Random Selection: What We’re Really Telling People When We Do Public Participation

This is a random selection from the Book Crowdsourcing Wisdom: A guide to doing public participation that actually does good (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come).  If you like this, you’ll like the book – learn how to get your copy in the format you want here.


People are not failing to participate because they don’t care about the places where they live.   They’re not failing to participate because they don’t care what we do.

They’re failing to participate because we’ve given them a pretty clear message that we don’t want them to have a meaningful role in the process.

It’s easy to blame that message on politics and the Big Media – dirty campaign ads, PACs, etc.  National and state stuff. Not my fault.

But look at what we do to those people when they do try to participate in our own cities and villages and counties – the places where democratic involvement is most direct, where it should be easiest.

See through their eyes for a minute, and realize what our typical “public participation” or “public involvement” looks like from their perspective:

Meeting rooms that look and feel like courtroomsI must have done something wrong… did I do something wrong?  I don’t remember doing anything wrong.  But this place feels like I did something wrong.  Why are my palms sweaty?

A microphone in the middle of the room.   Dear God, I’m going to have to go up there and talk…Gulp… my stomach feels like it’s trying to strangle me.  Do I know enough?  Part of what that other guy said could be right in some cases…  I, uh… what do you mean, my three minutes is up?

Be there in person or You Don’t Count.  I know I should go, but I’d have to miss my continuing education class… who can I get to coach the kids’ soccer team that evening?  If I ask for that night off from my job, will my boss punish me later?  Who can I find to watch the kids?

An agenda that could go on for hoursCan I get there at 7:30, after my class, or do I have to be there right at 7?  How long is going to take to get to… oh, no one knows?  What am I going to do if they’re still talking about other things when I have to leave to get the babysitter home?  Dear God, these chairs are uncomfortable…

A confrontational, argument-focused environment   I have to be right. They have to be wrong.  I’m white hat, they’re black hat.  I can’t admit that they might have some good ideas.   I can’t propose a compromise…that would look weak… what do you mean, my three minutes are up?

And even when we’re not doing the standard government meeting, when we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re doing an “interactive” meeting we’re still sending that same message:

Welcome to the Open House!  Here are a whole lot of maps, and here’s what they’re going to do.  I’m no good at reading maps… where’s my house?  Maybe finding that will help me make sense of it.

But this map shows the “Preferred Alternative…” In that case, why did I bother to come? Does anything I have to say really matter to them?  

OK, the sign over here says “We want your feedback!!!”  So I guess I’ll give them some feedback.  Can I ask a question?  How would I ever know whether a question is worth answer – or whether I’m getting a legitimate answer? Are they doing this just to pretend to care?

How the hell are you supposed to write on this card with this little golf pencil anyways??


Vague, disconnected-from-reality questions, like “What do you think this spot on the map should be?”  Geez, I don’t know… what’s there now?  What is around it?  What do we need?  Am I really supposed to just pick something out of the air?  I’d like an ice cream shop, but is that really a good idea for that corner? 

Am I just supposed to say anything?  Are they just going to build whatever we say?


We make clear that whatever real opportunity to influence what we’re doing depends on you being at the meeting in person. OK, there’ no way I can make it to that meeting (thank God… only crazy people show up for those things).  They said I could send an email. 

But how do I know if anyone will ever read it or think about what I had to say?  Will they use that online survey thing to actually maybe change the plan?  Does anyone look at that stuff? 

Is anyone actually listening?

When we do try to open the doors of participation, we let a few people get crazy.  No way am I going to that public meeting.  The last time I went there was this guy who wouldn’t let anyone else talk.  He kept interrupting other people, he kept insisting that he was the only one who knew what was really going on, and the people running the meeting didn’t do anything to give anyone else a chance to talk. 

It was totally frustrating – a complete waste of my time.


None of this works.  None of it makes our plans and decisions better, makes our governance better, makes our communities better.

In fact, it has probably made a lot of things worse.

book cover

Random Selection: Starting the public meeting – what to look for and how to manage it

This is an excerpt from Crowdsourcing Wisdom: a guide to doing public meetings that actually do your community good (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come. If you like this, chances are you’ll find the whole thing useful.  Learn more about the book and how to get your own copy.

Before we start

We start with the public having come into the space, gotten the materials they needed at the Welcome Table, and taken a seat, either in the large-group seating area or at the small group tables, depending on how you’re set up.  At this point, they probably don’t know what they’re in for, but hopefully they have some sense that something different is in the works.  Some might start looking through the orientation handout you gave them, but most will talk to the people they came in with.

This is a good time to watch the participants and observe the sociology at work.  How do people seem to be sorting themselves?  Do participants seem to be sticking together by age, race, family group?  Are there any people or groups that look uneasy, angry, agitated?  Are there any who seem out of place or not welcomed by others?

Your goal at this point is not to intervene.  You’re doing what a good teacher does — trying to understand the context of the people you are going to be working with so that you can adjust your actions to best meet the needs of everyone in the room.

Don’t start late, since that’s an insult to the people who got there on time, but be reasonable.  If you know there are still people coming in from the parking lot or getting through the Welcome Station (a particular bottleneck if your legal staff insists that you have to get EverySinglePieceofInformationfromEveryone), then just take the mic at the time you were supposed to start and tell the people who are ready to go that there’s a few people on your way in, we’re going to hold on just a couple of minutes before we get started.

That’s not just a nicety, that’s also another little step in the process of communicating that you respect them and that you value their time and efforts.  But don’t start more than five minutes late, or you will blow that good will and raise doubts that anything you tell them can be trusted.

Welcome and Overview

You’re going to start with a welcome and an overview of the plan of action, just like you would at a conventional public meeting.  But you may wish to consider changing this up a little bit, both to focus the participants’ attention and to reinforce the kind of atmosphere you’re trying to create.  What exactly you do to tweak these expectations will depend on your specific context, but here are some possible ideas:

  • Instead of having the welcome delivered by an elected official or a department head, in some cases that welcome might be more meaningful coming from someone else. That could be a representative of the community where the meeting is being held, someone who personally cares about the outcomes (like a resident of the neighborhood), or someone else who is outside of the norm.

Make sure that the person who will do this job understands the need to encourage discussion and isn’t going to use the introduction to advance a particular opinion on the issues to be discussed.

  • The plan of action for the session should be not only spoken, but written into the handout and projected on a screen. You can, however, also ask the participants if anyone wants to recommend any edits to the proposed process.  That can be an important way to give ownership of the process to the participants, and again it demonstrates both not-business-as-usual and a desire for collaboration.  But, this isn’t a good idea in every situation.

If the group is very large, if tensions are strong or emotions are high, or if there are potentially contingents among the participants who might be looking for an opportunity to take over the meeting, then opening the agenda to editing could massively backfire.  In these cases, it’s better to go over the agenda with representatives of groups that might have particular needs beforehand.

You may also want to avoid this strategy if you are dealing with people who may have little experience with group discussions of that type, because that discussion could readily get bogged down in minutiae — and that can mean that you lose the attention and participation of people who are hard-pressed for time.  One way to manage that issue is to allocated a very short amount of time — less than five minutes — for discussion of the agenda, and only make changes for which there is clear consensus.  If it’s a matter of process, most people will be willing to accept someone else’s recommended changes, as long as they don’t appear to impact the fairness of the process.

In all cases, though, keep that introductory stuff quick.  Ideally, less than five minutes.

Orient to Information

The next thing on the agenda should also be done as quickly as you can.  Since it’s unlikely that the participants have studied your exhaustive documents online before they came, and since it’s also unlikely that they’ve done much more than glance at the packet you gave them at the Welcome Station, you need to orient them to the information in their hands.

Note that I said orient, not lecture.  Very few grown people want to have someone read out loud to them, especially when they’re extracting time from their busy lives to come to your meeting.

Your inclination will probably be to go through the whole thing, sharing all the interesting facts and minutiae that you have found out on the journey to this meeting.  Don’t do it.  As we discussed in the previous chapter, the point of this exercise isn’t to teach them everything that you know.  The point of this exercise is to give them enough information to orient them to the issues, to help them leverage their knowledge to be joined with yours, to know enough to ask the right questions.  Not all of it.

Focus your presentation on showing them what’s in their handout, and secondarily on why you are drawing this particular information to their attention.  It’s completely OK for you to speak to what you have learned and understand, but do it as objectively as possible – if a certain trend is a concern, explain why it’s a concern in very pragmatic terms.

Don’t assume that people know what you mean by sprawl, or where the city’s tax revenues come from, or that sewer pipes cost a lot of money.  When you talk about a potential impact, frame it in terms of quantifiable impacts — money that will have to be spent from a tight budget, loss of future revenue, etc.

Whenever possible, show them the math. Framing the information in terms of practical, quantifiable impacts defuses some of the emotion that people bring to community issues and forces them to use their rational mind.

Finally, make sure that they know that you are available to help them, answer more questions, etc. while they are working in their small groups.  Answering questions that arose from your presentation to people while they are in their small groups may be more effective – not only will it allow people to target their questions more specifically to the issues that they are trying to address in their small group work, but it lessens the risk of losing participants’ attention waiting through a Q&A session full of comments that they are not finding of interest.  And if you have high tensions in the group, an open Q&A may open the door to people who are just looking for a soapbox.

However, you also don’t want to risk a perception of not being transparent or not caring what people have to say.  If this is the case, you might want to put a period for whole group questions and answers in the agenda.  Keep that time frame short, and promise to answer any additional questions during the small group work.  And emphasize the fact that you’ve got something much more interesting and important for them to work on, and you want to make sure there’s plenty of time for that.

Sometimes we get uneasy about cutting off questions, and again, it depends a lot of the context.  But typically, you are on strong ground for keeping to a time frame if you keep coming back to the needs of the larger audience, not just the people who want to talk.  People who want to dominate the microphone might feel that their words are the Most Important Of All, but the rest of the crowd will be grateful – and much more likely to invest in the work – if you make clear that you value their time and their ideas, even if they don’t want to go to the mic.  And even if you’re the one who wants to be the center of the attention, you know what fair play looks like, and you know that you will look like a dork if you don’t.

Random Selection: Our New Approach to Public Engagement

This is a selection from Chapter 6 of Crowdsourcing Wisdom.  If you like what you read, chances are you will like the book.  Learn more about the book and how to get it in print or for your Kindle, iBook or Nook here.

OK, so we’ve established that our new approach to public engagement needs to:

  1. 1. Tap the wisdom of our crowd, reaching far beyond the “do you like this?” kinds of feedback that we’ve been doing
  2. 2. Make the act of being involved in public engagement worth it – worth it for the people who come and for the people who set up and manage and are supposed to carry out the results of the thing.
  3. Break down a few generations’ worth of mistrust, built up by confrontational meeting formats, uncontrolled soapbox-hoggers, meaningless fake “participation,” a pervasive sense of wasted time, and so much more.


In addition, from a practical standpoint, we need to do the following:

  1. Get enough information into their hands to be able to apply their experience and wisdom in an intelligent fashion (spoiler alert: a droning Power Point of the project minutiae won’t cut it).
  2. Give them decision points that they can actually affect (not setting them up to fall in love with recommendations that would involve a rearrangement of the solar system to be able to come to pass). This is, pragmatically, so that we can get information that makes the plan better – and avoids pissing them off.
  3. 3. Give us ways to clearly understand what they’re trying to tell us – and give us fact-based political cover when we change a policy or a zoning based on what we heard from them.
  4. Build a network of people who understand where the things we end up doing came from – and have enough of a personal stake in what happened to stand up for them.


In this section, we’re going to examine a new method for doing that.  It’s not really a new method, because teachers have been using it for a couple of decades.  And it’s not even all that new in public engagement, because I and a few others have been using this for a couple of decades. But chances are, it’s new to you and your community.  In Part 3, we’ll look at a few ways to put some of the same core principles to work when you’re stuck with a more conventional setting.

New things are unfamiliar things.  They unease people, they scare people, they sometimes make people want to push the system back to the old ways.   And for those old-timers who are used to being In Charge of Everything, who expect the public to stay passive and let the experts run the show, who see nothing wrong with how our public engagement and our community decision-making has been done… they might have some strong opinions about what you’re doing.

But I’ll make you a promise: if you shift your public engagement to Crowdsourcing Wisdom, you’re going to discover some very happy and very dedicated local people.  And a better local governance system.  And a stronger and healthier community.

And a surprisingly large number of the people that right now you think are waiting to eat you for lunch… will have your back in ways that you could not anticipate today.


One more caveat:  this isn’t the only innovative or more meaningful or potentially more effective method for doing public engagement.  This might or might not be news to you, but there’s a whole collection of professionals and professional organizations out there whose primary focus is doing public engagement.  One of these organizations is called the International Association for Public Participation, (www.iap2.org), and another is the National Council on Dialogue and Deliberation (www.ncdd.org).  And there’s a ton of methods that they’ve developed, like World Cafe and Fishbowls and Citizen Panels and many more.  All of which can be very effective at getting people more actively involved.

But as I have looked at how these methods might work to meet typical local government and community nonprofit objectives, I felt like each of them might be helpful, but posed some shortcomings for this kind of setting.  Some require extensive time commitments, some focus more on discussion and less on outcomes, others require sophisticated operational rules that I can’t imagine the typical participant at a local government meeting having the patience to absorb.

So, even as I looked around and added some tricks to my quiver, I kept coming back to small group cooperative learning.