any relationship-building, actions often matter much more than words.  We Communicate these residents by involving them — by demonstrating to them the decision making processes and the internal struggles that local government goes through.  Taking time outside of the meeting and showing residents the information that the government knows can go a long way in convincing residents that the local government is making the best decision for the community.

The third stage is to Connect residents to each other.  It is at this stage where the true power of community can really be unleashed.  Many times, our residents may feel disconnected and isolated as they want to tackle community problems that the local government is not well equipped to handle.  The local government can play a major role as connecting residents to each other to other neighbors to develop opportunities to forge substantive change.

The final step in the process is Commitment.  Once residents are linked together, things happen.  If a resident sees a litter problem at the park, the local government can link them with other likeminded and committed individuals to start a litter collection program.  For many residents, giving back is easier with strong support from their neighbors and the local government.

Community engagement is more than just a series of sterile transactions; it’s built through continuous and conscious efforts to forge positive relationships.  This four step process helps explain how the relationship develops to build trust and commitment among residents and the local government.

Economics or Public Engagement? Yes I am… no I’m not…Yes I am…no…

Hi.  My name is Della, and apparently I look like this:

Sesame Street two headed monster
Hopefully I’m not this furry.

About every other week I discover that I have totally confused someone with my business.  Yesterday it was a longtime colleague (granted, he’s not known for his powers of observation).  He couldn’t figure out why I have a business with the word “economy” in its name, although his community has hired me to do public engagement.  He thought I should lose the economy part from my company name.  Like I said, he wasn’t the first one.

I know.  It’s all weird.  But it’s not.  Really.

When I starred this business a couple of years ago, I settled on the Wise Economy name because I tend to see everything I do through the filter of whether or not it fosters long term economic health. The original business plan included a cumbersome five service lines, one of which was traditional public engagement. It’s turned out that most of the consulting work I’ve been doing has had more to do with in person and online public engagement.

I’ve learned in the process that there’s almost no overlap between the public engagement people and the economic development types.  And that those are commonly seen as completely unrelated professions.  Even after spending a lot of years In local government consulting, that surprised me.


Here’s the thing: in my head, at least, economic revitalization and public engagement aren’t two unrelated things.  They are critically intertwined, and we screw both of them up when we try to do one and don’t deal with the other.

We depend on our economies.  We live in a world where economic decision making either sets a community up for success or drives it deeper into a hole.  And we live in a world where the economy that we all depend on doesn’t look much like it did 10 years ago.  If we want healthy, desirable communities that will stay that way for a long time, we have to deal with that set of conditions.

And yet, when we do economic development, we tend to treat that as an insider game.  We claim confidentiality or that “it’s too complicated,” and we confine our planning and strategy to a star chamber of ED types, elected officials and a few Blue Ribbon Committee business leaders.

Then, when we propose The Big Project, the community fights it, raising ill-informed (or maybe just uncomfortable) questions about real economic impacts, or community side-effects.  They don’t make it easy, and sometimes their scrutiny kills our pet project.

Rubes. Don’t they know anything?


Similarly, when communities do “public engagement,” we tend to ask people questions in a way that’s divorced from economics, as though dealing with the dollars and cents that determine whether a choice can become reality or not would somehow sully the truthfulness of the public input.  Long range planning is the worst for this– “what do you want to see here?”  Not surprisingly, we get dreams, we get idealistic visions.  We get Santa Claus lists.

Then, when the plan comes out, those residents turn out torqued that the economically impossible answer they gave didn’t make it into the plan.  Our if we go with the Kum Ba Yah theory of plan-writing, we put the fantasy in with full realization that there’s nothing in there to help make it happen. In either case, the damage is done:

“They didn’t listen to us.” “They didn’t really want our feedback.” “Planning and public meetings are a waste of time.”


We need to do a lot of things better in public engagement, but perhaps the most important is using the process to help people apply the creativity we know they can provide within realistic economic boundaries.  And we need to do a whole lot better at economic development planning, but our most critical need may be to help people clearly understand and evaluate their community’s economic options and the potential consequences of those choices.

Most important, whichever we’re doing, we have to admit that we don’t have all the answers, and that we need to crowdsource as much wisdom as we can get.   That doesn’t mean the public has some magic set of answers, but it does mean that we need the community’s perspective and experience, just like they need our expertise.

We need both wise community engagement and wise economic decision making.  They’re part of the same mission. And we have to get them working together.


As some of you know, I just became managing editor of an online magazine that I’ve admired for a long time, called Engaging Cities.  Engaging Cities has focused for years on the fast-evolving interface between internet technologies and public engagement or community participation.  It’s a thrilling opportunity for me to get back to my journalism roots, do more writing and play a role in the evolution of a field that I find fascinating–and critical to achieving the kind of working together that I described a minute ago.

The Wise Economy Workshop isn’t going anywhere…I’ll still be writing and sharing great thinkers with you here and on the podcast, and I’ll continue to do speaking and writing and consulting from this platform. So stay tuned!


Citizen Engagement and the Cranky Old Cranky Cranks

It might have something to do with me still being young enough to relate to the vibrant lifestyle of 20-somethings, but it has occurred to me that the field of planning is overrepresented by old people.  Specifically, old cranky NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) men who have a tendency to desire their neighborhoods to be quiet and devoid of any activity that might upset them and their touchy sensibilities on what makes for a ‘nice neighborhood.’….
If my city doesn’t evolve beyond a bedroom community, these colleges will not flourish and likely close down in a few short years.  And if the some colleges can somehow manage operating in a low-attendance environment without vibrant urbanized conditions and instead a burden of maintaining space for ample parking among a struggling core, then these graduates in their 20-somethings will have little reason to stay.  They will see a bedroom community that was design by the retired, for the retired and these recent grads will be the ones cranky about the (un)city conditions and look for jobs (or start companies) elsewhere.
You have to give credit to a writer who manages to work the word “cranky” into five paragraphs about 47 times.  In this piece from the blog “A Planner’s Commitment,”  Ryan Wozniak expresses a very common frustration with older folks’ reluctance to change — one that I hear more and more from young people (and older) across a variety of community-oriented professions.  Ryan employs a little more scorn than I would prefer, but he illuminates one of the most difficult challenges of any kind of community planning, whether for economic development strategies or future land use or transportation:

snapping turtle face
Cranky old cranky turtle.
Dealing with people who aren’t anticipating that the future of the community might not look like its present.
Of course, the kind of situation Ryan describes is common, and it’s not limited to his community in Arizona or to surburbia in general.  But in my (never particularly humble) opinion, writing off this response as NIMBYism or crankiness is too simplistic…even though it’s a write-off we do all the time.
Implicit in Ryan’s situation, and in almost any where the term “NIMBY” gets applied, is a failure to meaningfully engage the public, to do two way communication, and do it consistently, transparently and intelligently enough for it to matter.
And we have got to change that.

My last podcast told the story of a town that has undertaken an aggressive and pretty revolutionary revisioning of itself— and done this in a community that, to everyone else in its region, seems to have everything going for it. Big suburban houses, giant office parks, great schools, fat tax rolls, lots of highly educated middle aged people.  Classic Best of Suburb kind of stuff.

I’m gonna fess up.
I was not excited about doing that podcast.
I was glad when I arranged with my friend Colleen to do it a few weeks earlier, but I ended up going there on the way home from an emotionally and intellectually tough trip to my hometown outside of Cleveland.  When you’ve spent the last two days in what felt like the valley of the shadow, and talked out loud to yourself the whole drive back about why you and others  continue to work so hard for beat up places that sometimes don’t ever seem to get better, summoning enthusiasm for the kind of place that All The Money Went To…
Let’s just say I didn’t feel the mojo was working when I walked in that day.
In my own dark (and yes, cranky) guts, I braced myself for an enthusiastic account of pretty pictures and the magic pill that many communities think form based codes will provide.  I expected something driven by some somebody’s big ego.  Something without critical thinking behind it, and perhaps less staying power as a result.  Not like I haven’t seen that before.
What I didn’t expect to hear about was the thoughtful consideration, the reasoning together, that underpinned the decision to invest a comfortable, conservative… and older… community’s resources in a profound change in direction. The consideration and reasoning that made the uncomfortable stretch into a future very different from the present possible.

Here’s what they did: before the plan, before the picture, before anyone asked Council for a penny, the city manager crafted a community discussion.  He publicized factual information about changes in the region’s demographics.  He recruited thoughtful experts in issues like economic change and fiscal implications.  They hosted presentation and round tables about the big questions facing the future of the region – not just the future of their town.

Not an agenda to support a plan in process, not trying to work the PR machine to win support of a development,  just issues on the horizon that might or might not impact the future of this community.

More importantly, the community, its leaders and residents, had a conversation- or rather, a series of interconnected conversations about what that information implied for the city’s future.  And by the time a proposal came forward to make big changes, a large portion of the community and its elected and informal leadership has a pretty clear-eyed understanding of the challenges and the options.

That groundwork, the quiet, rational, non-ideological discussion– made a historically unthinkable change in direction possible.

Put aside all that idealistic stuff about public engagement for a minute.  Transparency, democratic process, people have a right to know… yah, yah.  Got it.

For a moment, be purely selfish.
The fact of the matter is that we screw ourselves over as professionals when we don’t have those conversations right at the beginning.  We make the whole process of doing our jobs 47 times harder on ourselves than it should be.  The simple fact of the matter is that you know there’s stuff that your community needs to deal with, and not dealing with it is compacting your budgets and your staff and your time to the point where the most basic parts of the job get harder and harder.  You need stuff to change – better tax base, more efficient land use, less money getting sucked up into roads and pipes and programs that aren’t generating a decent return on investment.  And you know this is the case all over, so job-hunting doesn’t get you out of the mess.
People who don’t work in your field are not going to see the emerging issues that are self evident to those of us who do.  They’re not going to intuitively understand what you’re seeing any better than you’re going to be able to anticipate what 3-D printing will enable 10 years from now.
And it’s psychological fact: when people don’t have good information to work from, they over-rely on their past experience.  “It worked just fine 10 years ago, why upset the apple cart?”   That’s not an age issue or a gender issue, although age and gender roles might lead one to put even more emphasis on past experience or influence how a person communicates that.
It’s a human condition issue. And the only way to counteract that bias, that the future should look like the present, is to give our rational minds the information it needs to shift its gears.   That’s the way human creatures work.
So why do most communities fail to have intelligent conversations about their futures?
We have a tendency in local government to assume that people won’t listen to reason — we point to lots of situations where residents say stupid things or make assumptions that, given the more extensive level of information we have to work with,  just don’t make sense.  Even though we “told” them what the facts were, they “chose” not to listen.
Good teachers know that just telling someone something verbally doesn’t mean it will stick in their head.  That’s why teachers don’t just tell you something once.  You hear it in a lecture, you read it in the book, you do a project, you write a paper.  People need to interact with new information on multiple levels, and do that over time.  If you want someone to understand something, just telling them doesn’t cut it.
And yet, in local government, most of the time that’s all we do.  No wonder they can’t mentally shift away from the status quo.  No wonder they don’t see the threats and opportunities we know about.
A fundamental purpose of our work –in any kind of local government or community management– has to change.  We have to become managers and facilitators of community conversations, not just presentation-givers, open-house-when-the-plan-is-all-but-done-holders, grouse-helplessly-to-each-other-when-they-don’t-get-it-ers.  We can’t keep falling back on “it’s complicated…you wouldn’t understand…trust us.”  And then wonder why people don’t see the need for change.
Dublin did just that.  Rather than try to shove everyone along to some pre-determined conclusion, skimp on building understanding and risk an ambitious plan blowing up in their face, they built a shared, broad-based understanding.  And that included people who could have very well become cranky old NIMBY cranks.

happy old man
Guess I got old early.

Changing Your Culture of Public Participation (or, Not Giving the Chance to Say Stupid Things in Public)

In a true display of democracy, a town hall meeting held at the New Bedford High School auditorium Monday gave the crowd of approximately 550 residents the opportunity to publicly voice every last one of the inane thoughts and concerns they would normally only have the chance to utter to themselves.

Though the meeting was ostensibly held to discuss a proposed $21,000 project to replace the high school’s grass football field with synthetic turf, City Councilman Thomas Reed inadvertently opened the floodgates to a deluge of ill-informed, off-topic diatribes on inconsequential bullshit when he allowed those in attendance to demonstrate their God-given gift of language.

–“Town Hall Meeting Gives Townspeople Chance To Say Stupid Things In Public.”  The Onion (everyone knows that this is a satire/fake news web site, right?  


Just checking.)


This fall, my son starts a new high school.  After a lot of deliberation, my husband and I decided to acquiesce to the kid’s wish to attend an academically rigorous Catholic high school.  For a former public school teacher and career public education kid, this was a hard decision.  Our kids have gone to public school since kindergarten.  But in the end, we concluded that this was the right choice for this bright, serious, disciplined kid.  We decided that he needed an environment that would build on those assets.  And he wanted the challenge.  Hard to argue with that.

The kid was accepted in January.  By the time he starts school in August, he will have had one Saturday morning with the music program, a one on one with an assistant principal, two weeks of band camp and a two day freshman orientation.

He had the meeting with the assistant principal last Saturday.  It was not what I expected.  There’s my 14 year old, sitting across a conference table from a massive, intimidating-looking man–300 pounds of tie-you-in-a-pretzel-if-you-mess-up.  Generally a good trait in an assistant principal, thinks the former substitute teacher turned mom.

 The assistant principal places a binder full of information In front of the kid.  Mr. Intimidating then starts asking James questions (note that he had already been accepted). The questions start off with unsurprising stuff…what’s your favorite subject in school, what do you do outside of school…easy for the kid to answer. Then, the questions take a surprising turn: what kinds of situations stress you out? How do you deal with stress? What are you passionate about–what gets you out of bed in the morning?  If I asked your best friend to describe you, what would he say?

Find yourself a 14 year old boy and try those questions on him.  Or try them on yourself.

James stumbles through them, and Mr. Intimidating takes notes.

Then the assistant principal asks James to open the binder.  Sitting to the side, I steel myself for a marginally painful review of rules and requirements and consequences.  Instead, Mr. Intimidating spends the next 20 minutes conversing with James about the core principals of the school’s educational philosophy.

Critical thinking.  Self-awareness. Compassion towards others.  Integrity.

Deep stuff. Foundational stuff. Not a single rule or regulation.

As I listened, it dawned on me that this wasn’t a one-off thing.  It was just more obvious because of the setting.  When my son did the music department event a couple of weeks ago, the entire group of kids ended by singing the alma mater.  The incoming freshmen put arms around each others’ shoulders, exactly the way the upperclassmen do, while they tried to read the words off a piece of paper.

Find yourself a 14 year old boy and try to get them to put their arm around the shoulder of another boy.  Good luck.

And yet I watched my kid do exactly that.


Think for a moment about how we complain about the public’s involvement in our planning and economic development and local government–in person and online.  I opened this piece with a purposely over-the-top piece of satire, but…come on.   Hits a little close to home, don’t it?

We gripe that they don’t behave themselves, that they say nasty or off topic things, that they pound soapboxes…or worse yet, that they just don’t show up.

No wonder our meetings are so miserable.  It’s all their fault.

Now think for a minute about how much effort we’ve put into establishing our community’s culture of public engagement.  What have we — and our predecessors– done to convey, to demonstrate, what effective public engagement looks like?  What have we done to set the tone, to establish the environment we want?

Do we even know what the public engagement we want looks like? Or would we sound like a 14 year old trying to answer a question about how his best friend would describe him?

What public engagement culture do we have?

If all St. Xavier High School did was a 20 minute discussion of principles, I would never expect it to take.  A 14 year old would forget that stuff before he got out the door.  But when every aspect of the culture reinforces those principles– alma mater sung with arms around each other, freshman applauded by upperclassmen when they enter the assembly on their first day of school, senior mentors in freshman homerooms, band camp that welcomes new students instead of hazing them–then those principles come to mean something.  That’s how a culture–especially a culture that is radically different from what newcomers might expect– sticks.

The most successful companies all know that. Edward Deming, the father of modern manufacturing, gets quoted in business schools every day:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast and process for lunch.

Show me a Fortune 100 business, and I will show you how that company has built its culture through and into everything it does.


Last year I wrote a blow-by-blow account of how I managed a potentially contentious public meeting.  That post has now been read by 3,500 people.  Obviously that essay addressed something that a lot of people needed or wanted.

But keeping a meeting from blowing up….that’s simply classroom management.  That’s the very basics.  It’s not creating a constructive environment.  it’s not enabling a constructive culture.  It’s not in itself moving us forward at all.

We have to change the culture of community participation, and we have to do it top to bottom.  Organizations that take on culture change know that they have to do it intentionally…they have to build it into every interaction, every communication.  They need to consciously reinforce the principles of the culture they want–not just by saying what the principles are, but living them through every interaction.

What are your community’s public interactions telling people about how you want to relate?  What does the room setup say?  The rules…or lack of rules? The options and opportunities for involvement?

Is meaningful public engagement built into your processes, beginning to end?  How do you involve people upstream– in setting policy and deciding priorities? Do people have real opportunities to be part of the solution, or do your just invite them in when there is a fait accompli to argue against?

Do you give them the ability to do something other than say no, no, no?  Do you channel them into being part of the solution?

If you don’t, don’t despair. Culture change is a long and difficult process.  That’s why my son’s new school starts on this work long before they get their books, and why they build it all the way through the experience.  The more I think about it, I suspect it’s not luck….it’s got to be intentional.


Like more most analogies, this one breaks down. A 14 year old, to at least some extent, goes where you tell them to go and does what you tell them to do.  Especially if you are a 300+ pound assistant principal.  But your residents will participate only if they perceive that the value of doing so will exceed the c cost of their time and energy.  Which makes a culture of meaningful public engagement all the more important.

So you might as well get started.  Ask yourself: what would meaningful public involvement look like here? What do we need to learn from our residents? What do we want our public meetings to look, to feel like? What character, what principles do we want?  How can we build that into everything we do?

It won’t happen overnight. But goofy 14 year old boys don’t turn into men overnight, either.  So go ahead and get started.

Incentives: No more yes-no-yes-no.

I wrote the following as a response to an ongoing debate on incentives that has been occurring on one of the LinkedIn groups that I follow.  There’s been a strong yes-no-yes-no tone to the conversation, with a few people who oppose the use of incentives on principle butting heads with a few who adamantly believe that incentives are important and valuable.

I’m posting this here because that conversation seems like a microcosm of the ongoing debate.

And if you’re going at it as a yes-no-yes-no, on-off switch kind of choice, stop it.  You’re not doing anyone any good.  including yourself.

Instead, we have to start asking:

What are we trying to do?  What are the tools we have available?  What does our data tell us about how they’re working or not working?  How do we get better information on that?

And if it doesn’t seem to be working, how can we adjust our tools or add to the toolbox to give us a chance of doing what we’re supposed to do?

That’s the right conversation.  That’s the conversation that addresses the sober responsibilities that we have to our communities.  Time to grow up a bit.


Thank you again for leading the charge into this critical element of debate.  We need this debate.  We need it.  And we need much more invested in the debate than we’re-just-fine-don’t-rock-the-boat.

Every business and every profession has to grow and change — we of all people should know that, given the amount of time we spend with people who live in the business world.  And given the intersection where economic development lives — of government pressures and blinding business change — we absolutely have to take a cold-eyed, critical look at what we do, how we do it, how that needs to change and how that can be done better.

Part of the problem that surfaces here and in the previous debates on this group about incentives and the like is that we are looking through an insect’s compound eyes: we as a group represent a thousand differing perspectives, and we are being pushed harder than ever to make a coherent whole out of the picture — by voices outside and inside the profession.  And it’s a lot easier for any of us to just insist that the view through our little lens is the right one.

But we are reaching a point, whether it’s due to techology changes or government pressures or the information that the general public can grab and use and share without our spin control, where we can’t pretend not to hear those voices anymore. The profession has to turn a critical eye on itself, clearly understand its strengths and limitations, and change,

It’s not a binary choice — it’s not “Everything is fine!!!!” or “Everything stinks!!!”

Critique is a part of growing up, and in times of pressure you have to grow up faster than at other times.  We all have some growing up to do – in this and in all the other professions that are on the hairy edge of our understanding of how communities and economies work.  But we can’t rest on some claimed laurels today, more than ever.


So, new questions:

What do we have to do to make the real estate component part of economic development more valuable, more meaningful to communities?  What else do we need to be accounting for if we intend to have a positive impact?  Are our current methods creating unintended negative impacts — impacts that have hidden consequences for communities?


Annotated slides from Ohio Economic Development Association Strategic Planning, March 2013

This annotated presentation comes from a training I did for the Introduction to Economic Development course hosted by the Ohio Economic Development Association last week.  I had the session on Strategic Planning… which, when you tell people you’re a planner, you tend to get asked to do a lot.

Since my presentation style, as many of you know, is few words on a slide, I’ve taken to doing these annotated handouts as a means of giving people something more useful than just clip art pictures as a take away.  I promised the people who attended this class that I would post it as soon as possible.

So hopefully this is useful… and maybe a little fun.  Enjoy!

Annotated Presentation, Strategic Planning, OEDA march 2013

Community poison: Dichotomies

I wanted to share with you a great essay from CEOs for Cities that gets at one of the issues that worries me the most: our tendency to oversimplify our community challenges… and as a result, to set ourselves up for confrontation and failure.  This essay frames this issue as matter of buying into false dichotomies, or oversimplistic two-sided choices.  And it points out very well that when we buy into a dichotomy, we set ourselves up to fail.

When we only see the world in terms of us and them… we close ourselves off to a world of possibility and can in many ways sabotage the growth and functionality of our communities. Those of us responsible for making decisions, in particular, need to be cognizant of the harm we can do to the very people we are trying to serve when we perpetuate this ideology.

A recent example exists in the argument concerning density. The urban/suburban dichotomy is a hot one right now, as we rethink the ways in which we plan our communities. I have heard plenty of anti-suburban rhetoric among the planners I’ve met, talking about “those people” who drive their SUVs and fly away from the center so that they can lead insulated, affluent lives away from the realities of the inner city. I’ve also heard New Urbanism touted as a conspiracy threatening the rights of Americans to chase their version of the dream and live comfortably. I’ve listened to advocates cry out that if it isn’t rail, it isn’t good enough—and people rally against the institutions driving economic growth in an area because they are afraid these parasitic entities will come take away all of their homes.

Is there truth to any of this? Of course there is—because no one type of community, urban or suburban, is perfect. The problem isn’t that dense is bad or low-density is bad, but that they are not approached as ways to organize the built environment, they are approached as lifestyles that are considered completely different….

Neighborhoods are not strictly “urban” or “suburban.” There is a continuum of qualities that make up neighborhoods, and a range of densities that encompass this continuum…. we can certainly start framing these issues differently and breaking down the dichotomies that inhibit compromise and complicate the decision-making process.

How can we do this? It will certainly never be an easy task—but we can start by starting to eliminate oppositional thinking. In a city, region, or even country it shouldn’t be Us vs. Them….

We need to stop looking at “other” as a four-letter word. We need to open our minds and expose ourselves to difference so that we can also see similarities while celebrating our uniqueness. It is essential that we look beyond our own immediate needs to understand the system of the whole and how our decisions can affect it.

Because communities are made up of millions of interactions taking place spontaneously throughout space, within a diverse set of people with differing beliefs, talents, and preferences, it is easy to understand things in terms of us and them—because it’s difficult to be wrong. It takes a leap of faith to break free of our usual paradigms and open the doors for new ways of understanding and seeing the world we’ve categorized. When we do, however, we’ll find that possibility. Then it’s just up to us to seize it.

We can complain all we want about elected officials, or special interests, or “them,” whoever “them” is.  But we’re stuck together.  So we’d better grow up and start treating our communities like the continuum kinds of places that they are.   It’s time to go seize it.

Do you show your residents how the sewer scope works? Welcome to Piqua’s Citizen Government Academy

It’s no secret by now that Piqua, Ohio, is one of my favorite examples of a little city that consistently figures out How To Get It Done – thanks in part to my friend Bill Lutz, who has shown up on these pages several times.  During a recent visit, (the same one where we talked about the amazing program-combining, commnity-determination-showing Fort Piqua Plaza), I had a chance to learn more about a relatively new program – and one that won’t win headlines, but I think is making a real difference in this community’s resilience and civic engagement.


The Citizen Government Academy takes those spend-a-day-with-your-friendly-local-public-servant activities and turns it into something transformative… for both the residents and the city.  Imagine how differently your residents might feel about the quality of your local government services if they got a chance to try some of your toughest jobs for themselves, like:

citizen and firefighter using fire extinguisher
Piqua Daily Call
  • Chasing an armed suspect (in a simulator),
  • Driving a snowplow through an obstacle course,
  • Mowing the park
  • Writing a grant so that it has a chance of being funded

You want your residents to understand why you needed that sewer repair truck with the camera that crawls through the pipes and shows you where the leaks are?  You want them to trust you the next time you need a big expenditure like that?  Easy… show them what it does and what return on investment the community is getting.  All the City Council briefings in the world will never have the power of just letting a few people who care look through that monitor.

The power of the Citizen Academy lies in something simple and obvious, but almost never used in the local government context: people learn by doing, not by hearing or reading.  If you want your residents to actually understand the value of your services, and understand it in a way that emboldens them to help support good government, show them.  Show them what you do and how you do it.

Nuff said.  Go listen to Bill.  It’s 18 minutes you will be glad you heard… even if you don’t get to drive the snow plow.


Terrible Public Engagement: the Three (or 7) D’s


Good LinkedIn discussions are like sitting in on a dinner with bright and insightful people from all over the world (without trying to decide how to split the check).  One of the most consistently interesting to me right now is the Community Engagement group, which includes people involved in public engagement, community development, local government and lots of other related disciplines from all over the world.


The edited thread below is taken from a fascinating recent discussion on the page about examples of terrible public engagement.  Many of the respondents are working in the UK or Commonwealth countries, so some of the terms and programs are specific to their context…but the issues probably look familiar to any of us who have worked in communities.  Comments on LinkedIn are of course visible to the public, but I’ve removed their names to be safe.


As I reviewed this discussion, three themes jumped out at me… three root causes of terrible public engagement.  Taking a cue from the writer who articulated the last one, let’s call it


The Three D’s of Terrible Public Engagement:


  • Descend on the community.  Come in as the expert outsider, believe that you know more than the people you are supposed to be engaging, tell them that until they believe it.  Hint: you don’t have to be a staffer of an international relief organization, like in the example below, to Descend (and good relief organization staffers know how not to Descend).  You just have to be enough wrapped up in some kind of inside ball – a pet urban design theory, your local zoning code, what happened in your town 30 years ago – to convince yourself that you know better on all points than anyone else who might be talking.  Once you do that, you’re Descending on the community – and the mistakes that might result from your blind spots are yours and yours alone.


  • Disconnect from the community.  Don’t try to understand their context, or think about how successful engagement here will differ from what worked somewhere else.  One size fits all is easiest, right?  Until it blows up in your face.  The story about the utilities and the renter population below illustrates that well….as does our routine of holding all public hearings at 9 AM Fridays, or 7 PM Tuesdays (there has been a great conversation on the PlannersWeb LinkedIn group on the outsized impact of this and other mundane elements of our usual set-up).  We can Disconnect just by unthinkingly sticking to a 19th-century approach despite our 21-st century residents.


  • Decide-Announce-Defend (or, be Dishonest — I’ve also called this the Bricks or Roses approach before). The accounts of the “shame consulting” and the scripted Town Hall below should make us all squirm.  But no matter your country or your type of issues or type of community, we’ve all done this, been party to it, or been subjected to it.  It’s Defensive, and it’s Dishonest.  There’s no way around that.

But perhaps more urgently, in a world where people have more and more access to information about our community and its issues, and where it’s easier and easier for them to organize themselves to fight a proposal where their involvement wasn’t wanted, Decide-Announce-Defend grows more and more risky.  You might get away with a few situations where no one is paying attention, but if you don’t learn to bring people to the table at the beginning, help them to be part of the solution, the chances that they will passively accept your Descending will only grow more and more slim.

Enjoy!  And let me know what you think.


M • In the mid-80s I belonged to a well-established network for community and voluntary groups. One week a worker from the Council turned up and announced “I have come to coordinate you”. Oh how we laughed!

More seriously…the worst examples are those CD workers who have clearly no awareness of the history, values, principles or practice of community work. It is just a job title, and they are pursuing a personal or agency agenda under the guise of representing people.


G •  My personal favourite bad community engagement scenario is “Town Hall” meetings with Police commanders, where halls are largely packed with Police supporters, the public sits in rows, and Police explain what they have done well and why they can’t do more without “community support.” They then publish a report indicating that the community is concerning about rising crime ( it’s not rising) and the lack of “visibility” of police, under the title Community Consultation.


P • I was working for an Overseas Development Agency years ago. The ODA and its peers regularly parachuted in (almost literally) non-nationals for 6 month development stints. They did no end of damage. The lesson I learned is that development workers need to come from within the community they’re serving and should be supported to do so for a number of years, if not longer. Any resemblance to the government’s community organisers scheme is purely coincidental.


R • In my view terrible engagement is dishonest engagement. Sadly in our political context … increasingly Governments undertake shame consultations after they have made up their decision already. As consequence the community is becoming frustrated and in future it is much more challenging to authentically engage them.

B • The signs of terrible engagement are imposition of decision thought of by the initiator and action taken without involving others and doing everything on their behalf. Intending to benefit the people and implement a particular programme without obtaining their view point and force them to like things that were never discussed as collective by the intended beneficiaries.


Terrible engagements are counter productive to an extend that the intended beneficiaries can turn reactive and not proactive. It becomes terrible when such person engages hoping to make greater at the expense of other. Terrible engagement creates untrustworth[iness among] the intended beneficiaries.


L • Here is a small and simple example of public involvement/information sharing gone wrong: a utility company that held public meetings about a utility pole plan two years before the work began but did not timely update residents. The community is comprised mainly of renters, many of whom did not live in the vicinity at the time the meetings took place. Lesson: Know your community and plan your engagement/public participation activities accordingly.

R • Terrible engagement is bringing a pre made decision to the public and asking for their input with no intention of modifying the decision. Additionally think tanks and group forums to prioritize decisions where the public is steered to the desired outcome or worse the consensus decision ignored builds distrust.

Equally terrible are land use planning engagement strategies that offer the public a broad indication of what might take place in their community but provide no detail or future ability to comment once details are developed.

M • If this question is asked in reverse what will be the attributes of a successful engagement?


J • like the positive spin, M. I think it’s all the basic stuff which can sometimes be quite tricky to do… like having honest, open and transparent dialogue, being genuinely interested in the end goal of providing something of value to all ( and defining what ‘value’ means) , being flexible and reviewing the project on a regular basis and not being afraid to adapt the plan to ensure the project succeeds.

MS • “Decide-Announce-Defend” is all too often the norm where defending a decision is called consultation. In my view this situation leads to less than ideal engagement and certainly is not meaningful. On the other hand, successful engagement is linked to the alternative approach “Engage-Dialogue-Decide-Implement”. Notice there is no “Defend” in this later approach.


Useful framework for Public Engagement responses from the Victoria Department of Justice

One of the ongoing challenges for anyone involved in online public engagement is determining which comments on an online platform warrant a response, and which ones… well, don’t, for whatever reason.  Especially when we’re personally attached to our project, we sometimes don’t want to let anything go un-commented, even when dealing with a something that your rational brain might say you should just ignore.

The Australian province of Victoria posted this flow chart that I think summarizes pretty nicely the types of comments you are likely to get through any types of open-ended response platform, and how a public representative should most appropriately respond. I think it’s a useful framework for online engagement, and probably also beneficial to keep in mind during in-person public meetings (admittedly, ignoring the goat-getting kind of comments is a little harder there).

Of course, my own belief is that if you can, you should limit these kinds of free-for-all feedback opportunities, and instead use targeted methods focused on specific issues or projects.  You’ll get much more constructive and useful feedback that way, and open yourself up less to Santa Claus wish lists and frustrated expectations.  But ragers, factual errors, agree-ers and others can show up in any open comment field, and it’s best to react based on a logical scenario like this, rather than letting your emotions take the lead.

What do you think?  Do you think this covers all of the possibilities?  Would you choose a different response?  Is there anything in here that is culture-specific — perhaps a different response would be more appropriate if you aren’t in Australia?

Creating a Disruptive Model of Economic Development Innovation: New Community Paradigms at Work

This week’s posts are going to primarily reflect what I heard at last week’s IEDC Leadership Summit, which I think has the potential to turn out to be a sea change moment in economic development history.  Before I start dredging out my notes and recordings from the bottom of my suitcase (returning to Ohio from Florida mean that the warm weather clothes in there are kinda useless at the moment), I wanted to share with you a great post from Community Paradigms that hit last week — and that takes several themes I have written about recently and weaves them together far better than I have.

Brian at Community Paradigms writes:

LinkedIn colleague Della Rucker of Wise, who has been featured on these pages before with Seeing Economy and Community as Ecosystem.  Another Way of Shifting the Paradigm, and Breaking through the complications to face the complexities and coming out wholehad an article that dealt with issues of interest to this blog.
The article was – Go Find Some Non-Experts. You Probably Need Them which raises questions regarding the role of internal staff versus outside consultants and, what is more important, on the relationship of both as professionals or experts to non-expert pro-amateurs in the community.
Della believes that “we have an enormous supply of non-experts who can “approach challenges with a clean lens, bringing together diverse experiences, knowledge and opportunities. We call them the PublicThey know stuff. They’ve done stuff.”

He then goes on to link to a TED talk from Charles Leadbeater on Open Innovation.  Take a look at that — it’s awe-inspiring, and it will give you a window into how people are rethinking the fundamentals of how we get things done.

Brian also pulls out a better explanation of a term I used in that post–Disruptive (or Discontinuous) Innovation…and ties that into the question of engaging non-experts in the expert-laden world of local government better than I did:

Discontinuous innovation addresses the question “if we have to change our behaviour then why would we want to use such a new technology and the answer is that the new technology creates substantial new benefits for its users.”  
This gets to one of the basic concepts of disruptive innovation and that is the job-to-be-done.  More on that in the future but for now it means that if a discontinuous innovation creates a more convenient and cheaper way of doing things which is seen as creating substantial new benefits for a community, despite being labeled as “not as good” by the professionals in city hall, it has the potential of being disruptive.  Conversely, a disruptive innovation that finds a more convenient and cheaper means of doing the job-to-be-done sought by the community could potentially create the means of changing the behavior of the members of the community and therefore the community itself.  City hall does not have to be in the picture.

Brian lays out the challenge before all of us in no uncertain terms:

I am looking instead for disruptive innovation within the public sector, particularly at the local community level…The connection with Della’s focus on discontinuous innovation is that some communities may not be capable of discontinuous innovation until their institutions are innovatively disrupted, whether those institutions do it for themselves or it is done to them….
The conundrum is creating a sustainable albeit amorphous body of non-expert pro-amateursderived from the community that will effectively implement discontinuous innovation beneficial to the community.  First is the obstacle of getting far enough up the Ladder of Citizen Participation (Sherry R. Arnstein) to attain Citizen Control.  Then it is working within the complexities of local and regional economics development.  Assuming the city hall in question has not put up obstacles regarding participation, it is then a matter of accessing these community resources and effectively using them.  No simple tasks by any means.
Della recognizes that trying to find these living community resources through large, usually city hall sponsored, gatherings often only gives the illusion of participation.
We have to set them up to succeed Controlling axe-grinders ain’t enough.”  We have to start doing real public engagement.
As Della has said elsewhere:
“We need to give them the opportunity — and in many cases, a push. By push, I mean that we can set up public engagement activities to push people to think deeper — we can structure the feedback methods, for example, so that people have to identify their position’s ties to larger issues, or its potential unintended consequences.  I frankly think that we’re selling them short if we don’t create an opportunity for as many as possible to given the best insights of which they are capable.”
For myself, the next step is to create a disruptive model of such innovation that can be used by communities to create new community paradigms for themselves.  There will still be a role for the economic development professional though not based on a top down or outside-inside model. The function of the professional is going to have to change dramatically in relation with the community becoming more of facilitator for community empowerment while at the same time becoming all the more creative in community building.  More, however, needs to be said about creating community engagement.
Go check out Brian’s work.  It’s a good way to start a cold Monday morning.  More reports from sunny Orlando (via not-so-sunny Ohio) tomorrow.

Rebooting Economic Development: Getting Past the Incentives Debate

OK.  So we know that economic development incentives can have some benefit, but we also know that easily become too reliant on them.  We have too often viewed economic development as a one-trick pony, a grab-what-you-can-get-and-don’t-look-too-hard-at-the-costs, we-gotta-keep-up-with-the-Jones-even-if-it-kills-us kind of game.  Used simplistically, without carefulness, used as a pickaxe instead of a shovel, we can get our communities in big trouble.  And we have.

We can’t be that simple-minded about it anymore.  We know too much.  And we just don’t have the extra cash to fling around.  We have to get much, much better returns on our investments, on all dimensions.

So if overreliance on incentives, careless use of incentives, is a loser’s game, then what do we do?

I don’t claim to have all the answers (unless it’s telling my son why he can’t have an IPhone).  But we need to start a serious conversation.  It’s starting already, in bits and pieces.  But we can’t just ruminate, just lick our wounds and go back to the same old tomorrow.

So here’s my take on the agenda for that conversation, the things that I think we need to change.  I’d like to know what you’d add or take off.

  • Get serious about doing economic development better.  We have to take a leadership role – we as professionals, we as people who care about our communities, whatever our role.  We cannot afford to wait for some elected official, some professional development organization, someone else to stand up and say it.  If we know it, if we believe it, we gotta do it.  Anything less is telling ourselves an intellectual falsehood – and ensures that we all stay in this laugh-a-minute race to the bottom.


  • Focus on real community impacts.  People are starting to see past the happy job numbers we like to pronounce in conjunction with our incentive deals.  And as social media tools make it easier for the passionate and the thoughtful (and yes, the axe-grinder) to express themselves to a bigger and bigger audience, our ability to ignore the unintended impacts of our work, to pretend we don’t see the ramifications or to take shelter in “that’s not my job” … it just ain’t gonna work, people.

The general public doesn’t see a difference between your job and the guy down the hall  — you’re all part of the same thing.  And the public is going to be talking to each other, and the electeds, about the big picture they see of what’s going on.   The days of being able to hide are coming to a quick end.

That means we’re going to have to start looking at the impacts – not just the new inputs, but also the new costs.  Too many people have seen the new big box in town get followed by a lot of depressing empty storefronts, or the increase in police costs that doesn’t seem to be covered by those new tax dollars that they told us the new buildings would generate (“I can’t believe they’re asking for another tax increase! “).  The connections might not be as simple as the public thinks they are, but they are seeing connections.  And often we haven’t, or pretended not to.


  • Remember that there’s ways to grow an economy other than attracting new businesses.   Economic developers like new businesses, especially new businesses that we can claim _we_ made happen.   Frankly, it’s a hell of a lot of fun—it’s the same rush that keeps people in intense, commission-driven sales jobs, like cars.  It’s fun, that is, when it works – when we can get the sales to drop.   But in most cases, there’s a lot fewer deals than there were 5 years ago.  And the deals that are out there are smaller and less impactful.  Don’t believe me?  Find a copy of Site Selector Magazine from 2005, compare it to one from last month, and see what I mean.

We all know that there’s more, so much more, we could be doing to make a real impact on that local economy – you probably have a pile of books and workbooks and seminar binders on those other things.


The myth of the Big Deal keeps calling us.  It sounds so enticing.  But it’s more like the siren on the rocks in the Odyssey than the golden fleece that it (maybe) used to be.   We have to shift from selling to growing, from marketing to facilitating, if for no other reason than the fact that the big game are on the endangered species list.


  • Focus on making great places where people want to be.  People, more and more and more, make jobs.  They make them for businesses, or they make them for themselves.  That’s not just a hipster town factor, where impeccably sloppy-looking people in expensive glasses sit in coffee houses all day and do something mysterious that somehow earns them money.  It’s increasingly the factor that drives every aspect of the economy.  It’s the one location factor that consistently trumps the incentives game because it’s the one factor that businesses of all types (other than the lowest-paying) cannot live without.


But do not let the planners sweet-talk you into thinking that great places are created by  some magic called Urban Design.  Planners have been too focused on design for too long, as witnessed by hundreds of beautiful streetscapes fronting vacant storefronts and pretty parks that no one uses.   You who think about local economies have a central set of powers for addressing the missing pieces critical for making making great spaces.  And yes, a well-placed, well-considered, targeted incentive that helps a business happen that couldn’t happen on its own can make a key difference between creating a Place that Builds Your Economy and a very pretty, and very expense, collection of planters.


  • Stop trying to be everything to everyone.  Assets are all that matters.  Differentiation equals value. That applies to you, to your town’s businesses, to your town itself.  You know that you cannot be everything to everyone, and you’ve probably talked internally ad nauseum about “targeting” your efforts.  Do that.  Do it with a laser focus.  Being a commodity is useless anymore.  The only way your community adds value, commands the premium that you need it to, is by building on its assets.  And you may simply not have the assets for the latest cool thing (witness the 87,000 towns that were going to be world leaders in “biotech”).  You don’t have to be cool.  You do have to do the best you can with what you have.


  • Give the residents ownership.  In economic development, we’ve been able to hide from the public a lot more than many other local government professions behind the confidentiality requirements of Making the Deal.  But if deals dry up and if the people who elect and talk to your electeds don’t see (or believe) the value of what you are generating, what good was all that secrecy for you, anyways?


If you are truly going to make great places, build on your assets, do all this stuff we just said, then you’re going to need their help.  You certainly can’t incent your way there.  You will need a lot more, a whole lot more, than what you can generate out of your little nonprofit or City Hall.  Even more importantly, the people who live in your town aren’t dummies, even if they don’t know all the inside ball that you do.  Even if some of them have sounded like total dummies in some public hearing you had last year (it takes a very specific skill set to not sound stupid in that context).

They know things about the community, about how it works, what assets it has, what the connections look like, what opportunities are being overlooked.   They won’t be able to just hand you magic answers (like you, they could be wrong), and you will need to do like good teachers do and develop a structure to help them get out what they know.  And it takes a while to build those working-together muscles, for you and for them, and you might stumble while you are learning.   But putting your head together with theirs, collaboratively, can’t do anything but help.


So… let’s talk. Let’s figure out how to do economic development better, more constructively, more in tune with the era we live in.  Let’s get past wound-licking, past ruminating  over whether or not this or that program does or does not do what’s promised.  We need a deep re-thinking, a re-alignment with a world that has changed since the 1960s.  We need a reboot.

Let’s get to work.

Go Find Some Non-Experts. You Probably Need Them.

We have this deep-seated desire to believe that experts can hand us answers. We spend huge sums on consultants (the ones who claim to have 937 years of combined experience) in the hope that they will lead us to some promised land — or at least, figure out for us a palatable solution to the tough issues that our communities are facing.

And then we find out, sometimes a generation later, that they sold us snake oil, or that their answers created unintended consequences that chew away at  our communities’ strength.

There are an increasing number of voices that are challenging the assumption that past experience correlates to ability to solve current problems — especially those problems that are, as the academics put it, discontinuous — fundamentally different from what has happened before.  In that setting, relying on experience can hobble, rather than help.

One person who has written about this recently is Naveen JainNaveen can claim pretty decent cred on this topic — he has founded multiple tech firms, he’s a trustee of the X Prize Foundations…. when it comes to innovative problem-solving for complex issues, this guy knows his stuff. Here’s what he wrote recently in Forbes — I’m excerpting heavily, but do go read the whole column later:

Naveen Jain
Part of me wants to sign up for his job. Part of me thinks that’d be a good way to get sick.

…[P}eople who will come up with creative solutions to solve the world’s biggest problems…will NOT be experts in their fields. The real disruptors will be those individuals who are not steeped in one industry of choice, with those coveted 10,000 hours of experience, but instead, individuals who approach challenges with a clean lens, bringing together diverse experiences, knowledge and opportunities….

Experts, far too often, engage in a kind of myopic thinking. Those who are down in the weeds are likely to miss the big picture. To my mind, an expert is in danger of becoming a robot, toiling ceaselessly toward a goal but not always seeing how to connect the dots.

The human brain, or more specifically the neo-cortex, is designed to recognize patterns and draw conclusions from them. Experts are able to identify such patterns related to a specific problem relevant to their area of knowledge. But because non-experts lack that base of knowledge, they are forced to rely more on their brain’s ability for abstraction, rather than specificity. This abstraction — the ability to take away or remove characteristics from something in order to reduce it to a set of essential characteristics — is what presents an opportunity for creative solutions.

I also believe that the value of expertise is diminished in a world dominated by two trends: the accelerating pace of innovation and the ubiquity of information….The digital revolution has also meant a revolution in access to information. This puts more power and knowledge into the hands of non-experts… Granted, they alone don-t make us experts — but they give us access to information in abundance, giving us a greater base from which to “think big.”


Two implications for those of us who work with communities:

  1. Once we realize what Naveen is telling us, and realize that our communities are in a moment where they desperately need what the business world calls “discontinuous innovation,” the questions that we have to ask any consultant we are considering to work on our communities undergoes a sea change.  A large number of years of experience might be a liability, rather than an asset, if it means they will stick with the tried-and-true that may not work anymore, or may not work for your community. Crowing over success in an project somewhere else might obligate you to probe the consultant’s ability to pivot — can they shift away from the method they used before if it doesn’t fit here?

Intellectual flexibility, the ability to tap that power of abstraction and connect those dots, rather than start doing the Robot, may be the most important skill they can bring to the table. (As a consultant with more years under my belt than I’d like to admit, you think writing that doesn’t make me squirm a little bit? Ha.)

  1. The good news is that we have an enormous supply of non-experts who can “approach challenges with a clean lens, bringing together diverse experiences, knowledge and opportunities.” We call them the Public. They know stuff. They’ve done stuff. They have the power of abstraction that those of us in the weeds struggle to grasp. We have to set them up to succeed, but if we do, they might, just might, present our best opportunity for the discontinuous innovation that we need. After all, us experts haven’t solved the problems yet.

Maybe it’s time to bring in the real experts.


Updated and expanded Online Public Engagement White Paper

As we stagger across the finish line for this year (“stagger” and “December” seem to go together unnervingly well in my life), we are glad to provide you with an updated white paper outlining available public engagement platforms.  This edition included added sections on three providers who were not discussed in the version we released in November and updated information on some of the others.

We know of at least three platforms or apps that were were not able to include in this one, so look for a new edition in early 2013.

In 2013, we’ll also be starting to work on tools to help you analyze this increasingly complex range of choices for your own project and community.  If you have ideas about information that would be particularly helpful for you, please let us know!

A hundred thanks again to Patrick Whalen for his yeoman’s work in making sense of all this stuff.

Bon appetit!  Or something like that….

Online Engagement Platforms White Paper WEW NWPE 12 20 12


Full archived webinar of Reaching the Ones Who Don’t Show Up: Using Web 2.0 Tools for Public Engagement

Just a quick note to let you know that if you want to see and hear the full presentation of Reaching the Ones Who Don’t Show up, it’s posted now at:

If that doesn’t work, it’s also at:

Sorry, but no continuing education credits for listening to/watching this.   Not my set of rules, ya know….

You can find the whole collection of AICP Continuing Education webinars at

This version includes the presentation from Steve Miller of MindMixer, as well as the Question and Answer session, which was pretty interesting.

If you want to see the white paper that was referenced in the beginning of my presentation, you can download it here.  A revised version with couple of new additions will be out in a couple of weeks.





New Podcast: Selections from Reaching the Ones Who Don’t Show Up: Using Web 2.0 Tools for Better Public Engagement

The podcast below is a selection from the presentation I did with Steve Miller of MindMixer about the disconnect between our usual methods of public engagement and how people actually want to participate in their communities, along with a review of key considerations in selecting the right online public engagement platform for your project or community.  We did this presentation in conjunction with the launch of the revised Online Public Engagement Tools White Paper, which has received an amazing reception from the worldwide planning and public engagement communities.

Thanks to the American Planning Association chapters’ AICP Continuing Education Webinar series for the invite to speak, and thanks to Steve for an awesome counterpoint.  Due to a technical error on my part, I cannot share Steve’s presentation with you here, but we’ll get the slides posted as soon as possible.



Plan Build Live Public Engagement Wins Award!

We’re delighted to announce that our partners at Northlich, LLC  won a Public Relations Society of America Blacksmith Award last week for our community engagement effort around Plan Build Live, the project we are working on with the City of Cincinnati to revamp the city’s land use and development regulations.

Let’s let Northlich speak for themselves:

Northlich, in partnership with Wise Economy Workshop, was tasked with designing and leading a public engagement campaign to announce the City of Cincinnati Planning and Buildings Department’s Plan Build Live initiative in an accessible manner, with the goal of capturing and maintaining media attention and garnering exposure for the initiative to ensure Cincinnatians know the role they can play in shaping the plan.

Within the first months of the campaign launch, Northlich secured the following results:

  • More than 3.1 million print and online earned impressions,
  • Front page of the business section in the Cincinnati Enquirer,
  • Coverage in other key Cincinnati outlets such as the Business Courier, the Cincinnati Herald, and Soapbox,
  • 700+ residents attending the citywide Urban Design Workshop, and
  • More than 102,179 social media impressions.

Not too bad for a zoning code rewrite…

Thanks also to our friends at Urban Interactive Studios and MindMixer, who are together responsible for Plan Build Live’s  online platforms – the first project collaboration between online public engagement firms that we know of.

We’re grateful for the chance to work with some of the best and brightest – and to break new ground in the process.  Check out for more information.

Podcast: A CDC Becomes a Savvy Negotiator at the East Liberty Development Corp., Pittsburgh

building under rehailitation
The building across the street, In process.

Talk about fascinating… One of the most successful community development corporations in the country once has a balance sheet of zero.  What do you do to help an organization like that get its footing — and get some much-needed redevelopment going in a hard-hit neighborhood at the same time?  Make them an investor in the project.

I interviewed Skip Schwab, Director of Operations for the East Liberty Redevelopment corporation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in mid-September.  East Liberty was once the third-largest shopping district in the state (yes, state), but got hit with a massive dose of disinvestment and well-intended but incredibly destructive urban renewal in the 1960s.   So this is the story of how a relatively small amount of well-placed redevelopment money and a commitment to meaningful public engagement around a plan set the stage for revitalization… and took years to play out.

The sound quality on this recording isn’t idea — finding a place in East Liberty that was relatively quiet on a hot early fall day turned out to be more of a challenge than either Skip or I planned.  And there are some tapping noises occasionally that I can’t trace.  Sometimes you gotta work with what ya got.

A couple of things to particularly look out for in this story:

  • During his time at LISC, Skip set up the CDC for its long-term success by giving them a seat at the table during the redevelopment discussions–but not putting them in a position of having to manage it, a task that the organization at that time would have found impossible.  When we work in a nonprofit setting, we sometimes assume that we have to be in charge in order to meet our mission, but I would propose that it’s better to be a savvy negotiator than a helpless and over-extended recipient.  The revolving loan that has grown out of that first investment and intelligent follow-ups says volumes about the wisdom of that approach.

    church building
    The Cathedral of Hope. At least, part of it. It’s huge.


  • The building that we discussed as being under construction at the time of the interview, and is literally across the street from the alcove bench that Skip and I were sitting on, was identified as the neighborhood’s top priority for redevelopment as early as 1999.  Almost 15 years ago.  Between then and now, at least four reputable, experienced developers tried to get the building rehabilitated… and failed.  The market could not support a reasonable use for it yet.  It is only now, over a decade into the area’s revitalization, that someone has been able to make the project work.  I haven’t investigated the project in detail, and I won’t claim to know if there might have been some creative way to make something work in the intervening years.  My suspicion is that if there had been a way, in this particular environment, with all the activity and pressure surrounding the building, someone would.

Most organizations would have flogged at that project because of its high priority and visibility, even as it clearly wasn’t working and as other, more achievable opportunities developed.  Revitalization isn’t a game of perfection, and from a position of relative hindsight it appears that they made the right call in letting this one sit on a back burner until other factors, including other high-profile developments, enabled enough change in the market to make a rehabilitation possible.  But….imagine the organizational guts required to keep it on that back burner, to fight the urge and the political pressure to try to force it to happen.  Imagine the tough questions, the snarky comments in the press.  And imagine the potential self-doubt among organization leaders.  That’s bravery, that’s grit.

  • Notice the importance that Skip places on the fact that the neighborhood had a plan — not the importance he places on it today as a staff member, but the importance he placed on the plan back then when he was the funder.  When he was trying to decide the reasonableness of an investment in a neighborhood with an urban renewal mess — and more importantly, a mess of an organization — the existence of the plan made the difference between funding and not funding.  And note that the plan he cites as making that difference wasn’t the urban design plan, with its pretty pictures and lovely renderings of some perfect future state.  At least in this interview, Skip doesn’t give that much attention.  His decision to pull the trigger, to make the investment in one of dozens of neighborhoods that were probably crying out for help at the same time, was driven by a community plan — by a document that demonstrated where the people of the neighborhood stood, what their priorities were, what problems they perceived and how willing they were to support change.  It was that plan, not the one with the pictures, that gave him as a funder the confidence that this was an investment with potential.

So again, please forgive the sound goofiness, and enjoy.  I had a blast with this interview, and I’d encourage you to check out  You can also find an interesting article on the district’s urban renewal legacy at


And of course, you can read about or listen to my interview with East End resident Rebecca Maclean of Food Me Once, Digging Deep  and Salt Pig Chicken Something fame  as we talk urban revitalization, entrepreneurship and hot dogs in East Liberty.

Whassa matter with social media?

Nothing.  I’m a diehard Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn user.  I know some people have ambivalent relationships with this stuff.  Not me.  A day without checking my Twitter feed anymore feels like a visit to the Dark Ages.   Just like when I started using email years and years ago – I simply cannot imagine life without it anymore. But as local government and community types start using social media tools more and more, I think it’s essential for us to look at these with a clear, un-awed eye…. and realize that what we need to do our jobs well probably requires much more than a Facebook page.

Social media platforms are tools.  They’re good for many uses, but — just like you can’t drive a nail very well with a tape measure — there are things that each platform, as great as they are, simply cannot do well.

One of the things that standard social media platforms do pretty poorly is facilitate broad and meaningful public engagement in complex, messy situations.

I’ve written before about how public meetings that consist of an audience and a stand mic are, by and large, completely ineffective for enabling constructive engagement.  The open format of a social media platform is basically just a bigger microphone.  And if the human tendency to either dominate the floor or hide in the corner often ruins our ability to get anything worthwhile out of a public meeting, how much benefit can we realistically expect from the wide-open platform of a Facebook page or a Twitter stream?

Let me give you two examples, one from the local government world and one from… somewhere more fun.  Let’s start with local government:

  • The Mayor of Cincinnati, Mark Mallory, maintains a Facebook page.  He and his staff use it to post information, announcements, pictures of local events, etc.  A few months ago he posted a picture of a very significant groundbreaking – the start of a trolley line in Downtown Cincinnati.  A very big deal, and a huge accomplishment for his administration.  But an accomplishment that (like many accomplishments) has vehement opponents.

So what happened when he posted this happy picture?  A quick succession of bitter comments rehashing the opposition to the streetcar effort.  Which of course then generated equally nasty comments from trolley supporters (who are also equally vehement).

For about six hours, the level of vitriol in the comments on that picture crept toward nuclear detonation.  Then someone from the Mayor’s office apparently noticed what was going on and pulled the plug, but not before a lot of people had jacked up their blood pressure by a few notches.  And not before another small but sad chapter was added to Cincinnati’s struggles to have a rational discussion about an important issue.


  • My favorite band in the universe did a livestream broadcast of a concert a few nights ago to launch a new album.  People like me (marginally nuts, admittedly) from all over the world were jumping up and down in front of their computer waiting for it to start.  The company sponsoring the livestream also had a Twitter stream scrolling across the bottom of the web page, and tweets from viewers gushed in from all over the world.

About three songs in, the internet feed cut out entirely.  Apparently a bad storm was wreaking havoc on the transmission.  The Twitter feed at the bottom, though, kept running…. and the comments about the sponsoring company were not exactly what anyone would want associated with their name.  In the end, the transmission was restored, we got to see most of the concert, and all was mostly right with the world… but even now, if you go to Twitter and look up the hashtag associated with the broadcast…let’s just say that there’s a lot in that stream that ain’t going to show up in anyone’s marketing campaign anytime soon.


Both of these anecdotes illustrate a critical challenge: If you simply open the floodgates, and you don’t have adequate controls or channeling mechanisms in places, at some point you will get hit with a deluge – and there will be lots of things in the stream that you didn’t want to run into.

I don’t think there’s any question that social media is here to stay and will substantially rewire the way we communicate, the way we find and connect to other people, the way we learn about the world and ourselves.  But if what we want to foster is a constructive, colaborative conversation that moves our community forward in a meaningful way, we have to become much, much more sophisticated than simply throwing up a Twitter hashtag and a Facebook page.

Meaningful conversations require effort to make and keep them reasonable – and we know from our

close up from movie The GodFather
Ya wanna mess with this guy? I didn’t think so.

public meeting experience and from our own lives that we as humans don’t always put in this effort.  When we do public engagement, for whatever reason, we need to actively manage the process – we have to support the people who are sincerely trying to be part of the solution and channel away from those more simplistic or less sincere tendencies that often scuttle our best intentions.  We can do this, and we can choose from a wide assortment of online tools to help us do that.  But we have to make the conscious effort.  We have to do much more than stick a mic in the middle of the room, even if that mic is called “social media.”



Controlling axe-grinders ain’t enough: Doing real public engagement

A week or so ago I wrote about the tactics I used to manage a public question and answer session for an agency that was putting on this event as part of the lead-up to their comprehensive plan update.  The response, as I wrote here, has been amazing – and a lot of people had additional great ideas to share.

A couple of people noted very astutely that the specific situation I described wasn’t adequate to do what I would term meaningful public engagement – getting the full cross-section of people deeply involved in understanding and trying to find the solutions to the community’s big challenges.  As Al Jones wrote, if Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton had been limited to asking a couple of short questions and listening to some powdered wig answer, there would have been no Federalist Papers… and probably no functional United States.  And as Don Broussard noted, “Attendees who invest their valuable time often do not merely want to ask questions and they deserve to make comments.”

Gold star to both gentlemen.  If the only public engagement that any agency does is a half hour Q and on the tail of an hour long panel discussion, that’s lip service to the idea of public engagement.  And it would be no surprise if the special interests that were prevented from dominating that meeting (to the detriment of every other point of view in that room) came back more determined than ever the next time.

I’ve written before about the fact that our usual methods for public engagement miserably fail to do what we actually need – engage our residents, our local experts, in the real search for solutions.  If people come into a public setting with an axe to grind, that should indicate to us their massive pent-up demand for real, meaningful participation.  And if the only time we open the doors to our residents, business owners, people who care about our place, is when we want them to listen to us, then we have made our own bed.  And it’s an increasingly uncomfortable one to lie in.

The International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) has developed what they term a Spectrum of Public Participation.  It’s copyrighted, so I can’t reproduce it here, but you can see it at this location.  The Spectrum identifies five potential levels of public engagement:






A panel discussion/Q&A such as I described is designed to Inform – to help the interested public increase their understanding of and capacity for the other levels of engagement.   It’s supposed to be an introductory session, a What’s Going On 101 survey class like the kind you probably slept through a few times in college.  And in that case, the meeting management goal is to give everyone a fair chance to get their heads around the information.

But if we do only that – even if we add on the written feedback we talked about – we haven’t “done” public engagement.  We haven’t created an opportunity for anyone to “participate,” let alone “engage.”

And make no mistake: Your residents want to engage.  They want to engage as deeply, as meaningfully, as powerfully as they can.  They want to be part of the solution.  They may come in with a contorted or misinformed idea of what the solutions look like, and they may come in with a sense of mistrust – deep suspicion that whatever you’re doing is a sham.  They’ve built up a few decades of scar tissue to get to this point, so if they don’t trust us, you honestly can’t blame them for that.

It becomes our responsibility to break through that distrust, to re-stitch our community’s meaningful engagement.  And that’s not something we can do with a moderated Q&A, or one meeting of any type.   When we plan, or make decisions of any type about the futures of our communities, we need to do much more than Inform.  We need to extend as far up that engagement hierarchy as we can go.  And we can’t do that in one meeting, or with one method for letting a few sample people talk.  We have to design our public engagement consciously, drawing on a continuum of methods and tools to enable and guide people to real participation.  I’ll write more about how exactly we can do that in the future.


I just found a comment posted in an online forum, apparently from one of the members of the special interest group who spoke at that meeting.  The gentleman asserted that two younger people who spoke in favor of public art and bike trails were “obvious plants.”  I’ll swear on anything you give me that I had never seen those two before.

It took a long time for us and our predecessors to get to this point, where people who have the bravery to stand up and state honest diverging opinions are taken for plants.   We didn’t necessarily make this mess ourselves.  But if we are going to fix our communities, we have start by fixing the relationship between our residents and their governments.  It has to start with us.  And that will take more than just managing a few people with an axe to grind.


Launching a new series for PlannersWeb

I have the honor of being asked to become a regular contributor to PlannersWeb, the updated and interactive successor to the popular Planning Commissioners Journal.  While the column I wrote for PCJ typically focused on the intersection of planning issues and economic development, the column for PlannersWeb is coming out of my other professional passion: methods and tactics for doing worthwhile public engagement.

The quote below is a segment from the first column… and a taste of what’s to come.  If you’re interested, check out for a whole lot of good insight, tools and tricks from bright practitioners across the country.


Instead of doing “public participation” that actually makes our plans and our projects better, we have an unfortunate history of relegating people to a couple of predetermined alternatives. Or we claim that we are doing “public participation” through a forum — typically an “open mic” meeting, where often the only people we hear from are those who love to hear their voices reverberate — or have an axe to grind.

Your sweet grandmother says nothing because she is deathly afraid of public speaking, and your smart aunt who always has good ideas stays away entirely because she doesn’t want to waste her time listening to the crackpots ramble.

No wonder we have trouble getting people to show up for meetings.

When we do public participation, we need to give people something worthwhile to do – something that they can see will truly matter, will produce something of value. We need to get them involved in grappling with the same issues we are facing. We need to empower them to struggle with the tradeoffs that we know are necessary, and we need to give them the chance to play a meaningful role in finding real solutions and making concrete recommendations. Since they may not know how to do it or where to start, we need to give them a structure in which to work. We need to guide them in the process and take away the barriers, like fear of public speaking, that keep people from participating….

We need to rethink and restructure how we engage the community before that failed approach drags us under.

Thanks again to Wayne and Betsey and PlannersWeb for this exciting opportunity.  If you care about how to make better planning happen, I encourage you to check PlannersWeb out.

More great ways to manage public meetings – crowdsource-style!


As I am writing this, more than 1,500 people have read the article on strategies for managing public meetings – blowing the previous record for this site way out of the water.  Thanks for the boost to my (enormous and ever-hungry) ego, folks!

Here’s the cool part:  the comments – both here and on various LinkedIn groups where the article link was posted – have demonstrated an awesome level of wisdom.  The commenters have raised observations, identified strategies and uncovered general good practices that we should all stick in our back pocket for next time.

So instead of leaving them scattered all over the Internetz, I’m excerpting them here. I’ll add my comments in italics  below each quote.

Thanks so much to all of the people who took the time to share their expertise.  If you have other good ideas, please feel free to post them in the comment box at the bottom of the page,  It would be great fun to keep this conversation going.

Y’all are smart cookies.  Thanks again.   🙂


Part of the delusion of public meetings is [that] the folks with an axe to grind, a vehement agenda, compelling self-interest in the decision, etc. are the ones who make the time to go and then participate.   It gives the ready illusion of a majority opinion, a consensus, the will of the voters or at least a powerful voting bloc’s pique or placation, and of course that’s the whole point…. I’ve noticed in town assessment sessions of 8-17 separate listening sessions in a couple of days, most of the insightful stuff came from quiet people thoughtful personwho shared their thoughts at the end as the noisy ones filed out, proud that they’d restated the obvious or their passion loudly and publicly yet again.

–       Al Jones

You got that right, Al.  One of the major reasons for not moderating passively — letting whoever say whatever, like many public meeting leaders do — is that you will probably end up with a less accurate representation of what the community thinks than you would if you made a more active effort to hear from a mix of participants.

We who live so much of our lives in the public realm have an incredibly hard time remembering how many of our citizens quake in fear of the idea of going near that mic.  But give them a chance to talk out of the spotlight, and it’s amazing what you will learn from them.  If you don’t believe me, ask the other parents on your kid’s soccer team or your mother’s bridge club friends how they would feel about talking to an auditorium full of people.  You’ll get an earful.   


My observations in public meetings is that many people do not know how to be civil during the process. This includes elected and appointed officials. I believe that moderators definitely help, but they are not utilized often enough.

– Denese Neu, Ph.D

 [One of the things I have learned] from my experience in some extremely tough positions and environments is that the up front keys to not let a meeting get out of control is to set your own expectations, know as much about the attitudes of the potential audience and prepare to accept an outcome that is reasonable to the situation.

-John R. Zakian, CEcD


Great point, Denese and John.   

When teachers start a new school year, one of the first things they do is discuss classroom ground rules with the kids.  That’s critical to setting the expectations where they need to be, and it gives everyone a common reference point when someone doesn’t behave. 

We can definitely do that in a public meeting setting – in the meeting that I described, I actually did start by reminding the audience what we were there to talk about and pointing out that we needed to keep the comments on that track because that was what others had come for (additional point: invoking a little peer pressure doesn’t hurt – I got the definite sense that some of the agenda people did a quick reshuffling of what they wanted to say because of it). 

teacher in front of classroomOne really good teacher trick that we can use in some settings is to ask the participants what the ground rules should be.  You get 90% of the same rules that you would have if you just imposed them, you might get some others that are beneficial to the particular setting and group, and the whole audience becomes part-owners of the civility and quality of the conversation.  The downside is that this process takes a little longer – I tend to use this for groups that will meet multiple times, like a steering committee, rather than a public Q &A.       


Acknowledge the person and repeat the question or statement to the wider audience;
It is sometimes useful to ask a counter question instead of trying to defend e.g. “What do you think is the solution?”;
Suggest to them to discuss the issue in more detail after the meeting.

– Déan Jacobs

A couple of people pointed out the benefit of asking people to propose solutions, rather than just complain.  That can definitely lend a much the higher level of constructive value to the conversation – and after the first couple of times you do that, people will think twice about pure bellyaching because they realize that they will be asked for a solution. 

I would be careful about where and with whom you use this strategy, however… in some cases, that approach could open the door for the off-topic agenda that someone is hiding below the surface.  If your Spidey-sense tingles at the idea of giving the commenter an opening to lay into their agenda, you can ask the rest of the participants to propose solutions.  That has the additional benefit of broadening the conversation beyond one interest group as well.   


One other tip:  When someone is getting fired up on a rant, stop them with a compliment about whatever they said that is closest to the topic on hand (“That’s an interesting angle on what we heard about earlier from the other side of the room.”  or “Thanks for bringing up….  I was going to bring that up later, but let’s stay with that.”)

Then restate if neccessary.

Then say, “I want to hear more about this topic.  Who else has a comment on …?”

–Steve Schoeny

Great tactic, Steve.  Love how this end the rant, shifts the attention away from the ranter and back to the whole audience… all while making the ranter feel like he/she might have just gotten a compliment!


One of the best examples I’ve heard of comes from Tom Hudson… who would never toot his own horn. He’s told of his experience in a public meeting that he was facilitating where they expected the appearance of a man who had made threatening calls to the city. Sure enough, the guy showed up drunk and belligerent. He did some ranting and the police removed him.

After things settled, Tom, who is one of the keenest observers of human nature I’ve ever met, concluded: “Now there’s a person who really cares about his community!”

Tom suggests turning a crowd into your friends, because both positive and negative comments should be shaping outcomes and solutions.

I couldn’t agree more!

-Gary Hanes


Gary and Tom (agreed – Tom is outstanding!) point out two very valuable lessons:

  • Yes, definitely make friends with the audience.  Channelling your inner standup comic can take a little practice, but few things gentle up a potentially confrontational meeting like a laugh. 
  • Sometimes, despite our best efforts, having police as co-workers comes in handy …


I only wish we had microphones in some of my meetings. I’ve had to resort to other strategies to keep control. Moving around the audience — even turning my back to loud mouths — has been essential to keeping the discussion (or dialog) distributed.

A meeting is a process for learning, and people change their positions. Extroverts speak loudly too soon; introverts wait too long and speak too quietly. A good facilitator must keep track of the different personalities and engage them all frequently summarizing and rolling this “dough” around as the dialog takes shape.

-Paul Aydelott

Nice tactic — gotta be a little careful about how exactly you do the back-turning, but sometimes it’s all in the finesse, eh?  

I like your definition of a meeting, and I think that gives us a basis for re-designing how we set these kinds of sessions up.  I think there’s a risk for the people who do speak that the moment at the center stage can make it impossible to change your mind.   In many cases, the usual format could push people into feeling that they must cling to the position they staked out at the beginning, rather than being able to reconsider.  But again, we have to keep in mind that the people who speak are not the only ones who have opinions.  Follow-up surveys — paper, online, raising hands — can help that “dough  rolling” process.  


When I’m running a public meeting over a controversial topic, I use note cards and have people write down their questions. Then staff members will shift through questions and read the most relevant ones out loud. This also helps people collect their thoughts rather than just rambling at a microphone. I also agree with your point that you don’t have to call on everyone! :> Especially if you’re running on a schedule. Facilitators can always take questions and post answers online or send them out to the group. I also make myself available for questions after the meeting.
-Tifinie Capehart, MUP

Both good ideas.  The note card tactic gives tighter control and doesn’t allow for much participant conversation, but requiring people to organize their thoughtsin writing can often benefit the overall quality of the feedback. 

You do need to be a little careful about whether everyone in attendance can participate in this manner – someone who cannot write because of disability or illiteracy, or someone who doesn’t work in written English well, can be essentially muted in this situation.  So it’s critical to provide another alternative method for feedback – even if that’s just talking to a staffer afterward. 

One of the pieces we do often fumble is the follow-up.  Posting answers to questions that were not answered during the meeting, follow-up on factual questions, etc. can go a long way toward demonstrating that your agency was paying attention.  Just sticking that on your website, however, can be like sticking the memo in the back of the file cabinet – if you did it and people don’t know that you did it, you probably shouldn’t have wasted your time.  It needs to be not only accessible and readily visible, but the fact that it’s there needs to be publicized.   


I don’t know if some of  [the methods described] — like never letting go of the microphone (a really good idea) — could be used at a formal public hearing like on a special use permit.

– Daniel Lauber

That’s a good question, and it’s going to depend a lot on what your local regulations and policies prescribe.  Certainly, if you’re going to use that kind of strategy in a public hearing format, you would need to make sure that you take the mic to every single person who wants it, and that everyone has access to methods for feedback other than the in-person, in-meeting comment.  You certainly should make those kinds of options available in any situation. 


A big issue with the uninvolved facilitator I’ve noticed … was that they often focus too much on the process…[you have a] big thorny issue, [the facilitator gives you]15 minutes of one-liner brainstorming with no time for evaluation or thoughts too complex to take more than a catchphrase or 10 words, and [the facilitator assures that] we’ll wrassle through this in the meeting time allocated. Think of all of the thoughts in the Federalist Papers compressed to an hour with Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson each restricted to being called on once or twice.

–Al Jones


Al raises an uber-issue here: if we are sincere about public engagement, a two-hour public meeting with half an hour of controlled Q&A isn’t enough to get the job done.  When we design a site, we go through multiple steps that each add something different to the final result.  When we negotiate an economic development deal, we do the same thing – several steps, each for a different purpose          , the whole is the sum of the parts.  Useful, constructive, meaningful public engagement is no different.  We need to craft a multi-prong, multi-step approach.  More on that next time. 


Podcast: Buy 25 Tuesdays with Walnut Hills Revitalization Fund

We’re getting ready to launch a new addition to the Wise Economy Workshop — a podcast series that includes both readings from blogs and interviews with people who are doing interesting things to create Wise Economies in their communities.  The series will be available as an RSS feed from I Tunes and Stitcher shortly — as soon as we reconfigure a couple of things on the web site to make that feed work correctly. We’re looking for great stories to tell, so if you know of one that illustrates how to put the Wise Economy idea into action, please, drop me a line.


A couple of weeks ago I had a chance to sit down with Kevin Wright, the executive director of the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Fund in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Kevin’s organization serves a storied urban neighborhood that was the second-largest retail center in southwestern Ohio 75 years ago – but one that now experiences much of the vacancy, the deterioration, the challenges and the temptations of hopelessness that dog so many urban communities.  And like many of those neighborhoods, the local grocery store – both a basic service and a center of the community – has been at risk of closing for a long time.

But that’s where the story changes.

Kevin’s organization has been leading an initiative that takes the cash mob idea to a whole new place – and in the process started to shake up assumptions about urban neighborhoods and ways to get things done.  The initiative, which is a new one, is called Buy 25 Tuesdays.  Listen to or download the interview below, and you’ll discover a whole new way to change the discussion about your community.


Buy 25 Tuesdays Podcast

Here’s a few things I think we should take away from Kevin’s story:

  • This initiative didn’t work because the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation made it happen.  it works because it has drawn together the full range of the community’s organizational capacity.  The Redevelopment Fund could not do this on its own – it does not have that kind of connection to the people they need to do the buying.  In years past, the Redevelopment Foundation and some of its partners might not have even considered collaborating like this – this is your turf and this is mine – but when they threw away those assumptions, this solution became possible.


  • When the organizations started looking to recruit those $25 buyers, they didn’t scattershot – they didn’t do what most urban planners do, which is to try to talk to everyone.  Instead, they focused on a small number of populations that they suspected would resonate to the idea.  Everyone who uses that store benefits, but only a targeted subset of the most motivated were mobilized.


  • When they developed that targeting strategy, they didn’t limit themselves to the arbitrary boundaries of neighborhoods. They understood that to find enough of the people who cared about that store’s viability, they needed to go beyond Walnut Hills proper – they needed to cover the store’s functional trade area.  Shoppers don’t worry about whether the grocery store is in “their” neighborhood or not, but people who work in community revitalization often feel obligated to stick within their official boundaries.  In this case, such an arbitrary cut-off would have probably killed the effort from the start.


  • Even though you might have assumed that Kroger leadership would leap with glee (“Hi, we’re coming to spend money in your store”), the neighborhood organizations experienced an initial wave of pushback from Kroger, which was probably understandably confused by such an out-of-the-box initiative coming from a neighborhood that seemed to present few opportunities.  Corporate leaders have come around and are beginning to partner meaningfully with the neighborhood, but that was nowhere near guaranteed even a few weeks ago.


  • The media coverage that got the corporation’s attention did not come out of the newspaper or TV broadcast. At the time I talked to Kevin, none of the traditional media had covered the Walnut Hills Buy 25 yet .   What got their attention?  A blog and a volunteer-posted video.   A lot of us still assume that we have to get coverage in the paper, on the TV news, whatever was historically the Big Media Gun in our community.  But that’s less and less the case, and in many cases might not be necessary anymore at all.


Keep in mind that what you are hearing here is a long-term initiative that is only a few steps off the blocks.  As Kevin indicated, it’s a very good start, but a start.  And the deep challenge facing this coalition of little organizations will be how to maintain the necessary consistent effort.  We have tendency to want that quick solution, and it takes a special breed of dedication to maintain focus and energy around an initiative that may take months or years to achieve its goals. But the issues that matter, these aren’t magic bullet solution kinds of issues.  We have to keep long game in mind.  So far, the Walnut Hills Revitalization Foundation and its partners are doing just that.  I hope they keep at it.  And I’ll look forward to checking in with them again in a few months.


How to run an effective public meeting when dealing with people who have an agenda.

The other night I served as moderator for a panel discussion and audience Q&A that is part of a local organization’s efforts to update their comprehensive plan.  Like many planning organizations, this agency has had some ugly run-ins with a particular interest group, and they wanted someone to manage the meeting and keep the conversation on track.

I’ve been running public meetings and discussion groups and classrooms and focus groups and God knows what else for decades – I earned my stripes on that front long before I knew what a zoning code was.  So I agreed to help them out.

I’m a little more reluctant than a consultant probably should be about blowing my own horn, so the rest of this blog post sits a little uneasily with me, with all those “I’s” in there.  But, as staffers and Planning Commission members and participants on the panel came up to me afterward, it became clear to me that I had done certain things in the management of that meeting that might be more unexpected, less in line with usual practices, than I often assume when I am living inside my own mind.  So I did a little self-analysis, walking through the meeting and the choices that I made while moderating, and identified a few decisions that probably led to the meeting’s success.  So, here’s what I think I (and the agency) did right:

  • An outside moderator ain’t a bad idea.  As the outsider, I had a lot of aces up my sleeve.  Since I didn’t know any more than the broad outline of the previous confrontations, I could plead innocence (and get away with acting a little more innocent than I probably am).  I didn’t have any stake in the ground, so no one had any reason to accuse me of bias.  I didn’t know exactly who the potential troublemakers were, but I had a sense of where they were concentrated, so I could make sure that the question opportunities were spread around with little risk of specifically ignoring one person or another based on some history they had with the agency.


Most importantly, I could take a strong leadership role because I didn’t have to worry about offending anyone.  After all, when this is over, I am going home, people.   If I had been in the city I live in, with people I knew in the audience, I would have found myself in a very different situation.


  • Never let go of the microphone.  I almost never take public questions via a stand mic or podium in the front of the room.  I almost always go at it Phil Donohue-style – I wade as deep into the audience as the cords will let me and either hold the mic for speakers or repeat their questions over the sound system (which also allows you to rephrase – valuable if someone has an axe to grind and wants to talk about something that is off topic).   


I made the mistake with the first public question of giving the microphone to the guy (he was a lot taller than me), and I realized almost immediately that I had put us at risk of substituting a soapbox speech for a constructive question.  Fortunately, that didn’t happen.  The rest of the time, I went back to my usual modus operandi and told each person “that’s OK, I’ll just hold the mic for you.”  That makes it easier to control the sound quality, too.


  • Just because someone puts their hand up doesn’t mean you need to call on them.   We have this assumption from our days in school that the first one with the hand up is the one that should get to show off his or her knowledge — but we all know that teachers select who they will call on, and after a while the kid who knows all the answers doesn’t get called on anymore.  Only calling on that person wouldn’t do the rest of the students much good.  We don’t want to ignore people if we can help it, but a forum where we need to understand the cross-section of public opinion is not going to fill that purpose if we play by those elementary school rules.


It is crucial to cover the meeting space – both in terms of taking questions from all over the room, but also taking questions from people of different ages and genders.  I was very careful to select for both of those from the raised hands.   If I had simply stuck in the corner where the most hands went up, I would have both turned off the rest of the crowd and prevented us from getting a useful picture of the full range of public opinion.


  • If you don’t want a special interest to run your meeting, you must run it, you must control it yourself.  The room included several (I was told later that it was about 10) members of the special interest group that I described, and they clearly came with the intention of taking over the conversation.  I am not sure exactly what was on their agenda that night, but it was pretty clear that they wanted to turn it to the issues of interest to them, rather than the issues everyone else came to talk about, if they got half the chance.


I wasn’t going to give them that chance.


I chose which of the several raised hands from that group got to speak, just like I made that choice with everyone else.  I kept control of the mic (which meant I was sort of holding hands with one guy at one point – a little weird, but oh well),  and I made a point of restating a question that veered off onto a rant about a federal agency to how the local community can best cope with uncertainty over federal regulation impacts.

photo of Della and public speaker
Me and my new boyfriend…


If I had let them have their way, if I had not pulled the relevant element out of a largely off-topic question, the meeting would have degenerated into an unproductive verbal fight.  A moderator must keep that from happening.  In this case, controlling the situation required a pretty soft touch – but I have scolded confrontational or rude participants before.   Sometimes it is simply necessary for the good of everyone else in the room.  It is simply part of the job.


  • Never, never allow a special interest group to command all your attention.  If you focus on the people you are most worried about, you do a gross disservice – an insult, really – to the people who came to be part of a real conversation.


When I was a young teacher during my short education career, I learned pretty quickly that every class had three or four students who were inclined to “act out” – you know the type.  When you are the teacher, your instinct is to spend all your time trying to intervene with those kids – get them to pay attention, prevent them from doing something troublesome, whatever.   It’s like having an attention black hole in the back of the room.  But if you give into that instinct, that means that the 15 or 20 kids who weren’t acting out, who weren’t demanding your attention, get… next to nothing.  No wonder so many hate school.   And public meetings.


People who come to public meetings are taking precious time out of their lives.  They are choosing to come.  If we do not honor their contribution and commitment, if we instead let a disgruntled clique take over the classroom, we have done the same damage to our relationship with our residents as I did to the good students in the classroom when I ignored them in favor of the troublemakers.


What tricks of the trade do you use when moderating public meetings?  I’d love to hear your good ideas… after all, next time I might have to break out the brass knuckles.   Ya never know.

Helping places make room for What We Will Be Next

Damn movie.  There’s another one on the list.

I learned a long time ago that I am way too good at buying into what theater people call the willing suspension of disbelief – what you do when you get caught up in an acted-out story and react to it as though it were real, even when you know darn well that it’s make believe.  I have a ridiculously long list of movies that hit me so hard when I watched them, got me so worked up, that I know I can never watch them again.   What Dreams May Come?   Forget it.  The Mission?   No freakin way.  Up?  It’s a cartoon, after all… crap.

I knew the first time I watched Up that I needed to skip the first five minutes about the main character’s life with his wife and his losing her after a long happy marriage.  Bull’s eye on Pressure Point  #1, but we can handle this.

Of course, near the end of the movie, that character has to re-confront his loss, accept it and let go.   I walked in on my 10-year old son watching it last night (I had purposely avoided the room all evening, but it was getting late and I wanted him to go to bed), and ended up watching the last five minutes with him.  Cue the waterworks.

In his recent book The Great Reset, Richard Florida writes most eloquently about the underlying sense of loss and struggle to move on that pervades many communities, particularly in the Rust Belt and other areas that have struggled to transition to the new economic epoch that is unfolding.    As I have mentioned here before, many of the places I know best have been struggling to deal with that loss, and make that transition, for decades.  I watched my parents and many others where I grew up come face to face with the consequences of a changing world long before I had ever heard of Lehman Brothers.

Florida includes a lovely quote from John Craig, former editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“Fundamental change will be much longer in coming than you can imagine.  You’ll survive.  But there’ll be no ‘getting over’ your past, only moving beyond it.”


You also can’t get back your past, as much as you might want it.  It just doesn’t work.

I have spent more time than I can count with communities where leaders – council members, Chamber of Commerce officials, and others – have said to me with complete sincerity, “we just need to get the shoe factory back.”  Or, a slightly more sophisticated approach to the same idea: “We just need to land another big factory/a new shopping mall/a new…something.”

Go find that unicorn, and when we bring it back to our community, we will all live happily ever after.


We who work with communities know, or should know by now, that this is a fantasy.   The world has changed, and is changing.  We have to get on with it.

The psychologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described grieving as a five-step process:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance.   In Up, the main character reaches the point of acceptance when the house in which he lived so happily with his wife, and which he has clung to and protected throughout the movie, floats away into the distance  (If you haven’t seen it, trust me on that one.  It involves a lot of balloons.)    

For some of us, the greatest challenge we face is to help our communities allow their past identities – industrial heart, shopping mecca, favorite tony suburb– float away.    In the community context, that requires a combination of

  • Data that puts the change and the opportunity in front of our eyes,
  • An empathetic, collaborative approach that makes everyone, not just a few, the owners of our future, and
  • A clear-eyed, pragmatic strategy for doing the tough, long-term work that has to happen to make that transition happen.

Florida also paraphrases and then quotes Howard Fineman of Newsweek:

[The lesson of resurgent places] is to pick yourself up and get back to work.  Don’t expect the federal government or anyone else to save your city or bring back your industries.  ‘It is that the old world will inevitably disappear, and that creating a new one is up to you, not someone else.’

We have to remember, honor and love our pasts, but not cling to them.  That’s true for us as people and use as communities.  Only when we can help our communities do that work of letting go do we allow ourselves to have space for What We Will Be Next.

The Logic of Failure: Making better plans

Don’t loan me a book.  At least, don’t loan me a book unless you’re willing to get it back with pencil scribbles all over it.  Just ask my husband.

In the last post, I talked about the often-fumbling search for more meaningful solutions that I think a realization of the need for a Wise Economy forces upon us.   Abstract ideas about communities as ecologies and beware-ing of magic bullets and the like is all fine and good, but what do you do with that?  How do you make change happen in the places where you live and work?

That last post talked about some baby steps that we can be taking to start to shift toward a Wise Economy, and it talked a lot about the assumptions we make about the Way Things Work and how those Cannot Be Changed, Ever.   In another post recently I referenced Thomas Kuhn’s idea of paradigm-breaking: how breakthroughs requires that one somehow learn to see where the false walls are around them and what opportunities might lie beyond.

Within a Wise Economy context, the rubber-meeting-road moment is when we make plans for the future of our communities.  Comprehensive plans, strategic plans, action plans, organization plans…whatever we do to set the direction of the organization that we are counting on to make the community’s future happen,  that’s where a Wise Economy either begins to take root or falls on the stone and withers.   And after many years of making these kinds of plans, it’s clear to me that when our plans fail us, it’s often because our blind spots, our limited assumptions and our overlooked mis-interpretations equipped us with a wrong or faulty plan.  We often set ourselves up for that failure because we didn’t know and could not see all the things we were missing.

One of the books that has been most influential on my thinking over the past few years is a 20-year old volume with the catchy title, The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations  by Dietrich Dorner.  I’m going to assume that it sounds more appealing in the original German.  Recommended to my husband by a very wise boss, this book details the results of a series of studies examining how people made decisions in complex and ambiguous environments.  Complex and ambiguous… sounds nothing like the communities we work with, right?  Add  to that the fact that the participants were typically dealing with economic development and public policy scenarios, and it starts to hit uneasily close to home.  So Dave bought it, but I read it… and found it so insightful that I marked passages on nearly every page.  He doesn’t share books with me much anymore.

In some respects, it’s a depressing read.  Participants in Dorner’s studies make a lot more mistakes than correct decisions, and much of the time they fail miserably.  By studying the participants’ choices and assumptions closely, and doing that a mind-numbing number of times, Dorner does develop a pretty reliable differentiation between those who made consistently good decisions, and those who set themselves up for disaster.

Dorner illustrates a large number of differences in how successful and unsuccessful participants approach and manage the tasks, and I’ll continue to write about those.  Here is one that particularly stood out for me:

Both the good and the bad participants proposed with the same frequency hypotheses on what effect higher taxes, say, or an advertising campaign to promote tourism in Greenvale would have.  The good participants different from the bad ones, however, in how often they tested their hypotheses.  The bad participants failed to do this.  For them, to propose a hypothesis was to understand reality; testing that hypothesis was unnecessary.  Instead of generating hypotheses, they generated ‘truths’ (p.24)

How often do we test our hypotheses?  How often do we assume that a project will have a certain impact without taking a hard look at whether those assumptions are sound?   How often do we go back and re-examine the basic assumptions that we built our last plan on?  How often in the history of the last 60 years have we as planners and economic developers and administrators and communities generated our own “truth,” expended enormous resources on that truth, and then acted surprised when something hits us that we didn’t see coming?

Admitting that we might not have the truth takes bravery.  Taking apart and examining the foundations of the structures we have built feels rightly dicey.  But the termites work silently until the structure falls down.  There is a kind of vigilance that we have to maintain: anticipating and expecting that the world will change, that we might have gotten something  wrong back when we made that plan, that we cannot just finish the plan, sigh with relief and move on to getting it done.  We have to regularly test our hypotheses – and be ready to change what we are doing when those tests show us that we are setting ourselves up for trouble.

That is generating wisdom.  I’ll take that over “truths” any day.

I wasn’t nice to the Little Napoleons, but I guess that’s OK.

When you’re a woman who writes and speaks her opinions about issues, there’s a certain

zipped lips

voice in the back of your head that pushes back any time you’re inclined to be “not nice” to someone.  Even today, we all still deal with a deep-set acculturation against anything that might make someone else feel bad or sound like you’re being mean.  That’s why characters in a movie like Mean Girls never say things straightforward, like “you suck rocks,” but instead do all these sneaky twisty things to get back at someone they don’t like.  And that’s why people go see that movie.  Maybe that’s why the number of women who are thought leaders in local government, planning and economic development is relatively small.

I think the question of whether my acculturation as a “good female” ever took is pretty well open to debate… but that sense of not wanting to cut people down unfairly, of wanting to be perceived as “nice,” continues to hold.  And when I wrote a very heartfelt post last year based on an interview with Andreas Duany, in which I wrote rather passionately about the impacts of a short German architect in a cape whose lack of hubris resulted in irreparable damage to dozens of American downtowns, I was both stunned by the attention that the post received, and uneasy.  After all, I have nothing personally against Duany… and there is much good that has come out of his work… and, well, I don’t want people to “not like” me.  Scuse me while I go put my hair in pigtails and brush the dirt off my knees.

I saw a lot of the responses at the time, but I recently found the courage (and time) to go back online and search for responses to that post, and found a few that I had not seen the first time around.  One of my favorites is from the blog of a councilman in Alpharetta, Georgia.  I don’t know GAJim, or his political platform or why this resonated to him, but the post clearly gave him some encouragement.  Since much of his post is about the Duany article, and since, well, I like and still strongly agree with the quote he pulled from me, I’ll repeat here the part that he used:

Public participation is important not just to try to get people to go along with our vision, to give us a chance to yell loud enough to drown them out, or to allow us to demonstrate the superiority of our Grand Vision over their piddling little concerns…

Understanding the real reasons why people oppose a project requires the willingness to do so, the humility to listen, and the internal fortitude and self-assurance to admit that possibly, oh just possibly, we don’t know everything that there is to know.   That is the real mark of wisdom.

Napoleon PortraitIf the people who live around a proposed development oppose that development, chances are those people know something that is important to the health of their neighborhood and the larger community. If we think that we know more than to have to listen to them, then we are no better than little Napoleons in big capes, creating monuments to our hubris that our children and grandchildren will have to clean up. The lessons of the damage caused by our ignorance are all around us.


Somehow, despite my own wavering bravery, it seems like I might have done some good.

I think I’m gonna take out the pigtails and stand by that one.


Doing public participation right!

Just when you think maybe you’ve been shouting into the void, it’s always great to find out that someone else gets it.  J.M Goldson wrote a lovely post on her blog  last week about the methods her firm uses to support good  public participation in their projects, and we were grateful here to find that she opens with a quote from my post, “What Planners can do to help the Economy.”  Here’s the quote she used:

Model your public participation after the best teachers. Don’t just lecture or allow others to lecture.  Don’t do the minimum necessary to get by.  Give the process structure so that people stay on track and so that you hear from everyone, and engage them in the search for solutions, rather than presenting them a grand vision and waiting for them to applaud or throw tomatoes.

She goes on to describe how her firm focuses on helping community members  “think through the issues and the structure they need to search for solutions together.”  Sounds like good Wise Economy talk to me!

The big challenge of the Wise Economy approach, of refocusing how we plan for and manage our communities, is making the conscious choice to move away from the old methods that we know aren’t working and… do something else.  We’re all still trying to figure out exactly what that something else is.  I know I am.  But I do know that when we pull it off, it’s going to be a sea change, a gradual and almost imperceptible evolution to those of us in the middle of this.  But as more of us follow the trail of crumbs that people like J.M. are helping us lay out, the sooner we’ll get there.





Why community involvement requires a structured approach, even when we’re seeking new ideas

One of my ongoing frustrations within the public engagement practice of the Wise Economy Workshop is the assumption in some corners that good public engagement means letting people recommend or promote any idea they want.  Free from the bounds of real-world constraints, we let them spin their wildest ideas….and then, when they find out that the recommendations didn’t include their ideas, they accuse us of “not listening,” while we roll our eyes and mutter about how “unrealistic” the public is.

In my presentations, I often refer to this as the Santa Claus approach (“I’ve been a good girl this year.  I want a pony….and a rocket launcher… and a Ferrari…”)  A current client of mine has taken to calling an event with this kind of participation the Rainbows and Unicorns Summit.

Like most things that don’t work as we intended, the root of the problem is in how we structured the engagemetn, because that’s what set the stage for what we did.   Teachers and business coaches know that generating effective creative ideas requires working within a structure.  People need a realistic context, real-world sides on the box, if they are going to create something that is both new and useful.

If you don’t believe me, try this exercise at your next staff meeting or coffee klaatch:

Step #1: Ask people to list a number of ways in which they can use a brick. They can use

a brick
What can _you_ do with this?

it anywhere, anytime –there are no restrictions. Give them about a minute. Typical answers will involve using it as a paperweight, a door stop, or a weapon.

Step #2:Identify a specific place or context (e.g.,  in the kitchen, in a park, your kid’s room) and ask the same people to list all of the ways they could use a brick in that place. For example, if “a kitchen” is the context, people may find uses like heating it up to make paninis, flattening a lump of dough, or using it as a trivet.

Step #3: Ask the group which approach – #1 (unbounded) or #2 (connecting to something ) – yielded more creative solutions.

As Stephen Shapiro, the source of this exercise wrote, “Nearly 90% of audiences choose the second way.   In fact, when we take the time to evaluate the uses, there is indeed much greater divergence when using the second method. The first approach tends to yield a lot of common solutions.”

So we generate more creative ideas, and more directly useable ideas, when we ask people to think about solutions within a realistic content than when we just throw the doors open for ideas.   That means that if we want to honor and respect the time that our residents and business operators and others are giving us when we ask them to participate, we need to stop putting them in situations where all they can come up with are Santa Claus lists.  We own them, and ourselves, a better way than that.


Looking forward: thoughts for the next 20 years from the final edition of the Planning Commissioners’ Journal

I have had the privilege for the past couple of years of writing a regular column for Planning Commissioner’s Journal, a publication geared toward citizen planners and the professionals who support them.  After more than 20 years, the publishers are ending the print publication and moving to a new online platform, PlannersWeb.

For the final print edition, I and several other longtime contributors were asked to write about how we think the work of citizen and professional planners will evolve over the next 10 to 2o years.  I’m printing my contribution below, because I think that it’s a good summary of the issues a Wise Economy approach has to address.   I’d encourage you to check out the good thinking that runs all through this Planning Commissioner’s Journal edition.

Although Planning Commissioner’s Journal is changing, it’s definitively not going away, and I think the next chapter of will be an exciting and engaging opportunity for folks to not only learn, but be part of a great lively community.  Check out for more details on the new platform, purchase the current edition or stock up on back issues and special publications.

And I will be along for the new adventure too — writing a new column about tools and tricks for doing better public engagement.  The editor and I are also talking about new methods for doing fun and enlightening events, such as a chat room or Google Hangout with experts, so stay tuned.  It’s going to be a great adventure!

Here ya go… enjoy, and don’t forget to check out


Engaging in Planning
Della G. Rucker, AICP, CEcD
As we plan in the years ahead for vibrant and resilient communities, we will be grappling with the impacts of seismically shifting demographics and major changes in retail and commerce. Our challenge will be to develop the wisdom to admit what we don’t know — and the intelligence to make the best use of the resources we have.  Here are some of the uber-issues I think we will face.
1. Dealing with an uncertain world. The future will not be a straight-line continuation of the past. We’ll need to learn to plan in terms of scenarios, examining what we know in light of major factors that may impact our community’s future? We need to learn to ask: How can we set ourselves up to succeed in the event that we lose major employers, our population explodes from immigration, or the cost of gasoline climbs? How can we regulate mature neighborhoods to protect their character and help them be economically flexible?
2. Managing economic data better. Economic issues are central to our quality of life, and unless we specifically address them, our plans will mean little. This does not mean building our plans around market analyses, which are too limited and short term in nature. What it does mean is gaining a deep understanding of the long-term trends impacting our local economy, and assessing how our community fits into the world around it.
3. Enabling people to participate meaningfully in planning. Public processes must do more than enable “he-said-she-said” arguments or allow people to yell past each other. If our communities are going to work — and if our planning commissions are going to have the public support to make tough decisions – we’ll need public participation processes that engage our residents in the search for solutions and the hard work of making decisions.


Della Rucker is Principal of Wise Economy Workshop based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her columns for the PCJ have focused on the relationship between planning and economic development.


Designing a new initiative? Good rules of thumb for you

In the “Good Ideas Directly Lifted from Someone Else” Department:”  Just came across these principles from the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service.  The agency makes very clear that this is a work in progress, but I think that these are great principles for not just web product design, but for any kind of public initiative.  There are good, clear, non-jargony explanations of these points, and some nice examples at

  1. Start with needs*
  2. Do less
  3. Design with data
  4. Do the hard work to make it simple
  5. Iterate. Then iterate again.
  6. Build for inclusion
  7. Understand context
  8. Build digital services, not websites
  9. Be consistent, not uniform
  10. Make things open: it makes things better

For non-UK readers, this is an agency dedicated to making  online tools for government involvement work well.  Imagine that… a high-level emphasis on building a quality online public engagement experience…


I think the explanations and examples given on the page linked above explain these ideas very well, there’s a couple of things that I think are worth emphasizing, especially to a U.S. local government audience:


  • We need to stop being afraid of iteration — of the process of gradually improving what we offer over time.  We are often so afraid of criticism, so afraid of being wrong, that we fail to take the necessary first steps, especially in an environment where things change too fast to assume we can ever have a finished product — or an environment where we don’t have the staff, the time, the capacity to get it perfected.  In the tech world, launching something that isn’t perfect so that you can test, tweak and update is called “failing forward.”  The secret to being able to fail forward in a public space is to do what the Government Digital Service has done here:
    1. Make it very clear that this is a work in progress, and
    2. Invite people to participate in making it better.  We underestimate how much people want to be part of the solution, and here is a low-risk way to start inviting them in.
  • Building a website shouldn’t be anyone’s goal.  A website is just a tool — and like any tool, the value of the website isn’t in how pretty is, it’s in how well it provides the tools that people need.  A better analogy:  a website isn’t a tool, it’s the toolbox…It’s where you should be able to go to quickly and easily find the right tool you need for the job you need to do.   And that means that not only do you need that toolbox to contain useful tools, but you have to be able to find it easily.  If the tools in your community website are in a jumbled pile,  or hidden under that weird tray of bent nails in the corner that you don’t know why you’re keeping but it’s always been there, then you’re not getting the benefit from it –as a community and as a local government — that you need.
One more point:  the UK page is designed to talk about designing new online tools, and that’s something that this agency needs to do to meet their initiatives.  A lot of local governments, especially in the United States, have a tendency to think that any kind of online presence or tool they might want would have to be built from scratch….which for someone will bring back uneasy memories of the agony they went through when building the City’s web site 10  or 15 years ago.  No thanks.
The first automobiles in the early 1900s were costly-custom-built things that had no standardized parts

The Model T
The Model T
and required custom machining to replace any part that broke.  Which is why early cars were the playthings of the rich, and why the development of the Model T, with its standardized parts, was so transformative.
We are just entering the Model T stage in online tools, and that means that  many of the tools that you want your residents and governments to have no longer need to be built from scratch.  A small but quickly-growing collection of smart people across the world are developing online tools for better public participation and communications that are starting to transform how we think about governing… and making those available at a fraction of the cost, time and effort required just a couple of years ago.  They are already doing those things on the UK Government Digital Service list. All you need to do is choose which tools you want in your box.
Delib logo  Hat tip to my friends at  for this great piece of wisdom.


Annotated presentations from APA 2012

When I give a presentation, my slides anymore usually have more words than pictures.  That’s what the presentation experts say you should do, but it means that when you download them from Slideshare or a conference website, the reaction is pretty consistent:  “Wha…..?”

To try to solve that problem, I have gotten into the habit of creating annotated versions of my presentations — basically the Notes page in Powerpoint with a description of what I said. (or what I should have said if I’d been more clever at that moment — hey, it’s my notes, let me pretend…)

When I gave two presentations at the American Planning Association conference last week — one as part of a panel on Commercial District Revitalization and Redevelopment, and one on Web 2.0 Tools for Public Engagement — I promised to post annotated versions for the people who came to download and use as notes.  And I figure some of the rest of you might find them useful, or at least amusing, too.

These links will take you to PDF versions with my annotations, which you should be able to download.

Feel free to share.  If you’re interested in a presentation like one of these for your organization or event, send me a note.  I talks real goodly. 🙂

Secrets of Retail Revitalization: Presentation at APA 2012

Web 2.0 Tools for Public Participation APA 2012








APA 2012 Presentations on retail district revitalization and web-enabled public participation.

I am getting ready to speak at the American Planning Conference in Los Angeles about two of my favorite topics: downtown and retail district revitalization, and online tools for public engagement.

As my kid says, here’s the deets (and I haven’t finished paying for the “superstar” label in the first one yet, so don’t give me a hard time!  🙂  :

Revitalization and Redevelopment Strategies and Tools, Monday April 16, 9:00 AM.  Session hosted by the Economic Development Division.   I’ll be speaking with  Jill Griffin of the Arlington, VA Economic Development department and William R Anderson, FAICP of the City of San Diego  Here’s the description

Explore issues often overlooked in commercial district revitalization and planning. Learn why conventional solutions don’t always lead to less vacancy, better businesses, or more tax revenues. Hear from superstars of economic development about different elements of revitalization success, such as identifying commercial market opportunities through market analysis, providing business assistance and incentives, and aligning city policies to support healthy business districts.

Improving Participation with Web 2.0 Tools, Tuesday, April 17, 10:30 AM (S622)   I’ll be joined by the always-charming Nick Bowden of MindMixer for this one!

Learn to use public participation techniques to reach those who would rather spend time online than in city hall. Analyze tools for surveying, idea prioritization, and ongoing project management. View real-time demonstrations of several methods and online tools. Hear from a developer of online tools about the challenges associated with and protections needed to foster effective online participation.


The session locations havent been finalized, so be sure to check the conference program for locations.  Both sessions are eligible for AICP certification maintenance.

If you have questions or just want to make sure we say hi, please send me a note at  See you in sunny California!



Links from Northeast Ohio American Planning Association workshop, November 18, 2011

For those of you who attended my session on public participation at the workshop,  I promised to post the links to the various online public participation and planning tools that I mentioned in the presentation.  So, in order of presentation, here they are:


Mindmixer.  This is the site that is designed to facilitate broad public idea-generation and idea-vetting, with a little game theory thrown in.  The main web site is here and the example community is here.

EngagingPlans.  This is the site that is strong on project management and public feedback, including the public into the process in a variety of ways.  Here is the explanation of the approach and here is the sample community I showed.

Delib.   This is the app -based tool from the UK, which I don’t know much about yet (but I am hoping to correct that soon).  Here’s their site.

Revitaliz.  This is the platform that is set up to enable crowdsourced funding.  It’s kind of hard to get a feel from the web site as to how exactly it works, but it appears to be very robust.


Placepulse: This is the developing database of how thousands of people across the world respond to a variety of photos of places.  It’s kind of like a mass visual preference survey.  This isn’t so much a direct public participation tool as it is a way to supplement or test the results you get from a public participation initiative.  Plus, it’s awesome.

SizeUp: this is a new tools from the wizards at GIS Planning, and its connection to public participation is a little less direct, but still important.  First, it’s a tool that can be used on the fly to test statements or assumptions about economic and business issues, so it’s a means of injecting more rational fact into public discussions.  Second, it’s an empowerer — with a little training, community members can use it to fact-check themselves.

EMSI: in some respects, this is the Godzilla version of SizeUp.  It requires a paid membership, but in exchange for that you get incredibly robust information sets and analysis tools on everything from business types to workforce strengths.  Want to do your own economic impact studies on demand?  For less than the cost of most consultants, here ya go.

That should keep you busy for a while!

As I mentioned during the session, I am continually finding new tools like these, so keep an eye out for updates.  I will start publishing a quarterly white paper soon….as soon as I finish goofing around online…..

Slides from APA Ohio, National Trust and Downtown Colorado presentations (also known as the Dry Throat Tour)

 For those of you that attended sessions with me at conferences in September or October, I am glad to say that I finally got the slides posted to Slideshare so that you can download them whenever you want.  As a gentle reminder, I am available for your conference, workshop, training, Little League 7th inning stretch…. maybe I should reconsider that last one….


Here’s the link to the session I did with Peter Mallow on economic evaluation methods.  I owe you all some examples, I am still trying to round up some good ones.  We also do have video of that session, which needs some editing… we’ll get that posted as soon as I figure it out.  🙂

 Here’s the session with Mark Barbash and Jim Kinnett on National Trends in Economic Development.  I also need to find some illustrative examples of a couple of things from that session, which I will work on.  We do have video of most of that session, but it’s mostly the backs of people’s heads, which is what happens when you have three vertically-challenged presenters.   As an FYI, this session for us was a proof of concept for a broader training program that we are developing, so if you think some help with Economic Development for Non Economic Developers might be something your organization would find useful, please let me know.

 Here’s the session on Public Participation.  I don’t have video or audio of this session, but I am doing a reprise at the Northeast Ohio Planning and Zoning Workshop on November 18, so we’ll try to rectify that.  Stay tuned.

After my stint in Dayton, I made a mad dash to Buffalo to present on You Can Do the Math: methods for demonstrating the economic benefits of historic preservation policies.  Here are those slides — both the slides and an audio recording will be available from the Trust.  I’ll post the links here as soon as I get them.

 Finally, I realized that I never posted the slides from the Downtown Colorado Inc. plenary session I did in September in lovely Durango.  This presentation is a macro-scale overview of what I am thinking about lately, and what I think we need to do to reboot planning and economic development so that our communities are vibrant and resilient for the long term.  Again, I am  available for your annual conference, initiative kickoff or five year old’s birthday party.  Scary clowns and balloons not included. 

If anything does not work, or if you have any questions, please feel free to ping me.  And remember, I supply my own batting helmet.

Why we need better public participation: Complex issues and how structure makes us think better.

This article on innovation research captures a critical truth about public participation: if we don’t create a clear structure for people to think within, their thinking won’t be worth very much. 

Here’s an easy demonstration of that point (but no peeking ahead!)

1. Set a timer for 30 seconds.  In those 30 seconds, think of as many uses for a brick as you can.  Jot them down as you think of them. 

2.  Set the timer for 30 seconds again.  Now think of as many uses for a brick in the kitchen as you can (if you don’t hang out much in the kitchen, substitute the garage).  Again, write down what you come up with.

3. Compare the two lists.  Which one had more answers?  Which one had more creative –or more useful answers?

For most people, it’s both easier to come up with ideas when you are thinking about a specific context, and the ideas that you come up with in context have more potential for use than the ones that were created generically.  If it didn’t work this way for you, try it on your co-workers or family members and see what you get (you know you’re the special one, of course!)


Our conventional way of doing public participation in this country tends to fall at one end of the freedom/constraint spectrum or the other.  We either present people with a pre-determined, pre-endorsed plan (or a couple to make it look more like a choice), or we just  throw open the microphone and say “what do you think?”  I don’t know why we’re surprised when we get protest, or most likely apathy, in the first case, and crazy or irrelevant feedback in the second.  With too much structure, we are squelching their ability to make the constructive improvements that they know they could if they just got the chance.  With too little structure, we are throwing people on their own resources, which on certain issues might not be very deep or loaded with unconstructive, unquestioned assumptions.  We stick them with a feedback method that requires them to operate by the seat of the pants about something they probably don’t know that much about.  No wonder we get crazy, off-target and useless.

If you’re just doing public involvement because your boss or a regulation says you’re supposed to, you might as well stop reading.  Sorry to have wasted your time.  If you believe, at least somewhere in your guts, that your community’s public participation should build something, should help make the future of your community better, then listen: We have got to learn to do this better.  We have to find the right balance of openness and structure, of inviting feedback and keeping people on track, of getting people as deeply and constructively involved as they can be instead of settling for a lousy experience on both sides of the table.  If the only people who are benefitting from public involvement are the list-checker-offers and those who came to hear their own voice resound, then we are wasting our limited time and our more limited money.  Period

None of this has to be the case, and it’s not just a matter of happy kum-bah-yahing.  We will plan and develop better communities if we can access the whole spectrum of good ideas, not just the few that we might figure out on our own.  But to get that, we have to not only open the process, but we have to lead it, and leading means creating the structure in which good ideas can come to the top.  Successful businesses, such as P&G and Merck and Google, are already doing this.  And what we are doing in communities is far more complicated than building apps or making Crest.  We in communities have to open our eyes and learn how to do that, too.    




What can planners do to help your community’s economy?

We all know that most of our local economies are in some form or another of mess.  Draw the border around your town, your county, your region, your state, doesn’t matter – our news stories and discussions are full of closing stores and vacant boxes, houses and 401k’s whose value has plummeted, massive holes in government budgets and previously unthinkable choices about promised future payments and services.

If you’re a planner, just try going to a party at your neighbors’ house.  What do you get asked, sooner or later?

“What are you guys doing to fix this mess?”

We know that our agency or firm couldn’t fix it all in a million years, and we know, at least intellectually, that we aren’t solely responsible.

But the question is a nagging one:  “What are you guys doing to fix this mess?”

Planners have no magic wand, and we can’t make businesses appear out of thin air.  But if we take our responsibilities for our communities seriously – if we embrace our training and deeply believe that good planning matters– then we have an important contribution to make: a contribution to solving the long-term, structural problems that have played a big role in landing our communities in this mess.  To do that, we need to approach our plans and our planning with wisdom.  We need to think ahead, anticipate the consequences of different choices, accept and work with the limits of our knowledge and try to see our blind spots so that we are not sideswiped by a future that we did not see coming.

Tall order, right?  We can do this.  In some ways, it is getting back to the ideals of the planning process that get lost in the scuffles of politics and self-preservation.  In other ways, it’s about learning from other disciplines – not just the business world, which we’ve heard about ad nauseum, but from psychology and sociology and history.  The disciplines that study how people think and work together.  To make wise decisions for the futures of our communities, we need to lay the right groundwork by doing wise planning.

What does wise planning mean?

  • Goals that are real, concrete and measurable. That’s Planning 101. We know we need that.  What we don’t need is the mealy mouth stuff we often end up with as our plan’s goals.  We need goals that our communities can understand, rally around and work toward.  If a goal does not make people want to act, then that goal is useless.

Regional initiatives like Agenda 360 in Greater Cincinnati, and similar regional action plans that have developed in Boston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and elsewhere, draw their power and their potency from their goals.   They set a high bar for the whole region to meet, and they set it in measurable terms so that it is real to the people who read it and the people across the region who are in a position to do something about it.  One of Agenda 360’s main goals is the creation of 200,000 net new jobs in the region by the year 2020.  Now everybody knows what the goal is, and a little research makes clear where we are on the road to getting there.  Could the region miss it?  Sure… but now we know what we are going after and have something to measure against.

How much more effective, how much more of a catalytic force for change is putting that stake in the ground, rather than what professionally-written plans usually include?  How catalytic would “Encourage the creation of new jobs” have been?

I think the word “Encourage” should never, ever appear in a plan’s goals or objectives.  Never.   If I encourage my son to study his math assignments, my primary goal is not to “encourage” him.  It’s to push and prod him to do what he has to do to pass the test.  “Pass the test” is the goal, not “encouraging” him.

And what is “encouraging,” anyways?  Sharing information, establishing expectations, outlining the consequences of not meeting the goal, monitoring his progress…. That’s the actual work that “encourage” means.  So say that.  In plans, “Encourage” is nothing more than a cop out.  It means….nothing.  Zip.  Which is why elected officials sometimes like that word for things that they don’t want to actively support.  If you cannot get leadership to go beyond “encourage” as the verb in a goal statement in a plan, go back and define what exactly all the parties involved can  support, or cut it out.  You’ll probably do more good by leaving it out than by giving it lip service.

  • Don’t assume that the future will be a direct extrapolation of the past. It won’t be.  How many 20-year population projections have you seen?  How many plan decisions do we base on those numbers?  How often do they turn out to be right, or at least close to right?  Not often.  And yet we create plans that designate broad new swaths of development because that’s what the population projection indicates.  Never mind the fact that socioeconomic changes may drive that growth elsewhere.  And never mind the fact that if you don’t house all those new paper people, they will just go somewhere else.  They’re not going to create a tent city in your vacant lots.

The future almost never works out the way we thought it would, or I would have a hovercar in my garage by now and a jet pack in my closet. Our projections of the future need to accommodate multiple scenarios, and deal with those scenarios, not just average them out to make it easy to do the math.

Even more important, we need to not treat those projections as a fait accompli.  What matters is not the numbers, but the influences and factors that will drive how the community evolves, and how we monitor, influence or adapt to those changes.

  • Don’t assume that projected population growth automatically requires new housing, or that new residents automatically mean new commercial development.  You probably have a number of vacant or underused houses, and probably no end of vacant retail spaces.  Why plan for more?

Most communities (with a few special-circumstances exceptions) should stop assuming that we need anything new at all.  Either the economics don’t work or we don’t really need it.

When I did a comprehensive plan for the village in which I live a few years ago, all of the surveys and public feedback said that people wanted an Applebee’s-type restaurant in town.  The numbers don’t work for this village alone – it’s not big enough to generate enough customers to support that business model.  But because this is a metro area, this village isn’t the only source of customers.  There’s are four restaurants in that price point within a five-minute drive of most residents, and if someone opens another, one of the five would probably go out of business, leaving us with another vacant space.  ‘

In a sense, it’s a little like dealing with my kids – they don’t “need” another Nerf gun, although they tell me they do when they see the ads.  It’s my job to guide them to the realization that the six they have are more than enough.

  • Be conscious and explicit about fiscal impacts. You may not like tax laws or tax calculations, but your community needs them to survive.  You know that. It’s a necessary part of the system, and we have more than enough evidence now to demonstrate that if our development patterns cost more than they generate in taxes, we have a problem.   If you can’t pay someone to calculate the fiscal impacts, pull out your college textbook and figure it out. Your best attempt will be better than wild guesses or permitting officials to keep their head in the sand.  And if you do pay someone to do it, don’t take them at their word- make sure you understand exactly what they did and why.  If the root problem is with the tax structure, say that loud and clear.  You may not be able to change that alone, but you can issue the clarion call so that it can’t be ignored.
  • Model your public participation after the best teachers.  Don’t just lecture or allow others to lecture.  Don’t do the minimum necessary to get by.  Give the process structure so that people stay on track and so that you hear from everyone, and engage them in the search for solutions, rather than presenting them a grand vision and waiting for them to applaud or throw tomatoes. The public has to be part of the solution, too, and they need to both more deeply understand the issues that we are grappling with, and lend their expertise to the search for solutions.  If you give them a real chance, they’ll do it.  And if we don’t give them a real chance, we will stay in the morass.
  • Recognize and admit that putting colors on a map and writing a description of what it’ll be like in the future isn’t doing enough.  Even laying out zoning revisions isn’t good enough.  If we are serious about making our communities better, we need to plan for the whole social and political ecosystem, not just what the planning department, or even the government, can do for you.  Who else — what other organizations or agencies– are part of the solution?  What can they do?  Who should they (or you, oh City) be working with?  How do we really move the needle, and how do we know if the needle has moved?

Your colored map isn’t going to tell you that.  Making a difference in the future of the community requires much more.

  • Think critically – about everything. We haven’t been rigorous enough in our thinking.  We have had a tendency to buy the new gadget, whether it’s Urban Renewal or New Urbanism, without taking it apart, examining the assumptions, and understanding that every idea has limits, exceptions, and unexamined consequences.  That’s a natural limitation of human thought processes- cognitive psychologists document how much we cut corners in our thinking.

But if we don’t understand the limits of an idea, we cannot use the tool correctly. If you do not know that a claw hammer cannot drive a rivet into a piece of sheet metal, you will do a whole lot of banging and make a real mess of the job before you figure that out.  One can argue that the repercussions of the urban renewal initiatives of the 1960s should have taught us that by now.

  • Stop allowing bad planning. It’s damaging the profession, and it’s damaging the places that matter to us.  Professional planners have had a tendency to avoid raising tough questions, to shy away from pushing for the right but difficult choices, to sidestep grappling honestly and critically with our decisions and alternatives.

That’s mostly, I think, driven by a very understandable desire for job security.  We have all be told somewhere along the line that some issues aren’t in your job description, that you don’t want to upset the politicians, the developers, the citizens, the client.   Don’t rock the boat, the voice whispers, and your job and your future are secure.

If there’s anything the last few years have taught us, it’s that job security, for both public and private sector planners, is a myth.  Public sector planners get laid off or put on furloughs, or they get stuck in soul-deadening bureaucratic jobs processing paperwork and accept that deal with the devil for the promise of future financial security.  And we all know that, in one way or another, that promised security is turning out to have been a mirage.

Private sector planners don’t do much better: they deliver what the client wants, regardless of whether that’s what the community needs or not, in the hopes of winning more work and maintaining that ridiculously high utilization rate and not having to spend their nights and weekends writing more proposals on their “own time.”   And then they get laid off when the big firm that swallowed the planning firm decides that planning isn’t part of their new strategic direction.

If we can’t count on those promises, that security, then what is the price of our silence? Why not take reasonable, well- supported stands on issues that matter, when it matters?

What have we really got to lose?


One more thing: I say all of this because I am a planner and I have done all of these things.  I have allowed communities to get away with meaningless goals, drawn maps that could not make anything happen, overlooked fiscal impacts and treated population projections like statements of fact.  I did that because I was the consultant, it wasn’t in the scope, it wasn’t in the budget, they weren’t “ready.”  I didn’t want to rock the boat.

At the end of the day, what you’re really left with is how you feel about the job you did.  In some cases, I am proud of the work and how it helped move a community forward.  In other cases, I am not sure whether the plan I wrote did any good at all.   As I evolve and move forward personally, I am determined to repeat those mistakes as few times as I can.

There’s a piece of calligraphic art in my office that sums up how I think we need to approach planning in this generation – not in terms of building styles or transportation modes, but in terms of how we think about the job and in terms of how we think about communities and their futures.  There’s two quotes on it, the first being from Henry Thoreau:

 Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.  Live the life you have always imagined.

The second is from Will Rogers:

 Even if you’re going in the right direction, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.

Let’s not get run over anymore, ok?

How to keep your community from eating the ice cream

It’s that time of year when even the most laissez-faire of us get hit with the Set  Goals bug.  We all resolve (myself included) to lose more weight, eat better, spend more time with our family, yadda yadda.   And we all swear that This Year Is Going To Be Different… although we know in the backs of our heads that chances are we will be on the couch eating out of the ice cream pint by February.   Even though we know that setting those goals are the first step to success, we also know that setting those goals is only the first step, unlikely to catalyze any long-term changes unless we do a lot more.   

Since our communities and governments are creations of people, it’s no surprise that they do the same thing.  Every strategic plan and comprehensive plan has a laundry list of goals and objectives, and the really good ones might even give a game plan for getting there.  But we all know the old saw about plans that sit on a shelf and collect dust. 

Despite that cynicism, we know that there are communities out there that get it together, that enact positive change, and that maintain that positive momentum for multiple years — sometimes, decades.  So what makes the difference between the communities that keep their New Years Resolutions and those that end up on the couch eating ice cream?

After working with communities for a couple of decades, and getting a front-row seat for both great successes and some pretty spectacular failures, I think it comes down to a pretty simple principle:

The long-term successful communities are the ones that not only set goals, but remain consistently conscious of and actively use their goals.    That means that they:

  • Maintain a clearly-articulated, shared public commitment to those goals.
  • Refer and review those goals frequently (and tweak them if they have to).
  • Use their goals as a primary criteria for selecting among the choices that they face.
  • Use their goals as a yardstick to measure their progress over time.

Sounds pretty simple when you put it that way, right?  So why are the success stories so rare?  

Part of it stems from the  same reasons why our New Years resolutions fall apart.:  we don’t make it A Priority, we get distracted by other issues, we make short-term choices that satisfy immediate desires but go against long-term goals… Oversimplify a community and  pretend that its political and economic decisions were made by one person, and it will sound like the first 15 minutes of every How I Lost Weight/Found My Dream Job/Became a Triathlete TV show you have ever seen.

But our communities aren’t one person — they are made up of many people, and even the most homogenous community will include many more differences of opinion than we tell in our February good-intentions-bad-follow-through self-improvement stories.  We want our communities to move in a coordinated fashion toward common goals, like an ant colony, but most of our members, and almost all of our leadership, would make lousy ants.   Our brains, our opinions, our traditions of independence and democracy, means that most analogies comparing communities to a person or an ant colony don’t hold up for long.

A lot of the time, Our Community’s Goals are not the community’s goals — they are a person’s goals,  or a group’s goals.   Because we fear conflict, because we don’t want to take the time or spend the money, because we shy away from disagreement, because we who were invested first don’t want to consider that others might have valid ideas, we often fail to have real, meaningful community discussions about what our goals should be.  Then we act surprised when we discover that people, whether in leadership or in the community, will not support the actions we need to take to meet those goals.  They were never the community’s goals to begin with. 

Of course, if we _do_ deeply and meaningfully engage all the people for whom an issue matters (and believe it or not, there are ways to do that), we will discover that there are some issues where we cannot find agreement.  Whether it’s political or philosophical differences or simple practical disagreements, we will not be able to agree on some issues.   Because we fear that we will not agree on some issues, we do not attempt to agree on anything . 

 But here is the part we often overlook: if we did engage  all the people for whom an issue matters, we would find a lot of agreement.  We live in the same place, we see the same situations. we have, or can have with a little additional effort, the same base of information.  Because of that, we will find areas of agreement — they may not be the Exciting Ones or the Big Ones, but we will find some.  And if we focus on those points where we can agree, if we make those our goals, and they are truly shared goals, then we _will_ make progress.  Goals that don’t solve everything but allow us to make progress are, at then end of the day, more effective than goals that cover everything but do nothing.  An empty placeholder in the Goals for Everything structure simply means that that one needs more work. 

As we make progress, two things will happen:

  • We will build our community’s capacity for planning and working together.   If we fear that distrust or disagreement will derail us, what better way to convince both sides that the other is not evil than to find and work on the things that they can agree about? 
  • That experience will allow us to learn and discuss and find consensus on those issues that we couldn’t deal with at first.  

 Making this work, of course, also requires leadership that understands this reality and is self-assured enough to lead this way — an issue I hope to talk about more in the future.

Sounds Pollyannaish, I know.  And maybe it is.  So here’s a challenge for you: look at communities you know that have been successful over the long term.  They can be local governments, neighborhoods, business districts — whatever works.  And let’s share your thoughts here.  

In the meantime, if you are trying to choose the salad over the Lardburger on the lunch menu from now on, or setting the alarm for the 5 AM Boot Camp class at the gym, good luck…. and be glad there is only one of you!

E-town meetings: are we ready for this?

This article highlights two counties in Florida that have found a way to continue their traditional public input systems, using chat and video streaming, in a way that not only increased the number of participants, but actually saved the local government money.  I am looking forward to learning more about how exactly they did it — the article is a little short on details. 

One of the great challenges I have encountered in using methods like these for public participation is that the range of what people know how to do and are comfortable with is unbelievably wide.  I have one community committee I am working with now where a few of the participants would be perfectly happy to do everything digitally, and a couple do not even have email.  The challenge for people who want to engage the entire cross section of the community (and that’s critical to the kind of change needed to help a Wise Economy develop) is, how to leverage social media and digital tools, with all their benefits, while still enabling real involvement from those on the other side of the digital divide?

What do you think?  What have you seen done to help bridge that divide?  Or do you think that is a barrier to using more effective and less costly public participation methods?

Public Participation Innovations [and possible pitfalls]: Maine Community’s HeartSpots

This is an interesting idea from a nonprofit planning process in Maine.  I think the call-in telephone number and the boards in public places are a great idea – excellent way to get the planning process out of the a closed  group and into the community. 

 My concern, though, would be the expectations that this activity can create.  In a lot of the communities I work with, there is a deep conflict between people who want to return to an earlier way of life, and people who either want new opportunities or, pragmatically, realize that the world has changed and things can’t be magically returned to the way they were years ago.  That is, at its core, an issue of market forces and economics as much as anything else. 

The key challenge to an effective planning process of any type is that it has to account for real-world constraints, like economics, while also challenging the community to improve.  If the planning process ends up putting too much emphasis on memories of soda fountains and ways of life that are gone — or if the apparent emphasis on memories leads the public to a false hope that the plan will make things the way they used to be — then the plan will probably be ineffective at best, divisive at worst.

Public Participation That Does your Project Good

Here’s the link to the presentation that I did for the National Trust for Historic Preservation last week on innovative and effective public participation methods (read: no grandstanding, minimum boredom, happy people!

I just learned about a method for putting audio with presentations like this, so I am hoping to be able to get that here soon.  In the meantime, I found out today that the National Trust did a LIVE Stream from the conference  — this link will give you a sort of play-by-play, and it explains the parts that don’t show up in the powerpoint slides.  Look under Friday, October16, 8:15 AM.   Very cool!