Engaging with the Public: A series of best practice tip sheets
Why should decision-makers involve others?
Tip: Align the public participation strategy with the goal
Many decisions made for the public good benefit from engaging the public as those decisions are discussed. When governing boards, community groups and organizations involve community members, decisions are better informed and solutions more strongly address community concerns. In this tip sheet, we answer the questions:
Why is it important to involve others while making decisions?
What are the benefits of engaging the public in solving problems?
What is it? Many names are used to describe public participation. It is called citizen engagement, citizen involvement, community-based decision-making, community-based governance, community policing and neighborhood-based decision-making. Whatever it is called, public participation is the involvement of people in a problem-solving or decision-making process that may interest or affect them.
Why do it? Believe it or not, involving the public can make decision-making easier. Involving the public has practical, philosophical and ethical benefits. Here are five important reasons for involving the public:
- It helps meet regulations and requirements. Many programs, laws and rules require some level of public participation.
- It adheres to democratic principles. U.S. culture and society embrace the notion that people have the right to influence what affects them. Paying attention to the public's ideas, values and issues results in more responsive and democratic governance.
- It can create more substantive decisions and outcomes. Better results occur when decision-makers have access to:
- More information. Public involvement brings more information to the decision, including scientific or technical knowledge, knowledge about the context where decisions are implemented, institutions involved, history and personalities. More information can make the difference between a good and poor decision.
- More perspectives. Additional perspectives expand options and enhance the value of the ultimate decision. The more views you gather in the process of making a decision, the more likely your final choice will meet the most needs and address the most concerns possible.
- Increased mutual understanding. Public participation provides a forum for decision-makers and stakeholders to understand each others' issues and viewpoints. The discussions broaden the knowledge base as each one contributes to the decision.
- Free consultation. Involving the public provides free consultation to public projects. Members of the public bring technical expertise, specific knowledge about the effects of decisions, local experience and history, and other specialized experience to the decision-making process.
- It can identify problems that can and should be solved. Good public participation processes help:
- Quickly identify key difficulties, challenges or opportunities.
- Create better, deeper understanding of the situation, problems, issues, opportunities and options for action.
- Manage single-issues advocates.
- Build better relationships.
- Manage conflict more effectively.
- Build a coalition of support.
- Get it right the first time.
- It can enhance future problem-solving capacity. A good process can greatly enhance, rather than diminish, future problem-solving capacity. Participants will see and experience success that can be applied to future situations.
"I believe that decisions made through community-based processes are more durable and last longer if there is real citizen buy-in on the front end. If you can get people engaged in what the problem was in the beginning rather than coming with solutions, that's even better because they get involved in a community. And once they have this skill they can transfer it to other issues. It brings out their creativity."
League of Minnesota Cities staff member
Engaging the public as decisions are made leads to informed decision-making and stronger solutions to problems. Engaging the public has multiple benefits and is worth the investment of government, community groups and organizations who work for the common good.
Bryson, J.M. & Carroll, A.R. (2007). Public participation fieldbook. St. Paul, MN: University of Minnesota.
Tip sheet prepared by Jody Horntvedt, Associate Extension Professor and Educator, Leadership and Civic Engagement