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.


6 thoughts on “Controlling axe-grinders ain’t enough: Doing real public engagement”

  1. Great article indeed, Della! You may be interested in this recent report (from this past February): “Rescuing Public Policy: the case for public engagement” by Don Lenihan, available for free in pdf format from The Public Policy Forum. He argues forcefully and credibly, as someone on the public policy development side, for the desperate need for greater engagement of and from the various publics out there, in order to create effective policy, and at the same time, how government(s) need(s) to shed its aversion to such engagements.

    1. Tom, thanks so much. I am just discovering the incredibly good public engagement work coming out of Canada and the other Commonwealth countries, and this report looks on first glance like a game-changer. I’m looking forward to having the time to read it. Thanks again!


  2. If the agency holding the meeting is doing something that isn’t in the best interests of the community, something that makes them angry for cultural or historic reasons, I don’t see a way around it through the use of the above.

    Public meetings are held in my state because they must be. For unpopular projects with a special interest or a political force of one sort or another backing them, these meetings are rushed pro forma affairs. They devolve into a kind of theater, with the real decisions being made off the set in the dressing rooms of whatever agency is approving or planning a project.

    When you’re being asked to do something negative for a community, and that is how you are making your living, I really don’t think that this type of technique is going to do much for anyone. Perhaps, with all the meetings required, it will boost the budget for those running the meetings and hopefully fatigue the majority of the public enough to have them give up their struggle against what you are doing.

  3. Excellent article. Agencies often confuse the term consultation with presenting. True consultation takes time but is critical.

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