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"Can our field present a united front to the new Administration? Let's start by seeing if we can develop a set of principles for public engagement we can all endorse..."

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    • CommentAuthorTom Atlee
    • CommentTimeMar 9th 2009 edited

    This third draft was created by Tom Atlee from the second draft, modified according to comments on this list.  It remains open for comment and suggested revisions/ additions/ reformulations.


    The following principles describe high quality public engagement in public conversation on public issues.  While each is distinct, they overlap considerably and reinforce each other in practice.  They serve both as ideals to pursue and as criteria for judging quality.  Their proper use is to generate authentic engagement in public problem-solving, collective creativity, and social healing.  They are not designed to promote partisan agendas.

    1.  Preparation - Consciously plan, design, convene and arrange the engagement to serve its purpose and people.

    2.  Inclusion - Incorporate diverse people and ideas to lay the groundwork for quality outcomes and democratic legitimacy.

    3.  Collaboration -  Support organizers, participants, and those engaged in follow-up to work well together for the common good.

    4.  Learning - Help participants listen, explore and learn without predetermined outcomes -- and evaluate events for lessons.

    5.  Transparency - Promote openness and provide a public record of the people, resources, and events involved.

    6.  Impact - Engage official and public attention and follow up -- in context -- so that each participatory effort actually makes a difference.

    7.  Participatory Culture - Promote programs and institutions that sustain quality public engagement and advance democratic principles and competence.

    Below these are briefly described.  You can consult more detailed descriptions on our website at ___(this would be a URL for a page with fuller exploration and articulation of these principles)____.

    1.  PREPARATION - Consciously plan, design, convene and arrange the engagement to serve its purpose and people.

    What this looks like: Participation actually starts when adequately diverse stakeholders and consultants engage together in the planning and organizing process. Their session purpose and circumstances shape their process design and event culture as well as venue selection and set-up -- and they engage competent facilitation.  They create hospitable, accessible, functional environments and schedules that serve the participants' logistical, intellectual, biological, aesthetic, identity, and cultural needs.  In general, they promote conditions that support all the qualities on this list.

    What to avoid: Untrained, inexperienced, or ideologically biased organizers create event designs that do not fit the goals of the effort or the community involved or respect and engage the stakeholders.  The venue is inaccessible, ugly, and confusing, and the poorly constructed schedule has insufficient slack or adequate time for doing what needs to be done.  Facilitation is weak or, if strong, interferes with people's ability to communicate with each other, remain open, and make progress.  Logistical, class, racial, and cultural barriers to participation are left unaddressed, effectively sidelining marginalized people and further privileging elites, majorities, "experts", and partisan advocates.

    2.  INCLUSION - Incorporate diverse people and ideas to lay the groundwork for quality outcomes and democratic legitimacy.

    What this looks like: Both the convenors and the participants reflect the full range of stakeholder or demographic diversity, and have the opportunity to grapple with data and perspectives that fairly represent different “sides” of the issue. Participants feel they are respected and their views are welcomed, heard, and responded to. Special effort is made to enable normally marginalized, silent, or dissenting voices to meaningfully engage -- and fundamental differences are clarified and honored.  People ask "Who else needs to be involved?"

    What to avoid: Participants are mostly "the usual suspects" -- perhaps with merely token diversity added. Biased information is presented, and expert testimony seems designed to move people in a specific direction.  People have little chance to speak out and, when they do, there is little sign they are actually heard.  Participants, stakeholders, or segments of the public feel their interests, concerns and ideas -- and they, themselves, as people -- are suppressed, ignored, or marginalized.

    3.  COLLABORATION - Support organizers, participants, and those engaged in follow-up to work well together for the common good.

    What this looks like: Organizers involve public officials, “ordinary people”, community leaders, and other interested parties as mutually respectful peer participants in conversations where they clarify their common ground and use their differences for common benefit.  Diverse people work together on every aspect of the engagement -- from organizing and recruiting, to setting up the event and presenting information, all the way through to promoting outcomes and impacts.

    What to avoid: Unresponsive power-holders deliver one-way pronouncements or preside over adversarial, disrespectful or stilted conversations.  Experts and authorities feel they already have "all the answers" and “listen” only to appease.  Loud voices, mainstream views, or suppressive "reason" dominate, and other voices and modes of expression are silenced, sometimes with politeness or formalities but little real respect or empathy.  Forums feel pointless, lacking shared purpose.

    4.  LEARNING - Help participants listen, explore and learn without predetermined outcomes -- and evaluate events for lessons.

    What this looks like: A trained facilitator encourages everyone involved to share their views, listen, and be willing to be curious in order to learns things about themselves, each other, and the issues before them.  Shared intention and powerful questions guide participants' exploration of useful information and their own disagreements in an open and respectful atmosphere.  This exploratory atmosphere enables them to delve more deeply into complexities and nuances and thereby generate new understandings, possibilities, and/or decisions that were not clear when their conversation began.  And during and after the event, it gets reviewed and evaluated to improve subsequent engagement work.

    What to avoid: "Public participation" exercises go through the motions required by law or the dictates of PR before announcing their pre-determined outcome.  Participants get on soapboxes or are repressed; fight or conform; get overridden or overwhelmed; and are definitely not listening to each other.  Available information is biased, scanty, overwhelming, or inaccessible -- and experts lecture rather than discuss and clarify.  Poor facilitation or lack of time make it impossible to deal with the true complexity of the issue. And organizers and facilitators are too busy, oblivious, ideological, or insecure to review and evaluate the event.

    5.  TRANSPARENCY - Promote openness and provide a public record of the people, resources, and events involved.

    What this looks like: People's attitudes and actions engender trust.  Relevant information, activities, decisions, and issues that arise are shared, while respecting privacy where necessary.  People experience planners, facilitators, and participants with official roles as straightforward, concerned, and answerable.

    What to avoid: It is hard, if not impossible, to find out who is involved, what was done, what happened, and why.  Research, advocacy, and answerability efforts are stymied.  Participants, the public, and various stakeholders suspect hidden agendas dubious ethics.  Participants not only don't trust the facilitators but are not open about their thoughts and feelings.

    (Due to length limits in this forum, the final two principles are placed below as a response.  They are part of this same document.)

    • CommentAuthorTom Atlee
    • CommentTimeMar 9th 2009 edited

    6.  IMPACT - Engage official and public attention and follow up -- in context -- so that each participatory effort actually makes a difference.

    What this looks like: People sense -- and can see -- that their engagement was meaningful, influencing government decisions, empowering them to act effectively individually and/or together, or otherwise impacting the world around them.  Due to media and official communications, appropriate publics know the engagement is happening and talk about it with each other.  The effort has been productively linked to other efforts that deal with the issue.  Because diverse stakeholders understand, are moved by, and act on the findings and recommendations of public deliberations, problems get solved, visions are pursued, and communities become more vibrant, healthy, and successful -- even while entertaining ongoing differences.

    What to avoid: Participants have no sense of having any effect -- before, during, or after a conversation.  There is no follow-through from anyone, and hardly anyone even knows it happened, including other people and groups working on the issue.  Deliberators' findings and recommendations are inarticulate or useless to policy-makers -- or seem to represent the views of only a small unqualified group -- and are largely ignored or, when used, are used to suppress dissent.  Any energy or activity catalyzed by the event quickly dies out.


    7.  PARTICIPATORY CULTURE - Promote programs and institutions that sustain quality public engagement and advance democratic principles and competence.

    What this looks like: In communities and online, there are arenas where diverse people can bring their ideas and concern about public affairs to the table.  These are ongoing structures -- powerful, creative, mutually enlightening spaces for lively conversation and citizenship -- that arise out of and impact the social, cultural and political realities of community and national life.  People expect to participate meaningfully in their common affairs and leaders plan for and initiate not just isolated events but long-term programs to enable such engagement and to nurture democratic sensibilities and competence -- including clarifying evaluation of and learning from each event.  Empowerment initiatives and civic education of both privileged and marginalized populations persistently work to remove cultural, social, and logistical barriers to participation and to build participatory capacity.

    What to avoid: Public engagements, when they occur, are one-off events isolated from the ongoing political life of society and never evaluated.  For most people, democracy means only freedoms and voting and perhaps writing a letter to their newspaper or representative.  For activists and public officials, democracy is the business-as-usual battle and behind-the-scenes maneuvering.  Few people -- including government people -- have any expectation that authentic, empowered public participation is possible, necessary, forthcoming, or even desirable.  Privileged people dominate, intentionally or obliviously undermining the ability of marginalized populations to meaningfully participate.

    • CommentAuthorbillpotap
    • CommentTimeMar 9th 2009

    Hi Tom:

    I just added two sets of principles (should have added them a while ago), one from the UK and the other from my work.  I offer them because I think they get at things not covered in this great draft.  The two that stand out for me are respect (from the Nine Principles) and something about recognizing that a particular public engagement process is usually only part of the action on the issue and it is important to link processes.

    Hope this helps!

    Bill Potapchuk

    • CommentAuthorTom Atlee
    • CommentTimeMar 9th 2009

    Bill - I have attempted to incorporate more meaningful references to respect in a number of sections, and added into the "Impact" section the idea of integrating the event into the context of other work on the issue.  I also added the idea of evaluating events into both the learning and participatory culture sections.


    Tom-I'm so glad you are in this role helping to facilitate our writing of these. I love the spirit and ways in which you've captured all this so well! Here are my comments...

    on #1 Preparation -

    • in the short description I'm a little unclear on what "the people" means at the end of the sentence. On the "what to avoid" side of things "the people" would mean only elected officials, the client, special interest/stakeholder groups, or participants in the room. On the "what this looks like" side of things I find myself wanting these words to reflect the broadest sense of what "the people" is, i.e. all of us, "We the People", what will work for everyone, the common good, etc. The participants in a public engagement process are working on behalf of all of us, this is the spirit with which people should show up - in service to the whole.
    • I think there also needs to be a sense of following the energy in this description... Meaning if the process evolves the issue, solutions, concerns, etc. in a way that goes in a different direction than the planners first envisioned, the process needs to be adaptable and flexible to respond to this. Some processes do this naturally, i.e. Dynamic Facilitation, Open Space, Wisdom Councils, but in other cases it might mean acknowledging or being open to the process generating outcomes we hadn't imagined or planned for and adapting our process to welcome and flow with that.

    on #2 Inclusion -

    • "conveners and the participants reflect the full range of stakeholder/demographic diversity" - this language concerns me in the sense that I think conveners often get derailed and de-legitimized when they set out to make a process representative - who decides which demographics are most important, the list is exhaustive, if some group hasn't been thought of - it can fuel de-legitimizing the entire process. While I think for one-time events that are designed to give specific recommendations to policy makers, this principle is critical - I don't want to exclude processes that are ongoing and that use a purely random sample approach to bring together microcosms of the whole, i.e. the Wisdom Council. I think these processes do reflect the full range of demographic diversity (depending on how the sample is pulled) without being some kind of mathematical approach to representing diversity.Just as there is "pseudo-dialogue," there's "pseudo-inclusion" which I've observed in many processes, even when marketing firms are involved, to grab a spattering of diversity in a casting call and call it good.I don't want this important principle to be swallowed up in "what is statistically valid" rat hole either... I'm not sure how to capture the nuance of this in the description. It's like the intent or aim is to bring together a microcosm of the whole so that all parts of the whole feel a part of the process - and there is a spectrum in terms of how to do that.
    • there's something about the point about "data...that fairly represents different sides of the issue" that needs some clarity for me. I'm thinking of situations where we are dynamically facilitating a Wisdom Council and participants express their own "data," where we aren't distinguishing between true or false facts, just perceptions and beliefs and, whether they are right or wrong, they make up how the whole is making sense of the issue at the moment; if we facilitators presented any data it would manipulate the outcome; yet we help people access information they want as they want it. I guess in a deliberation this principle as articulated seems really important, but in more emergent processes it's like access to data as requested by participants is more appropriate, or data is in service to the participants rather than the conveners or something. Maybe my concern/question is more about "what is data?" Who decides what the data is? And, I question whether there is really any unbiased data. Totally rambling on this one... help?!

    on #3 Collaboration -

    • "...mutually respectful peer participants...where they clarify their common ground and use their differences for common benefit." I LOVE THIS SENTENCE... Wow! Perfect.

    on #4 Learning -

    • Last sentence on "what to avoid"... a third factor, in addition to poor facilitation or lack of time, that needs to be included is rigidly defined issues and sets of pre-determined solutions. For example, there are often times in a deliberative process where participants might come up with an option that's better or different than those that have been presented, in a "what this looks like" world, this should be built into the process from the beginning and/or the process should adapt to include this new possibility that better captures the complexity or nuance of the issue.

    on #5 Transparency

    • in the short description..."people, resources, and events" should include how the process works (what the steps are), how to be involved, and the outcomes.
    • in the "what this looks like" description - Something about a way for the public at-large to be involved, stay engaged, or contribute to the process and the ongoing evolution of any "issues" or "outcomes" a process generates is important. I think this is mentioned in other points, but I found myself wanting to see something about it here.

    on #6 Impact

    • in the "what this looks like" description/middle sentence... "the effort has been productively linked to other efforts that deal with the issue." Not all quality public engagement processes are designed to address an issue from the outset. Some of them are designed to address a lack of quality public conversation, to create a space where average people can raise and work on issues they deem important. I'm not sure what this linking looks like according to this description.
    • in the "what to avoid" description... I'd prefer your use of the word "participants" in place of "deliberators" in the 3rd sentence. I'd also like something added about the impact of processes helping the whole make sense of itself and act from that, i.e. when the whole speaks to itself, seems to be even more impactful than when the whole simply speaks to policy makers. Maybe it's adding language to the "what this looks like" section to say something like, "Participant's findings help policy makers better serve the interests of the common good/the public."

    on #7 Participatory Culture

    • in the "what this looks like" description/3rd sentence... I would add "leaders plan for, initiate, and facilitate..."
    • I'm concerned about this principle sound like engagement is just about educating people. Maybe adding something in the "what to avoid" section like, providing workshops on how to write letters to your elected officials, vote, etc. aren't enough by themselves. I think many groups think this is quality public engagement, but our work demonstrates that it is so much more.

    Lastly, I'm not sure where these two points fit in the various principles already outlined...

    1. An essence that is really important to me when I think of quality public engagement - a "power with" rather than "power over" kind of spirit. When NOT embodied it comes across as "participants aren't smart enough to address this unless we give them the 'right' information or make sure we have the 'right' voices" or "this won't have any impact unless policy makers are committed to it and/or initiate it." All of us are the ultimate authority in a democracy - we not only have the power to elect representatives, we also have the power to determine how we want to set things up as a society, how we want to function and make decisions together, etc. I think any quality public engagement process embodies this at it's core - helping participants tap into this sense of "empowerment." As I said, I'm not sure where/how to put this into context here. Just wanted to say it.
    2. The spirit of creativity - where differences help us manifest in new understandings of an issue, what the issue really is, possible solutions, etc. These manifestations might not have been on the table before the process began or was envisioned, but rather are an emergent, sometimes untraceable (in a linear, evaluating the impact kind of way), or breakthrough aha that results from a process. This feels really important to embody in this somewhere, somehow...


    I love the revisions.  The "what it looks like" is so much clearer.  Just a general note, I found the "what to avoid" still reads so much more smoothly and like a story.   I think it's because we have so much more of that in our experiences.  "What to avoid" is a series of memories.  "What it looks like" is still mostly imagination of what doesn't yet exist. 

    I love how this is shaping up and I love the collaboration on this list!  It's fun to see my comments incorporated!

    A few more comments:

    6.  Impact - Engage official and public attention and follow up -- in context -- so that each participatory effort actually makes a difference.

    I don't understand this sentance.  Do you mean Engage official and public attention IN follow up?  And I don't understand why "in context" is in there.

    "Organizers involve public officials, "ordinary people", community leaders, and other interested parties as mutually respectful peer participants in conversations where they clarify their common ground and use their differences for common benefit

    I like this sentance too but the word respectful seems out of place.  Do you mean respected?

    4. "And during and after the event, it gets reviewed and evaluated to improve subsequent engagement work."

    I'm not sure what "it" is in this sentance, can you clarify.  I also second Deanna's comment about the flexibility to allow for unexpected outcomes.  Maybe "flexibility" is an additional principle.

    7. "People expect to participate meaningfully in their common affairs and leaders plan for and initiate not just isolated events but long-term programs to enable such engagement and to nurture democratic sensibilities and competence -- including clarifying evaluation of and learning from each event. "

    The part of the sentence after the dash is an awkward construction and I can't decipher it enough to offer an alternative.

    • CommentAuthortree
    • CommentTimeMar 11th 2009

    Hi Tom & everyone,

    As i skim over what's here i find myself still feeling the same concern i corresponded with you about some days ago, in comments that are now appended to version 2.1.  And i see others raising it too, including DeAnna's last comments shortly above this one.  Power-with, open-endedness, integrity . . . call it what you will, something key is missing.

    I'm not sure what to say that i haven't already said earlier.  I continue to believe that this document will not fulfill its purpose until/unless that concern is fully integrated--it's a gut thing and central.  It has to be addressed in the actual principles, rather than only in the explanations accompanying the principles.  To me the UK principles that Bill posted successfully address the concern; they have an authenticity that sings to me.

    Thanks for reading,



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