Most Public Participation Sucks: January Newsletter

Dear Valued Associate,

I’ve rewritten this intro several times in the past few days but it never felt quite right, and then I facilitated a meeting last week. It was with a group of people representing various interests that have been meeting regularly for a couple of years to build consensus on an important and complex public challenge. One of the people who walked in normally represents the ultimate owner of this issue, but he came to this meeting as a private citizen – an interested bystander, because at the moment he’s not allowed to ‘represent’ anyone. He’s one of the 800,000 public servants currently being held hostage. And that doesn’t include (what I’ve heard to be) five times that many contractors doing the bidding of those public servants.

This public servant came, as usual, without complaint, snot bubbles or tears – and without compensation – to continue to do the work of the people, with the people, and for the people. No anger, no bitterness, just there to do what he cares about, what’s important, with character, on our collective behalf, and hoping the best for the future. In spite of a recent poll that suggests 82% of people in the country feel generally unaffected by the government shutdown, I suspect that you feel differently. It’s time to participate. On behalf of the hostages, it’s time to call whomever you elected or allowed to be elected and tell them, “Enough”.

Stay curious,




The New Rules

A course that I teach at Indiana University is, in part, taught online. Most of it is face to face but student demand, time constraints, and the times require some of it to be virtual, which is pretty incongruous when the subject matter is, essentially, interpersonal communication – don’t get me started. One of the IU profs handles the e-part; I make folks actually talk to each other and solve problems together. The fact remains, however, that the rules of communication are changing. What worked well back in the olden-days often doesn’t work well now. Attitudes, attention spans, interests, trust, tools and emotions are different, which means we need to communicate differently. Here’s a starter kit.



Government Shutdown Blues

We talk about (re)building trust in government a lot in this newsletter and it will be interesting to watch the long-term reputation ramifications of the partial government shutdown – still underway, as of this writing. Public trust in government continues to erode and increasingly permeates down into state and local public entities that, in the past, have been viewed as impartial – people just don’t trust institutions. Now, weeks into a federal shutdown that, arguably, hasn’t made a big difference in most non-government employees’ lives, there are questions about whether or not taxpayers view their public servants with sympathy or even more disdain. Regardless of the effect of the shutdown, this ABCD trust model is a nice way of thinking about rebuilding public trust in what you do for a living.



Most Public Participation Sucks

We in the public involvement biz like to pat ourselves on the back about what a good job we do, but it’s healthy to take an objectively critical step back and look at the broader state of the field, and the state of the field described in the following article isn’t good. The first order of business is for institutions to stop doing the things that make things worse and to be honest and authentic. That’d be a start. What do you think?



Guess Who’s Coming to Your Meeting?

If you answered ‘an old white guy’ you win … congratulations! The following data shows that the preponderance of public participants tend to be white, older, male and there to protect their status quo. Big surprise? Probably not. Is that most effective and useful? Probably not. Determining who really needs to be engaged is one of the first steps of any effective public involvement project, but here’s the reality of the current situation, and it’s not Sidney Poitier.




Power and control usually manifest as arrogance and that makes people angry. We use different terms and euphemisms – reducing public anger and outrage, calming the waters, lowering the temperature, building trust – for the same basic goal: getting people to the point of having a reasonable dialogue or debate or interaction with you. If your goal is a real conversation with people, arrogance is bad – humility is good. Here are some tips.



They Don’t Get It and They Won’t Remember It

Your mission and the work that you do is complex and full of detail. It may not be that complex to you because you’re the expert, but for most of us it’s a struggle to figure out. If you expect people to trust you, they need to understand you and that’s where the challenge comes. Helping people care about and understand important but complex (and sometimes boring) issues and projects is part of your job. Think repetition and spacing.


Managing Public Participation, Opposition and (Re) Building Trust Training

We’ll help you succeed with the public. The Participation Company (TPC) facilitates, consults, coaches and trains civil service, NGO, and business people about their community conflicts and building effective public engagement programs. We’ll help you make the disgruntled, gruntled. Our job is helping you do yours.

Upcoming IAP2 ‘Public Participation Foundations’ (5-day) classes:

  • Phoenix, AZ – January 28-Feb 1, 2019
  • Arlington, VA (Washington DC) – March 4-8, 2019
  • Fort Collins, CO – March 6-8 (Planning)/April 2-3 (Techniques), 2019
  • Las Vegas, NV – March 25-29, 2019
  • Chicago, IL – April 29-May 3, 2019

‘Strategies for Opposition and Outrage in Public Participation’ (2-day) class:

  • Phoenix, AZ – March 28-29, 2019
  • Cleveland, OH – April 4-5, 2019
  • Chicago, IL – July 25-26, 2019

IAP2 courses from The Participation Company are eligible for Certification Maintenance (CM) credits through The American Planning Association (APA)’s professional institute, the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP).

Click here to join us and look for more IAP2 and other original TPC courses coming up. We mostly work with a variety of public and private sector clients to customize in-house training, coaching and facilitation for their specific challenges. We’re your huckleberries.

You’ll also find more original ponderings from Debra Duerr, Wendy Lowe, Doug Sarno, me, and other very stable geniuses at our blog.

The Participation Company LLC is also a strategic partner and provider for the International City/County Management Association (ICMA).