Random Excerpt: Why community involvement requires a structured approach, even when we’re seeking new ideas

Every week, I crack open The Local Economy Revolution to a random location and copy that section here.  Intrigued by what you read?  Check out the full book here.  Mind.blown.

When communities and nonprofits do public engagement, we often fuss about how we keep getting “the Usual Suspects.” But we often do little more than fuss. I can think of two different broad categories of “not the usual suspects,” and both of them will need a different strategy if we truly want them to participate.

First, the public participation methods we traditionally use tend to exclude the less educated, immigrants, those who do not speak our language well.  Again, this isn’t some do-gooder thing —we need to include them because these people have a particular knowledge of the community that we will never be able to access if they don’t share that with us.  If we remain blind to the issues they know about, we’ll miss the opportunities to address them, which is likely to have a direct impact on our community’s tax base growth and the demand for community services.

I’ve done public involvement sessions co-led with a trusted community translator or liaison to draw out participation from immigrant communities.  If there is any expectation of persons who are illiterate or disabled, I make sure that it’s known in the information that goes out before the event that people will be available to help those who have trouble reading or writing.  I’ll often also station a person at a table to write down any comments or ideas that anyone has.  That helps not only people who cannot write or elderly people who have trouble seeing, but it also helps people who can write but would rather just proclaim their ideas.  That way we get their thoughts down, and they feel like they’ve said their piece, but we haven’t let them dominate the entire community’s discussion.

A second type of resident that is typically underrepresented is younger adults. There’s at least two barriers to their involvement, and both of them derive from our continuing to use these outdated public involvement models.

First, you’re dealing with a population that has a lot of demands on their time — jobs, kids’ activities, social events, etc.  If I am in that boat (and it happens that I am), asking me to sit in an auditorium and listen to someone drone about what may or may not be a key issue to them…that’s a luxury many can’t afford, and it’s a very unclear return on investment for giving up a very valuable commodity: my time.

I am probably more aware of the impacts that local government decisions have on the rest of life than most people in my age group, so you would think I would be at my community’s council and planning commission meetings all the time.  But given the choice to spend two hours of my evening sitting in a meeting where I might or might not be able to give meaningful participation, while at the same time I have kids who need to get to practice, a house that needs cleaning, flower beds that need weeding and a report to write that I should have done last week… it’s extremely hard for me to make that equation work in favor of going to the meeting.

Needless to say, if I have anything better to do with my time than go to that public hearing and listen to the crabby people ramble, I’ll take it.

The second barrier is the changes I alluded before to how younger people tend to think and interact with information.  For people – let’s say generally 45 and younger – the combination of inefficiency, lack of ability to actively engage in the process and, let’s face it, the often confrontational and overly simplistic rhetoric you hear in the typical public meeting is completely off-putting.

I think this generation is particularly aware of the ineffectiveness of this approach because they haven’t come up that way – they have come of age and entered the workforce in collaborative problem-solving teams. And they have more clear memories of how often they fell asleep during college lectures.

Engaging this population takes an entirely different approach.  First, we need to make it more convenient to accommodate the busy.  This is where online methods become so important – not just because they are cool and whiz-bang, but because they do not require me to be in a certain place at 7 PM. I can participate at midnight after the baby has gone back to sleep, or at 6 AM while eating breakfast, or wherever.  If I expect to be able to buy a pair of shoes online from my phone at 2 AM, certainly I am going to expect that I can interact with my local government at any time of day or night, when I have the time.

Second, that interaction has to be more meaningful than just “I like it” or “I hate it.”  This population expects to be able to be part of the conversation, and they increasingly expect a rich, interesting and well – managed online experience. Again, all of this is not nearly as hard as it might sound – it all depends on finding and using the right existing tools.

One thought on “Random Excerpt: Why community involvement requires a structured approach, even when we’re seeking new ideas

  1. Pingback: From the Good Ideas File: Citizen Roles in Civic Problem-Solving | The Local Economy Revolution

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