Myth 3: Engagement only works for easy issues

There are those who agree with engagement in principle but don’t think it is applicable in their particular area. Engagement is seen as being for ‘easy’ issues that are simple, close to people’s everyday lives and uncontroversial. Of course many different kinds of experts believe that their issue is off bounds, be they scientists, planners, economists, even arts curators! Experts may say: ‘It won’t work in my area because it is so complicated. After all I had to spend years at university to understand this.’ Alternatively the feeling is that the issue is too contentious and conflict-prone. Like the lion in the fable of the lion and the mouse, experts feel that citizens have nothing to offer in terms of support or knowledge, but there is evidence to the contrary.

There are numerous examples where people have successfully engaged citizens in some of the most complicated and contentious issues of our time, including the rebuilding of New Orleans, developing an alternative voting system, managing the Federal Deficit in the USA, rewriting the Icelandic constitution, developing domestic violence courts in New York, and exploring the strengths and weaknesses of genetically modified foods. In fact, as risks mount we will need engagement more. We need citizen input precisely because the topic is difficult and complicated. After all, we choose to use lay members of the public rather than trained legal experts to determine guilt in jury trials. Speaking of juries, practitioners have been using citizens’ juries for 30 years, with a wealth of experience that shows citizens can engage on difficult topics as long as they are supported properly.