Content Discussion History

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

(This is the first in a series on community engagement)

“Community engagement” is prized as both a key incentive for, and desired outcome of, open data and digital government services. However, all too often, the skills and strategies necessary to develop meaningful community engagement are deprioritized and under-invested in, leaving civil servants and others charged with connecting data with their communities scrambling to make connections and make an impact.

This lack of investment stems from, and perpetuates, a common misconception that engagement just…happens. “If you put the data out there, they will come.” Even as critiques against this idea have increased over the last five years, the underlying assumption remains in how we structure our work: many municipal, nonprofit, and corporate data initiatives continue to leave “engagement” until the final phase of a project, activating public-facing communications after the bulk of the work is done, or reducing public contribution to “feedback” on a pre-set process or completed platform.

This approach to participation conflates engagement with marketing, advertising, broadcast, and other one-way “blast”-style strategies of communication. Whether scattershot or highly targeted, at their core these processes project information at people, and don’t require contribution or response in order to measure success. Rather, these projects measure success by the number of people who encounter the message — a measure of quantity that says nothing about collaboration, response, depth of understanding, justice, or equity.

Engagement that moves only in one direction, from an institution to a group of people, isn’t engagement. One-way communication strategies may exist in an engagement toolbox, but with goals for our civic data work as big as changing the present and future of public participation in governance, we cannot afford to continue to conflate one-way media strategies with our vision for engagement as a whole.

Engagement — real, meaningful, community engagement — is fundamentally a two-way process: a process of exchange and iteration, based in deep connection with the people we serve. Rather than settling for “engagement” as something done at communities, we see, understand, and plan for engagement as a series of connections built with communities. This small, seemingly semantic shift has huge practical implications for the short and long term impact of the work that we do. The success of the fairly well known Large Lots program in Chicago, for example, is not the website that allows residents to purchase vacant city-owned land for $1, but the deep community organizing (primarily in the neighborhood of Englewood) and municipal partnership that went into creating the relationships, policies, and yes, eventually tools, that to this day still strategically guide the work and keep it rooted in a shared vision for community ownership of community resources.

This work of social, intentional exchange is core in my practice with Build With, a power-aware method of design that centers community consent in engagement planning. It’s also core to the method I teach in my class on community engagement for civil servants here at GovEx.

Over the next few months, I’ll be sharing more about this alternative, grounded approach to engagement, why it matters, how it works, and what you can do to begin to implement necessary shifts in your own engagement work, starting from wherever you are. If you have questions, or want me to cover particular areas of interest, you can send them my way at laurenellenmccann@gmail.com.

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