The Extent of Public Participation: ICMA Survey Explores Public Engagement and the Tenor of Civic Discourse

By Vogel, Robert; Moulder, Evelina et al. | Public Management, March 2014 | Go to article overview

The Extent of Public Participation: ICMA Survey Explores Public Engagement and the Tenor of Civic Discourse


Vogel, Robert, Moulder, Evelina, Huggins, Mike, Public Management


TAKEAWAYS

* Learn how local government professionals prioritize different types of public participation.

* Learn how Rancho Cordova, California, is guiding online public participation toward an informed, constructive dialog.

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Local governments use a variety of strategies and techniques to encourage public involvement in local planning and decision making. The International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) describes public involvement as occurring at five levels ranging from informing all the way to empowering.

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In this article, we summarize the responses to ICMA's 2012 State of the Profession Survey, which asked respondents to rate the importance of achieving the five levels of involvement in their communities. The levels are illustrated in a case study of an online public participation project in Rancho Cordova, California. We conclude with a list of questions to help local government managers improve their public participation strategy.

Goals of Public Participation

Previous ICMA surveys examined how local governments share information with residents. The 2012 survey delved more deeply into the nature and purposes of local government public participation efforts.

IAP2 has designed a widely-accepted Spectrum of Public Participation that identifies a range of interactions that a local government can have with its community. Distinguished by increasing levels of direct public involvement and intended outcomes, the IAP2 Spectrum includes the following five types of goals that a government can strive for in its public participation efforts: inform, consult, involve, collaborate, and empower. A number of the 2012 survey questions addressed the perceived importance of these types of public interactions within the local government profession.

Inform: Eighty-five percent of the responding local governments report that it is "important" or "highly important" to provide the public with objective information to assist them in understanding problems/solutions/alternatives.

Consult: Seventy-five percent indicate that it is "important" or "highly important" to work directly with the public to ensure that their concerns and aspirations are consistently understood and considered.

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Involve: Some 70 percent report that it is "important" or "highly important" to obtain feedback from the public on analyses of problems, solutions, and alternatives.

Collaborate: The results show that 57 percent of respondents reported that it is "important" or "highly important" to partner with the public in development of alternatives, identification of the preferred solution, and decision making.

Empower: Nineteen percent of respondents indicate that it is "important" or "highly important" to place decision making in the hands of the public.

Being clear about the underlying purpose of the engagement effort as well as the promise it intends to make to the public is essential to the success of any public participation effort. Without objective information and a clearly understood purpose, the public cannot provide meaningful feedback nor can they partner with the local government in developing alternatives, identifying solutions, and making decisions. Unless concerns and aspirations are understood, problems cannot be successfully addressed.

Rancho Cordova: A Case Study

When residents of Rancho Cordova, California (population 67,000), asked their city council to loosen restrictions on raising chickens, the council wanted to first hear from a broad spectrum of residents. Before finalizing their decision, councilmembers wanted to encourage participants to first learn about the issue, then engage in a nuanced discussion without polarizing the community for or against the proposal.

Under the leadership of City Manager Ted Gaebler, the city decided to use the Open Town Hall online public engagement service' to broaden the discussion beyond the few who typically attend in-person meetings. …

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