Between Thick and Thin: Improving Public Engagement through a Wicked Problems Lens

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By Martín Carcasson

Deliberative public engagement processes go beyond simply offering an opportunity for opinion expression and provide participants with more robust interactive experiences that ask them to deliberate with their fellow citizens. They have been growing in popularity and impact in recent years as more and more administrators and elected officials realize both the limits and typical counterproductivity of conventional engagement processes as well as the potential of engaging their residents more deeply. One of the key concepts tied to deliberative engagement is the recognition that many of the issues we must engage in our communities can be best understood as wicked problems (See Carcasson: “Tackling Wicked Problems Through Deliberative Engagement”).

Wicked problems are problems that have no possible technical resolution but rather are primarily defined in terms of positive but competing underlying values that we must identify, put on the table, and find ways to work together to negotiate the tensions that inevitably arise. As the hyper-partisanship at the national level continues to explode and we learn more about brain science and social psychology, the value of viewing deliberative public engagement with a wicked problem mindset only grows due to their ability to avoid triggering the worst in human nature and their potential to bring out the best in us (See Carcasson: “Why Process Matters: Democracy and Human Nature”). Unfortunately, the positive impacts of deliberative engagement processes come at the cost of significant time and effort for both organizers and participants, resulting in a difficult tension that must be addressed.

This essay engages that tension and others by applying a wicked problems lens to the concept of public engagement. I argue that like other wicked problems, public engagement can be best understood by identifying the underlying values from multiple perspectives, recognizing the natural tensions between those values, and then focusing on how to best negotiate those tensions through an ongoing collaborative process. Too often, in part due to how our brains prefer to see the world, we often frame issues in terms of maximizing an individual positive value or working against a perceived negative value. We naturally narrow our frames to simple choices between good and bad rather than tougher choices between competing goods. Unfortunately, such efforts are often counterproductive with wicked problems, because the simplified focus on an individual value works to hide the natural tensions, both undermining the possibility of creative solutions and often exacerbating polarization and distrust as opposing perspectives are assumed to stand against a positive value or in favor of a negative motive.

I lay out my argument in three parts. First, I introduce five key criteria for evaluating quality public engagement. As with most wicked problems, an individual case can be made for the importance of each of these criteria, and when considered separately, each is highly valued by most people. The issue, unfortunately, is that these five criteria do not fit together very well, and natural tensions arise as we work to fulfill them, forcing us to make tough choices or find creative ways to transcend those tensions. Part two of this essay highlights some key tensions that are critical to consider between and within these criteria. The more we recognize these tensions and put them on the table as natural tensions that cannot be resolved but can certainly be managed better, the more our public engagement efforts will thrive. In the conclusion, I offer initial arguments for strategies to negotiate these tensions with a particular focus on the potential that arises when building community capacity to address the tensions in the long-term and with creativity.

Five Criteria for Quality Public Engagement

The five criteria I offer for quality public engagement are: (1) significant overall participation, (2) well-informed participants, (3) representative participants, (4) deliberative processes that allow for sufficient interaction and learning among participants,  and (5) efficiency in terms of use of resources, especially time. The first criterion simply assumes that a basic goal of engagement efforts is high numbers of participants. The more people involved the better. In general, the higher percentage of the public actively involved in a decision is seen as an inherent positive, and lack of participation raises concerns of a loud minority being given too much power. Overall, decisions are often seen as more legitimate—though this assumption will be challenged based on some of the other criteria – when participation is broad, and more people are engaged.

The second criterion highlights the goal that those participating in public engagement are sufficiently informed on the topic at hand. One of the enduring arguments against democracy is that too often the masses are uninformed, therefore engagement is problematic. Generally, the more informed participants can be, the more likely the process and the decision will be of higher quality. This criterion is usually pursued in one of two ways: engaging an already informed audience or spending the time to better inform participants. In a way, representative democracy is a mechanism of democracy that foregrounds this criterion, assuming a small group that can focus on policy and build up their knowledge will support better decision-making than the masses.

Many boards and commissions are similarly situated, either attracting members that are already informed on the topic at hand, or simply having enough draw on members’ time to allow for a sufficient learning curve. Other engagement processes may also target key informed participants to be a part of a special temporary task force or ad hoc commission. For more general public engagement efforts, designers must always consider how much time should be spent during a process to provide a baseline of information for participants to better prepare them for the engagement and sufficiently support the goal of informed participants (while recognizing time spent presenting to the participants means less time listening to them).

The third key criterion is perhaps the one that is currently the most contested and in flux in many communities, and therefore the most in need of careful consideration. A key factor of democratic legitimacy is whether engagement processes are authentically inclusive and those who are engaged in a process are sufficiently representative of the community. Representation can take numerous forms, including but not limited to geography, race, ethnicity, income levels, age, occupation, gender, and, based on the issue, more specific categories (for a process on housing, for example, representation would be sought in terms of key stakeholders such as landlords, renters, homeowners, developers, those experiencing homelessness, etc.). Overall, representativeness is concerned with democratic legitimacy and hearing the voice of the public as a check on the voices of the powerful or the usual suspects, while also recognizing “the public” is not a single entity and is actually made up of numerous interacting publics, groups, and individuals.

The fourth criterion of deliberative processes connects to concerns about the quality of the engagement, both in terms of the experience and the information collected. Matt Leighninger and Tina Nabatchi’s distinction between “thick” and “thin” engagement in their book Public Engagement for 21st Century Democracy is particularly relevant here. Thin engagement primarily focuses on providing participants a chance to submit their opinions, which can be accomplished through a survey, email, or conventional forms of engagement such as public hearings or citizen comment. Thicker engagement, however, calls for more time, more interaction, and more effort on the part of participants and hosts. Thicker engagement shifts from mere participant input to genuine opportunities for mutual understanding, learning, creativity, and, ultimately, co-creation. Deliberative engagement processes, for example, often rely on small groups, carefully framed and balanced briefing materials, trained impartial facilitators, and processes designed for depth rather than speed. The rub, of course, is such features require significant time, resources, and capacity to do well.

The fifth criterion brings forth a traditional value within public administration – efficiency. Here the focus is on the appropriate use of key resources, both for government entities and the public. Resources here involve tangible costs, but perhaps the most relevant resource is time. Staff time is limited, but even more importantly the public’s time must be considered a precious resource and always used well.

Identifying the Tensions

Now that these five criteria have been laid out, we can work to identify some of the inherent tensions that exist between them. I highlight three in particular. Many inherent tensions are captured within the aforementioned distinction between thin versus thick engagement. Thin engagement can often be efficient and still engage high numbers of participants. Surveys and polls in particular can capture a broad range of voices – and, with random samples, can also generally do well on representativeness, though with an added financial cost – but fall short in terms of ensuring informed engagement or providing quality interaction and learning opportunities.

Polls struggle to distinguish between informed, uninformed, or misinformed voices, and can generally only capture existing beliefs and assumptions rather than work to refine opinions, spark creativity, and build civic trust. Thick processes, on the other hand, are more likely to fulfill the goals of engaging an informed audience (either by focusing on them or having the time to inform them as part of the process) and providing a more meaningful experience. Those goals, however, come at the expense of efficiency and high participation numbers. Thick processes, especially when they rely on facilitated small groups, can also naturally struggle with representativeness. They can potentially approach representativeness overall in the room, but small groups are inherently limited in terms of diversity.

Pursuing representativeness brings forth internal tensions that call for deeper engagement, and, if left unexplored, can lead to significant miscommunication and frustration. Tensions between equal and equitable representation are also now actively debated by engagement practitioners and scholars. Some argue that the goal should be equal representation, in that numbers that match broader demographics should be the ultimate goal. Unfortunately, such perfectly equal representation is in many ways an unreachable ideal. Even if a process closely matches broader demographic percentages, whether those demographic categories were the most appropriate and whether those who participated are the best representatives for those groups can always be questioned. Arguments can be made for oversampling certain populations that have either historically been marginalized or whose perspectives are typically left out.

Growing concerns about equity in public processes similarly call for going beyond equal representation and working proactively to provide genuine access to certain voices (as one example, providing stipends and measures such as child-care to insure more diverse economic engagement). As many public engagement practitioners would attest, the convening work of engaging broad, representative audiences is perhaps the most difficult and time consuming aspect of public engagement, revealing a clear tension between representativeness and efficiency. Developing the relationships and community networks that enable quality representation and inclusion takes significant long-term efforts. Quality inclusion often also means meeting people where they are, rather than simply inviting them to your traditional spaces, which adds additional complications and resource costs. Interestingly, while representativeness brings out some tension, it also reveals some connections. For example, there is an important link between informed and representative audiences, because bringing in new voices to a process can certainly work to educate others based on the local knowledge and lived experiences that otherwise may be left out. Indeed, we must be careful not to limit our notions on “informed” audiences to a narrow sense of technical expertise.

Lastly, it is clear that the criterion of efficiency is essentially a bad fit with all the others, but nonetheless must be accounted for. Democracy in general is inherently inefficient, and high-quality democratic engagement even more so. Doing the work to garner significant numbers, adequately inform participants, ensure sufficient representation, and provide thicker opportunities all require significant ongoing effort and resources. Efficiency, however, can at times overemphasize the short-term costs and blind us to the long-term costs. As many facilitators and process experts would argue, a high-quality process may take much longer and require more resources, but if it arrives at a better, more broadly supported and perceived legitimate result, it may likely be more efficient in the long run. Quick but poor decisions can be exceedingly costly.

Moving Forward

Adopting a wicked problems mindset involves identifying the underlying values and interests, framing them in positive terms, recognizing the natural tensions between and within them, and then hopefully sparking ongoing collaborative processes to better negotiate those tensions. Since wicked problems cannot be “solved” in terms of a solution being applied that resolves the tensions for good, the best we can do is develop the ongoing capacity to engage them productively moving forward. Two significant aspects of the added value of a wicked problems lens comes from how they help us avoid simple, polarizing conversations that focus solely on one value at a time and how they may spark more productive conversations that lead to creative ways to manage the tensions.

Generally, the process of elevating the quality of public engagement in our communities will be a function of how well we can negotiate the tensions between these criteria. Moving forward is often a function of one of three broad moves:  an ongoing process of balancing between the criteria, at times prioritizing certain criteria while recognizing the inherent tradeoffs to that prioritization and working to mitigate any fallout, and ideally when possible transcending the tensions through innovation and creativity. Different situations will call for different efforts. Balancing is the typical response, essentially an ongoing process of working to avoid any criteria or value either dominating too much or being left behind. Prioritization is critical when current processes are sufficiently out of balance and in need of recalibration and thus a significant shift.

For many communities, growing recognition of the importance of more equitable and representative engagement—particularly in terms of reaching out to traditionally marginalized voices and audiences that conventional engagement efforts do not adequately reach—has led to a reprioritization effort that elevated that criteria, often at the expense of efficiency. Similarly, as the value of thicker deliberative processes becomes more evident, particularly in light of the growing polarization and distrust in public institutions, that criteria likely warrants more focus as well. Such shifts, however, must still be made in the broader context of all the criteria, otherwise an ongoing process of overcorrecting can occur.

In the long term, working to find creative ways to transcend the tensions, or at least lessen their friction, is likely the most fruitful path. This can be accomplished through long-term capacity building, experience, and innovation. As communities build capacity for higher quality engagement, a virtuous cycle can often develop that naturally lessens the degree of tension between the criteria and increases the potential for transcending them. For example, participants of thicker public processes often enjoy them because they realize their value and feel more heard and respected. Over time, it is thus easier to attract larger, more informed, and more representative audiences to such events. One of the positive consequences to the COVID19 pandemic is that many residents are more comfortable and equipped to engage online and new tools are being developed to better engage online, resulting in significantly lower costs of engagement perhaps without as substantial a drop in quality.

As local governments take engagement more seriously, they must recognize the need for quality engagement to be an overall community effort, rather than simply a government responsibility. Wicked problems cannot be managed well without broad collaborative efforts across public, private, and nonprofit sectors. Each genuine effort to build relationships and connections with diverse audiences should make the next effort less burdensome. As relationships develop with diverse community organizations and key champions are identified to assist with the ongoing process of negotiating the tensions, overall capacity for quality engagement escalates. Of particular importance is the development of bridging or mediating institutions, community organizations that are explicitly focused on bringing people together across perspectives in productive ways, thus assisting with several criteria simultaneously. Local governments have a strong vested interest in helping nurture such organizations.

Overall, it is clear as we experiment with thicker processes and work harder to reach diverse, representative audiences, we improve at both tasks and begin to develop and strengthen the relationships that lessen the burden and costs of future engagement efforts and lead us more naturally to managing the wicked problem of quality public engagement better and better.

In the end, as with all wicked problems, we will never fully resolve the problem and maintain a perfect balance between all the criteria. The process will always feel as if we are striving for an unreachable ideal, not unlike the Framers’ goal of seeking a “more perfect union.” Realizing that it will never be fully reachable, however, does not mean we shouldn’t pursue the ideal.

Martín Carcasson is founder and director of the Center for Public Deliberation at Colorado State University.

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