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 wiseeconomy.com 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.