Expanding “Public Participation” in Hard Times    

Here is a must-read article by NCDD member Tom Atlee, founder of The Co-Intelligence Institute. The piece outlines an expanded vision of “public participation” that Atlee feels is vital in this time of economic crisis and seemingly unsolvable local and global problems.

The article is aligned with some of the things I’ve been thinking about and working on lately, one of them being the Goals of Dialogue & Deliberation graphic I created recently based on Martin Carcasson’s work. (See my article on the new graphic if you’re interested.) Atlee asserts that communities and institutions that best survive this turbulent time will be those that “most successfully create conditions within which their constituents can actively and successfully self-organize.”  To me, he’s talking about building civic capacity — something all dialogue and deliberation efforts (in theory) can contribute to. Atlee advises communities to invest “existing management resources” (staff time, tax money, political capital, etc.) in building internal capacity for citizens and local institutions to work together to solve their own problems.

Expanding “Public Participation” in Hard Times

Most governing bodies today face a situation of rapidly growing governance challenges while resources needed to address these challenges shrink significantly.

In my own networks I hear increasing concern that economic, social, and environmental crises may combine into disasters that overwhelm traditional democratic institutions and leadership.

Public officials seem increasingly interested in public participation — from the Obama administration down to my hometown of Eugene, Oregon.  But I hear complaints about lack of adequate resources to manage it.

It seems to me there are powerful inexpensive approaches — both face-to-face and online — that can be leveraged to engage people in ways that actually lighten the load and expense of government, especially when we tap into people’s existing passion to make a difference. 

In a project like Eugene, Oregon’s current program to create a plan to address climate change and the energy crunch, public activity may well be central to its success.  The public can get involved in action even while participating in formulating the City’s plan.  There’s no need to wait through a period of “all talk and no action.”

I have come to believe that in the current climate, those communities and institutions will do best who most successfully create conditions within which their constituents can actively and successfully self-organize.  This means they not only function with less resources and management from the top, but also can effectively contribute to — and rework as necessary — the creation and implementation of government policies and programs.

This prospect, which in more affluent, stable times may have seemed an idealistic form of participatory democracy, is beginning to look more like a necessity as we confront conditions of real resource scarcity.  I think this is one reason why “public participation” is becoming a more mainstream topic in government circles.  (Perhaps another reason is the hope that more public engagement can reduce stressed citizens’ tendency to blame “the government”.)

To the extent we choose to move in this direction consciously, we need to extend our vision of participatory governance to embrace citizen engagement not only in decision-making but also in action and the kind of review, evaluation and course-correction that characterize collective learning.  Collaboration would come to mean real ongoing partnership between officials and community because the situations we face are simply too challenging to handle otherwise.

The International Association for Public Participation has a “Spectrum of Public Participation” showing increasing levels of public engagement in decision-making. I imagine a parallel spectrum articulating levels of public engagement in ACTION — perhaps ranging from compliance, to partnership in implementation, to government-catalyzed but self-organized citizen and community action, extending to government-facilitated efforts to build the community’s CAPACITY to organize itself independent of government.  Perhaps most important of all, at every level of participatory decision-making and action, we need to articulate how the public participates in reviewing the effectiveness of chosen policies and actions, and revising those policies and actions accordingly.

I stress this last dimension of public participation because our success as communities and societies in the face of challenges depends so much on the wisdom of what we do and our resilience in the face of shifting realities.  As officials, practitioners, and communities, we need to get it right as much as possible the first time — AND we need to be able to learn well and change course when we don’t or when conditions change.

This realm of “collective intelligence” — wise responsiveness — is rich territory for collaboration and participation.  It will involve ongoing learning about how to weave the potential contributions of diverse stakeholders, experts, officials, and “ordinary people” into more or less coherent systems that act effectively together instead of descending into conflict, confusion, and wasted energy. (See www.co-intelligence.org/Collective_Intelligence.html)

As collective intelligence and community wisdom come to be seen as vital aspects of public participation, the role of government will necessarily shift.  Effective management and leadership become less a matter of telling people what to do when and more a matter of being effectively catalytic, evocative, inspirational and facilitative — helping existing potential energy, wisdom and collaboration find creative expression for community benefit.

Those who take this challenge seriously will invest existing management resources — staff time, tax money, networks, political capital, etc. — in building the capacity of their communities and constituents to handle their own affairs well in challenging times and to share responsibility for stewarding “the commons.”

I see a number of dimensions of what this might mean, in terms of practical approaches (note: any unfamiliar processes referred to here can be explored through Google or Bing or searches on websites like http://co-intelligence.org or this site, www.ncdd.org):

*  CATALYZE PARTICIPATORY CONVERSATION:  Use and experiment with non-directive participatory conversations to engage the passionate co-creativity of communities, diverse stakeholders and ordinary citizens.  So-called “emergent processes” like Open Space, World Cafe, Future Search, and Dynamic Facilitation provide productive channels for existing passions and creativity — and even conflict — with little effort to direct the outcome.  Programs can start with simple, powerful do-it-yourself processes like Open Space and World Cafe that participants can then carry into their neighborhoods, networks and organizations.  Meanwhile, government can build community facilitation resources — including communities of practice — to cover a broader range of processes the community needs.  Government can also play a crucial role in ensuring the continuous availability of affordable venues for public events and conversations.

*  SUPPORT ONLINE CONNECTIVITY:  Actively promote coherent collective use of existing online resources for conversation, networking, social interaction, deliberation, and collaboration to engage citizens in addressing thorny issues and emerging crises.  Where a government does not have resources to support multi-dimensional effective public participation on their own websites, they can use their websites to tell the public how to use Facebook, Twitter, chats, free conference call lines, GoogleDocs, MeetUp.com, YouTube, WiserEarth, and other online resources to better work together on local issues and participate in local government work.

*  HELP COMMUNITY SHARE THE LOAD:  Invite and enable citizens and community groups to take on more of the actual work of governance — from solving problems to gathering and evaluating information to implementing policies and programs.  Sometimes this can be designed into a process so citizens contribute to governance without even realizing it, while they’re having meaningful fun.  For example, in Eugene’s participatory community planning process, we plan to immerse commission members and decision-makers in a community-wide World Cafe, followed by a creative participatory prioritization process focusing on “What should we be doing in this community to address climate change and peak oil?”  This immersive experience will give officials a dynamic experience of community ideas, energy, and priorities without resource-intensive compilation efforts that generate piles of paperwork they then have to plow through.

*  TAP POSITIVE POSSIBILITY:  Use participatory approaches that tap into the energizing power of positive possibility — from inspirational engagements like visionary backcasting and Transition Town initiatives, to exploratory approaches like Appreciative Inquiry and Asset Based Community Development, to behavior-change support programs like Positive Deviance and the Low Carbon Diet.  All these approaches help people engage with situations more as opportunities to build better lives and communities than as problems to be solved.

*  ALIGN WITH EVOLVING PROFESSIONS:  Encourage, use, and participate in emerging movements among the information, knowledge and communication professions involved with computer technology, journalism, media, public relations, academia, research, group process, etc.  As their professions are shaken by changes in technology and systemic challenges, some knowledge professionals are re-visioning their missions beyond objectivity, critique, and technique to focus on serving community well-being, promoting community engagement and capacity, and achieving deeper understanding of the foundational values and dynamics of their work.  Notable examples include Journalism that Matters, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, community science and research (e.g., the Loka Institute), The Art of Hosting, and explorations of the underlying “pattern language” for various fields.  Such pioneers can help create innovative public participation infrastructure to support ongoing community-wide collective intelligence.  For example, imagine journalists committed not to stories of conflict, but to building community awareness of and participation in exciting public conversations, community action, and positive possibilities.

*  TAP CREATIVE ENERGY:  Engage natural existing sources of creative, evocative energy in calling the community into volunteer action, participatory governance, mutual support, visionary activism, and self-organizing activity.  Latent sources of often “free” creative energy include youth, artists, writers, musicians, performers, innovators, and entrepreneurs who often just need an invitation and honored role to eagerly make a difference.  (Note how Obama inspired and used this latent power in his campaign.)  Also invite existing networks of common interest and activity — religious congregations, schools, clubs, ethnic groups, community groups, neighborhood councils, professional organizations, unions, etc. — to make a positive difference in the community by helping engage their members in inclusive public participation efforts.  Often invitational processes work better by engaging network hubs to recruit participants from their networks than by broadcasting invitations broadly through mass media.  Government can even sponsor gatherings of key networkers to explore what THEY would like to do to better their community. Another related effort:

*  TRANSFORM UNEMPLOYMENT:  Help unemployed people engage in fruitful volunteer activity — including active support for the functions above — while co-creating mutual support systems and exploring together entrepreneurial possibilities that make innovative contributions to social transformation.  In Journalism that Matters’ Open Space gatherings, for example, unemployed journalists have linked up with community bloggers to create new and exciting forms of journalism.

There could of course be many more approaches to this.  But these exemplify the expanded, out-of-the-box thinking about public participation — and, yes, the pioneering spirit and courage — that it will take to meet the twin challenges of rising crises and dwindling resources.  The risks of failure are very real, so this kind of innovation and experimentation will probably flower most where leaders or officials have concluded that business as usual does NOT work, that they don’t know what to do, and that they are willing to let go of old ways and open up new questions and new avenues of engagement in search of new forms of energy and wisdom — even if the road they must travel has many bumps and detours.

As I try to live into these possibilities myself, I find I am challenged to use more of these principles in my own work, not just what I invite others to do.  My life is disturbed and stimulated by questions like:

*  What does this vision of participation imply for advocates of participation like myself and my colleagues?

*  How do we empower the self-organization of those we seek to help?  How do we create conditions in which our clients turn more to each other than to us, and then do effective work together?  (Do we have the courage and mutual support to nurture that?)

*  How do we better steward our professional commons — our connections and networks, our collaborations, our reputations and markets, and our collective knowledge base of insights, perspectives, skills, and methodologies?

*  How do we, as learning communities of practice, more effectively respond to changing conditions and nurture a spirit of innovation?

*   What forms of business-as-usual impede our own ability to give our gifts, thrive, and evolve — individually and collectively?

I think we are all called to become more competent with sharing, with collective inquiry, with ALL forms of participatory life, and with the experimentation and innovation needed to call forth the self-organizing capacities of organizations and communities.

I don’t see this as just another good idea or challenge.  I believe it is a real and powerful calling.  In times of crisis and scarcity, the work of those who effectively and creatively engage the public could — quite literally — make all the difference in the world.

Tom Atlee / The Co-Intelligence Institute

PO Box 493 / Eugene, OR 97440
http://www.co-intelligence.org /  http://www.democracyinnovations.org
Read THE TAO OF DEMOCRACY -  http://www.taoofdemocracy.com
Tom Atlee’s blog -  http://tom-atlee.posterous.com

Here’s What Our First Commenter Had To Add…

RSS feed for comments on this post.TrackBack URI

  1. Comment added by Timonie on August 14, 2009:

    Thanks so much for including WiserEarth


    in your discussion of online connectivity.

    WiserEarth serves the people who are transforming the world.

    It is an international directory and networking forum that maps, links and empowers the largest and fastest growing movement in the world – the hundreds of thousands of organizations that address social justice, poverty, and the environment.

    WiserEarth has free online interactive Group collaboration spaces:


    You can also join us on Facebook and Twitter:


    With thanks for the important work you do.

Leave a comment…

© 2003-2010 National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation.
Learn more about us or explore this site.