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Engaging Your Community: Core Principles

by Allison Rizzolo

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

We are swiftly approaching the heart of another election cycle, and the town halls and open forums have begun. If past election seasons are any guide, at best these will be genuine, though inept attempts at including the public's voice. At worst, they will be a calculated farce. Meanwhile, the government again barely averted a shutdown, and partisan bickering has moved into the territory of twitter hashtags.

What is the failure of events like town halls? As Dan Yankelovich, cofounder of Public Agenda, points out, during these public hearings, in which citizens supposedly express their views, two kinds of “voices” tend to predominate: the angriest and the most organized. The general public, and certainly those who have been traditionally marginalized, are rarely represented in any meaningful fashion.

Authentic public engagement, by contrast, is a highly inclusive problem-solving approach through which regular citizens deliberate and collaborate on complex public problems. While this may sound complicated, and even overwhelming, there are a number of logical and concrete considerations to take into account. Paying attention to them will increase your success in initiating more inclusive dialogue, deliberation and collaboration on tough issues in your community.

But why should you? If we want to solve the complex and urgent problems we face as a nation, we must have more honest, authentic, well-designed dialogue that gives voice to the broader public to counterbalance the partisan ideologues that tend to dominate the airwaves. Rather than relegating people to the sidelines, authentic engagement invites them to join the public dialogue surrounding a problem and provides them the tools to do so productively. As a result, leaders know where the public stands as problem solving progresses, while citizens themselves contribute to solutions through their input, ideas and actions.

In short, authentic and skillful engagement with a broad cross section of community members improves results by:

  • Bringing together multiple points of view in order to inform decisions.

  • Creating legitimacy and a sense of shared responsibility by involving the public and diverse stakeholders early and often in a change process, rather than after decisions have been made.

  • Fostering new allies and collaborations.

  • Stimulating broad awareness and momentum for change.

While broad-based public engagement is not possible or appropriate for every decision, it can be the right move for addressing many kinds of public problems and developing and implementing many important decisions and initiatives—particularly those whose success and long-term sustainability will depend on the support and concerted actions of many varied stakeholders.

Now, where to begin? Whether you are an expert on the policy issues facing your community or simply someone eager to start productive dialogue and actually get things done, there are a number of principles to keep in mind.

Based on our three decades of experience in engaging various publics in important issues, we have formulated ten principles of public engagement in a "primer" on the topic, published by our Center for Advances in Public Engagement. In the coming weeks, we will break these down for you step by step, examining each part of the process individually and in more detail.

First and perhaps foremost among these is:

Begin by listening

Understanding the public's starting point—where they enter the conversation Be alert to the issues that people in your community care about, the language they use to discuss them, and their concerns, aspirations, knowledge base, misperceptions and initial sense of direction with respect to solutions. Doing so will allow you to meet people where they are and engage them in ways that are meaningful in light of their interests, concerns and natural language. It will help you avoid making faulty assumptions about people’s positions or using jargon that, however useful to experts, is counterproductive when it comes to engaging the public.

Look for more principles of public engagement here in the coming weeks. In the meantime, if you have any questions, just ask—either here, in the comments, or on our Facebook page or via Twitter. We also have many more tools to help foster community and public engagement. These include Choicework discussion guides, deliberative discussion starters for flexible use among diverse participants, and their corresponding videos; reports outlining engagement recommendations and principles; and case studies in community and state engagement.


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