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Sandy Heierbacher on Core Principles for Public Engagement

On January 21st of this year, President Obama issued a memorandum calling for the creation of an “Open Government Directive,” instructing executive departments and agencies to focus new attention on “transparency, participation, and collaboration.”

Sandy Heierbacher, Co-Founder and Director of National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD), says that she and others involved in the field of public engagement “felt valued” because the new administration had included participation as a priority – yet this also presented an interesting dilemma.

The memorandum opened the door for engagement experts to help define a “quality public process” for the new administration. But Heierbacher says that many in that same community “worried there would be so many public engagement organizations approaching from different angles using different terminology that we wouldn’t get any clear message through.”

Heierbacher acknowledges the value of public engagement rich with a diversity of approaches and objectives. “Some for policy influence and conflict, others for citizen empowerment or to foster community action,” she says. But with so many different approaches, she also felt there was often “insider language used that can muddy any collective message.”

A core group of 8 individuals representing NCDD, the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) and the Co-Intelligence Institute started talking about developing a core set of principles to better define quality public engagement – not only for the new administration, but also for people working in the field to communicate their objectives better with the public.

She says this was something some organizations and networks had done for themselves, but never had the field worked across networks and streams of practice.

“We wanted to see if the broad community could agree upon a core set of principles.”

The group posted over a dozen existing sets of principles, and then gathered input electronically from as many organizations and individuals working in engagement as possible, carefully considering each point before drafting an initial set of Core Principles. It was an “inclusive and transparent” process that incorporated hundreds of suggestions from individuals in the field, so that broad ownership and acceptance of the principles was possible. The group also sent them out for broad endorsement, so that the sense of universal ownership was even clearer.

Says Heierbacher, “People were so excited to have something created jointly across networks and organizations. Many said they’d never seen this kind of open collaboration in this field with so many people coming together – this warmed my heart.”

7 Core Principles in Action

The 7 Core Principles for Public Engagement are each accompanied by a one-sentence description, but additional text describing what each principle “looks like” and “what to avoid” was created collaboratively as well. In keeping with the concept of universal ownership of the principles, Heierbacher says it is also important for organizations and individuals to feel that they can “adapt and change the phrasing” of this additional text to meet their needs.

Paul Leistner, Neighborhood Program Coordinator with the City of Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement in Portland, Oregon was “inspired” by the release of the principles. He’d found that community members and city leaders and staff sometimes clashed over public engagement processes because they did not share a common understanding of what good process—and bad process—looks like. The terminology of public involvement was too “abstract.”

Leistner serves on the City of Portland’s Public Involvement Advisory Council (PIAC), a unique formal advisory group made up of city staff and community members which is creating “guidelines and standards to improve the quality and consistency of public involvement throughout city government.”

To better meet their objectives and bridge the gap between city staff and the grassroots public around the value of engagement, Leistner and PIAC took the principles and used them to create a straightforward table that breaks out of the potential “good or bad” behaviors that might fall under each of the principles.

Says Leistner, “It offers us tangible examples to help community members and city staff recognize the good and the bad of public involvement.”

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