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Designing and delivering successful citizen engagement programs

Why police and protective services need to reconceptualize engagement as a professional practice


October 20, 2020
By Jack Novack
Photo: SDI Productions/E+/Getty Images

Too often we think about citizen engagement as a means to ensure that whatever we propose or plan on proposing has some level of acceptance. This is a somewhat political perspective. It is a form of risk management intended to minimize potential fallout. After all, if you can determine how various stakeholders will react, you can take remedial action and avoid any subsequent unpleasantness. This is often referred to as a trial balloon. You float an idea before it becomes public or official and wait to see the response. If the response is enthusiastic, or even muted, then the chances are the policy or proposed action will not create any major discomfort.

However, is this what citizen engagement is really all about; minimizing unpleasantness for the organization? I would suggest that citizen engagement is much more. It is an inherent part of the way modern public sector organizations undertake their “business.”

This will come as no surprise to police organizations that have embraced community-based policing as a vehicle for greater collaboration with the community and enhanced problem solving. Engagement at this level seems to have produced positive results. But what about the larger picture — especially for some of the more complex problems police have to face on a regular basis? Is there a need for a more comprehensive and systematic approach for police organizations to engage the community? I think the answer is yes.

The impetus for greater engagement comes from an increased awareness of the need for openness, transparency and accountability in the decision-making process. It also comes from a genuine and legitimate desire for communities to be included in decisions that affect them and a recognition that an effective citizen engagement process simply produces better outcomes. Again, it will come as no surprise to the police community that ongoing public concerns —especially those that relate to fairness and equity — can lead to public manifestations of frustration; some are peaceful and some are less so unfortunately. Underlying this public discontent are feelings of not being listened to and not being respected.

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The demonstrated need to improve the way police and other organizations engage the public and the concomitant need to provide a relevant professional skill set was a principal motivation for the development of two courses in citizen engagement at Dalhousie University. In January 2021, Citizen Engagement and Consultation: Purpose and Possibilities will be offered while Citizen Engagement and Consultation: Professional Practice will be offered in April — both through the College of Continuing Education.

Each course is offered entirely online over a 10 to 12-month period and you can participate whenever your schedule permits. These courses can be taken independently or as part of a certificate program. They are intended to provide a solid understanding of why citizen engagement is important and how to do develop and implement a successful citizen engagement strategy.

Moreover, you will learn with your peer group (and other related public sector decision makers) how to tackle issues and problems in a challenging but also safe environment. It is a place to learn, reflect on assumptions and practice the new skills. It will be a learning laboratory.

Some of the themes covered in these two courses are described below.

Democratic decision making

It may come as a surprise to many that democratic decision making is less about the actual decision and more about the process by which decisions are made. One of the principal features of democratic decision making is the peaceful resolution of conflict. Democratic decision making reflects our desire to engage in a peaceful process in order to find a way to move forward and at the same time satisfy as many needs as possible. This is only possible if we spend the time to not only understand our own needs but also the needs of others.

This is part of the process of deliberative democracy where we place value on the exploration of issues from a variety of perspectives. This type of engagement produces understanding since it is not just about advocating for one’s own interest but also trying to understand the interest of others. Hence it produces an atmosphere of problem solving and collaboration and, in the process, helps to build democratic capacities.

In addition, a process that builds upon diversity of understanding, lived experiences and different perspectives helps to explore possibilities that otherwise might never get noticed, or, put another way (and as stated before): a good engagement process simply produces better decisions. This is especially relevant today as we try to solve very complex societal problems. We cannot do it alone.

The naysayers would argue that this type of engagement can be time consuming, expensive and only serves to give a platform for those who are best able to argue their self-interest. There is some merit in this criticism. However, it is much less likely to occur when the process is carefully guided by those who have the expertise and experience to do so. One of the main objectives of the citizen engagement courses is to impart the knowledge and skills needed to produce a successful citizen engagement program.

Good citizenship

We often think about effective citizen participation as something that comes naturally to everyone. In other words, everyone has an equal opportunity to participate and if they choose not to engage then that is simply a personal choice. Yet this assumption is incorrect for a number of reasons. For example, if we think about how someone becomes an accomplished musician or athlete, it is usually the product of a lengthy period of practice coupled with some form of mentorship. Why do we think citizens without opportunity, mentorship and practice will automatically have the capacity, confidence and knowledge to be able to participate effectively? The argument is also somewhat self-serving since it places the entire responsibility for participation on the shoulders of the citizen and does not recognize the importance of creating opportunities within which citizen participation is encouraged, respected and valued.

Citizen engagement is a process of collaboration in which citizens can be seen as co-architects of a particular decision or policy direction and not just as its recipients. It is also an expression of power sharing where the community has a real stake in the process, its outcomes and evaluation. Would it not be better to have willing partners rather than eternal critics?

So, if we are serious about citizen engagement, how do we prepare our organizations for a successful and productive engagement process? How do we use engagement as a means to help develop good citizenship? And what is your role as a law enforcement officer?

Conditions for success

It is a truism that many organizations do a rather inadequate job at citizen engagement. So, what are some of the preconditions for a successful engagement effort? What distinguishes organizations that are successful in this domain from those that are not?

The first answer (and no surprise here) has to be genuine support from the senior levels of the organization. This support must come from both the political and administrative leadership. The organizational culture is determined here and is critical to success. If the process is seen as disingenuous or manipulative, the public will be quick to see through it and subsequent efforts will be encumbered. This negative bias, once in place, will be difficult to overcome. Building a positive legacy is easier when you do not have to overcome a negative one. Police organizations are, no doubt, familiar with this.
The next precondition is a policy framework within which the consultation takes place. Not every engagement has to be the same. Here one needs to distinguish between engagements that seek to give information, receive information, problem solve and devolve responsibility to the public. Knowing when each is appropriate and the repertoire of techniques available is an important professional and organizational skill set that is explored in detail in the new Dalhousie courses.

Engagement is better when it is conducted over time rather than at a specific point in time. As such, there needs to be an appropriate budget allocation that supports this ongoing commitment. The budget is where organizations’ true priorities lie and it distinguishes between those goals that are real from those that are only aspirational.

Evaluation of the engagement process is also an important aspect and should be undertaken in a formal and prescribed manner.

Lastly, citizen engagement is a relatively new area of professional practice. Where once it was an add-on to an existing and sometimes unrelated job, it is now recognized as an independent field with its own area of scholarship, expertise and evolving understandings.

Whether we like it or not citizen engagement is here to stay. The virtues of a well-thought-out citizen engagement program are many and conversely the vices of one that is done poorly or not at all are also many. I think everyone would prefer success and the likelihood of this happening is greater when an engagement program is sponsored, designed and delivered by those who have the support, knowledge and skills to do so.

Visit www.dal.ca/faculty/cce/programs/local-government-and-public-sector.html for more information on the courses mentioned above.


Jack Novack is a professor and the program director of the Local Government Program at Dalhousie University.