[Noozhawk’s note: This is one in a series of articles on Noozhawk’s Santa Barbara Challenge, our public-engagement project on the city of Santa Barbara’s budget. Related links are below.]
Pete Peterson, executive director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy in Malibu, says one of the biggest obstacles with public engagement is educating people on the definition of public engagement.
“The main reason public engagement has failed is a failure of communication,” Peterson told Noozhawk recently. “Someone will say, ‘Let’s engage the public on the budget,’ and they want to hear suggestions from the public. Someone else will think that engaging the public means informing the public.”
In 2006, two longtime and well-known California educators launched Common Sense California as an independent nonprofit organization. The founders — Steve Weiner, former associate dean of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Public Policy, and former Pepperdine University President David Davenport — had an idea to bring together Democrats and Republicans in a nonpartisan and trans-partisan way, and find issues the two sides could agree on at a statewide level.
“We wanted to find a way to address issues in Sacramento, as the Legislature was not touching budget issues,” Peterson said. “There are common concerns about the future of the state, and the state government had become disengaged from everyday Californians.”
What the organization soon learned is that it’s very hard, if not impossible, to affect state-level policy from the outside.
But the group also discovered that public-engagement efforts were not lost at the county and civic levels. In 2008, CSC put together an advisory council of city managers from throughout California. These individuals became the “eyes and ears around the state to connect us to public-engagement projects and to connect cities and counties to Common Sense California,” said Peterson, who added that the engagement appeared to work best under more localized circumstances.
That same year, Common Sense California launched a public-engagement grant program that provided more than $200,000 for cities, counties and special districts to engage residents on local projects.
“The way we work to promote participatory governance is to work as a matchmaker for cities and counties to resources and to fund the efforts,” Peterson said. “We train city and county officials all over the state how to do public engagement.
“Essentially, it was the training piece that connected us up with Pepperdine University. To do the training most effectively, we wanted to offer it through an academic institute.”
Common Sense California created the collaboration with Pepperdine through the Davenport Institute to train and support public engagement efforts around the state. Peterson said that CSC has consulted on about 25 public-engagement projects, with case studies being the main thrust of the training.
The typical training session is a half-day meeting hosted by a city or county. Peterson said between 50 and 75 local officials attend the workshop-style conferences that include lectures and small group exercises. Educating officials on what public engagement is and can be is a main focus of the events.
“Legitimate public engagement is a spectrum of different things that starts with informing the public about a specific policy,” he explained. “Consulting occurs when the public is provided with enough information about a decision that gives them the opportunity to wrestle a number of policy options. Full direct participation is what happens when the public is not only consulted on options but also asked to participate on an issue.
“At the root of projects that don’t work, you see a confusion of terms.”
Common Sense California tries to help make meetings engaging, and Peterson said that even the layout of an engagement can be unproductive.
“At the front of every nonproductive engagement is a three-minute time frame and a microphone, which is neither deliberative nor engaging,” Peterson said. “We teach how these civic leaders can structure these public engagement processes to be more deliberative and instruct how reports happen, how people get invited and how to structure a meeting.”
A key challenge in supporting public engagement is removing the public’s perception of public engagement as a lazy and expensive decision-making process.
“One of the ways we frame that discussion is to say that by not engaging the public at the beginning, you’re inviting possible obstruction by the public,” Peterson said. “One thing we’ve learned a lot, especially with the Internet age and easier networking, is either you engage your public or they engage you. This can happen on your terms or you will do it at their terms, at the ballot box or in a courtroom.”
Peterson said public engagement is not meant to be uncontrolled, random or out of control.
“Public engagement is not meant to look like those health-care town hall meetings where there is a bunch of screaming back and forth,” he said. “It’s a perception many city leaders have had, and we’re trying to help them understand that there is a different way to engage your public. It is still a new concept.”
The Davenport Institute chose Noozhawk as a partner to engage the Santa Barbara public in helping the city of Santa Barbara tackle its budget issues. Noozhawk publisher Bill Macfadyen was part of Common Sense California’s original statewide organizing efforts, and the institute’s board and leadership have closely followed the development of the professional online local news publication since before it was launched in late 2007.
“One of the challenges municipalities face to make online public engagement work, is that you not only have to do the public engagement thing but you also have to think like an Internet marketer,” Peterson said. “You have to be very intentional about driving traffic and participation — which don’t sound like government things, but it is part of online engagement.
“With Noozhawk, you not only have readers who are engaged but are also knowledgeable about local events,” he added.
Common Sense California and the Davenport Institute will continue to help cities and counties engage the public to make policy decisions.
“With the continuing fiscal crisis,” Peterson said, “we’re going to help cities and counties make more decisions they didn’t think they’d find a way to make by giving them extra tools of leadership — instead of making decisions from the top down, which is no longer sustainable because some decisions are so big. It’s not enough to say the council has made a decision and this is how you’re moving forward.
“At the Davenport Institute, we’re playing a small role in helping local leaders to understand this new leadership skill. I’m still dubious as to whether this will work at the statewide level,” Peterson said with a laugh.
Click here for more information on the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership.