Category Archives: In The Field

Guns and Dialogue: Exploring Why Civil Discourse Is So Difficult

After the mass shooting in Newtown, communities around the nation began dialogues on what steps might be taken to reduce gun violence.  Some states have adopted new laws, and in others no resolution has been forthcoming.  As Congress returns next week to to take up the issue, political parties and citizens alike remain deeply divided on how to proceed.  Simple discussion of the issue can raise strong emotions.

What makes dialogue on this issue so difficult?  We were asked by the National Institute for Civil Discourse in February to write an essay on this issue.  Some of the reasons why dialogue on this issue is so difficult are:

  • All of the primary sources of conflict are present in this one issue.  These include differences in values, interests, and information, as well as other differences.
  • Instead of identifying and exploring these differences, discussions relating to gun violence too often focus prematurely on action items and are posed in “either/or”, “us v. them” terms.
  • This then inflames regional and other differences, and reinforces  suspicion and distrust of those who don’t “share the same way of life”.
  • Fear, alienation and anger make it difficult for individuals to process new information, and in many cases leads to the automatic rejection of new ideas and approaches.

It is, however, possible to plan for and promote civil, productive dialogue.  This kind of dialogue is crucial if we as a country are going to find ways to reduce gun violence in our communities.  How leaders and citizens might promote that kind of dialogue will be discussed more in our next post.

You can download a complete copy of our essay “Aim Higher, Dig Deeper”, as a pdf here. The essay links up to additional resources through endnotes. You can click on the endnote number to access the related text. This essay was prepared for and with funding by the University of Arizona’s National Institute for Civil Discourse, as part of a collection of essays on supporting a national conversation about gun violence. The collection has also been posted on the NICD blog.

Authentic Engagement

A local columnist recently wrote:

“I strongly encourage citizen participation in all of the decisions that affect our lives.  It is one of the vital privileges and responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy.  Yet,  I discourage the charade of citizen participation as a means of creating the false impression that citizens are making inputs if they are not.”

There are many ways this ‘charade’ of participation takes place.  One is the typical “public hearing”, poorly attended or attended by a vociferous few, each person limited to one or three minutes at the mic, then closed with a peremptory “thank you for your input” as the decision-makers move on, with little or no acknowledgement of what was said.   As the National League of Cities observed in its 2006 report “Changing the Way We Govern,”

Citizens tend to stay away from public hearings, school board meetings, city council proceedings, and zoning board meetings, mainly because they function in ways that are out of step with the larger changes in the citizen-government relationship.”

Next are workshops, scheduled to get public input, that are not well-linked with decision-making processes.  So citizens give input which is listened to at some level, but is disregarded or displaced by later input when decisions are made. Recently we attended a commission hearing where a commissioner asked a staff member about what consensus had emerged from a series of public meetings that had been held.  Although there had been a consensus that emerged during those meetings, the staff member simply said – “That was the group that showed up then.  You have a different group here tonight, and it’s your decision.”  Although the workshop process is often a more comfortable forum for citizens,  if it is not linked to, or valued in, the actual decision-making process, the input provided is lost.

Another example comes from boards, commissions, and task forces that are organized to focus on a specific problem or issue.  In one example we have experience with, a task force was created to address a need for citizen engagement around a planning issue.  Instead of seeking out a diverse group of people with relevant experience or skills, the city council placed all of the very limited number of people who had applied voluntarily on the task force.  As it turned out, many of those who applied were generally hostile toward city government, and not very interested in building dialogue with a broader group.   The task force made little progress and even if it had, its recommendations would not have been very reflective of what “citizens” more generally were thinking.  A similar dynamic occurs when citizens are handpicked for their support of a predetermined outcome — the full voice of “the citizens” is not heard.

None of these approaches assures the public that its input is valuable, or that is is worthwhile to “be engaged”.  Real engagement takes commitment and perseverance on all sides.  It is the responsibility of those in government to plan for and provide opportunities for meaningful input, and to consider what is said.  It is the responsibility of citizens to be informed, to participate, and to hold their elected officials accountable for creating real dialogue.

Engaging With The Media – A Case Study

This week we continue our discussion on working with the media during a public engagement process by providing an example of how the wrong message can create unneeded conflict.  This example occurred a few years ago while we were working as facilitators in the Imagine Columbia’s Future visioning process.

After the participants in the process had been working together for nearly a year to create a set of vision statements, goals, and action plans, the overall process consultant at the time (not us!) organized a workshop to get public feedback on emerging plans.  During this workshop, those who had not been participating in the visioning process more generally were to be given the opportunity to review what the groups had come up with and put “dots”  on what they considered to be the best ideas.  The overall purpose of the workshop was to create a snapshot of community concerns that could be used alongside other information being generated through the working groups in putting together the final plans.

Although this workshop was intended to be an interim check-in and not a decision-making point, it was titled  “Community Choices”, and was reported in the media as if community members’ votes would result in a ranking of ideas and priorities, through which certain ideas would “win” or “lose”.  As a result, the local Chamber of Commerce reached out to its members and further exacerbated the situation by asking members to turn out and sure their priorities won the day.  When a local group which was concerned about the pace of development found out the Chamber was organizing its members to vote, it sent out a similar message to its members.

At the actual event, facilitators who were there to help community members engage with and understand the ideas, concepts, and connections that were being identified in the working groups, instead spent much of their time explaining that the workshop would not result in a “win/lose ranking”.  Despite this effort, several participants used all of their dots for a single strategy or goal in an effort to make sure that goal “won”, while others followed instructions to use one per idea.  Efforts were made after the workshop to explain to the media that no ideas had won or lost, and that, given the different approaches on placing dots, the “vote totals” were not very useful data.  The media still reported on the vote totals, although the post workshop efforts did mitigate to some extent how they were reported.

At the most basic level, providing an opportunity for broader community input was a good idea.  The event was successful at generating interest and attendance. However, the failure to clearly communicate the purpose of the workshop and how the data would be used in advance led to unnecessary confusion and rekindled existing animosities between community groups. This confusion could likely have been avoided entirely with an appropriate and clearly organized message delivered consistently to the public and to the key groups likely to participate.   This case study illustrates the need to review, both when planning for an overall process and for individual events, the possible conflicts that could arise and the potential for  misunderstanding regarding the purpose of a process.  It also illustrates the importance of explaining how the data generated will be evaluated and used, and how participant are expected to interact.   This community workshop would have been more fun for the community and more valuable to the overall process, if there had been a clearer articulation of its purpose and a clear statement that the  data generated would be folded into a longer dialogue.  Providing the media with an explanation of how dialogue differs from traditional win/lose processes could have helped as well.

Engaging With The Media – After Your Process

Today we continue our discussion on working with the media, focusing on what you can do after the “meeting” part of an engagement process has ended to help ensure that progress is made and that the work done during the process is not ignored.  Here are some steps to consider.

  • Release a report that summarizes the work done and connects it with other actions, events, or ongoing processes in your community.  For example, if the City Council must vote on a recommendation, state how that recommendation will be put before them and when it will be considered.  As another example, if recommendations affect something like an existing plan, explain the process for amending that plan.  Planning for and explaining how recommendations will be integrated into critical processes like budgeting helps to place progress on the recently completed engagement within the context of other ongoing government actions.
  • All of this can be worked into a transition plan that lays out the details of the implementation process.  Establishing priorities with consideration given to limited resources and stating expected time lines can be very useful in helping the media form reasonable expectations.
  • Make sure information is readily accessible to the media so that it can be referred to as reporters are working on related issues.  For example, you could have a web portal where key documents can be reviewed and downloaded.  You can also provide summary updates online as your time line unfolds using a simple form like the visioning Accountability Tracker used in Columbia, MO.
  • You need to be proactive in ensuring that the media appropriately places decisions made or actions taken in the long term context of your engagement process and plan.  You can of course prepare press releases that place those actions within the context of the engagement process.  If possible, you should also brief new reporters on the history of your engagement process and plans and periodically check in with others on emerging issues and how they relate back to recommendations made or to guiding principles that were established through your process.  This makes it more likely that media reports will place actions taken in an appropriate context that helps to educate the public.
  • Continue to inform and involve those who took part in your engagement process.  The participants from an engagement process will generally have at least a passing interest in seeing how their ideas move toward implementation and can become valuable assets for tough problems.  You can, for instance, create a listserv and encourage participants to sign up and stay in touch.  If kept informed, these citizens will often correct misinformation on media related blogs or write letters to the editor that promote ongoing productive dialogue.  If you have a media partner, it may be possible to link requests for input and comment with media reports and share both the blogging platform and the data received.
  • As with other phases of engagement, it is worth thinking about how the media works, laying out “themes” that help you respond when issues arise.  Since media reports are often written to suggest controversy where none exists, project “failure” of government to be efficient or responsive, or illustrate government “rejection” of citizen “demands”, you might, starting with your final report, lay out mitigating themes.  One such theme would be that “government can’t do it all (or do it alone)”.  Emphasize that the implementation of recommendations is an ongoing and evolving process and that decisions on how and when to move forward on a recommendation will factor in realities such as budgets and limits on staff available.  Invite help from the community in establishing priorities between competing demands and procuring additional resources needed.  Referring back to these themes as issues arise will help both the media and the public better understand the interrelationships and trade-offs between issues and the rationale behind decisions made.

Engaging With The Media – During Your Process

Today we continue our discussion on engaging with the media, focusing on working with the media to inform the public during an engagement process.  Here are some steps you can take during an engagement process to effectively work with the media and communicate with the public.

  • Once you have begun an engagement process, work to recruit and train a variety of “public ambassadors” who are active in the process.  These should be people with connections to the diverse audiences that exist in your community.  A good ambassador will bring up their involvement with the process as a normal part of conversation with members of the public and be available for media interviews.  These ambassadors can also bring back questions they are hearing from the public, and serve as an early alert system for misinformation.  Note that it isn’t the role of an ambassador to argue positions.  Instead, these ambassadors serve as advocates for the process itself by encouraging participation, explaining the schedule, and promoting dialogue.
  • The development of regular channels of communication should also be a primary focus early on in your engagement process.  To build channels of communication, you should regularly supply reporters with background information that provides context for emerging issues in addition to updates on the process.  Reporters who become experts on particular issues can be very helpful in promoting productive dialogue by highlighting the complexities and intersections among issues. Informed reporters are also less likely to be affected by those who seek to bypass or distort your process with information that is partisan or otherwise skewed.
  • Even though both ambassadors and reporters can help inform and involve the public, you should also be prepared to provide regular reports directly to the public.  You should be prepared to make regular reports directly the public through your website, e-mail alerts to those who have signed up, and newsletters that are sent out with utility bills or otherwise.  In your reports, in addition to providing information on the current stage of the process, you should summarize why you started the process, how you got to where you are now, and where you plan to go in the future.  By providing this detailed information you can help community members connect with ongoing actions, even if they haven’t previously been involved.
  • Information can also be made available to the community through faith groups, community hubs such as senior centers, barbershops, day care centers, or schools.  Providing information on an ongoing basis helps build consciousness and context.  This helps the public more effectively interpret and respond to media reports that are sporadic or sensational.