Published on March 10, 2014

How to keep public engagement open and innovative?

By Carolina Johnson

Carolina is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the University of Washington in Seattle. She is visiting Involve for a month while conducting research locally for her dissertation on democratic outcomes from local participatory budgeting reforms.

Open 24:7, jeremiah vandermeerI spend a lot of time talking to community members as part of my PhD research on participatory budgeting.  One comment I hear commonly in these conversations, especially in cities taking more risks or being a bit more ambitious in their approach to public engagement, is something along the lines of “I can’t believe the city is really doing this, but I’m so proud that they are!”

Hearing this repeated so many times, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the powerful impact that innovation in governance can have in its own right.  When community members understand their government to be genuinely trying out a new way of making decisions and engaging the public, it really can make members of the public more excited to get involved, have a stronger sense of pride in their community, or seem more optimistic about where things are headed.

The experience of innovative governance does not only have an impact in terms of how citizens and communities think about themselves or their futures.  Introducing new ways of doing things, new ways of making decisions or incorporating public perspectives into policy making also shakes things up, and can sometimes actually change the balance of power between government authorities and every day citizens.  As I have seen in my research, when new rules are being put into place, no one knows how to best to use them yet, and there can be in effect a levelling of the playing field.  As a result, public perspectives and ‘inexpert’ voices can take a more significant role than in typical decision-making and consultation processes.

These observations had been percolating quietly in the background as I have been observing participatory budgeting meetings and interviewing local community members in cities implementing PB in the US and the UK. Since coming to Involve two weeks ago, however, I’ve come to think even more about the role innovation plays, and the challenges of sustaining the energy and real accessibility of public engagement as new ways of working in governments become more established and more entrenched.

For example, as has been described in previous posts on this blog, Involve is currently part of an evolving and ambitious effort to come up with a new way of introducing public perspectives and public accountability into the governance of the NHS. This is an exciting chance to watch innovation in governance in practice, and it has been very interesting to see the design process and the team’s reflections unfolding in public.

In conversations about the emerging design of this new process, the question has arisen about what makes for sustainable innovation, where participants in a new citizen’s group don’t just transform into a new expert, ‘insider’ body, with a stake in existing ways of doing things or a focus on their own power.   How do we design a process that can carry forward that sense of openness and opportunity that exists at the beginning of a new process?  How do you sent up a process in such a way that groups keep a strong motivation to cycle new people in, keeps that productive instability and keeps the focus on the public and the public good, rather than on the survival or satisfaction of the group or group members’ own interests?

This is not a new problem.  Setting up a group with some kind of distinctive role or authority gives member of that group a new stake in its survival, and their place in it.  In our social and political worlds we have invented a variety of solutions to the challenge of groups that may start to place their own interests or survival above their office or public purpose:

1) Elections:

Modern democracies present some of the most familiar solutions to this problem: regular elections and term limits on elected representatives.   Regular competitive elections allow new perspectives to be introduced to a group, while maintaining formal accountability links to ensure that if elected representatives become too focused on their own interests they can get kicked out and replaced with fresher eyes.  In practice, pressures to campaign and get re-elected introduce their own new narrow interests and limit the accessibility to non-professionals or people with fewer resources.  Elections may be combined with term limits to help increase turnover, but term limits alone do not remove the distinctive demands of campaigning and winning elections (putting aside the specific concerns of party politics).

2) Random selection:

Another interesting option to keep group members from becoming overly invested in the group’s survival rather than creative problem-solving is random selection of members of the relevant populations.  This approach is familiar from courtroom juries, deliberative polls or the Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review, among others.

3) Structured transition:

Neither elections nor random selection are ideal for bringing together participants who have some kind of special characteristics or distinct position as stakeholders or local experts.  Often, however, governance innovations need to include specific types of people to produce the hoped for outcomes.  Such groups of citizens present some of the greatest challenges over the long term for maintaining an innovative orientation or the capacity for creative disruption.  There are many different ways stakeholder groups can be put together, but there are several points to think about that may be helpful as starting points:

  • Should there be open and active recruitment throughout, as opposed just at the group’s inception?
  • How do you know when members’ tenure is up? Do they have fixed terms?
  • Who is responsible for identifying and inviting new participants? Will you be relying on existing members of the group to identify their replacements? How will this impact the future of the group?
  • How much influence will new members have?  How will you balance the needs of both current and future participants to know that their perspectives can have a sustained impact?

These are not the only questions, or the only options. What is important is to be able to give some attention at the beginning of a long-term process to questions of what kind of group you’ll have made a year or two, or more down the road.  Initial bursts of innovative excitement are rewarding. The next question is, how best can that energy and openness to change be sustained in the long term?

Image credit: Jeremia Vandermeer

Leave a Reply