Published on September 1, 2009

The US experience of engagement

By Edward Andersson

Edward Andersson is European Associate for Involve and an established expert on methods of participatory decision making. He set up Participationcompass.org – one of Europe’s leading public engagement sites, and has advised a number of organisations on public engagement strategies, including the Home Office, the European Commission, the OECD, WHO Europe, UNDP Turkey and numerous Local Authorities and Health Trusts.

This is my second blog based on my experience attending the second annual  ‘Strengthening our Nation’s Democracy‘ conference in Washington DC in August this year. The gathering of people active in the ‘Democracy movement’ was organised by the Ash Institute (Harvard)AmericaSpeaks and Everyday Democracy and gave me a better understanding of the American context and the Obama administration’s agenda for the field.

Obama’s record in developing public engagement is impressive so far:

I think Obama’s successes to date show that the UK can be braver in pursuing large structural reforms at the national level.

However it is also easier for Obama as a new leader to generate enthusiasm and overcome cynicism compared to Whitehall, where the same party has been in power since 1997.The US is also ahead of the UK in using inventive approaches to engagement, especially in terms of new technologies.Despite the great work of Ministry of Justice and Hansard Society on the Digital Dialogues reports a lot more needs to be done.

Hopefully , Andrew Stott newly appointed as the Cabinet Office’s the new Director of Digital Engagement will be able to champion this cause. In the main UK government institutions tend to stick to established approaches rather than pushing the envelope.

Another insight from the conference is that the so called ‘Democracy movement’ is incredibly diverse. At the conference people from fields ranging from Electoral Reform, Deliberation, Collaborative Governance and Environmental Resource Management came together to explore where their visions overlapped and where they did not. The tensions that surfaced were absolutely fascinating.

My sense is that we should consider organising the same kind of get together in the UK; people involved in Community Development, eDemocracy, Electoral Reform, Citizenship education and Social Innovation don’t necessarily talk to each other, despite obvious areas of overlap in interest and purpose. There is a clear opportunity to work together in wake of the expenses scandals which has made the case for change very clear.

However the future for US engagement is not all bright; one of the challenges Obama faces was apparent as I made my way back from the conference. In the terminal of Dulles International Airport I caught a news item of Congressman Steve Kagen facing hostile crowds at a Town hall discussion about healthcare in Green Bay, Wisconsin. I know a number of officers and councillors in the UK who have had similar experiences and who can sympathise with the congressman who clearly had lost control over the meeting and its vitriolic participants. Since that time dozens of similar town meetings have got out of hand across the US, with the disruptive behaviour often encouraged by campaign groups. This has led some to question the usefulness of public engagement in passing the healthcare reforms and in other contentious topic areas.

For me these examples highlights the uneasy tension between engagement as means to achieve partisan political aims contrasted with engagement as a means of achieving better government and governance. Obama came to power on the back of one of the most successful political engagement exercises of living memory. He had almost 2.5 million friends on Facebookaround one million individuals donated to his campaignsome estimate that around eight million people gave time to volunteer for his campaign, and above all he mobilised a wide array of people beneath a common vision. Engagement for political ends is by its nature outcome focussed. But engagement is also important for other reasons; for example increasing the legitimacy of decisions and ensuring that the decisions made are ones that people are willing to live with. This form of engagement is less political and more process oriented. Now that Obama resides at the White House the tension will be to decide how to reconcile political engagement (which he has shown he is very good at) with engagement for better governance (which he has less of a track record of). Part of the reason why the Town Hall meetings have been difficult to run seems to be that they have aimed to fill both outcome and process roles at the same time.

This is the difference between running a campaign and a government. Clearly health reform is a contentious area and many people have interests either in seeing engagement succeed or fail.

The Obama administration now needs to deal with a number of problems.

  1. The first is how to deal with the expectations raised amongst the core activists from the campaign, who often feel close to Obama and expect a high level of interaction going forward. Can Obama’s team keep their core supporters onboard and maintain momentum amongst the campaigners?
  2. The second challenge is how to manage the logistical transformation from having thousands of volunteers in all states during the election to run events to a situation where the Obama team have far fewer staff members to engage the public with. Logistically following the Obama 08 campaign will be difficult.
  3. The third, and possibly most tricky challenge, is to avoid engagement becoming seen as a partisan issue. In the UK today some conservative politicians consider engagement to be an example of New Labour management speak, to be removed when they get into power. Where politicians choose to limit their options for making political decisions, simply to score political points everyone looses.

The Obama Administration has taken steps to limit the power of professional lobbyists but as Mark Schmitt of the American Prospect points out it is less clear cut how Obama will deal with the ‘grassroots lobbying’ that is currently undermining the Town Hall meetings across the country… As Obama wrestles with the transition from leading one of the most successful political engagement campaigns the world has ever seen to the much more messy work of governing he might be tempted to reduce the role of public involvement in the wake of Congressman Kagen’s (and others’) experience. In my mind this would be a mistake.

Finally I wanted to end with the interesting point that John Gaventa of the Institute for Development Studies made at the conference. Each year the US and UK spend billions ‘exporting Democracy’. This tends to translate into some quite superficial promotion of the very political structures that citizens in western democracies have become increasingly mistrustful of and feel are growing ever ,more distant from their lives. At the same time we are seeing vibrant experiments and new practices emerging at the local level across many countries of the world. John asked the question: ‘If we want to export democracy, perhaps we should export the good stuff?’

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