As we noted in out first post in this series on trust, building “trust” with the public requires thinking about a range of factors. Earlier this year we invited a number of different people working on civic engagement in different fields, including politics, agricultural policy, water policy, urban planning, and health, to share thoughts about their work. Participants were initially asked to think back to their recent work on public engagement, and consider whether the stakeholders had either shared or divergent perspectives on the success of the process once it concluded, and why.
Factors identified as leading to shared perspectives included:
- clear assertions of values and expectations for the process upfront.
- a clear process for follow-up (tasks and communications).
- careful “check-ins” with participants throughout the process.
- increases in learning, awareness and motivation.
- dialogue and trust.
- projects that went well.
Factors identified as leading to differing perspectives included:
- different (and unreconciled) goals for the process.
- premature focus on end goals without understanding or exploration of shared values or intermediate steps that might be taken.
- not keeping higher-ups up to speed about the process.
- personal factors, emotions, reactions
Tips for effective engagement included those relating to hope and productivity, such as engaging people from the beginning of a process with activities they can sign up for as they answer surveys or attend open meetings and start working on immediately. As one speaker pointed out, this kind of active participation helps participants see that something is occurring, shows them they can make a difference, and also helps them to understand what is going on. Another observed that “being able to show the value of change makes change much more plausible” and that citizens want to know “what’s in it for them.”
Still another speaker emphasized respect and listening, saying that “trust is generated by people at the highest level listening and having faith in people to generate their own solutions.” He further observed that “people LIVE the problems we discuss and we can’t ignore their solutions.” Others talked about knowing your audience, dressing for acceptance, having facilitators that reflect audience demographics, and responding in a way that the community finds valuable. Another, referencing work being done through the Orton Foundation, emphasized the importance of storytelling:
Policies and frameworks have become formalized and disconnected from the human component. Storytelling is the key tool for gathering data and building relationships. Building relationships takes many different forms.
Another factor emphasized was flexibility of process and willingness to shift directions as more is learned. As one speaker pointed out, part of what the public contributes is context which is often overlooked by those who are focused on data or the “correct” analysis:
We have to acknowledge that there are context experts and content experts. It takes both and you have to communicate you value both entering into learning together and view that diversity in experience and skills as an asset.
Community values, interests, and history are all important parts of the context that makes for wise decisions.
How do you build trust? Regardless of the field you are working in, key elements include clarity and coherence of process; connections to meaningful work, people, and resources; and sincere respect for the contributions of all involved.