Citizen Engagement Spectrum

Connected Communities: Local Governments as a Partner in Citizen Engagement and Community Building
Why do citizen engagement? James Svara and Janet Denhardt, editors of Connected Communities: Local Governments as a Partner in Citizen Engagement and Community Building, argue in an opening section (Overview: Citizen Engagement, Why & How?) that:

It’s the right thing to do

Citizens can be defined as people who have a concern for the larger community in addition to their own interests and are willing to assume personal responsibility for what goes on in their neighborhoods and communities. So, building citizenship is about inculcating a way of thinking and acting that is characterized by openness to opposing ideas, collaboration, and sense of responsibility to others. It is hard to have citizen engagement without a sense of community, and it is hard to fashion a sense of community without citizen engagement.

It’s the smart thing to do

We should work to increase citizen involvement because local governments cannot solve community problems alone. The complexity of the problems facing local government demands citizen involvement and acceptance, if not cooperation. Citizens often have information that officials need in order to design a sound program. Further, citizens expect the opportunity to participate and may resist the implementation of plans they have not helped design.

Citizen engagement is not:

  • Selling the public on…
  • Getting votes for…
  • Convincing the public to…
  • A meeting to complain/find fault with
  • A process where staff controls the outcome
  • Something that happens at council meetings
  • An alternative to representative gov’t

IAP2 Spectrum  of Public Participation 2007

The authors took the above 2007 version of the IAP2 Spectrum  of Public Participation and adapted it slightly (see page 9).

Public Involvement Spectrum in Local Governance

I’ve overlayed the red and blue text on their Table 1: Public Involvement Spectrum in Local Governance to emphasize the two main categories, interaction in policy making and interaction in service delivery, as my practice focuses on the former.

Public Involvement Spectrum - Policy Making
Their spectrum of interaction in policy making is helpful because it clearly shows that much of what local governments typically provide are ‘exchanges with citizens’ and not really citizen engagement at all.  (I’ve supplemented their discussion of tools with my itemized ‘typical tools’ for each category.)

Exchanges to inform citizens:

Provide the public with balanced and objective information to assist them in understanding the problem, alternatives, opportunities, and/or solutions.

Typical tools:

  • Meeting minutes
  • Reports, fact sheets
  • Open houses
  • Web pages
  • Blog posts, tweets
  • Media interviews
  • Presentations, panels
  • Videos

Exchanges to consult with citizens:

Receive and respond to resident comments, requests, and complaints. Obtain public feedback on analysis, alternatives, and/or decisions.

Typical tools:

  • Public hearings
  • Focus groups
  • Meeting Q&A
  • Open mic
  • Email & phone
  • Surveys/polls
  • Comment forms
Public Involvement Spectrum - Policy Making - Engagement
The citizen engagement end of the policy-making spectrum is more challenging to provide but worth it in the long run:

These efforts require a great deal of creativity, energy and commitment to succeed. But the effort appears to be worth it: research has shown that effective citizen engagement can foster a sense of community, engender trust, enhance creative problem solving, and even increase the likelihood that citizens will support financial investments in community projects.

In any of their interactions with citizens, local governments should look for the opportunity to encourage engagement rather than simply seeking an exchange of information.

Engagement to include citizens:

Work directly with citizens throughout the process to ensure that public concerns and aspirations are consistently understood and considered by staff.

Typical tools (in addition to some of those above):

  • Workshops
  • Deliberative polling
  • Blog comment threads
  • Q&A – presentations
  • Q&A – webinars
  • Interaction captured
  • Interaction published

Engagement to collaborate with citizens:

Partner with citizens in each aspect of the decision including the identification of issues, development of alternatives, choice of the preferred solution, and implementation.

Typical tools (in addition to some of those above):

  • Citizen advisory group
  • Citizen task force
  • Consensus-building
  • Participatory decisions
  • Interactive surveys
  • Interaction captured
  • Interaction published
Engagement to empower citizens:

Place final decision-making authority or problem-solving responsibility in the hands of citizens.

Typical tools (in addition to some of those above):
  • Citizen juries
  • Ballots
  • Delegated decisions
  • Interaction captured
  • Interaction published

The sweet spots on the spectrum of citizen engagement are ‘include and collaborate’ as it’s rare for elected bodies to hand over final decision-making authority to citizens.