“Take a look around, then, and see that none of the uninitiated are listening. Now by the uninitiated I mean the people who believe in nothing but what they can grasp in their hands, and who will not allow that action or generation or anything invisible can have real existence.” —Plato, Theaetetus
Listening requires attention to what is said and what is unsaid. It is not simply taking things in, but taking the time to understand who is speaking and how to respond. For government, this means building into every engagement process a deliberate mechanism of thoughtful communication, composed of two interrelated parts: speaking and listening. When either or both of these parts is unclear or ineffective, the system breaks down. And when any change is made to the system at any level, all other levels are impacted.12 As such, it is government’s responsibility to invest in both parts of the system--one cannot listen if the other is unable to articulate their voice. And one feels no desire to speak if the other is incapable or unwilling to listen.
The process of a group of people articulating a coherent position is never straightforward. This is what makes communities so complicated. All communities are imagined. They are constructs that people create together for the purpose of narrative clarity. This doesn’t mean they’re not real or that they don’t have emotional significance, it only means that every community is bounded by a changing collective story. The historian Benedict Anderson identified the “nation” as an imagined community emerging in the 19th century that came together through media such as newspapers and then radio, and was reinforced through political discourse and everyday conversations.13 But this works on a smaller scale as well. Every group of people comprised of a number greater than the Dunbar number (which is the suggested cognitive limit of the number of social relations one can reasonably keep in their head), is a narrative construct, an imagined group of people. The block, the neighborhood, the ethnic identity, one’s (non-geographically bound) Facebook friends--these are all imagined communities with whom government is trying to communicate. So when we talk about engaging communities, we are talking about government positioning itself as a willing listener to the myriad ways in which communities express and identify themselves. In fact, it is the responsibility of government to enable that every community have equal access and capacity to express themselves.
Community Organizations The official organizations or groups that represent the whole or parts of the community. This includes neighborhood associations, community development corporations, advocacy organizations, etc. This is their job to amplify a representation of a community that is imaginable.
Neighborhood Leaders The individual activists that may or may not be part of community organizations. These people have significant influence on the narrative that comes to define any community.
Broadcast Media Representations The external representations of the community, including print, television, radio, or any broad depiction of a community or condition. It’s important to understand that these representations are often not created internally, and they may or may not be desirable representations inside the community.
Social Media Representations The online conversations on social media platforms that may or may not emerge from within the community. i.e. they likely involve people from geographically diverse areas. That said, these conversations typically favor youth voices, and they are valuable, emergent narratives of any community.
Everyday Conversations The conversations that happen everyday in cafes, front porches, sidewalks, schools, etc. This is where narratives get amplified, consolidated, and perpetuated.
The above table represents just some of the channels in which communities are imagined. What’s common across channels is the use of story and the need for compelling narrative to create collective, community identities. Story creation is not a static and linear process. As the acclaimed French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard said, “A story should have a beginning, middle and end, but not necessarily in that order.” This applies directly to local communities as they find ways to represent themselves, for the purpose of advocating for local causes, or more generally, for the purpose of inclusion and justice. Understanding how and why communities tell stories is foundational to good listening.
But there are barriers that interfere with effective storytelling. While government needs to understand what makes a good story and how people are telling them, it also needs to understand the social and structural barriers people face every day as they try to tell their stories. Some examples include:
Interpersonal and Societal Barriers
Personal People are comfortable in different situations. Some feel comfortable standing up and speaking in front of a crowd at a town hall meeting, while others wouldn’t dream of doing that. Some are available for a weeknight meeting, while others have other work or personal obligations, or just wouldn’t prioritize going to a meeting.
Racism, sexism, ageism, classism Every community is impacted by some bias and exclusion. In fact, all communities are exclusive. Political boundaries define neighborhoods, cities, nations; physical or cultural characteristics define sub-cultures, ethnicities. The challenge is to be aware of explicit exclusion and implicit bias, and take measures to recognize them and in some cases act to correct them. Cultural critic bell hooks put it this way: “To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.”14
Reduced Access to Media Representations (Lack of Social Capital) Poor neighborhoods are covered by the media to highlight violence, rarely to highlight progress and innovation. It is important to recognize media bias in how, when, and why communities represent themselves.
Reduced Access to Technology Mobile phone penetration in the US is extremely high (64% of Americans own smartphones). According to the Pew Research Center, 10% of Americans own a smartphone and do not have access to broadband in their homes. “Those with relatively low income and educational attainment levels, younger adults, and non-whites are especially likely to be ‘smartphone-dependent.’”15 This is an important consideration when trying to understand appropriate channels for communication.
Reduced Access to Government Services Accessing government services at City Hall or online can be restricted based on time, transportation, or technology.
When thinking about the challenge of enabling and recognizing a cross section of community voices, government needs to consider the available channels to generate high levels of interest as well as ways to overcome the social and structural barriers that impede citizen participation. In addition, government should understand its role as power broker and strategically amplify community voices when appropriate. Ariel White from New Orleans explains how since the voice of the government carries authority and power, it can create momentum and sense of urgency needed to generate attention, action and change: “Without the local support of the main power structure, it’s really difficult to get anything done. Direct messaging from an organization that is respected like the Health Department, or one that has a big platform, like the Mayor, really makes a difference.”
Yet, understanding where voices are emerging, and what’s impeding their potential vocalization, may be challenging. For instance, sociological, economic, and psychological variables may all come into play and interact with one another to operate as barriers. Thus, understanding what and where voices are synchronized or disharmonized is probably the most difficult part of calibrating the instruments for public engagement. Moreover, acting as a power broker to amplify voices requires absolute transparency in motivation and process to ensure fairness and accountability. Implicit in the inclusion of more voices in civic affairs is also networking and collaboration. Oliver Wise, Director of the Office of Performance and Accountability in New Orleans emphasized how engaging a broad diversity of the community has created new opportunities to foster social ties among marginalized communities, which then increased their capacity to accomplish tasks and goals: “The Mayor urges us to link, leverage, and facilitate. Each one of our groups has its value-add, but not one group could do this work by itself.” As such, voice is also about connecting people to one another, and to their communities, as they exchange information and work together. It is also about leveraging resources to amplify the needs and abilities of underrepresented groups, and facilitating feedback, response, and accountability to community needs and input. On this note, it is important to pay people for their time when the resources exist. If you’re asking someone to take time out of their day, consider compensating them for their time. This can make all the difference in a project and in level of commitment. Only when people are treated fairly, and voice is the reflection of growth of leadership at different levels, can the government truly listen in an intentional way that enables two-way learning and empowerment.
Things to Keep in Mind
- Government needs to invest in providing opportunities for citizen input and feedback.
- Government should be aware of the various channels constituents use to communicate and exchange information.
- Government can strategically amplify marginalized voices and leverage storytelling for social change by identifying and addressing the systemic barriers that many constituents face, and acting as a broker to foster social ties in the process.
Empowering communities to form, express and retain voice is essential. But if government doesn’t listen to that voice, it can often lack the power to move from vision to results. In the process of listening, Chris LeDantec from the City of Atlanta reflected on the power of simply acknowledging existing community conversations and activities that can further spur and sustain modes of engagement: “Government should amplify the work that’s already happening within the community instead of trying to either recreate it or even overthink it. And part of that is building good faith. For example, there’s a community newspaper that we’re working on with a group of people to help reanimate, which served a really important function in the overall engagement equation or ecosystem. Maybe we previously tried to get our bearings in a way that obscured some of these obvious insights.”
Like many other large institutions, government isn’t very good at listening. Usually this isn’t because it doesn’t want to take constituent input under consideration, but because its political and technological structures are not adequately designed to do so. Frank Mirabal with the City of Albuquerque highlighted this point when describing the City’s poor listening skills: “ [There is] no feedback loop present to engage the community and get their opinions on what might work for them. That paradigm shift has slowly started to happen.”
Still, even if the importance of listening gains more of the limelight , the capacity of organizations to effectively do so is being challenged. This is especially true in the wake of changing digital technologies and social realities. As traditional community input is changing from a few voices in a high school gymnasium to thousands of voices online, most government units simply don’t know how to make sense of this new data windfall. What’s more, because data is increasingly taking digital form and recorded and archived online, there is a renewed pressure on government to be transparent in the process of listening.
Indeed, listening to dozens of voices is different than listening to thousands of voices, in the way information is taken in, processed and exchanged. Listening to a group of people in a room requires different technology and different capacity than listening to tweets with a common hashtag. What listening in both situations has in common, however, is the need to acknowledge that a voice was heard and that the voice had substance. For example, when two people are speaking to each other in the same room, the listener will often make eye contact, nod, or use some other verbal cue like “uh huh, or “yah” as the speaker is speaking. Then, if all goes well, the listener will respond to the substance of what was said. Likewise, when government sets out to listen, it needs to do two things: 1) perform that it is listening, and then 2) provide feedback that that was indeed the case. Both are matters of designing good user experience (UX). Whether designing a public meeting or software, government needs to consider all the places where feedback happens.
There are many ways that government can show that it is listening. But each situation is going to be different, depending on the nature of the community and the technologies / processes involved. In every case, it is important to be aware of how the speaker receives immediate feedback. Here are some tips in both face-to-face and online settings.
Online and Offline Tactics for Listening
- Show that notes are being taken and then share with participants afterwards.
- Consider setting up chairs in the round, so participants can see each other.
- Provide a range of methods for people to express themselves, from plenary conversation, to group report-backs, and notes on stickies.
- Frame meetings as problem-solving sessions, where people collaborate towards some clearly defined goal.
- Invest in translators for the three most commonly spoken languages.
- Create archives of civic data. Many cities have open data portals, in addition to national efforts such as the National Neighborhood Indicators Project. The accessibility of data is the first step to making it useful.
- Create clear feedback mechanisms in digital communication channels that simply acknowledge that an action was taken. Whether a comment, a click, or a like, the system needs to be responsive, otherwise the action feels meaningless.
- Have an unobtrusive presence on social media. Provide useful information so that people feel comfortable following you or joining groups.
- Take time to visualize large data sets. Clear, thoughtful data visualizations, communicate that data is being acknowledged.
- Use plain language. (See similar tips and resources at 18F)
The above table provides a sample of methods for the performance of listening. There are two things worth noting here. First, the performance of listening does not mean disingenuous listening. Performance is part of even the most genuine process. Second, action needs to be taken to respond to and verify that listening has happened. In interpersonal conversation, after a series of “uh huhs,” it may also be necessary to respond in a way that demonstrates that the information was received AND processed. In public engagement, this could take many forms, from the summary email to the presentation at the end of a meeting. Online it could take the form of regular updates on social media, and offline, it could mean starting each successive meeting with updates from the previous one.
The most important outcome of listening is building trust. Listening only works when people trust that you are listening. The New Orleans Project Coordinator Ariel White reflected on trust-building as one of the top take-aways from the City’s engagement work so far, “[From all of our interventions], it’s really about building trust. Having somebody who’s dedicated to responding to the public, was really important. That was really a crucial aspect of it because that allows the engagee to sort of be on their own time and their own schedule, which will lead to higher rates of important and meaningful engagement.” Simply performing listening without providing clear and convincing evidence that the information was assimilated and processed, leads to distrust and eventually anger.
Providing Feedback to Constituents
- Begin each meeting with updates from previous meetings.
- Passing out or displaying data visualizations of past input.
- Document and share where meetings have already occurred and their major takeaways.
- Hold community-led house parties, with city participation.
- Send out regular summary emails detailing input from multiple channels.
- Provide regular social media updates about previous input.
- Respond to as many individual contributors online as possible.
- Have local forums with trusted neighborhood liaisons.
If acting in good faith, authentic listening is the most important aspect of effective co-production. Institutions, especially large and powerful ones such as government, are like machines that need to represent a convincing human face. Consider the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Computer scientist Alan Turing devised something called the Turing Test, which is a test to determine whether or not humans could distinguish between talking to a human or a machine.16 Indeed, machines often lack the emotional intelligence needed to convince people that they are speaking to a real person. The element of humanness in communication is not only about rational outputs, but also about the emotions and feelings that bring value to the conversation.
So instead of coming up with hard measures for effective listening, it is useful to think about a Turing Test for government. What are the subjective and emotional influences on whether and how people feel listened to? Just as Turing tested machine intelligence by measuring human subjects’ beliefs in the humanness of a conversation partner, so should government define its ability to govern by measuring citizens’ belief in the humaneness of government. Government, when operating in good faith and in the spirit of co-production, needs to take every measure to perform, and to make good, on listening to constituents.
Government should consider itself a host and conversation partner, with the responsibility to be responsive and perform effective listening so that communities can equitably imagine themselves and continuously articulate their stories through accessible channels of communication.
Things to Keep in Mind
- Governments can demonstrate their capacity to listen by acknowledging citizen input.
- Depending on the channels communities use to communicate, government should invest in the “performance of listening” by providing appropriate feedback.
- Prioritizing good listening and mode of responding builds trust, which is the foundation of public engagement.
12 Le Dantec, Christopher. 2012. “Participation and Publics: Supporting Community Engagement.” In Computer Human Interaction. files/2798/2012 Le Dantec.pdf.
13 Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities : Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.
14 bell hooks, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope
15 Aaron Smith, 2015. “US Smartphone Use in 2015” Pew Research Center. http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/01/us-smartphone-use-in-2015/
16 Turing, A.M. (1950). Computing machinery and intelligence. Mind, 59, 433-460.