Friday, June 21, 2013

Civic Engagement

Executive summary Civic engagement has become a common practice across the world. Although it is sometimes considered to be an old-fashioned strategy with reference to the old days whereby town decisions were made under the village oak, the situation has changed in recent years. The local leaders are organizing public dialogue projects in order to tap from this new potential in solving public problems. So many organizations such as civic groups, NGOs, school districts, police departments, faith-based groups, community activists, human relations commissions and the neighborhood associations have initiated public dialogue events. The Public Agenda is one of the organizations that advocates to public engagement in the problem-solving process. It is a nonpartisan and nonprofit making organization that advocates for greater civic engagement in public life and politics. This organization was established in the year 1975 and it has been active in promoting community engagement and citizen-centered approach to politics. Public Agenda advocates for authentic public engagement as opposed to the usual system where only special interest groups and experts are charged with the responsibility of policy formulation. It also advocates for capacity-building as opposed to event-oriented approaches to problem solving. The organization relies on ten principles in designing of its public engagements. Several strategies such as focus groups, shareholder dialogues, community conversations and online support are used by the Public Agenda to ensure that a broader audience is reached. Introduction Civic engagement is sometimes considered to be an old-fashioned strategy with reference to the old days whereby town decisions were made under the village oak (Matt, 2005). This has however changed in recent years with an increased adoption of this strategy in various parts of the world. It is believed that modern citizens have very little free time but they have a lot of skills that they can contribute. This is due to the fact that modern citizens are more educated. With introduction of advanced technologies such as the internet, citizens are able to study various issues affecting the community and give recommendations. In case they feel that their efforts are likely to create an impact, they are more willing to take action by volunteering and gaining support from various groups. This has promoted collaboration between governments, churches, NGOs and businesses. This essay seeks to analyze efforts made by the Public Agenda (nonprofit organization) in advocating for community engagement in policy formulation and problem solving. Organizational background The Public Agenda is a nonpartisan and nonprofit making organization that advocates for greater civic engagement in public life and politics. This organization was established in the year 1975 and it has been active in promoting community engagement and citizen-centered approach to politics (Public Agenda, 2008). It was founded by the United States Secretary of State Cyrus Vance together with Daniel Yankelovich. The Public Agenda conducts public opinion research and community-based engagement initiatives. It plays a significant role in creating civic capacity for public problem-solving. Authentic public engagement Public Agenda advocates for authentic public engagement as opposed to the usual system where only special interest groups and experts are charged with the responsibility of policy formulation. According to the organization, public decision-making is dominated by powerful interest groups and specialized experts (Public Agenda, 2008). The interest groups are the most influential and well-organized people who can drive public policy to their own advantage. Leaders also perceive that the highly trained experts are the only reliable source when it comes to policy formulation. From this approach, it is clear that highly trained and specialized experts are the most suitable for drafting of policy proposals while the organized interest groups are best suited for translation of proposal into public policy. Other members of the public are normally ignored in policy formulation and they are only viewed as consumers and the audience to be educated or a problem to manage. In this approach, the local citizens are not considered to be an important resource or partner in problem-solving. Only a small degree of input is sometimes sought from the end users or consumers. This is achieved through advisory committees, public hearing or public opinion surveys. However, these efforts only add a small percentage of legitimacy and input to policy planning. At times, cynical public relations prevail whereby questions are carefully controlled and participants are screened (Sandy, 2007.). These types of engagement are common in recent days but they add very little input to policy planning and formulation. On the other hand, authentic public engagements are highly inclusive approaches to problem-solving. The common citizens collaborate and deliberate on the complex public problems. This approach invites citizens to take part in public dialogue on a problem and give them the necessary information and tools. This enables leaders to know the position of members of the public in the process of problem-solving. The citizens also contribute to creation of solutions through their actions and input. Authentic public engagement brings together several points of view so as to make informed decisions. Members of the public and various stakeholders are involved in early stages of problem-solving as opposed to involving them after decisions have been made. This is meant to ensure legitimacy and enhance a sense of shared responsibility. New collaborations and allies are always fostered under this approach and the momentum for change is highly stimulated. Even though it may not be possible to conduct broad-based public engagement on all decisions, it is the best approach in addressing several public problems. Capacity-building The Public Agenda also advocates for capacity-building as opposed to event-oriented approaches to problem solving. In most cases, public engagement is perceived to be a large event like the media event or public forum that marks the end of the process. However, Public Agenda holds the view that civic engagement should not be a one-time event. They propose that public engagement should look beyond a single event towards involvement of civic habits and practices among the public and leaders. It should be a continuous process that is entrenched in people`s lives. This will foster a decision-making culture in which leaders and citizens have a shared responsibility in addressing common problems (Richey, 2011). The local organizations will learn how to work together in designing and organizing practices such as community conversations, the local citizens will learn how to moderate them while the local leaders will learn how to balance the process in order to facilitate change. Ten Core Principles of civic engagement The Public Agenda relies on ten principles in designing of its public engagements. The first principle is listening. The organization believes that in order to understand the starting point and effective ways of communication, one must start by systematic listening (Public Agenda, 2008). Proper listening allows the organization to engage people in meaningful ways in accordance with their concerns, natural language and interests. This helps in avoiding faulty assumptions on people`s position. The second principle used by the Public Agenda is paying attention to people`s leading concerns. In case there are differences in priorities of experts, leaders and members of the public, people will be more receptive to decisions in their own concerns are addressed by the leaders. The organization therefore gives priority to leading concerns among members of the public. The third principle is reaching beyond usual suspects. It is much easier to bring together people that are already involved in an issue as compared to those who are not (Public Agenda, 2008). It is very challenging to include a broader public comprising of people whose views have been traditionally excluded. Public Agenda uses a wide variety of venues and media to ensure that a broader public is reached. The fourth principle is framing of issues for deliberation. Civic engagement can only be successful if the conversation is put in the language understood by members of the public (Public Agenda, 2008). Complex issues must be translated into the language that can be understood by a layman. Public Agenda has been observing this practice which enables all members of the public to contribute effectively. The fifth principle used by Public Agenda is provision of the right amount and type of information at the right time. It is very important for members of the public to be provided with essential, nonpartisan information before the discussion commences (Omoto et al, 2010). The Public Agenda ensures that the participants have the right information to facilitate the exercise. Helping people to move beyond wishful thinking is the sixth principle that is used by the Public Agenda. The issues that are deeply embedded in the problem must be brought out. An effective public engagement should help people move beyond wishful thinking through diverse ways. Public Agenda uses different means to help members of the public thing deeply into their problems. The seventh principle of public engagement is expecting resistances and obstacles. People are normally used to doing things in a particular way; hence it is difficult to change them (Public Agenda, 2008). It may take a long period of time for people to accept change. Public Agenda uses repeated opportunities to help people absorb the changes and trade-offs in different approaches. The eighth principle is creating a wide range of opportunities for dialogue and deliberation. Naturally, people need to be taken through different stages in order to accept an issue and decide the approach to support. Public Agenda advocates for public engagements that are all inclusive and iterative in order to give people multiple opportunities to understand the problem at hand. The ninth principle is thoughtful and conscientious response to public involvement. It is very important for the organizers and the experts to respond to public deliberations (Meek, 2012). Members of the public should be informed how their contribution will be incorporated in the problem-solving process. This principle is taken seriously by the Public Agenda. The tenth and final principle used by the Public Agenda is building long-term capacity. Each round of the public engagement exercise sets the stage for deeper and broader public engagements in future. This exercises are not only used to solve problems but also to help people learn how to reach new people, frame issues for deliberation, facilitate dialogue and build a common ground for involving different people. Strategies and practices There are several practices and strategies which can be used to engage members of the public. Some of the strategies that have proven to be useful according to the Public Agenda include; focus groups, shareholder dialogues, community conversations and online support (Public Agenda, 2008). Each of these strategies has its own advantages and disadvantages. A careful selection should be made depending on the type of audience being targeted. In most cases, more than one strategy is used to reach a broader public. The public Agenda uses a cocktail of these strategies to effectively reach many people. Conclusion Public engagement has become a common practice across the world. The local leaders are organizing public dialogue projects in order to tap from this new potential in solving public problems. Most of the public dialogue events have common characteristics. They normally involve large and diverse groups of people; organizers normally provide the background information and suggest options; they use both large forums and small group dialogues; moderators or impartial facilitators are used to ensure that discussions run fairly and smoothly; and participants are given a chance to provide specific policy input (Matt, 2005). So many organizations such as civic groups, NGOs, school districts, police departments, faith-based groups, community activists, human relations commissions and the neighborhood associations have initiated public dialogue events. This has become a common trend in most democratic countries across the world where citizens are involved in policy formulation. The Public Agenda is one of the organizations that advocates to public engagement in the problem-solving process. References Matt Leighninger, 2005. Citizens building communities: The ABCs of public dialogue. The League of women voters; Wahington Meek, G. (2012). Promoting Civic Literacy and Community Building: Civic Engagement Matters at the Calgary Public Library. National Civic Review, 101(4), 41-43. doi:10.1002/ncr.21100 Omoto, A. M., Snyder, M., & Hackett, J. D. (2010). Personality and Motivational Antecedents of Activism and Civic Engagement Omoto, Snyder, & Hackett Activism and Civic Engagement. Journal Of Personality, 78(6), 1703-1734. doi:10.1111/j.1467 6494.2010.00667.x Public Agenda, 2008. Public Engagement: A primer from public agenda. No. 01/2008 Richey, S. (2011). Civic Engagement and Patriotism. Social Science Quarterly (Blackwell Publishing Limited), 92(4), 1044-1056. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6237.2011.00803.x Sandy Smith, 2007. The concept of active citizenship.