There’s much to be said about the benefits of public engagement. Intrinsically, it can strengthen our democratic society by including the public’s input in important issues. Instrumentally, it can be an important component of the decision making process and help improve accountability. However, what’s in it for the public who are participating? Flavourless coffee, hard scones and an email thanking them for their time doesn’t count.
Social learning is one of the key objectives of engaging citizens and stakeholders. It refers to the opportunity for the public to learn about a subject simply by observing and paying attention. Benefits such as increasing confidence in your organization or improving the quality of your decisions are definitely up there too, but these are often dependent on what the public learns and contributes.
A line in the sand needs to be drawn between participation and learning. Two concepts that may certainly seem interdependent yet can be quite distinct. While learning may depend on participation; participation does not necessarily equate to learning. Participation in this day and age can be passive, especially considering the breadth and reach of public engagement mechanisms open to the public.
Particular attention needs to be made to ensure that the public does learn about the topic and can recall more than just what colour your website was or how long it took to complete the online choicebook. Without sufficient and appropriate information, members of the public are unlikely to trust or participate fully in your initiative.
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Benefits of social learning
Well-designed public engagement has the amazing ability to level the playing field for participants. Regardless of background, socioeconomic status, race or gender; public engagement sets a platform for citizens to bridge divides and find common ground on often divisive issues. Providing clear, concise and accessible information helps citizens mobilize in their communities and affect change.
Increasing the amount of accurate and accessible information that you provide to a participant can serve to increase or improve public confidence in your organization. As you can imagine, it can also attract a wider range of participants to your initiative and can help to improve the quality of any input.
Any well designed interactive public engagement initiative should increase the public’s understanding or familiarity with the topic. Successful initiatives are likely to influence the public’s views; however, it should be noted that strongly held views are often deeply entrenched and are unlikely to be as affected.
Amount of information
The amount of social learning, and therefore information needs, of your engagement initiative depends on the level of engagement your initiative is aiming for. Using the spectrum developed by International Association for Public Participation (IAP2), the most recognized spectrum of public participation (but certainly not the only); your initiative should aim for a corresponding amount of information.
For instance, a consultative process about the installation of public art may not require the same amount of information and attention as a deliberative budgeting exercise. Always be transparent and include relevant information, but scale the amount and type of information to match the goal and mechanism of your initiative. This is particularly important for online engagement where participants are more likely to consult their search engine for answers than ask the initiative sponsor. Slowing the spread of out of scope and mis -information is essential for organizers in order to guarantee a fair, yet independent, process.
Method of dissemination
Another important consideration when engaging citizens online is the fact that not every member of the public has reliable access to the internet or a trust or willingness to engage with decision makers online. Dissemination of information online tends to favour one demographic over others. Make sure the information essential to participating in your engagement initiative is not found exclusively online. Understand the demographic profile of who are trying to engage and plan your engagement online/offline strategies accordingly.
By including an option to mail participants information, or pick it up at a local address, organizers can improve the flow of information to participants well in advance of their initiative. This is equally as important to ensure that participants receive the information in advance of the initiative so that they have adequate time to absorb and understand the material.
Accessibility of information
Similar to the above point, making information easily accessible to participants will have a positive impact on your initiative. Issues requiring public engagement are often important to a diverse range of citizens. Broadening the scope of citizens participating will open others to diverse perspectives and improve the overall impact of the initiative.
Considerations such as font size, reading level, interactivity (i.e. the use of pictures, infographics and other visual tools), and available languages are just some of the ways to improve the reach of your information. Be inclusive in your planning and consult with representatives of communities that are underrepresented or difficult to reach to ensure that everyone has equal and equitable access to information.
As an organizer, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the benefits of public engagement for you and your organization. However, it’s equally as important to consider how the other side (the public) is benefiting. When evaluating your engagement process, consider social learning as one of the key criteria. Asking participants about what they thought of the information presented and whether their opinions or knowledge were influenced by the process is incredibly important when developing your next initiative.
By increasing and improving the information the public receives, it’s possible to improve the experience for both participants and organizers. A well-educated public is a definite pre-cursor to a well engaged public!