#30 of 100 Things We’ve Learned: Seven Qualities that Make Public Engagement Meaningful

What makes for a genuine process of engaging the public in policy-making?

After a summer of shout fests around health care reform, I’d like to suggest that the typical “public hearing” or even “town hall” process simply encourages this way of behaving.

Most of the problems that we face are pretty complex. In our current adversarial way of policy making, there will always be winners and losers rather than win/wins.

I’ve experienced countless public hearings where, as a member of the public, I have been frustrated and angry at the lack of adequate time to share complex views.  Standing at a microphone with just 1-3 minutes to make a comment and with no ability to have a thoughtful conversation with the other side — I can’t imagine what else could be designed to make audience members feel frustrated and angry.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The 7 Characteristics of Meaningful Public Engagement

What is necessary to ensure that the public is meaningfully consulted in policy making?

In our primer Meaningful Participation, an activist’s guide to collaborative policy making which you can download for free here, we set out 7 principles that need to be included in any process.

For citizen consultation to be meaningful, it must be:

1. Broad-based. That is, the process must truly include the full range of interests and positions that are represented. As the Quakers like to say, “everyone owns a piece of the truth.”

2. Open. Anyone who is interested should be aware of and understand how they can contribute and participate. They should feel welcomed. Meeting places should be accessible and well located. Meeting formats should be accessible and understandable.

3. Truthful. It is absolutely essential to ensuring the good faith of the participants that everyone acts in good faith. Accurate information needs to be contributed and analyzed. Important data, even if contradictory to your own views, should be included.

4. Responsive. For people to contribute civilly and in good faith, they need to know that their opinions are in fact being listened to and that they might have the ability to actually help create a better outcome.

5. Deliberative. Whatever the process is, it needs to provide enough time for everyone involved to be able to develop a shared understanding of the problem, to create a common vision of what could be, to be creative about options and to have time to thoughtfully reflect on possible solutions. One shot public hearings with citizen comment aren’t set up for this. People expect to have to demonstrate and shout to get their voices heard. There are better ways to talk to each other.

6. Fair. All participants need to know that they are equally valued and have equal access and input. Not just the highly paid lobbyists, but ordinary citizens.

And finally, the process needs to be

7. Competent. That is, it should result in the best decision being made because hard data was examined, real examples of solutions in action were examined, evidence-based practices were considered.

Whether you are a policy maker or a citizen advocate, you are going to need to work really hard to ensure that the process of developing major policies includes all of these elements. But it is truly worth it.

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