Is the problem with public engagement…boredom?

 Here’s a recent comment from a colleague on a LinkedIn group:

Is “Boring!” the reason so many community engagement projects fail?

I’ve noticed that, when it comes to inviting a community to engage in plan-making, either almost everyone wants to come (because they are outraged about the plan) or almost no one wants to come – because sitting around in a council hall is the LAST thing they want to do with their precious evenings.

So…what are some engagement ideas that people might really break their schedules for? Or is “1 minute engagement”, via the internet, the answer?

I think we throw ourselves a red herring when we assume that we have to design and market public engagement as “fun” or “easy” or “quick” to get people to participate. The people we want to show up are not lacking for entertaiment options – most of us today carry constant access to games, music, things to read and watch and more on little screens in our pockets.  True, “fun” beats “miserable” or “painful,” and “easy” beats “a great way to  waste your evening,” but the experience we can offer hardly equals Game of Thrones or Call of Duty or cat videos.

I suspect that in most cases the competition we face is too pervasive to be solved by offering fun, let alone by promising a relatively low level of pain.  The people we are trying to engage face a ton of demands on their attention, both fun and not-fun, and they have too often concluded that the return on investment for their participation is not good enough. If you don’t legitimately believe that your participation will make a real difference in making a place you care about better (and it only takes a couple of lousy experiences to teach that lesson), then it’s not going to be worth whatever time and attention you’re asked to expend. If the public engagement activity is “fun,” you might get a second look and maybe a little dabbling just for sake of novelty, but novelty wears off far too fast to make a real difference

Instead of trying to make it “fun” or “easy,” we need to focus on making whatever involvement we are asking for, big or small, meaningful — real, constructive, concrete, producing something that they can see and understand will directly feed into future decision-making that will make their community better.

We need to do much more than amuse them or minimally-distract them: we need to give them a level of ownership, give them a meaningful opportunity to be part of the solution. When you do that, and you clearly communicate that this is the intent and follow up on overturning their negative expectations, then it’s amazing how much time and effort people you thought just didn’t care will actually invest. And how truly helpful, and insightful, and bettering, the particpation you get can be.
Additionally, there’s certainly no reason why “public engagement” should be limited to sitting around in a council chambers.  Teachers who do nothing but lecture have lousy student outcomes, no matter what the grade level — the ones that use projects and small group peer learning and role playing and the whole range of methods available are the ones that get better quality results.
We have got to learn to engage with — to leverage, really —  the whole range of ways that people learn and think and discover, so that not only do we get happier and more satisfied participants, but we get better quality information that makes communities and their decisions better.
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