Public engagement is an inclusive problem-solving approach where a decision-making body consults and collaborates with the public for the purpose of developing more effective solutions than the deciding body might come to independently.
Despite its roots in democracy, the term “public engagement” is relatively new, having hardly even appeared in writing before the 1990s. Nevertheless, it has become a powerful, widely accepted means of reaching the most widely satisfying conclusion with maximum transparency and public inclusion. In stark contrast to an authoritarian style of governing, public engagement involves convening diverse and representative groups of people to attack a problem from a range of viewpoints for the purpose of making better, more creative decisions.
The concept’s quick rise to popularity has been no doubt buoyed by the inclusive nature of our current Internet age, where specialized knowledge is freely available, and concepts like social media and crowd-funding have fundamentally shifted the balance of influence from the powerful few to the readily engaged many.
Many see public engagement as sharing roots with participatory democracy, which puts decision-making powers more directly in the hands of ordinary people. And while this concept may seem deeply entrenched in modern democratic governmental ideals, there remains an increasingly transparent gap between those carrying out legitimate public engagement and those merely offering the rhetoric of public engagement with no real intention or ability to follow through on it.
Going beyond the “one-and-done” nature of a simple public hearing or a carefully choreographed town hall event, public engagement is intended to be an ongoing collaboration meant to pair the expertise of the engaging agency with the actively interested non-specialists found amongst the public they serve. Instead of merely offering lip service to the concept of open participation, true practitioners of public engagement should ensure that each effort for public participation is sustained, open, and has the real potential to make a difference.