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The request at a recent community meeting seemed innocuous enough. Neighbors and others interested in the future of a large park in Austin, Texas, were reviewing design proposals as part of a master planning process. Abruptly, one longtime resident living very close to the park asked the designers, “Will there be an opportunity for homeowners to have a meeting with the designers?” He insisted on an answer to the question before the meeting could continue.
Perhaps inadvertently, the resident brought up a great topic for the fields of public administration and public participation. Across the country, governments at all levels—particularly local, county, regional, and even state—take on projects that affect a specific place. When they do, people who live, work, and/or own property nearest to that place often feel they hold the deepest “stake” (from the term “stakeholder”).
The consequences for that perspective can be significant. When longtime, nearby residents want a park or other public works project to go in one direction, while newer residents or those who use the park as visitors to the area want something different, how should a public administrator address that? And in the specific context of public participation, when should a specific group get the opportunity to have a private meeting with decision-makers? If administrators have to evaluate competing views, what value gets added when one specific group gets additional access to the administrators?
Of course, groups and individuals often get private access to administrators and, especially, elected officials. They may develop power through campaign contributions or community organizing, and that may enable them to speak directly, and privately, with decision makers. Public administrators are undoubtedly besieged with requests for their attention via meetings, calls, and emails (or even tweets and Facebook posts!), and it would be impossible to prevent administrators from speaking privately with members of the public.
But as more and more agencies embrace a new paradigm in public involvement, where all of those who may be affected by a governmental decision have an opportunity to have a say in that decision, administrators should consider how to balance public input delivered publicly and public input delivered privately. When a group requests a private meeting, there may be real benefit to the decision-makers—they may share some ideas in that setting that they wouldn’t share more publicly, for instance, or the meeting might be more convenient for some people to attend. But public administrators should take great care to enable more than just one requesting group to have that kind of audience.
In some ways, this gets to the heart of one of the challenges for public administrators everywhere—the increasing polarization of views, the tendency to gather and talk with only those with whom you agree while demonizing opponents’ views. The new era of public engagement in which we find ourselves provides a challenging opportunity to administrators. Can we convene diverse audiences (diverse not just in terms of ethnicity but viewpoint) to have respectful conversations that involve conflicting ideas?
This is the heart of public participation–creating a safe space for all voices to be heard and for the public to use their voices to find, build, and sustain consensus. It is much, much easier to sit within a group of people whom you know and with whom you expect to agree most or all of the time than it is to reckon with people who have different perspectives, but on nearly every project public administrators tackle, they must bring those multiple perspectives together.
So, when someone else requests a separate meeting and states directly or implies that they don’t want to be bothered by the opinions of a group of people with whom they vehemently disagree, I would recommend that we indicate some willingness to consider a separate meeting but that we also ask some follow-up questions–either at that time or later. It’s important to know what someone wants from a separate meeting that they cannot get from the community meeting, what they want to say then that they cannot say now, or what they are hearing now that makes them want to talk again later.
The only way communities will realize their dreams for their future is by convening these challenging conversations–not among the homogenous groups of the like-minded but among the heterogeneous potpourri of people who all want a say. Let them have their say–and have it in front of each other, peacefully, respectfully, and with an eye towards consensus. That is the hard, necessary, and potentially quite rewarding work before us.
Author: Larry Schooler is President of the International Association for Public Participation (United States affiliate) and a community engagement consultant based in Austin.