Window Dressing: An adroit but superficial , or actually misleading presentation of something, designed to create a favorable impression. –

Many citizens and even public officials have confided in me about what they perceive to be a lack of authenticity behind many public engagement processes. Citizen Advisory Committees (CACs) often exist as a model for public involvement, engagement, and listening. But the truth is that many of these commonly organized civic groups have little influence when it comes to impacting the real decision making that happens at City Hall or in agencies or even non-profits.

We need to ask ourselves, have CACs become hollow spaces where information is provided, questions are answered, but no real roles are given to active citizens to govern around issues that matter to them? In my experience, CACs often fail to meet their assigned purpose. Over the years, I have heard many sad tales from citizens frustrated with poor civic process. I myself, have shared their experience and I understand how “window dressing engagement” creates feelings of cynicism, distrust or just plain discouragement.

I sat on a CAC in my city several years ago. Well-meaning, caring citizens came to the table to try to make a difference, however, little civic infrastructure existed that would help this diverse group do their civic duty. Why? We were never given the tools or civic process that would help us to develop ourselves as active citizens. We were not challenged to delve into the issues and reach mutual understanding about how to define a problem and solve it. This is step one in resolving any complex problem. Mostly, we were expected to became sponges for information that the conveners determined we needed and were then asked to provide tacit agreements on solutions already decided by the professional staff or the board.

I also became concerned about the way in which each of us was selected to be a token of a special interest group that we were to represent. This resulted in each member focusing on vested self-interests alone and not on the common good. That is where the process was most deeply flawed. Instead of governing around an issue as mature citizens that had to consider trade-offs and negative repercussions of our individual demands, we were encouraged to think in an unrealistic and selfish way in which we could complain and demand things, no matter how our own needs might affect other people.

After trying to suggest potential ways to reform the process and receiving no response, I decided to step down from the group. Others left for the same reasons. The group was left to “drift at sea” without a rudder. You might believe this was an isolated incident, but I assure you, it was/is not. CACs are notorious for these kinds of problems and ways of doing business. It is a shame, because there is so much potential in these groups to do good and to help ease the burden of work for professional staff in government, non-profits and the like.

Nothing is more valuable to people than their time, and wasting their time is a serious offense. If I come to participate in a process, I, like most people, need it to be well-structured, educational, purposeful, transparent, challenging, and something that uses my talents. I need to have a meaningful role in which I can contribute to my community and get a sense of progress.

So, what could have been done differently?  What are some ways to ensure more meaningful engagement?

  • Begin by setting a tone of “governing for the common good” and active citizenship. While self-interests are natural to have, public life does not allow everyone to get their way. We must be prepared to live in the tension of what it means to find the common good, which usually means a good deal of listening, dialogue and compromise.
  • Encourage people to come to the table as citizens, not as special interests or experts. We are all citizens. Status is not conferred by level of education, expertise or experience. We all have something to contribute. This allows all of us to see ourselves as co-creators of solutions and the future.
  • Support active citizens and civic leaders with training and coaching. Many interested citizens lack the skills to be effective organizers and leaders. Do what you can to help those that want to be more and do more.
  • Ensure that a CAC has the authority to help define the problem as well as have a role in defining solution strategies/goals.
  • Be transparent about how citizens can participate in solving a problem, something that moves beyond simple acts of volunteering. Create roles that give citizen efforts meaning and a sense of contributing and accomplishment.
  • Create a sense of accountability for contributing. If you say you want to be part of the solution, each person needs to be held accountable for what they say they will do. You can structure meetings in a way that helps to ensure accountability.
  • Ensure that the work of the CAC is tied to the work of a board and professional staff; that the CAC is directly tied to the organization’s mission – that they are helping to ensure that specific goals are met.

When people want to step up and do something constructive for the common good, let’s create civic processes that make the most of citizen skills, passions and interests, and which help organizations address important public problems. It’s a win-win for all involved.




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