Published on March 9, 2012

Two things you need to know about… Public Engagement

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is the Director of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

Picture of a number 2 etched on rusty metalWhat are the two things you need to know about public engagement? 

I finally got round to reading the Saturday paper from a fortnight ago – I blame the kids for my tardiness. I was intrigued by this little piece by Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian which asks the question, “Is it true that for every subject, there are only two things you need to know?

In essence this article says that there are only two things you need to know for every subject. Everything else about the subject is the application of those things, or not important. It gives the reply of an economist to the proposition, “1. incentives matter, 2. there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” This is, as the article says, a pretty good summary of all of economics.

It got me thinking; what are the two things you need to know about public engagement if you want to make a real difference to the lives of citizens? It wasn’t as hard as I thought it might be:

  1. Can you explain why you want to engage the public to anyone who asks? In other words, what is the purpose of the public engagement?
  2. If the public can’t change or influence the decision, then don’t engage.

I think that there’s a natural tendency for any ‘expert’ to want to complicate things, and I have many caveats, yeses, and ifs and buts to add. However, in the end I think that really does capture it; anything else is detail about how to go about engaging the public once you’ve got your head round those principles.

Do you think I’ve picked the right two things you need to know about public engagement, or would you say something different?

Picture Credit: Leo Reynolds

36 Responses to “Two things you need to know about… Public Engagement”

  1. March 9, 2012 at 9:42 pm

    My two would be:

    1. Think in layers: don’t expect everyone to engage with you in the same way, or on the same questions. Some people tell their stories, some people finesse words, some people indicate their priorities.

    2. Be conversational: language is a barrier, and online especially, people don’t have those non-verbal cues to help them understand you. Writing like a slightly chatty, friendly human being is a good strategy.

  2. Louise
    March 12, 2012 at 9:08 am

    I would say:
    1. Don’t feed the trolls
    2. Consultation is sometimes a box check but it’s the same as not asking someone to a party when you know they can’t come. Far better to ask anyway, it makes that person feel valued. Just be honest if there are restrictions on the amount of impact their opinion will have.

    • Simon Burall
      March 15, 2012 at 10:43 am

      Louise, thanks for this. I’m not sure I agree though.

      Point 1, if we are talking digital engagement then you are right for almost every case, the social feedback just isn’t there to get the trolls to engage honestly and meaningfully. The reason I disagree is more that there is a challenge with labelling citizens. We see it in offline engagement where people are derisively labelled as ‘nimbys’ or ‘the usual suspects’, and seen to be a problem. The implication being that if only we could get to ‘real people’ we’d get the real view of the public.

      However, not all members of the public are interested in every issue, this is clear. Labelling those who have the energy and interest negatively helps to frame their participation in a way that isn’t helpful. So I advocate moving beyond labelling into a situation where as often as possible people’s participation, for whatever reason, is seen as an opportunity.

      I do fundamentally disagree with point 2 though. As my second to last comment shows I hope. Asking people their opinion if you aren’t going to listen to it is corrosive to our democracy and public trust in institutions. Honest is a small step in the right direction, but why spend tax payers’ money on a consultation process that can’t make a difference? spend the money on buying a few more books for a school. it also means that people approach genuine consultations in the frame of mind that “we’re not going to be listened to”. This in turn reduces participation and makes processes that can make a difference much harder.

  3. March 12, 2012 at 1:02 pm

    1. You need to approach engagement with an open mind. There are as many answers to any question as there are people in the world and you will be surprised by what people say. (If you’re not, you didn’t ask the right questions).
    2. Merely asking for someone’s opinion shakes things up. At the least, it raises their expectations that something will be changed.

  4. Simon Burall
    March 12, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    Thanks all for the suggestions. I’m hoping a few more might come in – there’s been promises on Twitter – so, I’ll wait a bit before responding; these are all very interesting so far and are sparking thoughts.

    One set from Twitter I’ve been asked to post, from David Gilbert @InHealthAssoc

    “@sburall @americaspeaks @abclimatedialog don’t do anything unless/until u know (a) link 2 decision-making/impact b) what happens 2 data”

    “In other words: methods aren’t so important! We have engagement ‘industry’ that thinks otherwise”

  5. March 12, 2012 at 4:14 pm

    The ones already mentioned by everyone are great, but i’ll throw two more into the pot for fun…

    1) If you open the door, you have to be prepared for the disruptive consequences. If you think there won’t be any, you are probably wrong.

    2) If you don’t open the door, someone else will probably kick it in later!

  6. March 12, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    Nice idea, I like your second one and Richard’s first one.

    * If they can’t influence what you are engaging about then don’t

    * But if you do, then be prepared to learn things you didn’t expect and to have to respond in ways you don’t necessarily like.

    However, I know we aren’t talking about communications here, but I think there is also a role for passive communications even when there is no agenda to influence. So for example in my land of emerging technologies, our Nano&me website and what I am lobbying for, GM&me, Geoengineering&me etc, were created to present information as impartially as possible, without overweighting or stating ‘sides’ so that the public at large has access to information on contentious issues to help them make up their own mind, regardless of whether they are ever going to be asked or not.

    Dialogues for me are usually such a small sample, and often are really only market research. I’d like to see more access to impartial information on the complex issues we all face, so those who want to learn more about the different aspects of the debate can do that – just because. But then again there’s the BBC website for that!

  7. Tiago Peixoto
    March 13, 2012 at 4:53 am

    Very good questions Simon.

    However, if we want to take them seriously, we would end up by dismissing most of the “participatory” mechanisms that are currently so popular (unless we go for the always good excuse “everything is alright as long as expectations are managed”).

    Is the participation industry (e.g. consultants, think-tanks) and its sponsors (e.g. governments, international organisations) ready for a very frank conversation on that matter? Not really sure.

    • March 13, 2012 at 7:07 am

      As one of the think tanks Tiago, I would be interested in what should be dismissed and why. I’m up for the frank conversation!

  8. March 13, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    Fun exercise, thanks for sharing!

    Here’s my take:

    1) Those who are affected by a decision should be involved in the decision-making process.
    2) Process matters.

    Cheers!

  9. Andrew
    March 14, 2012 at 2:41 am

    My 2 pennies of wisdom would be:
    1, Cups of tea
    2, Ability to feedback

  10. March 14, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    @Simon

    Just in case you aren’t subscribed, this post was shared on the NCDD listserv and has sparked a few responses.

    I shared a slightly edited version of my comment, blog post updated here: http://www.intellitics.com/blog/2012/03/13/two-things-to-know-about-public-participation/

  11. Simon Burall
    March 15, 2012 at 10:17 am

    Tim Bonnemann has pointed me to a discussion on the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation listserv about this post.

    Here: http://lists.thataway.org/SCRIPTS/WA-THATAWAY.EXE?A2=NCDD-DISCUSSION;f8d44a7f.1203b

    and partly repeated and partly extended here: http://lists.thataway.org/SCRIPTS/WA-THATAWAY.EXE?A2=NCDD-DISCUSSION;1105c471.1203b

    It’s interesting and worth a quick look. While there seems broad agreement with my first point, there is some disagreement and even disquiet about the second – that you shouldn’t engage unless citizens can affect the decision, “The 2d point on citizens suggest that change may be unavailable to citizens. True in some cases, but certainly not the hallmark of an open democracy.” Another person found the point “troubling”.

    While I understand where this disquiet comes from, I think it just shows that I haven’t expressed myself clearly enough.

    Decision-making is a complex business, involving politicians, unelected officials, stakeholders (and when done well, citizens too). However, the process of decision-making goes through many stages and my point is that all too often citizens are brought in after the stage where the decision has already been taken. They are engaged to, at best, help ensure that the decision is communicated, and at worst to add a veneer of legitimacy to the decision. (Communication isn’t bad, but it really mustn’t be dressed up as public engagement which could affect a decision when it can’t)

    In cases where decisions have already been made I would argue strongly that:

    i. you mustn’t pretend to the public that you want their opinion, it’ll be perfectly transparent that you don’t.

    ii. it’s too late this time, but next time, involve citizens much earlier, when they can influence the decision properly, or even take part in the process of defining the problem and therefore the solution.

    So my second point is a pragmatic one. Realistically, certainly at central government level, there isn’t the time and money to engage citizens on every decision. But we must work tirelessly to stop government engaging citizens in sterile consultations and public engagement exercises because they do our democracy real damage by reducing trust in the machinery of government still further.

    • March 16, 2012 at 2:05 pm

      Thank you for the clarification, Simon. That makes a lot more sense to me, and it resonates deeply with my own experience on several fronts. In our diocese of The Episcopal Church USA, for instance, we are given ample time to comment on resolutions from the floor of our convention, and occasionally those comments do shape the final resolution. Still, engaging more of the laity much earlier would have far more impact–and, I would submit, make for far better resolutions.

  12. Simon Burall
    March 15, 2012 at 10:37 am

    I also wanted to try to summarise the points that have been made here, because I thought that they were all very helpful. I don’t disagree with many of them, and think they are all useful, demonstrating that the exercise in picking the two most important things hides much important detail – although I don’t think it is a useless exercise because:

    i. policy makers have a very short attention span and if you can’t catch it quickly, you don’t get the chance to talk to them about the detail;
    ii. it’s a useful device for prompting discussion about priorities, levels of importance etc.

    Despite the discussion on the NCDD list, my second point is the one that is agreed with by more commenters than any point that is made, by me or others. It can be summarised as ‘the public engagement process must make a difference’. Andrew highlights the need for feedback, this is important for the participants, but I think it’s also a useful device to ensure that policy makers think very carefully about how the public will have an impact – if they know they are going to have to report to citizens, they’ll make much more effort to take views on board.

    There is also a cluster of comments, from Steph, Rachel, Richard and Hilary, that can be summarised as, you need to engage people differently, and you’ll be surprised by what you hear/ what you hear will be disruptive (in a good way I think). This latter point certainly accords with our experience, time and again, policy-makers, politicians and scientists who go into a public engagement process sceptical about what citizens can offer, come out with a different perspective on an issue they thought they knew well.

    I also like the two comments from Steph and Andrew – “be human”, and “lots of tea”, as it’s a reminder that you’ll get the best out of people if you build real relationships.

    Finally, Tiago throws up a huge challenge to the public engagement industry (of which I think he would see himself as part (true Tiago?)). Do my points suggest that we throw out most in vogue participatory methods? David (whose tweets I posted above), who says that methods aren’t important, appears to take that view. I certainly don’t. Methods are important, but only as long as they are driven by the purpose, the participants and the context in which you are working. If methods drive everything else then much can go wrong.

    Thanks everyone for engaging in this. I’ve found it fruitful. Don’t feel you have to stop though!

    • March 16, 2012 at 2:08 pm

      I agree that it’s not a useless exercise to identify the “two most important things,” for exactly the reasons you cite. When I originally ran across your post, I read (misread?) Burkeman’s question as positing that, ontologically, you only need to know two things about anything, which I find vastly insufficient. But to grab our busy species’ rapidly dwindling attention span? Yes, it’s an extremely valuable tool.

    • Tiago Peixoto
      March 19, 2012 at 10:15 am

      Simon, I definitely see myself as part of the industry! As such, I am able to see on a daily basis initiatives that fail to “comply” with point 2.

      • Simon Burall
        March 19, 2012 at 10:20 am

        No chance of getting you to spill the beans, or even pull out a few general lessons?!

  13. Rachel Papworth @greenandtidy
    March 15, 2012 at 10:44 am

    Nice bit of content analysis Simon. 🙂

    Two more:

    i) If you ask the wrong people, you’ll get the wrong answer.
    ii) You can’t engage people without their consent. So look for the hook.

    • Simon Burall
      March 15, 2012 at 10:49 am

      Thanks Rachel. Both good points, I’d express your second one as ‘understand what motivates people and start from there, not from your narrow policy driven focus’, but that’s just saying the same thing in a different way I think.

  14. March 15, 2012 at 10:52 am

    Ah, yes! You put it much better than me. 🙂

  15. March 15, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    I’m glad you found the thread, Simon, and I’ll be sure to share your response on the listserv. I had the feeling that your post would lead to some rich discussion on the list!

    By the way, if you’re not already subscribed to the NCDD Discussion list, would you like me to add you? Then you can see the messages as they come in, and respond yourself whenever you want. You don’t have to be a member to subscribe, though I’d love to see Involve join as an organizational member (Janice Thomson is a supporting individual member).

    My contribution to the conversation was not in the thread you linked to, so I thought I’d share here why I am not crazy with the growing concept outlined in your #2: “If the public can’t change or influence the decision, then don’t engage.”

    Here was my response:
    There are many ways for public engagement to have impact besides influencing “the decision.” It’s a good rule of thumb for public officials, but not necessarily for other types of community leaders in all cases. Perhaps my two would be:

    1. Can you explain why you want to engage the public to anyone who asks? In other words, what is the purpose of the public engagement? (same as Simon’s)
    2. Design your program with #1 in mind — and be clear about it from the start.

    That way, if your purpose is to raise awareness of an issue, help your community heal after a crisis, or just introduce people to a different way of discussing issues, you and all involved are clear on that purpose.

    I still think the attached framework is helpful in thinking about the different types of goals/outcomes that dialogue, deliberation, and public engagement efforts can have. (I attached the graphic at http://ncdd.org/rc/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/Goals_Comic_fullpage.jpg)

    Hopefully this explains my take on the topic.

    Oh, and thanks for providing us with such great fodder for a listserv conversation! 🙂

    Sandy Heierbacher
    Director, National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD.org)
    sandy@ncdd.org

    • Simon Burall
      March 15, 2012 at 4:27 pm

      Sandy

      thanks for this and also by return for feeding into this discussion both yourself and others through the listserv.

      I don’t disagree with what you say above, and you highlight that in this post I’m probably too heavily focused on policy makers engaging the public. There are as you say lots of other reasons to engage and we both agree that critical is to be open and transparent about why you are doing it.

      best
      Simon

  16. March 15, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    Then there is the question of feedback, which I think I might have made point number 2! I have hardly ever seen feedback to participants or the wider public on the trade offs which have contributed to the final decision in a situation where the public has been consulted in my land of science & innovation. This is essential to build confidence in the process, but also to make it truly democratic. A citizen’s jury or dialogue process with a few hundred people isn’t really democracy either, but if it is clear to those who want to know, how that dialogue influenced the process and what other influences shaped it, then this would be much more effective.

    Our analysis of recent public dialogues (youTube vid here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cORTXqzBeag ) shows how sensible people actually are, they don’t want to be involved in every decision, but want to be sure that someone is on the case to hold those in charge to account and that they have the information to do so effectively.

    Not sure though Rachel there are any ‘wrong people’, just people who’s opinions differ from one’s own. This is the critical bit in understanding ‘early warnings’, listening to people who’s opinion you don’t necessarily respect may be critical to understanding problems or opportunities you may have overlooked. Our work on How to tell a nutter from an early warning’ is looking into that in a bit more detail because basically, it ain’t human nature to do that!

  17. March 15, 2012 at 4:55 pm

    Simon — I’m also wondering if part of this is that we’re working in somewhat different environments for this work. In the U.S., the actual link between a public engagement program and a decision or policy is usually murky at best, for a number of reasons. It’s a principle to strive for, but I just don’t think we’re there yet. For that reason, I think it’s become even more important for us to find other ways to validate public engagement work (like increasing a community’s ability to solve problems in the long-term), and to see public engagement as not only a way to influence decisions, but also a way to help people understand complex issues, resolve community conflict, etc. Make sense?

  18. March 15, 2012 at 5:02 pm

    There’s definitely a bit of a terminology issue going on.

    For example, I focused my reply narrowly on public participation (decision making), whereas many on the NCDD list view the term “public engagement” much more broadly.

    • Simon Burall
      March 15, 2012 at 5:20 pm

      Tim and Sandy

      I think that’s a large part of it. It’s a problem we face here too with different organisations and people from different public engagement traditions having different definitions of a term that all feel is self-evident

    • March 15, 2012 at 9:51 pm

      I agree — some use “public engagement” as a very broad term, others much more narrowly. Here’s the definition we have on the NCDD glossary (www.ncdd.org/rc/glossary):

      Various forms of highly inclusive public dialogue and deliberation that are critical steps towards policy development, collaborative civic action, and other forms of public problem solving. Often used interchangably with the term “civic engagement” (to many, incorrectly) public engagement generally involves a mutually-beneficial partnership between the public and an entity perceived as having power (government, a university, a corporation, etc.). Many use “public engagement” as a general term for a broad range of methods through which members of the public become more informed about and/or influence public decisions.

      As I recall, much of this particular definition came from Public Agenda’s work. The last sentence is key — in particular the phrase “more informed about and/or influence public decisions.”

  19. March 15, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    Hilary, by ‘wrong people’ I meant, for example, people who are not directly affected by the issue you’re dealing with. Or a biased sample.

    I like your comments on feedback. It’s a critical part of the process which is tricky to do well and often under-resourced.

  20. Janice Thomson
    March 15, 2012 at 8:27 pm

    The discussion of this blog on the (American-dominated) NCDD list-serve illustrated some interesting cultural differences between Europe and the US. In particular, some Americans seemed disturbed by Simon’s point #2.

    Impact on policy is THE big issue related to participatory democracy in Europe, at least at a European Union (EU) level – which is the level I know best. Until policy impact can be demonstrated, it’ll be hard to get more EU-level projects funded or the European Commission to really improve their policy consultation methods. Plus, there are many cases in Europe (especially in France) of government officials disguising public relations as “participatory democracy”, resulting in cynicism toward these processes.

    In the US, there seems to be more of a sense that citizens can and will self-organize to effect policy change.

    So I completely understand the reasons behind Simon’s point #2, as well as the discomfort it evoked in some Americans.

    • Simon Burall
      March 16, 2012 at 10:33 am

      Janice – and Sandy,

      this exchange has been helpful. Helpful in teasing out the definitional issue a bit more. I know some hope it’ll just go away, my view is that it’ll always be with us because we operate in such different cultures, even within one department within one country!

      It’s also been helpful though for another reason that Janice’s post illuminated for me. Over the course of the last two years, since the start of the Coalition Government the debate about the role of public engagement has moved on. I blogged about my emerging thoughts back in July 2010 – http://www.involve.org.uk//liberated-by-the-big-society/

      I personally think this has all been very helpful for Involve and probably others within UK civil society – it’s forced us to be much clearer about what we think the role of the state is.

      Involve’s primary focus will always be on the state and how to inject citizen voice more clearly and effectively into policy-making, but a strand of our work will also be around how to support citizens to self-organise, identify the problems they want to solve, and then to solve them.

      This strand of the comments has been useful as a reminder that I need to be clear which lens I’m looking through and to be clearer about it, with myself and others.

  21. April 5, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    Very interesting post and discussion thread! I work in qualitative research, which overlaps with public participation. My two things you need to know (or to do?) would be:
    1. really “hear people”, ie get what they are saying and what’s behind that, even if not v articulate, even if controversial (or anodyne) etc;
    2. give people the opportunity to follow up, get involved or find out more later, if they want to
    Kevin

    • Simon Burall
      April 5, 2012 at 1:48 pm

      Kevin

      thanks for this. I like both of these, they speak to the notion of authenticity. This is one reason some institutions really struggle with public engagement. It isn’t that they aren’t ‘authentic’, but rather their institutional culture, incentives and so on mean that they aren’t set-up to be listening organisations. So for me, public engagement is much more than just bringing people into the room, it is almost a way of being.

      This may be getting too philosophical and unhelpful, I plead the closeness of the Easter holiday…

      Simon

  22. Stan
    April 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    If you really want people to be involved, my 2 points would be:
    1. Keep it simple and
    2. Keep it simple

    I.e. Don’t get bogged down in semantics and definitions. The whole building block needs to be a very simple premise at first, then start focusing on detail once people are on board. Don’t discourage people from involvement by over-complicating matters

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