Beyond civility: From public engagement to problem solving

4 02 2011

The National League of Cities (NLC) recently released a 10-page “Civility Guide” as an “action guide for city leaders.” Thanks to the blog at for highlighting this new publication. It provides practical and thoughtful tips along with quotes from representative local government leaders and examples of the seven principles they put forward.

NLC Executive Director Donald J. Borut wrote, The  following action guide draws on NLC’s continuing work on this topic to present cities and city leaders with ideas and a framework for action to promote democratic governance. As NLC defines it, democratic governance is “the art of governing a community in participatory, deliberative, inclusive and collaborative ways.” This isn’t easy work, but it is essential to the effective functioning of our cities and our society.

The publication is succinct and easy to follow. For P2 practitioners, there is nothing stunningly new in its content, but it is refreshing to hear proponents for meaningful public participation coming from within local government.

One of the most striking statements in the document was acknowledgement that city officials, staff and citizens need training and/or some kind of better understanding of effective public engagement. In a 2010 NLC survey, about half of all city officials and top staff surveyed said that neither they nor their constituents have the skills and experience needed to carry out effective public engagement. To me, this is a call to action for P2 folks to rise to the challenge of equipping our clients and communities! I am convinced that once someone has experienced “effective public engagement” – meaning, that citizens feel heard or decision-makers feel they have a better outcome because of public input – people become believers in and advocates for meaningful public processes.

I encourage you to check out this guide and share your thoughts on what is most compelling to you.



25 05 2010

I am starting to see a growing number of discussions, uses and applications of crowdsourcing as it relates to public participation. I was first introduced to the concept by Daren Brabham, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on how crowdsourcing can be applied to non-profit problem solving. He examined for-profit sites like to see what motivates people to participate and the social reward for participating. Daren was also involved in a pilot study applying crowdsourcing to bus stop design. The winner for the second design competition at has recently been announced.

In the meantime, our friends in the northwest are applying crowdsourcing techniques to address sustainability issues and solicit citizen ideas to improve their city. Folks in the planning realm are finding crowdsourcing a compelling concept, including this firm dedicated to crowdsourced placemaking.

Crowdsourcing holds a lot of potential for active on-line communities. It relies on virtual communities brought together by an interest or topic. Without the virtual community, there is no compelling story to tell. However, the whole idea is to seek ideas from a multitude of people. The trick is to gain traction with a group of people who know you exist and facilitate this kind of problem-solving.

The beautiful thing about crowdsourcing is that not only do the ideas come from the “crowd,” but the solution can also be chosen by the crowd. You have immediate buy-in from a group of people who support a particular solution. Most government decision-making processes can’t fully turn over an idea to the populace, but there is still something to be learned here regarding the quality of input when people believe they are being listened to and truly making a difference in their lives and the lives of others.

Prime example: Discussing Global Climate Change

13 04 2010

It is difficult to engage people in thinking about big issues with long-term consequences. Such topics are often abstract, futuristic and extremely technical. Global warming and climate change are topics that could be called “wicked problems”.

Regardless of your personal stance on the issue (belief, unbelief or otherwise…) I was impressed with a recent interview on the Diane Rehm Show with Dr. Margeret Leinen, Founder and CEO of The Climate Response Fund. She is in the nitty-gritty of technical research on climate change and discussed a conference held last month that brought together various interested parties to establish guidelines for climate research.

Leinen explained, “We have been concerned for some time that there were lots of venues where scientists could talk amongst themselves about the science but there weren’t any venues and there weren’t any discussions emerging where the people concerned about risk management, governance, ethics, economics, international law, [or] public opinion could come together with the scientists to talk about that. So we sponsored a week-long conference modeled on a very famous early conference in the ‘70s that looked at recombinant DNA … The thing that it had in common was that the scientists voluntarily came together and said, We’re very concerned about this research; help us understand what kinds of guidelines are necessary.”

This explanation caught my attention as a significant move to bring together various stakeholders to discuss processes surrounding climate research. Agreement on process is critical to credibility and acceptance of research results. Furthermore, research on climate change is dealing with ethical and legal questions since the environment does not belong to one entity, but has implications for all.

What are the pros and cons of utilizing a conference format to address global (literally and figuratively) problems? What other strategies to take on “wicked problems” have you seen?