Published on April 10, 2013

Who’s afraid of the active citizen?

By Ingrid Prikken

Ingrid Prikken is Project Manager at Involve. Her work is focused on project design and management, facilitation and research. Her research covers embedding public engagement in government and citizen participation in challenging issues.

image blog 1Myths about citizen engagement sometimes prevent decision-makers from engaging. They think it’s too risky, too expensive, and it will just get in the way of efficient decision-making. In this and the next post I’ll explore a few of these myths, and how to overcome them, in relation to engaging citizens with transitioning to a low carbon society. These are companion pieces for a short article I wrote for Energy Cities info magazine (no. 41, Spring 2013).

These are some of the myths we come across in our practice:

‘Mob rule’. Decision-makers may have had negative experiences of engaging citizens when they were confronted with combative people. Yet, most people are polite and keen to have a civilised and informed discussion. As Simon Burall argued in a post a while ago, there’s lots of prejudice and stupidity, but it isn’t from citizens: A well run citizen engagement process will give citizens time and space to engage with information and each other. Involved sensibly, citizens will always surprise the prejudiced policy maker with the nuance and subtlety of their views.

‘Citizens can’t discuss complex issues’. There are numerous examples of engagement processes where groups of ‘ordinary’ citizens engaged intelligently in complex topics. In a paper published last year, I discussed that engaging people in a meaningful way can play a role in changing attitudes and behaviours. Moreover, politicians are not necessarily better informed than the average citizen about issues such as climate change and energy futures which mix science, economics and a range of other disciplines. So, why would we trust them to get such decisions ‘right’ and expect citizens to get them ‘wrong’? We may find that ‘ordinary’ citizens are able to come up with ingenious solutions which may have eluded experts.

‘Engagement is too expensive’. All engagement seems expensive unless the costs of not engaging are measured alongside the costs of your project. Non-engagement may result in obstacles with rather serious consequences in terms of costs, both from a monetary (for example, costs of complaints procedures or legal costs) and non-monetary (for example, negative impact on image, decrease in trust, weakened social fabric of urban communities) perspective. However, in most cases the alternative to public engagement is not ‘do nothing’ but to carry out PR, market research or communications activities – all of which have costs. An appropriate engagement process can increase the likelihood of implementation of policies on time and within budget.

In the next post I will share a few of my thoughts on how to overcome these myths. More information about dispelling myths around engagement can be found in our recent publication “From Fairy Tale to Reality: Dispelling the Myths around Citizen Engagement”.

Image by by caribb

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