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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
The Issue-to-Public Policy Evolution Model:
- Concern: Describe the situation. Try to identify the causes. Look
beyond symptoms. Separate facts and myths and clarify values.
- Involvement: Consider implications for different groups. Identify
decision makers and others affected. Stimulate involvement and
communication among supporters, opponents and decision makers.
- Issue: What's the problem? Clarify goals and interests. Understand
goals or interests of others and points of disagreement. Get the issue on
- Alternatives: Identify alternatives, reflecting all sides of the issue
(including "doing nothing"). Be creative; list every idea!
- 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
- 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.
- 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!
- 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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