The following presentation was part of a day-long training and networking event for local public officials sponsored by CLEO and the California Policy Center on May 12, 2018 at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy in Malibu, California, where Peterson serves as Dean.
PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT: A 21st CENTURY LEADERSHIP SKILL
#1 – Community Engagement Matters Now More Than Ever
In a series of case studies profiled in the Spring 2016 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, researchers Melody Barnes and Paul Schmitz demonstrate that even policy proposals that can be proven to be, quantitatively, the best solutions, can still fail if the public is not involved even at the early stages of problem definition and options development. In policy circles, there has been an increasing push towards “big data” and cost-benefit analysis, but removed from public involvement, these proposals can still fail to get necessary public support…it is “public” policy, after all.
#2 – Megaprojects and Risk
A terrific analysis of even major infrastructure projects that can fail due to lack of public involvement appears in this book, “Megaprojects and Risk”. In it, the researchers look at dozens of immense public works projects – from the Chunnel in Europe to the “Big Dig” in Boston – and find that almost every single project underestimates cost and overestimates usage (ie ridership, drivers, etc.). Without good public involvement, they find, there is a lack of transparency, which can lead to billions of public dollars spent on poorly planned projects (think current debate about HSR in California).
#3 – Survey Results: CA Officials’ Views of Public Engagement – Pt 1
In the largest survey ever of CA local government officials (elected and staff) regarding their views of the public and public engagement, the 900 officials – who had an average term of service of 22 years – noted how much their views on public engagement had changed over the course of their careers, and how much they wanted to learn more about effective public engagement processes.
#4 – Survey Results: CA Officials’ Views of Public Engagement – Pt 2
In what I call the “bad and the ugly” of the survey, significant percentages of those surveyed described how broken they found most “public comment” processes. A large majority wondered whether their cities had the staff or resources to lead a better process.
#5 – Public Engagement is a Spectrum of Processes
One way to think about public engagement in local government is to see it as a “Spectrum” – an series of purposes that build on one another. (Each stage is defined on the next slide.) In the dozens and dozens of failed public processes I’ve witnessed around the state, the main reason is a miscommunication (even unintentional) between what’s expected of the public in the meeting itself.
#6 – Stages of Public Engagement
Each of these parts of the “Spectrum” provide different levels of engagement/involvement by the public, and different levels of convening by the public. While the final stage noted here – “Empower” – can be considered the “bleeding edge” of public processes, it’s worth noting that we use an “Empowering”-level process to choose our voting districts through the Citizens Redistricting Commission, passed into law by voters in 2008 via Prop 11.
#7 – Purpose Determines Process: “What = How”
Once a spot on the “Spectrum” is chosen, several elements of process design fall into place. In other words your determination of “what” you want to accomplish through the public process determines how you will facilitate it.
#8 – What Makes It a Leadership Skill?
At Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy, we call public engagement a leadership skill, but it demands open, and often, courageous decisions about how you involve residents in difficult local policy-making. Sometimes, the issue is so drastic, that the only way to find a sustainable solution is to bring residents in at an early stage.
#9 – Online Help, For Example: Budget Transparency
Technology is also changing the citizen/government relationship. Platforms like OpenGov and Socrata are making municipal budgets more transparent and engaging. Budgets, which have often been “hidden” in thousands of pages of Excel spreadsheets put in 3-ring binders – can now be viewed and understood by the public in ways like never before. It is becoming increasingly indefensible for municipal governments NOT to provide their residents with budget information online in a clear format.