High Quality Engagement: What to Do/What to Avoid


High quality engagement

What to avoid

Plan, design, and convene the engagement to serve the purpose of the effort and the people who will participate.
  • Participation begins when stakeholders, convenors, and process experts engage together in the planning and organizing process, with adequate support.
  • Together they get clear on their unique context, purpose, and task, which then inform their process design as well as their venue selection, set-up, and choice of participants.
  • They create hospitable,accessible, functional environments and schedules that serve the participants’ logistical, intellectual, biological, aesthetic, identity, and cultural needs.
  • In general, they promote conditions that support all the qualities on this list.
  • Untrained, inexperienced, or ideologically biased organizers design programs that do not fit the purpose of the effort or the community involved, or that
  • do not respect and engage the relevant stakeholders.
  • The venue is inaccessible, ugly, and confusing, and
    the poorly constructed schedule is inflexible or rushed, with inadequate time for doing what needs to be done.
  • Logistical, class, racial, and cultural barriers to participation are left unaddressed, effectively sidelining marginalized people and further privileging elites, majorities, “experts,” and partisan advocates.
Incorporate diverse voices, ideas, and information to lay the groundwork for quality outcomes and democratic legitimacy.
  • Convenors and participants reflect the range of functional stakeholder or demographic diversity within the community or on the issue at hand.
  • Alternatively, participants are randomly selected to represent a microcosm of the public.
  • Participants have the opportunity to grapple with data and perspectives that fairly represent different “sides” of the issue.
    Participants feel they are respected and their views are welcomed, heard, and responded to.
  • Special effort is made to enable normally marginalized, silent, or dissenting voices to meaningfully engage — and
    fundamental differences are clarified and honored.
  • Where necessary, anonymity
    is provided to enable important contributions.
  • Participants are mostly “the usual suspects” — perhaps with merely token diversity added.
  • Biased information is presented, and
  • expert testimony seems designed to move people in a specific direction.
  • People have little chance to speak out and,
  • when they do, there is little sign they are actually heard or safe.
  • Participants, stakeholders, or segments of the public feel their interests, concerns, and ideas — and they, themselves, as people — are suppressed, ignored, or marginalized.
  • Anononymity is used to protect abuses of power, not vulnerable critics.
Support organizers, participants, and those engaged in follow-up to work well together for the common good.
  • Organizers involve public officials, “ordinary people,” community leaders, and other interested parties as equal participants in conversations where differences are explored rather than ignored, and a shared sense of a desired future can emerge.
  • People with different backgrounds and ideologies work together on every aspect of the engagement — from planning and recruiting, to gathering and presenting information, all the way through to sharing outcomes and implementing agreed-upon action steps.
  • In official deliberations, there is good coordination among relevant agencies dealing with the issue being deliberated.
  • Unresponsive power-holders deliver one-way pronouncements or preside over adversarial, disrespectful, or stilted conversations.
  • Patronizing experts and authorities feel they already have “all the answers” and “listen” only to appease.
  • Engagement has no chance of impacting policy because relevant decisions have already been made or are already in the pipeline, or because those in power are not involved or committed.
  • Loud voices, mainstream views, or suppressive “rationality” dominate, and other voices and modes of expression are silenced or tolerated.
  • Engagement feels pointless, lacking shared purpose and a link to action.
Help participants listen, explore, and learn without predetermined outcomes — and evaluate public engagement activities for lessons.
  • Skilled neutral facilitators and simple guidelines encourage everyone involved to share their views, listen, and be curious in order to learn things about themselves, each other, and the issues before them.
  • Shared intention and powerful questions guide participants’ exploration of adequate, fair, and useful information — and of their own disagreements — in an open and respectful atmosphere.
  • This exploratory atmosphere enables them to delve more deeply into complexities and nuances and thereby generate new understandings, possibilities, and/or decisions that were not clear when their conversation began.
  • There is an appropriate balance between consulting (a) facts and expertise and (b) participants’ experience, values, inner wisdom, vision, intuition, and concerns.
  • Participants and leaders take away new skills and approaches to resolving conflicts, solving problems and making decisions.
  • Careful review, evaluation, and a spirit of exploration and innovation improve subsequent engagement work and develop institutional and community capacity.
  • “Public participation” exercises go through the motions required by law or the dictates of PR before announcing a pre-determined outcome.
  • Participants get on soapboxes or are repressed; fight or conform; get overridden or overwhelmed; and are definitely not listening to each other.
  • Facilitation is weak or too directive, interfering with people’s ability to communicate with each other openly, adjust their stances, and make progress.
  • Assertive, mainstream, and official voices dominate.
  • Available information is biased, scanty, overwhelming, or inaccessible — and experts lecture rather than discuss and clarify.
  • Lack of time or inflexible process make it impossible to deal with the true complexity of the issue.
  • And organizers and facilitators are too busy, ideological, or insecure to properly review and evaluate what they’ve done.
Promote openness and provide a public record of the people, resources, forums, and outcomes involved.
  • People’s attitudes and actions engender trust.
  • Relevant information, activities, decisions, and issues that arise are shared in a timely way, respecting privacy where necessary.
  • Process consultants and facilitators are helpful and realistic in describing their place in the field of public engagement and what to expect from their work.
  • People experience planners, facilitators, and participants with official roles as straightforward, concerned, and answerable.
  • Members of the public can easily access information, get involved, stay engaged, and contribute to the ongoing evolution of outcomes or actions the process generates.
  • Video proceedings of government-sponsored deliberations are available online, both in real time and archives.
  • It is hard, if not impossible, to find out who is involved, what happened, and why.
  • Research, advocacy, and answerability efforts are stymied.
  • Participants, the public, and various stakeholders suspect hidden agendas and dubious ethics.
  • Participants not only don’t trust the facilitators but are not open about their own thoughts and feelings.
Ensure each participatory effort has the potential to make a difference.
  • People sense — and can see evidence — that their engagement was meaningful, influencing government decisions, empowering them to act effectively individually and/or together, or otherwise impacting the world around them.
  • Communications — media, government, business, and/or nonprofit — ensure the appropriate publics know the engagement is happening and talk about it with each other.
  • The effort is productively linked to other efforts on the issue(s) addressed.
  • Because diverse stakeholders understand, are moved by, and act on the findings and recommendations of the program, problems get solved, visions are pursued, and communities become more vibrant, healthy, and successful — despite ongoing differences.
  • Participants have no sense of having any effect — before, during, or after the public engagement process.
  • There is no follow-through from anyone, and hardly anyone even knows it happened, including other people and groups working on the issue.
  • Participants’ findings and recommendations are inarticulate, ill-timed, or useless to policy-makers — or seem to represent the views of only a small unqualified group — and are largely ignored or, when used, are used to suppress dissent.
  • Any energy or activity catalyzed by the event quickly dies out.
Promote a culture of participation with programs and institutions that support ongoing quality public engagement.
  • Each new engagement effort is linked intentionally to existing efforts and institutions — government, schools, civic and social organizations, etc. — so quality engagement and democratic participation increasingly become standard practice.
  • Participants and others involved in the process not only develop a sense of ownership and buy-in, but gain knowledge and skills in democratic methods of involving people, making decisions, and solving problems.
  • Relationships are built over time and ongoing spaces are built in communities and online, where people from all backgrounds can bring their ideas and concerns about public affairs to the table and engage in lively conversation that has the potential to impact their shared world.
  • Public engagements, when they occur, are one-off events isolated from the ongoing political life of society.
  • For most people, democracy means only freedoms and voting and perhaps writing a letter to their newspaper or representative.
  • For activists and public officials, democracy is the business-as-usual battle and behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
  • Few people — including public officials — have any expectation that authentic, empowered public participation is possible, necessary, forthcoming, or even desirable.
  • Privileged people dominate, intentionally or unintentionally undermining the ability of marginalized populations to meaningfully participate.

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