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.


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