Building Capacity...

—> Through Citizen Engagement and Public Participation

The bedrock of any organization or government is the community within which it works. As such, citizen engagement is both a means to an end and an end itself. It's a means insofar as it gives greater legitimacy to policies and programs, and it's an end insofar as each client, member, constituent, and stakeholder is also a citizen in a community, and serving them is a key component of an organization's mission or government's mandate.

A core value of the Center is that nothing can affect any of us without affecting all of us. So it's not enough only to hear what the public has to say (to the extent this is possible through existing channels); in addition it behooves us to actively engage with the public (of which we are all a part). Programs crafted in isolation of the larger community face seemingly endless barriers and political uncertainty, but public participation gives a significant boost of legitimacy to organization and government programs and helps to ensure their long-term success.

To engage citizens whose composition reflects multiple nationalities, cultures, ethnicities, languages, generations, religions, customs, and values is a daunting task indeed and may seem impossible. But it can be done. There are proven methods for developing processes of engagement that meet the needs of both individual stakeholder groups and the community as a whole, and the Center can help an organization in this development.

What exactly is citizen engagement?

Before defining the term, it's instructive to establish what citizen engagement is not. It's not about persuading the public to change from one ideology to another. It's not about making the case for the merits of a program or mission. And it's not about abdicating the duties of governance and management to a third party. Giving a voice to others does not remove our own, nor does it deny that an organization or agency has expertise, experience, and a role to fill. Quite the contrary, the theory and practice of citizen engagement recognizes — and, indeed, is predicated on — the reality that no single party has expertise in everything and that while universal agreement is impossible, universal participation is not.

Citizen engagement is about seeking and establishing relationships. It's the process of outreach to citizens of a community as a means of validating their significance and benefiting from their contributions. There is intrinsic value in hearing from other voices and in recognizing that ultimately we all have a seat at the same table. And this is much more than a symbolic gesture; it translates into real influence and more effective outcomes.

How does an organization or agency go about engaging the citizens?

Citizen engagement cannot be reduced to a simple technique. It is predicated on the credibility of an organization or government agency, and that credibility consists partly in the extent to which the staff and personnel are themselves diverse and representative of the communities they serve. If an organization is not seen to practice engagement "at home," it cannot speak with a credible voice in the community.

Even with a staff of diverse composition, it's not enough merely to say one's door is always open or that phone calls and e-mail are welcome. That is a passive approach. Instead, citizen engagement is just that — engagement. It calls on us to be proactive and to meet and engage others not only on our terms but on theirs as well.

Not everyone feels comfortable communicating in the same way. Some may prefer e-mail, others may prefer public meetings, and still others may prefer a less structured venue such as a community center, club, or neighborhood restaurant or coffee house. If people feel that a third party is making an effort to speak to them — and, more important, to listen in a way which respects their own culture — the rewards are great in good faith reciprocity.

What are the benefits of citizen engagement and public participation?

At times the benefits of public participation can be indirect but they are no less real or powerful. Foremost the benefit consists in legitimacy. Public participation signals that those whom a program serves are themselves participants in the process of developing and delivering it. As a result, such programs are not imposed on a constituency but rather derived from it; and this is very empowering to all parties concerned. As a result of this process, people become less cynical and more hopeful and optimistic, and this benefits all of us. It also leads to a more informed public, to better ideas and solutions, and to more efficient public decision making.

Programs which arise from the soil of public participation invariably have more longevity, more relevance, and more adaptability. They produce more results and they are looked upon more favorably by funders, taxpayers, and stakeholders alike.