Engaging the public for public good.

Civil Discourse

At the health care town hall meetings in 2009, people did a lot of yelling. That led some to say that Americans aren’t as civil as they used to be. But is that true? Our experience says that the problem isn’t the people, it’s the process.

We provide training, materials and consulting to elected officials and government staff struggling to engage in constructive public engagement and move beyond the public meeting. We design processes that promote civil discourse and bring together people who might not agree with one another.

Our work on civil discourse includes:

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Six Changes

Six simple changes that local residents want officials to make

Most public meetings use the public hearing model. That’s where there’s one microphone and you get a couple of minutes to say “Here’s what I want.” Public hearings tend to increase conflict and reduce trust between citizens and government.

The law requires public hearings in many situations. Some officials have never seen any other type of public meeting; they think that the public always misbehaves.

We wanted to know how citizens felt about those meetings. Consensus held 20 focus groups with people from across the political spectrum. They shared their experiences at public meetings and their ideas for what should change.

The public supports elected officials who make six simple changes in how they engage the public.

  • Involve people before you’ve made a decision. The earlier you involve us, the less conflict you’ll face.
  • Actively recruit participants. Don’t just post an ad or send a postcard. Build networks. Reach out to us.
  • Set ground rules. They help us feel safe.
  • Expect more from the public. Let us help make the hard choices. Let us be citizens, not just customers of government services.
  • Let us work in small groups with other citizens. We want to hear from one another and have a dialogue with people who think differently.
  • As often as possible, don’t separate yourselves from citizens up on a stage, but join us as peers.

Public Engagement Consulting Solutions for Municipalities and Elected Officials

It takes knowledge to build effective new habits of engaging the public. Consensus offers custom consulting services to help municipalities move beyond the public hearing.

Elected officials, government staff, and technical consultants recognize that people in our communities want to be heard about issues that concern them. And we understand that more participative processes can lead to better decisions. Sounds like a win-win. Yet this understanding does not always result in constructive public engagement. Many issues in our communities are characterized by conflict because individuals bring vastly different perspectives on the role and reach of government. Our standard model for engagement – the public meeting – often simply highlights these conflicts and leaves everyone as frustrated as when they came in the door, if they come at all.

Consensus provides assistance to municipalities who seek to move beyond the public hearing model. For example, we helped the Wyandotte County legislative delegation reshape its annual town hall meetings. We helped Mayor Mark Holland with his “listening tour” with meeting design and training facilitators to help groups decide how to spend a $12 million windfall. When Roeland Park faced the loss of one in seven dollars in its general fund, we worked with local leaders to switch to small-group discussions. Those meetings asked citizens to agree on the right balance between raising taxes and cutting services. More recently, we worked with Kansas legislators on the Kansas Civility Project, an effort to break down partisan barriers.

If you are struggling to make your public meetings more productive or want to move beyond the public meeting to engage with your community in more thoughtful ways, contact Consensus for custom solutions.