Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Building a Strategy for Successful Public Engagement

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Building a Strategy for Successful Public Engagement

Article excerpt

Ms. Wadsworth describes the seven-stage journey toward public consensus, points out that genuine public involvement is an essential part of the process, and provides some commonsense principles to guide those seeking to foster public engagement.

As I began to write for this issue of the Kappan, I realized how frustrated I was feeling over the necessity of devoting a special section of articles to what should be a natural occurrence in the life of our nation's communities. There has been an abundance of talk about "public engagement." Yet, as I travel the country, it's clear that people do not really understand what public engagement is. Even worse, I suspect that they increasingly assimilate the language of public engagement without modifying their behavior at all. And so it is in the spirit of attempting to share all that Public Agenda has learned about this much-discussed activity that I write, hoping to convey with some clarity what public engagement is and what it is not.

A well-established phenomenon in contemporary American life is the growing dependence on experts and professionals to solve our social problems. A striking consequence of this development has been the loss of real dialogue among most citizens about issues that are significant to the vitality of the nation. Though leaders and experts spend years and years working through difficult problems, relying on serious dialogue as an approach to crafting solutions, they rarely invite ordinary citizens into their deliberations. Rather, once they have arrived at a consensus, they present their list of solutions to citizens and expect the country at large to "sign on." When they then encounter public resistance, they are bewildered and turn belatedly to "public engagement," the activity that today appears on every expert's agenda.

Nowhere is this trend more dramatic than in the arena of education reform. In more than six years of studying the attitudes of various players in education reform, Public Agenda has repeatedly documented the enormous gap that exists between experts and citizens over this issue. In large part, this fundamental lack of communication is responsible for the continued erosion of the public's confidence in our schools and its suspicion of the reform agenda.

To the credit of many educators, reformers, and community leaders, a growing recognition of this reality has, at last, inspired a real desire to communicate. Sadly, however, old habits die hard. Experts and reformers continue to believe that they know what's best for the country, and so they pay lip service to inviting public discussion while continuing to conduct business as usual.

According to psychologist Robert Ornstein, this phenomenon, which he has dubbed the "assimilation phenomenon," occurs when people encounter a new language and quickly adopt its terminology - but then use it merely to describe what they have already been doing. In other words, practices don't change; the new terminology is simply translated to reflect existing meanings.

I have been mystified by why it should be so difficult for experts and leaders to talk seriously with citizens and why, in most settings, "public engagement" continues to resemble nothing more than traditional public relations. While public relations is an honorable endeavor, it is different from public engagement, and so, for those who are sincere about engaging the public, it may be most helpful to clarify at the outset what public engagement is not.

First and foremost, public engagement is not the art of avoiding public participation by restricting policy making to experts and leaders. Like it or not, citizens in general and parents in particular are key stakeholders in the debate over public education, and they must have a seat at the table. Nor is public engagement a sales effort designed to convince others to believe as the experts do. While a sophisticated research and sales approach may appear to be effective, any acceptance of proposed solutions is likely to be tentative and virtually impossible to sustain unless these solutions truly reflect mainstream values and concerns. …

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