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.


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