Posted by on June 08, 2018 at 5:54 PM

By Matt Leighninger, Public Agenda. Reposted from

How can public engagement evolve in order to meet the challenges and conditions of 2017? In my first post of this multi-blog series, I shared a list of promising directions for innovation in the field. Now, in Part 2 of the series, we'll explore in more detail the first item on that list: making engagement more social and versatile, so that it is more common, convenient and fun.

This first direction for innovation is not terribly daunting or difficult: it just flies in the face of how people usually think about public engagement. Especially in North America, we tend to treat engagement as a legal requirement (something governments must do in order to ‘check the box’ and comply with an open-meetings law) or a matter of civic duty (something people must do in order to think of themselves as “good citizens”). Both of these assumptions treat engagement like a bad-tasting cough medicine.

Engagement can, however, be enjoyable. In fact, when you look at some of the best examples of sustained engagement, it becomes clear that these models work because people find them convenient and fun. The City of Decatur, Georgia, hosts “Budgets and Beer” nights at a downtown bar where city employees bring poster boards to help explain public finance issues and surveys to gather citizen input. “Meet and Eat,” a weekly lunch in Buckhannon, West Virginia, has helped citizens plan and establish a new farmer’s market and new bike trails. The residents and employees of Jun, Spain, use Twitter to communicate about everything from replacing streetlights to matters of EU policy – along with advertising social events, booking doctor’s appointments and finding lost cats. On the Table, an initiative in Chicago which brings people together to discuss public issues over dinner, engaged over 50,000 people and is expanding to ten other cities.

In these regular settings for engagement, people keep coming back, not only because the experience gives them a chance to give input on policy decisions, but because of some more down-to-earth incentives: friends, food and lost cats.

Following this line of innovation can be very simple – just follow the advice of Gloria Rubio-Cortes, former president of the National Civic League, who said “Sometimes you need a meeting that is also a party, and sometimes you need a party that is also a meeting.”

As a variation on this theme, many engagement leaders have used “meetings in a box” as a way to bring the more serious elements of engagement, such as discussion questions, information on different policy options and forms for providing input, into settings where people are already gathering. Examples include meetings of neighborhood associations, Rotary Clubs and Parent-Teacher Associations.

The development of SMS-enabled discussion presents a whole new set of possibilities. Digital platforms that use Short Message Service (otherwise known as texting or SMS) can structure and connect face-to-face discussions among 3-4 participants, allowing people to contribute ideas, find information and answer questions no matter where or when they decided to get together. The potential of this format has been demonstrated by “Text, Talk, Act,” which over the last three years has involved over 50,000 people in productive deliberation on mental health issues.

We need to offer more of these kinds of versatile and convenient engagement opportunities that don’t need to take place at a community center or a meeting room in city hall. Given that an SMS-enabled process only requires a handful of people in each setting that don’t need to be sitting at tables, the engagement can happen in a wide variety of ways and places – people can participate in a classroom, during a protest march, in a church basement, on a bus or at a festival.

Democracy can’t survive on bad-tasting cough medicine. Using old ideas like the neighborhood potluck and new technologies like SMS platforms, we can support “anytime, anywhere” engagement that fits better into the rhythm of everyday life – and that offers a broader array of incentives to participate.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are strictly those of the author and do not represent the views of the Bridge Alliance Education Fund, the Bridge Alliance, or the Bridge Alliance’s member organizations. Additionally, the Bridge Alliance Education Fund makes no representations as to the accuracy of this post’s contents.