The current popularity of “engagement” provides an opportunity to question core values and rethink how institutions connect with and involve constituents in their work. As journalist John Herrman writes in “Tech is Eating the Media. Now What?,” newspapers are rethinking the value of paper as a mode of distribution, as well as the general purpose and function of disseminating news.8 Public-sector institutions of all sorts are questioning how they represent, organize and mobilize communities.9 Both locally and nationally, they are wondering how they can open up, be more responsive and accountable while addressing their constituents’ needs and providing them with information, services and regulation. In effect, ‘business as usual’ for city governments is no longer an option.
“Pressures to change are coming from all levels within government, but often the mandates are abstract calls for “better public engagement,” with little practical guidance as to how to do it.”
Pressures to change are coming from all levels within government, but often the mandates are abstract calls for “better public engagement,” with little practical guidance as to how to do it. Over the last several years, there have been multiple offices of public engagement launched in the United States, cabinet level positions for it, and a smattering of new initiatives. In 2009, President Obama renamed the White House Liaison Office to Office of Public Engagement, with the expressed mission of being the “front door to the White House.”10 In 2015, the federal government’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau created the Division of Consumer Engagement and Education. But often these offices operate in isolation with no authority to impact programmatic work. It is imperative that government figure out ways of incorporating engagement practices into the everyday functioning of government.
Just as there are many ways of engaging the public, there are many ways of organizing the work of public engagement within city government--from a highly distributed model where each department is tasked separately with creating and running a process, to a more centralized model where one office oversees all of a city’s work. The City of Albuquerque, for example, does not have an Office of Engagement. Rather than a centralized agency, all departments are tasked with creating and integrating new policies that reflect a broader push to promote public engagement across different sectors of society. According to Frank Mirabal, “really what we’re trying to do is embed innovation [in public engagement] throughout city government.” On the other hand, in the City of Seattle, the Office of Neighborhoods works across different departments to assure that each is appropriately responsive to neighborhoods when addressing such issues as public policy and operating in complex environments. This centralized model has its challenges, however, as there is considerable coordination required in the sharing of objectives, information and authority. Centrally driven policies also require infrastructure, resources and ongoing political commitment. Yet, at the same time, centralization may offer greater accountability and consolidated reporting for government as a whole. Whatever approach is chosen, centralized or distributed, it is important that the decision about organizational structure be deliberate and justified.
Things to Keep in Mind
- Institutions are facing increased pressures to adapt to new modes of communication and to be more responsive to their constituents.
- There is a national trend of integrating public engagement practices and policies within government, though there are numerous ways of structuring related agencies, activities, and process.
8 John Herman, Tech Is Eating Media. Now What?, Medium, https://medium.com/@jwherrman/tech-is-eating-media-now-what-807047ad4ede#.ooigvftlt. November 9th, 2015 (Accessed November 8th, 2016)
9 See the work of the MobLab at Greenpeace, “Mobilisation Lab for Greenpeace and it's Allies”: http://www.mobilisationlab.org/, accessed October 5th, 2016
10 The White House under President Barack Obama. https://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ope/about-archived (Accessed November 8, 2016)