Facing Contention: 21 Tips to Detox Public Engagement

Forces are aligning to increase polarization and tension in public dialog, and planners are increasingly caught in the middle. A recent workshop with 100 engagement experts resulted in a free eBook to help planners detox their public involvement.

March 8, 2018, 5:00 AM PST

By Dave Biggs @MetroQuest


Kyla Duhamel / Flickr

If you feel like you’re facing increasing tensions in your public engagement processes, you are not alone. Across the country, the climate of public discourse has been shifting dramatically. Planners and public engagement practitioners, particularly those working for government agencies, increasingly find themselves on the front lines of highly polarized debates. Thankfully there are proven ways to detoxify public engagement and designing public participation processes to find common ground.

In the fall of 2017, MetroQuest conducted a workshop at the International Association for Public Participation Annual Conference to identify strategies and best practices when designing public engagement processes for projects facing contention. The results of this workshop, which brought together 100 public engagement practitioners, are now available as a free eBook: Facing Contention: 21 Tips to Detox Public Engagement.

The Changing Public Engagement Landscape 

Public discourse in recent years has shifted dramatically for reasons that include:
  • The biasing and organizational impacts of social media,
  • The growing divide between income groups,
  • The polarizing political tensions, and
  • The dehumanization of the opposition.

While all these trends can play a significant role (and there are undoubtedly others), perhaps the most dramatic has been the influence of social media on public opinion and the mobilization of opposition. We have reached a point where even the CEO’s of social media firms are admitting responsibility. Most recently Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, announced measures to address his firm’s role in poisoning democracy.

Imagine if ten years ago you were told that by 2018 the majority of news and information people see would be curated specifically for them based on their current views and interests. Moreover, conflicting information would be made more difficult to find. This process of curation—which describes your Facebook news feed, your customized search engine results, and other social media streams—is driven in part by a desire to keep your attention and thus, in crude terms, expose you to more advertising. It’s well-known that people tend to navigate away more frequently if exposed to conflicting information. The result of this curation is a dramatic increase in polarization as people become increasingly convinced about their views. 

The polarizing effect of this curation is only one part of social media’s influence on public discourse. Social media has also provided the public with easy access to tools to mobilize like-minded people to influence almost any cause or project.

Key Success Factors for Public Participation

Aware of increasing tensions, I organized a workshop at the International Association for Public Participation Annual Conference in the fall of 2017 to tap into the wealth of experience in the association’s membership.

The workshop drew together 100 of most skilled and talented public engagement practitioners in a working session. Together, we compiled a set of key success factors and strategies that planners and public engagement teams can use to detoxify public engagement. 

Hopefully you will find these insights valuable and will join the growing list of practitioners contributing to the dialog about how to improve community engagement. Download a free copy of the eBook, Facing Contention: 21 Tips to Detox Public Engagement.

Dave Biggs

Dave Biggs is the Chief Engagement Officer at MetroQuest Community Engagement Software and a passionate public engagement strategist focused on best practices in community engagement for planners.

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