Monday, November 7th, 2016

Is Engaging with People Ever a Bad Idea?

The concept of public participation is built on the premise that the collective wisdom produces a better decision. The result of the US election and Brexit vote might cause some people to question the wisdom of opening decisions up to the entire population. However, it’s important to distinguish between public participation to meet a specific need and broader democratic processes.

There are fundamental differences between asking voters to cast a ballot in an election – or even a referendum – and engaging with people to make better decisions. When you effectively engage with stakeholders on decisions, certain principles apply. The ones below are by no means exhaustive.

Principles of Effective Engagement

The goal is to make the best decision

  • One that takes into account different perspectives, concerns and objectives
  • For the collective good – Not the best decision for one person or one group
  • For the long-term – Not just for election day or the next four years
  • Not just to gauge public opinion on an issue
  • Not to just gather data to support one perspective

The scope clearly sets out where engagement adds value

  • Whether that is simply gathering input, creating ideas, evaluating options, or turning over the decision-making
  • To define what the real impact will be
  • Not a hollow request that won’t affect decisions
  • Not left so open-ended that it’ll create unmet expectations and cynicism

The process is designed to maximize the diversity of participation

  • It includes “friends, foes and undecideds” – people with different perspectives and value to add (thank you Dr. Bob for that useful phrase J
  • Organized groups like associations, and also individuals from the groups they represent
  • People with different backgrounds and demographics
  • That means making it as easy as possible for people to participate via different means
  • Not to knowingly direct or limit the approach, tools or communication to just those who support your perspective

The people involved and the process used fosters trust

  • It’s about sharing the power to make better decisions through dialogue and collaboration
  • Everyone involved does a great deal of listening, especially the decision-makers
  • It makes the planning, process and facilitation critical
  • Not divisiveness to support one outcome

The people and the decision are better informed at the conclusion

  • That may mean providing some education on the problem or issue at the outset
  • Through sharing, questioning and listening for true understanding
  • From uncovering or developing common ground and goals
  • Not more firmly entrenched in only one perspective

Democracy and Engagement Can Learn from One Another

To be successful, both democracy and engagement rely on:

  • Sharing your opinion respectfully
  • Being open to hearing the perspectives of others
  • Taking the broader view for the greater good (my Canadian pedigree is showing here)
  • Being informed

They share some of the same potential pitfalls as well:

  • Opportunities to participate, but it is still up to people to do that
  • Information, facts and education, but cannot ensure people trust that information
  • Opportunities to listen to different views and ideas, but only individuals can choose to open their minds

It’s possible that in democracy, we sometimes take the “easy way out” by conducting a referendum on something that may be more suited to a public participation process.

Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. ~ Winston Churchill

The Brexit vote is an interesting one to ponder. Was each side so convinced they were right that they forgot to consider that they both wanted the best for their country? Was the true intent to decide whether to stay or go or was it to prove their position had the most support? When the politicians turned the decision over to the public, they gave them the full scope of decision making, but without the other important elements of engagement.

If you want to talk about engaging with your key stakeholders, I’d love to chat.


If you want to learn more about public participation, visit one of the websites of the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2):

Full disclosure: Katherine is a member of IAP2, from whom she took her Certificate in Public Participation and training in Emotional Outrage and Public Participation.