Politicians & Public Participation — Tackling a Quintessential Design Problem

For a few weeks in September, we had the pleasure of hosting a visiting undergraduate student, Jillian Gilburne, who is a senior at Northwestern University studying political science, communication studies, and human-centered design. In an effort to better understand what motivates local officials to take on the challenge of achieving equitable, representative public engagement, Jillian came to Oregon to interview civil servants across a handful of cities that we have interacted with in the past.

As she wrapped up her stint in Oregon, Jillian shared her thoughts on the research process and the importance of deliberation in her blog post, titled “Politicians & Public Participation — Tackling A Quintessential Design Problem.” 

Since starting university as a devout political communications major — a lot has happened. I interned for a freshman Democratic Senator during Donald Trump’s first presidential summer, in the Scottish Parliament and the British Consulate during Brexit deliberations, and the Evanston City Clerk’s Office during a period of intense Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) drama.

So, you can trust me when I say that I know what it looks like when communications within political institutions break down — rumors get spread, egos are dented, and progress is halted.

Through my search for a response to the bureaucratic malfunction that I kept encountering, I became acquainted with the concept of deliberative democracy and, subsequently, the Healthy Democracy organization itself.  

The Healthy Democracy commitment to giving people the space, time, and support to collectively unpack and weigh the complexities of statewide issues seemed like the ideal response to a political climate dominated by distrust. So naturally, I wanted to support their goal of going local. 

Due to the rich history of research about deliberative processes, we already have a lot of data that proves how effective deliberations are — citizens’ juries and otherwise — at increasing political agency and understanding. But I wanted to learn more about the motivations and concerns of the elected officials and city staff who allow these new forms of public engagement to happen. What does good public engagement look like to them? What might drive their skepticism of the Healthy Democracy model?  

What followed was three weeks of interviews that revealed how complicated equitable public engagement can be regardless of good intentions. Not the most enlightening of revelations, I know. 

What is clear, however, is that the broken cycle of engagement at the local level is a classic design problem. When members of the public insist that they have been left out of a planning process, city officials often respond by asking how they can improve. However, decades of behavioral economics research indicate that this seemingly logical step is doomed from the beginning. Because there is usually a difference between our words and our behavior, the result of this well-intentioned inquiry is that the public demands that notices be put in the newsletter, which they aren’t actually reading. And thus, the cycle of mutual frustration continues. 

I fully acknowledge that the challenge of adapting local democracy to keep up with the needs and expectations of the public is tremendously complex. But, I have been incredibly appreciative of the learning experience, and I do hope that my findings will give organizations that advocate for new methods of public engagement, like Healthy Democracy, a better understanding of what might influence a local decision-maker’s reaction to their pitch. 

As my time in Portland comes to a close, I would like to thank the Healthy Democracy team for their hospitality and their noble commitment to rebuilding trust in democracy. And I look forward to working with them again in the future.