Pattern #34

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Felt Agency

Passivity and powerlessness serve neither quality of life nor wise democracy. When people see their voices and actions playing a meaningful role in public life, they experience an expansion of self and greater willingness to participate. So notice how social designs and activities contribute to or undermine participants’ sense of agency, and support empowerment.

  • What makes me feel like I matter? How important is that?
  • What’s it like to feel that I am having an impact? How does that feeling effect things like my self-image, relationships, willingness, and so on? Do these reflections suggest anything about how decision-making and public engagement should be handled?
  • Is it possible for people to feel like they are having an impact when they’re not actually having any or much? Or vice versa – to feel like they aren’t having any impact, but they’re actually influencing what happens? What should we keep in mind about that?

Going Deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

The card has a picture of people doing participatory budgeting. Participatory budgeting is used all over the world, in hundreds of cities. The official city government takes a section of the budget and turns it over to the community and says: “You figure out what to do with this piece of the budget and whatever you figure out, we will do that.” In public meetings people talk about it and come up with project ideas. They research what it will take to actually do those projects, the costs and all that and then they vote. The community votes on which projects they want to do, within the budget they’ve been given. The people in this pattern’s picture have done that and you can see how they feel about having done that and having money to spend on things that they want to see in their community.

In the Wise Democracy Venn Diagram – where power, participation and wisdom are moving into integration – Felt Agency would be found in the overlap between participation and power. Is the power being shared so it is participatory? Does participation have a sense of power in it?

I have watched a number of citizen deliberations with a dozen or two dozen randomly selected people spending several days together talking about some issue or situation in their community. They come up with something that gets announced and discussed in a community meeting and turned over to government people or stakeholders to do something with.

They say things like “I didn’t know citizenship could be like this!” There is a whole different feel to this kind of activity. That’s why it’s not just agency, it’s FELT agency. And that feeling that “I can have impact!” changes what people do in the political and government world.

On the other hand, if they spend a bunch of time doing some public deliberation and nothing happens, then they go: “Forget this! I have other things to do. This is a waste of time!” You come back later to organize another deliberation and you discover you don’t have the participation that you need. People don’t want to bother.

One of the dynamics you run into when you’re trying to get participation is people in government saying things like: “We were elected or appointed to do this work and we are the specialists.” They’re feeling the expertise, the status, the whole narrative that goes along with being a government person. And you’re going to bring in ordinary people to deal with situations in the community or the country or whatever?! You wish!…

Because there is a lot of demand for participation and because many governments are not eager to give up power to ordinary people, there is a lot of “fake participation”. People are going through the motions but the government is not paying attention. You have a public hearing and the legislature decides to do what they were going to do anyway. Or there is a months-long public engagement investigating something and doing a big report – and that report sits on a shelf and nothing gets done with it. Then officials and pundits talk about “public apathy”. Well, there is a lot of public apathy because people don’t have a sense that their activity, their engagement, their investment of their life energy is going to come up with anything that is heard, respected and actually used.

In the Co-Intelligence Institute we have a “Politicians Pledge” to help bridge this difference in worldviews and perspectives. After all, government people have legitimate interests in being able to play their roles without being endangered. The Politician’s Pledge is for the politician to say: “If anybody – a business, a church, a civic group, whatever – organizes a bunch of ordinary people in a public participation activity that has these characteristics – referring to a list of seven characteristics that mean it is a well-run, fair conversation – then whatever they come up with and deliver to me I will either follow their recommendations or I will publicly explain why I can’t or won’t.”

So this pledge is respectful of the public’s engagement and a promise to respond in a respectful way, without giving away any particular power. Part of the agreement is also to post the citizen council’s statement publicly on the politician’s website with their response. So all this constitutes a respectful conversation going on between the people and government officials. Often government officials discover – once they do good public engagement – that they are actually being helped: The partnership between the public (or the stakeholders) and the public officials actually helps them all to get stuff done. But it needs to be done right and that could be screwed up from either side.

Sociologist Sherry Arnstein created a famous “ladder of public engagement”. At the bottom you have pseudo-engagement, like educational activities or events where officials come supposedly to get input but then ignore it. The ladder steps up through various levels of partnership to a point where the people actually have power. What they say is what is going to happen.

There are actual legitimate places for all of those ladder steps, but it’s very important to be mindful of how different levels of power are present in a given participatory activity. Part of it is because – as a public official or as a community – you actually WANT to have ideas and engagement from the people; you WANT to have the benefits of all that, whatever it may be. And the people who were involved WANT to have the benefits of feeling they matter, that they are making a difference, so they will come back again. You want the overall community to benefit from the activity and be able to have lots of people participating over and over and over as an ongoing healthy social dynamic. People’s “Felt Agency” is vital to that.