One of the most difficult and complex tasks in working in service of the public is how to adequately design and structure public participation in decisions. It is no small feat to share complex problems with detailed information and finite timelines in a way that adequately communicates these difficult decisions to the public and then manages to include their input into the resulting outcomes.
Yet, we serve the public and it is to them we owe a trust. It is a trust of openness, transparency, and taking responsibility to engage and to make decisions. But what does it actually mean to “consult?” To me, the term is often ill-defined and the purpose of this blog is to share a very helpful framework for public participation in our decisions. Whether you are in public education or in service of the public in any domain, the framework can guide and inform your work with the public and stakeholders.
Boards of Education have an enormous responsibility. In our province, Boards shepherd well over $5B in public funding provided by the provincial government. In districts large, in districts small, difficult decisions relying on complex information need to be made constantly. While some decisions are in private for reasons of confidentiality (e.g. legal issues, personnel matters), the vast majority of decisions are made in public. Without a doubt, in every school district, public participation in decisions forms an important part of the work of the Board. The structure of this public participation can vary from email, to surveys, to open forums and to directly addressing the Board individually or as a delegation. When Boards do formally engage with the public in shaping decisions, this type of engagement can be greatly improved by letting the public know exactly what the Board is asking, how the input will be used, and how decisions will be made in light of input. This is where the framework from the International Association for Public Participation IAP2 comes to light. Their work is formally called the Public Participation Spectrum.
The spectrum breaks down participation into 5 categories: Inform, Consult, Involve, Collaborate, and Empower. The category you choose depends upon your participation goal. Most often, we say we are “consulting” with the public. Using the framework, if consultation is the goal, then our promise should be to:
- Provide the public with objective reviews of options;
- The options should include an analysis; and
- We should ask for direct feedback on potential decisions.
In turn, our promise to the public is:
- To keep you informed;
- To listen and acknowledge concerns and aspiration; and
- To provide feedback on how public input influenced the decision.
The most helpful parts of the framework, for me, are the clear descriptors in our obligation to the public. For example, the language articulates the distinct differences between consultation and collaboration. Consultation involves seeking direct feedback on decisions and collaboration means to look to the public for “advice and innovation in formulating solutions and incorporating advice and recommendations into the decision to the maximum extent possible.” To engage with the public seeking feedback on proposed options is vastly different from incorporating advice to the maximum extent possible in any decision. The spectrum simply helps articulate and clarify processes and intent.
In the end, decisions must be balanced with the responsibility entrusted to a Board to make a call that supports the interests of the entire community. These are the tough waters that leaders of public systems must navigate. Such navigation takes time, careful planning and must include thoughtful processes.
As stated earlier, the goal of this blog is simply to share what I feel is a really informative and helpful framework. I hope no matter what role you play when engaging others in decisions, that this tool can provide clarity on exactly the nature of the participation and what promises you make to all participants.
I can share two examples of methods we are changing with good results. First, we have completely restructured our budget input process to move our “public forum” model to an EdCamp which has been highly successful. In addition to the EdCamp running multiple public sessions, we have adopted an online social-media engagement tool to gather direct input on our budget. Placespeak allows us to push budget information directly out to all our parents and allow them to “connect” to the topic and participate. We are then able to hold moderated chats with them over our priorities. With over 5000 views and 200 surveys completed, this is a very significant increase in our past budget engagement. No models are perfect, but we are making significant improvements in our processes.
At the start, I stated that we owe the public a trust. That trust comes with continued meaningful engagement and participation. Hopefully these tools have presented some examples of ways to enrich the public participation in any of your decisions.
I am grateful to IAP2 for permission to reproduce their framework and you can find more of their resources here at http://iap2canada.ca/