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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s