Defining Public Engagement: A four-level approach.

Della Rucker’s Chapter 2 for an Online Public Engagement Book: “….public engagement typically means presenting information on an project or draft plan and addressing questions or comments. For planners working on long-range issues, such as a comprehensive plan, typical public engagement actions may include feedback questions, such as “what should this area look like?” or “what is your vision for the future of the neighborhood?” Such questions, while inviting participants to take a more active role in the community decision-making than the largely passive viewer/commenter in the first example, still places the resident in a peripheral role: that of an information source, functionally similar to the demographic data and GIS map layers that the professionals use to develop plans.

In a relatively small number of cases, planners and community advocates have found more robust and more direct means of engaging residents in decision -making around the future of their communities. Public engagement specialists, often originating from a community development or academic background, have developed a variety of methods, such as World Cafe and the Fishbowl, that are designed to facilitate more meaningful sharing of information among community residents, often as much with the intent of building connectivity and mutual understanding among residents of different backgrounds as for the purpose of making policy decisions.

Finally, a small but growing number of strategies have begun to emerge that place the work of making community decisions directly in the hands of private residents. Participatory -based budgeting allocates the decision about how to use a portion of a community’s budget to a citizen — based process, and participants work collaboratively through a process that determines what projects or initiatives will be funded in then coming budget cycle. And in the collection of tactics generally known as tactical urbanism or [other names], residents directly intervene in the physical appearance or function of the community by building and placing street furniture, changing parking spaces or driving lanes to pedestrian use, creating and installing new signs, or making other kinds of physical, typically temporary, changes — sometimes with, and sometimes without, the approval of the local government. The purposes of tactical urbanist interventions are twofold: they physically demonstrate the potential impact that more permanent features would have on the community’s transportation and quality of life, and they give residents a concrete and immediate opportunity to impact their environs.

The direct impacts of either participatory budgeting or tactical urbanism intiatives tend to be limited — the amount of budget available for a participatory-based budgeting initiative is usually a fraction of the total budget, and the physical area impacted by a tactical urbanism event is generally limited to a few blocks. Anecdotal evidence from both types of activity, however, seems to indicate an increased understanding of community needs and an increased sense of agency -of having the power to influence one’s community’s future — among participants.

Online public engagement methods have the potential to facilitate a wide variety of public engagement, from making detailed project information more readily available to enabling crowdsourced decision-making around budget and policy choices. However, any discussion of online public engagement methods will soon run up against the same basic challenge: when we use that term, what kind of engagement — what kind of participant experience — are we talking about?

We could divide public participation tasks according to one of several existing organization systems, or taxonomies. The two most commonly used in public engagement theory and practice derive from Sherry R. Arnestein’s 1969 academic paper, “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” and the International Association of Public Participation’s Public Participation Spectrum.

Although these two taxonomies reflect the same basic idea — that one’s options in selecting public engagement activities range along a spectrum from generally less to more active engagement on the part of the public — they divide and label the classifications differently. …From my perspective, both of these frameworks capture the central issue of recognizing more to less intensive public engagement options, but the number of divisions and the sometimes abstract wording appears to have made it difficult for these insights to find widespread use outside of an academic context. Practitioners who need to think though these options seem to have some tendency to become tangled in the fine-grained differentiations, and the terminology can both make these distinctions harder to think about and lead to mistaken assumption that one is doing higher-level engagement that is actually the case. Among commercial online public engagement platform providers, blog posts claiming that their tool addresses the whole Spectrum appear on a relatively regular basis, even when the tool in questions is designed for feedback, not decision -making.

For these reasons, this book will use the following framework of engagement types, which is detailed enough to demarcate what I think are the most crucial differentiations while at the same time keeping the framework simple enough to use in routine process planning.

The four engagement types we will talk about are: Telling; Asking; Discussing; Deciding…(More)”