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The Case for WAY MORE Public Engagement

Institutional democracy depends on citizen democracy, but this connection has come loose. It’s as though the rudder of the ship isn’t connected to the ship’s steering wheel. Without being reconnected, institutions can’t regain the public’s confidence because institutions can’t create their own legitimacy, define their purposes, or set the standards by which they will operate. And governing institutions can’t sustain, over the long term, decisions that citizens are unwilling to support. David Mathews, With, A Strategy For Renewing Democracy.


As a government, community, or non-profit leader, you’ve noticed a lack of civility and trust in your dialog and relationships with public constituents, from the federal government down to local schools. Public hearings can now be so confrontational that people need to be escorted from the building.

Public leaders have tried their best to ameliorate public mistrust in government and other public institutions, but to little avail. My aim is to explore how public leaders might “reconnect the rudder to the ship” of institutional democracy by humanizing public conversations. When people once again see each other – and government leaders – as human beings rather than enemies, conversations become more productive. Most importantly, this kind of transformative public engagement will lead to greater support for your work, decisions, and team.


The work of humanizing community governance becomes critical when considered in a global context. We will discover durable solutions to existential problems like our national debt, climate change, and global poverty only if we learn how to work together and consider difficult tradeoffs with equanimity. To have sufficient impact, though, collaborative public dialog must be common practice among most Americans, something that must be driven by local leaders like you.


Peter Block, author of “Community: The Structure of Belonging,” states that “…the vitality and connectedness of our communities will determine the strength of our democracy.” Connection leads to empathy for individuals and an understanding of the whole; collective intuition soon leads to creative solutions and, ultimately, compromise that everyone can support. All of this begins when we rehumanize what happens in the room during public conversation and debate.


Right now, such broad collaboration doesn’t seem possible. The Dalai Lama said, We’ve been all the way to the moon and back but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbor. My experience over 20 years of doing this work, however, is that despite our divisions, we can deepen communication, build relatedness, and effectively work together.


Given today’s winner-take-all political framework, this book addresses two fundamental challenges faced by public leaders: 1) the reframing of government as a facilitator of people working toward the common good; and 2) the rebuilding of public trust in government’s ability to unite disparate people and groups.


While the strategies in this book apply to any public gathering, my intent is to inspire local leaders, especially local government, to take on the challenge of humanizing their public debate. Why? First, diversity is unavoidably embedded in the geography of local government, which means local government must facilitate any warring parties around an issue. Second, local government works with actual neighbors, people who interact in more ways than public debate. The benefits of humanizing public conversations will more quickly affect the larger culture of that community. Third, local government can tailor their gatherings and rehumanizing strategies to the culture and preferences of their own communities, whereas any state or federal “humanization mandate” will miss the mark with many.


Finally, great opportunity for change exists at the local level: 35,000 municipalities and townships and 13,800 school districts, all holding at least monthly public hearings. That’s 585,600 public gatherings per year where, in addition to getting the work done, local leaders can help residents rehumanize and connect with each other. At that vast and granular scale, national change could happen quickly if a tipping point of local leaders included re-humanization work in every gathering.


Human beings are hard-wired for empathy, so the techniques in this book are simple yet highly effective. The trick is consistent practice even when it’s not necessary for that conversation; unless we help people build their humanizing muscle over time, they will revert to their fight-or-flight ways when under the stress of difficult problems.


By using every gathering as an opportunity to practice togetherness, you build your public’s collective resiliency – their ability to work through difficult times together. The strategies in this book have helped deepen relationships among teachers despairing over their students’ mental health challenges; despite tears being shed and nothing “getting done,” getting connected was the action step that allowed them to subsequently take action together. Belonging alleviates despair as it inspires limitless possibilities, “…that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world” (Margaret Mead).


To do this work, leaders need to care as much about “means goals” (the benefits of empathetic conversation) as “ends goals” (getting the best answer to the question). This can be anxiety provoking and avoidance inducing. To keep going, I need to remember the joy and boundless faith I experience when I help people have conversations that matter to them.


Our nation yearns for healing, but no speech or policy will do. A single, well-designed conversation rekindles our latent humanity and gives people hope as they leave the room (making them more likely to show up next time). With steady practice, people will learn to connect with and trust each other, building the resilience necessary to make the painful trade-offs we face in the future. In the end you don’t need to worry much about what the public thinks of you, because trust in public leadership will happen when you help people have faith in each other.

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