Open source public engagement

I’ve been pondering the typical state of public involvement and civic engagement processes since reading a great article in Business Week that compares and contrasts Detroit automakers with Google.

The negative comparison the article draws between Google and Detroit is one that could be drawn with in relation to PI (assuming Google really is or should be the paradigm). 

How PI is implemented often has more to due with bad law, bad precedent and bad habits than with effective consideration of stakeholder information needs, communications preferences, learning styles or participation preferences/barriers.

Sounds positively SUVish, doesn’t it?

(And yet, ironically, get two or more PI practitioners in a room together and that’s all they’re focused on – trying to figure out how to brings stakeholders into developing and participating in the process despite habit, budget and discomfort of higher ups.)

So let me propose a thought experiment based on the interesting sidebar to the Google car article: “A Management Tip Sheet.”

I’d like to use its framework to ask some questions about what we as PI practitioners might keep or toss if we did our work using the Google model – at least to the extent allowed by law, money and daring.

So, with apologies to Business Week, how would our discipline change if we used the following Google principles: 


Much of public involvement is focused on narrowing the range of information stakeholders get. 

Partly it’s a rational allocation of project team resources.  Partly it’s because we want to get information just right so as to minimize confusion and demand on busy stakeholders’ time.  

But if we’re being honest, it’s also driven by concerns that stakeholders will gain access to information or perspectives that we think are wrong, incomplete or “fringe.”

But what would happen if – like Google – we broadened stakeholder access to all kinds of information via outbound and reciprocal links (even or especially with critics), suggested key word searches, and the like?

What if we ranked the information based on our assessment of the validity just as Google does with its rankings?

Holding on tightly to information may actually defeat our goal of more participation.  Research that shows the most engaged individuals are those who know very little – or a whole lot – on a topic.  So a case can be made that we build participation – and trust – by loading the bejeebers out of stakeholders with access to info of varying types and quality


PI practitioners spend a lot of time making it perfect – plans, processes, messages, content – from an organizational perspective.

But is there room – and even value – for “good enough” in PI as there is in software, where the idea or product is given to the users to respond to, criticize and improve upon from their own perspective of understanding, usability,  etc.

What if we started communicating with the public and stakeholders when information wasn’t completely available, plans not totally formulated, even when the engagement plan itself wasn’t drafted? 

Would we discover that the information we provided, the tools we used, would differ greatly if we asked the targets how they wanted to be aimed at and with what?

If we were trying to build internal support for our ideas and actions, we would involve our colleagues and associates from the beginning; yet we don’t know the same when dealing with external audiences. We come to them having made very fundamental decisions about need, communication, etc.


Some of the questions posed earlier really lead to a more global thought experiment.  What if you gave complete control of a public involvement process over to the public you’re trying to involve? 

Through wikis, social sharing sites and communities, the technology exists to ask a group of stakeholders to think about, draft, edit, consult and agree on at least the communication plan for a project.  Heck, we might even be able to enlist some of them to carry out the implementation. 

And if you think that’s crazy – some would claim that approach just played a key role in electing our new president.


PI isn’t free; we exact a significant time price from people we ask to be and stay involved.  When people judge the cost to be too high, we’re frustrated when they don’t participate or worry about the effectiveness of what we do.

So what would be the impact – or the benefit – if our communication efforts were focused only on sketching the outlines of what we think the project solution is going to be? If we came up with a preliminary idea for a solution and then asked people to give a thumbs up or thumbs down on it before deciding whether or how we’re going to proceed with a project or its engagement process?


We ask stakeholders a lot of questions and seek a a bunch of feedback within the boundaries of what we deem to be objective criteria. 

But many times we fail to listen to, or denigrate, non-technical responses from stakeholders.

However, what would happen if we gave greater weight to those subjective assessments.  What if every project came with its own “Evil/Not Evil” gauge driven by the subjective, ineffable sense of stakeholders for what they want their community to be? 

Is there – should there be – room in public decision-making for acknowledging that sometimes things that are logical just don’t feel right – and thus should be put on hold or abandoned?

One response to “Open source public engagement

  1. Whitney (Ehinger) Wilson


    Thanks for posting topics that relate so easily with our duties as PI professionals. I am glad to have a forum that allows us to think more about how our practices can relate more to stakeholders, not just clients.

    I do believe the public should/could be more involved in large civil engineering projects that are built around their communities. However, if we involve the public too much, I’m afraid the question of where to draw the line may become fuzzy.

    In reference to your point under “Make Mistakes Well”…is it a good idea to allow stakeholders into the decision-making process while we are still in draft mode? That, to me, could go either way. We may elicit helpful ideas, but in my experiences, we will also likely receive all too many selfish ideas that don’t look good from an engineering standpoint. Here, we receive several “suggestions” from common folks who think they know more about the topic at hand than our engineers. Even when we politely respond that we appreciate their suggestion, and explain the reasons why we cannot implement their ideas, we often receive either angry or sarcastic replies. So, my fear would be that once we further open the planning process up to the public, we’d receive community uproar if we don’t accept their suggestions. That could deeply effect the public’s view of the project from an early stage…especially after the media picks up interest.

    This same fear also impacts my thoughts about the “google” -esque search engine about project-related facts. I love this idea…to have heapfuls of information in one place for the public to access whenever they have a question or suggestion. While it would be extremely helpful to those who would use it to gain information and knowledge, it would also be a forum for cynics (as you mention) to rant about their disregard for everything related to the project. I guess I have a hard time allowing negative comments to spread knowingly…how do you part with the fear that those comments will catch like wildfire and turn the public against you?

    Thanks again for posting ideas that can help us think outside the box.

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