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Mar 2001 / from the source :: email this story to a friend

Spinach and Citizen Engagement
By David S. Boyd

FOCUS's mission statement, values, and major roles in the region all reflect the importance we put on engaging citizens. But why do we place so much emphasis on all this "touchy-feely" activity? After all, as author Sherry Arnstein wrote "the idea of citizen participation is a little like eating spinach — no one is against it because it is good for you." And when it's all over and done with, what do we have to show for our efforts?

Will Friedman of Public Agenda recently wrote that citizen engagement "is the attempt to involve citizens more fully and thoughtfully in the policy process as it evolves, not just after the fact. To eliminate this essential process can foreclose the possibility of developing the common ground and shared resolve that brings a community's varied resources to bear on a problem. Public engagement informs leaders about the community's thinking, preferences and concerns as policies are developed. At the same time, it helps citizens understand more about the choice their community faces and the advantages and disadvantages of different courses of action."

The subject of citizen engagement and its corollaries fills volumes. However, there are some general themes that emerge from much of the literature. In the interests of space, three are presented below:

  1. Better Decisions: A well-designed engagement process will help to inform the issue-to-policy decision process in two ways. First, there is a synergy in "group-think." In simple terms, when it comes to getting the creative juices flowing (e.g., generating potential solutions to a problem), one plus one equals five! When placed in a "safe" environment (usually under the guidance of a trained facilitator), people have an amazing propensity to generate new ideas that, as individuals, they may not have been inclined to produce. Second, the same facilitated environment can be essential to ensuring that every voice is heard. A trained facilitator will pay close attention to the proceedings, striving to create a "level playing field", so that all participants have an equal opportunity to voice their opinions and that a few don't dominate the discussion. Thus, the diversity of both opinion and participants is viewed as an asset that contributes to the overall robustness of the discussion and the decision process.

  2. Timely Decisions: A good citizen engagement process might be considered as "paddling upstream" — it is a lot of work at the beginning (which is, incidentally, when you have more energy), but it generally makes the trip downstream much easier! There are two facets to this. First, a decision made in the absence of public engagement may be more difficult to implement. People may passively question a decision or actively work against it if they don't understand the reasoning behind it. Decision makers should not view citizen engagement as a delegation of their powers, but rather as an opportunity to build trust and gain support from their constituents. In addition, when there is a strong constituency for a decision arrived at through a deliberative process, there may be greater continuity (and reduced inefficiency due to wasted resources) when decision makers leave their offices. Second, and perhaps the easiest concept to comprehend, is that the risk of post-decision litigation is greatly reduced when an appropriate citizen engagement process is conducted. The end result may be a much quicker decision-to-implementation schedule.

  3. Enhanced Social Capital: According to noted author Robert Putnam, the term "social capital" refers to "the ways our lives are made more productive by social ties." Citizen engagement enhances social capital in a number of ways. First, involvement in participatory events leads to small, but significant changes in people. Learning about how others may view an issue or hope to solve a problem can be transformative to the participants. Improved problem solving skills, personal empowerment, and increased recognition of others are all important benefits that can provide transformational benefits for society as a whole. Second, it is important to understand that people feel angry when they perceive that something was "done to us." According to Lawrence Susskind, this anger saps the productivity of individuals, corporations and governments as resources must be expended to defend every action and decision. Furthermore, this anger contributes to the erosion of confidence in our basic institutions, imposing long-term costs on our society. Third, citizen engagement can help to build what Putnam calls "sturdy norms of reciprocity." This is the idea that our society is bound together by a sense of mutual obligation — "I'll do this for you now, in the expectation that you (or perhaps someone else) will return the favor." Through the transformative powers of citizen engagement we build a stronger community, region and nation.

As Arnstein's earlier quote alludes, at first glance the benefits of citizen engagement might be viewed as ephemeral and not action-oriented or outcome-driven. Hopefully the information above helps to explain that our belief that "informed, engaged, motivated citizens are essential components of a progressive region" is actually part of a long-term strategy for the health, vitality, and success of the St. Louis region.

Interested in how citizen engagement activities help to affect public policies? There are lots of different "models" that are used to describe and guide these processes. Here is a good example that can be used in your own efforts!

The Issue-to-Public Policy Evolution Model:

  1. Concern: Describe the situation. Try to identify the causes. Look beyond symptoms. Separate facts and myths and clarify values.

  2. Involvement: Consider implications for different groups. Identify decision makers and others affected. Stimulate involvement and communication among supporters, opponents and decision makers.

  3. Issue: What's the problem? Clarify goals and interests. Understand goals or interests of others and points of disagreement. Get the issue on everyone's agenda.

  4. Alternatives: Identify alternatives, reflecting all sides of the issue (including "doing nothing"). Be creative; list every idea!

  5. Consequences: Predict and analyze consequences for each alternative, including impacts on values as well as objective conditions. Evaluate how consequences vary for different groups. Compare all consequences for all alternatives.

  6. Choice: What is the best possible resolution of the issue? Design realistic strategies considering who influences decisions and where, when and how the policy decision will be made.

  7. Implementation: Inform people about new policies and how they and others are affected. Explain how and why they were enacted. Help people understand how to ensure proper implementation. Go for it! Just do it! Get it done!

  8. Evaluation: Monitor and evaluate policies to determine impact. Did it make a difference? If NO, go back and do it again.

Source: Cornell Cooperative Extension

David S. Boyd, AICP is the Director of Citizen Engagement for FOCUS St. Louis, a non-profit organization that works to create a cooperative, thriving region by engaging citizens in active leadership roles to influence positive community change in the St. Louis area. He is responsible for designing and implementing strategies for public engagement; seeking creative means to foster thoughtful public discussions about critical policy issues; strengthening ties between existing formal and informal groups; and helping individuals move from personal to public concerns.

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