In our current political culture, participation by ordinary people in the public decisions that effect their lives is limited primarily to the traditional roles of citizenship – voting and expressing their opinions. If citizens are active partisans or stakeholders, they often engage in intense battles, from street demonstrations and direct action to lobbying, legal initiatives and outright bribery. But the actual decision-making is done by representatives and implemented largely through bureaucracies, all heavily influenced by (mostly wealthy) special interests.
Promoters of public engagement usually want to get more people involved in such activities, e.g., voting, expressing their opinions and giving input to people in power.
A leading edge of the public engagement movement seeks to get more – and more demographically diverse – people into conversations in which they expand their views about various public issues and then report to public officials or their fellow citizens or even take action together.
Some advocates of public participation have created spectrums of involvement, where we find educational activities and “public input” near the bottom and citizen/government collaborations and citizen empowerment at the top. Studying such charts can help free us from the constricting assumptions and rituals of current systems (like public hearings that frustrate everyone involved) and help us develop more empowered forms of participation. But note that the charts do not consider the wisdom of the outcome, only the relative power and activity of the players.
Holistic engagement versus mob rule
The wisdom dimension is important here partly because a major rationale for limiting public participation and power is fear of “mob rule”. All too often, when many partisans or public individuals get involved in decision-making, the result is anything but wise. When people don’t know how to think, feel, and work together well, their different information, perspectives, needs and activities get in each other’s way, as well as often confusing or even harming bystanders and interfering with people whose job it is to get things done. We can watch this dynamic in the way internet trolls disrupt unmoderated blog comment sections and wikis, and in riots triggered by extreme injustice. So fear of mob rule is a legitimate concern.
However, as noted throughout this site, there is a more positive participatory reality that co-exists alongside the potential for mob rule. There is a tremendous amount of knowledge about how people CAN think, feel, and work together creatively and productively, even around controversial public issues. It comes from a different paradigm than simply engaging people in voting, input, embattled advocacy or direct action. We’re not talking about debate – or stifling debate. We’re talking about a new question:
How do we productively engage “the whole” in conversations and actions whose diversity embodies the diversity of the community and/or a fair and full spectrum of voices, views, information, and interests involved in the issue being considered, including the interests of nature and future generations? How do we engage such diversity-of-the-whole in conversations and interactions where people actually hear each other and start to see a bigger picture of their situation and its related possibilities than when they walked in the room?
Because when THAT happens, people start creating new solutions together, and we’re on our way to publicly generated wisdom and power.