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October 2011 · Volume 93 · Number 9

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Commentary

There’s More to Engagement than Transparency

Use a full cadre of tactics to engage residents

Public managers at all levels of government are working hard to provide more information to citizens. To some critics, the pace of this transparency movement seems too slow, but it does have momentum. Transparency advocates inside and outside government claim that making more information publicly available is an empowering act that will help rebuild trust between citizens and government.

When I began the research for Using Online Tools to Engage – and Be Engaged by the Public, I found that when some people talk about public engagement and citizen involvement, what they really mean is transparency.

The problem is that although transparency is one element of engagement, it is not the whole enchilada. And if it is not conducted as part of a more comprehensive set of engagement initiatives or reforms, transparency promises to create new tensions and controversies, further erode citizen trust in government, and destroy the careers of many managers.

Main Challenge

The central problem in most democracies is not a lack of information. The main challenge is that citizen expectations and capacities have undergone a sea change in the past 20 years, and our public institutions have not yet adjusted to the shift.

Because of rising levels of education, increased access to the Internet, and different attitudes toward authority, 21st-century citizens are better able to disrupt policymaking processes and better able to find the information, allies, and resources they need to make an impact on issues they care about.

Managers at the local government level, and increasingly now the state and federal levels, have experienced the most immediate result of these changes: a small cadre of people—sometimes referred to as “expert citizens” or more derisively as “the usual suspects”—who regularly make themselves heard at public meetings and in the blogosphere.

In case after case, on issues ranging from land use decisions to school closings to the use of vaccines, these active citizens are able to wield an outsized influence on public decisions. Managers are constantly being surprised by the timing and ferocity of the challenges they receive and are constantly wondering whether the views of these active citizens are truly representative of the broader electorate.

For some time, smart and experienced managers have been dealing with these challenges and trying to tap the new capacities of ordinary people by organizing large-scale public engagement efforts. These projects are successful when they involve large, diverse numbers of people (“going beyond the usual suspects” is a common phrase), and when they create environments where citizens compare notes on their experiences, learn more about the issues, and talk through what they think government should do. Some of these initiatives also build in opportunities for action planning so that citizens can decide how they want to contribute to solving public problems (in addition to making recommendations for government).

More People Involved

Transparency can enrich these kinds of engagement efforts, but it doesn’t replace them. We need larger numbers of people to be involved in public discussions, and we need those people talking with each other, not just to government.

Without initiatives and structures that will produce that sort of engagement, transparency will simply give more information to journalists and active citizens who are trying to expose government misconduct and misjudgment, champion tax revolts and other antigovernment measures, and oppose decisions and policies they don’t like.

“Transparency is a necessary but insufficient condition for democratic control,” says Archon Fung, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government who is one of the authors of Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency.

It is of course beneficial to expose the errors and transgressions of public managers. There is truth to the favorite quote of transparency advocates, Louis Brandeis’s 1914 pronouncement that “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.” But while transparency makes government cleaner, it won’t necessarily make it better. By itself, transparency doesn’t change the arms-length relationship between citizens and government. It just gives more ammunition to those who are inclined to throw stones.

In addition to providing more information to citizens, managers should focus on the enormous potential of the Internet to overcome the distance between people and their governments. Face-to-face and online interactions are different—both kinds of communication have unique strengths and weaknesses, and they complement each other well—and so the most forward-thinking managers are finding ways to integrate the two in their public engagement initiatives.

Still other pioneers are considering ways to sustain public engagement, in part by using social media, so that the democratic principles of proactive recruitment, small-group deliberation, and joint action planning become more embedded in the ways that public business is conducted.

Exploring and implementing these other aspects of engagement will be critical for bringing out the productive side of transparency and dealing with the conflicts and scandals that will inevitably emerge. For local government managers, transparency is already the right thing to do; if it is part of a broader engagement strategy, it can also be the smart thing to do.

Matt Leighninger
Executive Director
Deliberative Democracy Consortium
Author of The Next Form of Democracy
Washington, D.C.
mattleighninger@earthlink.net