The language of engagement is everywhere in government. In one form or another, it is used as a noun and verb to describe both means and, in worst cases, an end. Newly rechristened offices and job titles incorporate the term. As it takes on the characteristics of ubiquity (or just overuse), its trajectory is reminiscent of those of “transformation,” “convergence” and “transparency,” among others. Each began as a bold declaration of an important idea, then became a trending term as the risk of overuse and misuse increased to the point of losing its meaning.
The noted lexicographer Inigo Montoya of The Princess Bride is helpful in these cases. As he admonished royalty and scoundrels alike nearly 30 years ago, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
So what does it mean to engage? Govies — that is, social media practitioners who self-identify as a tribe unto themselves — point to likes and followers on platforms old (Facebook), and new (Snapchat), open (Twitter) and gated (Nextdoor) as evidence of public engagement. The addition of live video streaming (Facebook Live or Periscope) now provides a test bed for public agencies to cover breaking news on their own. Roanoke, Va., is attracting impressive viewership for its live video coverage of everything from urban flooding to community events. Timothy Martin, the city’s communications and media coordinator, said live video adds a sense of immediacy, urgency and authority to its social feeds, which is further reinforced when picked up by local broadcasters.
Indeed, likes, follows and views on social media provide a ready, quantifiable and easily aggregated (if rudimentary) measure of public engagement. Numeric growth also builds and fortifies a network that can be readily reached or called upon in times of emergency — healthy
and growing social graphs are important and malleable community assets.
But “like” it or not, social media does not have exclusive claim on public engagement. The continuum of public engagement is bookended by social at the high-volume but “light” end, and iterative, deeper face-to-face consultations on matters of shared interest or common concern about the life of the community. They can certainly work well together, but they cannot do each other’s work.
In the middle of the continuum is the quagmire of old-fashioned public comments at public meetings, which are often dominated by a small number of self-styled community activists who over time can take on an air of entitlement. Seattle shook to the core its decades-old structure of having 13 district councils represent neighborhoods in city government. The incumbents, mostly home and business owners, were alarmed and angry at being abandoned (and by the perception in some quarters that they were the villains). Still, the Department of Neighborhoods is pushing forward to meet the mayor’s direction to develop a new model of engagement that will bring new voices — younger, with more renters and people of color — to these vital public conversations.
Such is the tension between the bureaucratic demands of efficiency — checking the box for public engagement quickly in the service of a larger initiative — and a public practice of co-design that purposely takes longer to make decisions about how such initiatives, investments and policy changes can serve the interests of the people who live in a particular neighborhood.
Professor Eric Gordon, who heads the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, helpfully calls this slow engagement movement a “meaningful inefficiency.” His work with a group of cities through the City Accelerator (an initiative of Living Cities in which our sister publication, Governing, is a partner) bears the model out.
There is no need to reconcile friends on this front. That said, if you are not doing it fast and slow, and communitywide and human-scale, you are probably not engaging in a way that matters in the long term.