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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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    A current thread on the NCDD listserv is exploring whether we have -- or can agree on -- a common definition of Public Engagement.  Here are some definitions to get us started...

    Civic Engagement

    The term "civic engagement" refers to all the ways people participate in civic, community and political life -- including voting, volunteering, blogging about one's political perspectives, participating in deliberative forums, etc.

    Public Participation

    "The term "public participation" includes all kinds of processes NCDDers might not find much value in (including simply using websites and fact sheets to inform the public).  A subset of civic engagement, public participation focuses on government involving people in becoming more informed about and in shaping the policies that affect them.  Check out IAP2's spectrum of public participation at

    From what I can tell, the term "public involvement" is used interchangeably with "public participation."

    Public Engagement

    Although it's easy to confuse with the terms "civic engagement" and "public participation" (and often is!), "public engagement" used to refer more to dialogue and deliberation than other forms of civic engagement or public participation.

    Here are several definitions of Public Engagement...

    From Will Friedman (Public Agenda):

    "In speaking of public engagement, I am referring to various forms of highly inclusive public dialogue and deliberation on issues that are critical steps towards policy development, collaborative civic action, and other forms of public problem solving."

    From the Core Principles for Public Engagement document:

    Public engagement involves convening diverse, representative groups of people to wrestle with information from a variety of viewpoints all to the end of making better, often more creative decisions. Public engagement aims to provide people with direction for their own community activities, or with public judgments that will be seriously considered by policy-makers and other power-holders.

    From an email from Joe Goldman (AmericaSpeaks):

    "At its core, public engagement is about citizens having a voice in the public decisions that impact their lives."

    From Roger Bernier, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

    Note: this definition has stood up for some time at CDC as a working definition.

    Public engagement is “the practice by which an agency actively involves members of the public at large and/or representatives of stakeholder organizations in group dialogue and deliberations to better inform and possibly shape its decision making.”

    Explanatory Text:

    Public engagement is specific and does not cover, nor is it intended to cover, the entire spectrum of useful interactions or contacts between government agencies and the broader public. Public engagement specialists are experts in democratic theory and practice and the principles that apply to participatory decision making processes. It is practiced predecisionally when the main purpose is to help decide rather than better understand, resolve conflict, or collaborate to achieve a predetermined goal.  The purpose of public engagement is to help the agency make better decisions and in that sense its immediate purpose is oriented internally to the decision needs of the agency and not externally to the public. Ultimately of course, all agency decisions are intended to serve the public interest.

    The definition we've had in the NCDD glossary for a couple of years now:

    Often incorrectly used interchangably with the term “civic engagement,” public engagement generally involves a mutually-beneficial partnership between the public and an entity perceived as having power (government, a university, a corporation, etc.).

    Public Agenda's definition from their website:

    Public engagement is a process that brings people together to address issues of common importance, to solve shared problems, and to bring about positive social change. Effective public engagement invites average citizens to get involved in deliberation, dialogue and action on public issues that they care about. And, it helps leaders and decision makers better understand the perspectives, opinions, and concerns of citizens and stakeholders.

    When done well, public engagement goes far beyond the "usual suspects" to include those members of the community whose voices have traditionally been left out of political and policy debates. Moreover it:

    • helps people weigh a variety of perspectives and listen to each other's views;
    • builds common understanding, manages differences and establishes direction for moving ahead on tough issues;
    • builds trust and improves communication between the public and leaders;
    • creates new opportunities for citizens to become involved in public problem solving and decision making.


    What are the important differences in these definitions we need to discuss? One is certainly Roger Bernier's question of whether it should really be called "public engagement" if people are "talking to themselves at their own instigation with no pending government decision on the table?"

    Anyone want to take a stab at a definition we can all agree on?


Special Note:

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This re-design marks a new chapter in the online life of NCDD. It began in 1998 with a small online project called the Dialogue to Action Initiative and became the NCDD website after our first national conference in 2002. Beginning in 2009, we are turning our focus to embracing existing tools, instead of creating our own, as a way to further the networking opportunities of our members and offer examples, through use, of the many great tools that are available to us and our community.

Visit the Main Page of our website to learn more about NCDD. Please let us know what you think of the design! Send your feedback to [email protected].