I have met several civic leaders who complain that the average citizen is “apathetic”, and that only the “angry” citizens show up when public meetings are scheduled. These leaders have not had very positive experiences interacting with the public and are therefore reluctant to invest time and effort in public engagement. Most of us are familiar with the aphorism that “the only person’s behavior you can really control is your own”. Changing one’s own behavior often has the salutary effect of changing the behaviors of those one interacts with. In this post and the next, we discuss 10 behaviors that are often seen in the public sphere and which lead to citizen distrust and disengagement. Changing these behaviors can lead to more productive public engagement. The first five of these behaviors are:
1. Failure to adequately engage: Engagement does not just mean showing up to “listen” or to “provide information”. Think of the ways in which gears engage in a mechanical process – they work together to move a process forward. Public engagement efforts that are sporadic, limited to specific groups, or fail to involve the public in defining the issue to be discussed, all erode trust. Making key decisions with no engagement at all also erodes trust, especially when the public is both surprised to find out that the decision was pending and unhappy with the result.
2.”Window dressing” engagement: This term references efforts to demonstrate “public support” by inviting and “selling” a decision to part of the public. It also includes efforts designed simply to gauge potential opposition to a decision already made. The following comments from participants in our June 25, 2015 “Trib Talks” forum illustrates this type of behavior and the distrust that results:
“With the trash issue, the city asked for opinions, and then it appeared they were definitely going to use roll carts. At that point I stopped responding to surveys.”
“Was the city really “up in the air” about rollcarts, and wanting to gauge opinions, or were they trying to find out “If we do this thing, how many people will hate it?” I am being facetious but the perceptions were there that participation was meaningless.”
3. Ineffective outreach: Even when the effort to engage is sincere, failure to effectively invite the public into dialogue erodes trust. These failures include such things as scheduling public input on school issues at times when most parents can’t attend, using small signs and posted notices not placed where the public is likely to see them, and choosing meeting places not accessible by public transit. This problem is addressed humorously and well in this Ted Talk by Dave Meslin.
4. Failure to report back: If you ask for public input, it helps to report back to the public on how it was used. This is especially true if the ultimate decision is somewhat at odds with the public input received. By reporting back you can at least demonstrate that the feedback was respected, considered, and not simply ignored. The public can also, in the process, learn new information about constraints -whether legal or budgetary, and other factors that led to the decision made. This promotes an ongoing dialogue. A close cousin to failing to report back is reporting back on information the public thinks is irrelevant. You can read a good analysis of how such a disconnect erodes public trust in Public Agenda’s report, “Don’t Count Us Out”.
5. “Punting”: Have a difficult issue? You can always “punt it” to a board, committee or newly formed task force and hope it disappears. When the task force is never convened, or its work and recommendations are largely ignored, the public will notice and it will become harder over time to interest the public in working on or with such groups. Punting also erodes trust that leaders are ready, willing, or able to work through the hard issues our communities face.
Check in next week to see our final five of on our list of 10 things public leaders do that erode trust.