Citizens and Elected Officials: What Kind of Relationship Should There Be?

Matt Leighninger thinks the capacities of citizens have grown tremendously over the years. But one of the misalignments between having better engagement and more productive use of citizens’ capacities has been the inclination of decision makers to adopt a “child-to-adult” orientation to the public. What we need, he says, is an “adult-to-adult relationship.”


In thinking about how we create those types of relationships, former KF research assistant Jack Becker has been talking with civic leaders around the United States. He recently interviewed Matt Leighninger, the executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium (DDC), an alliance of major organizations and leading scholars working in the field of deliberation and public engagement. The DDC represents more than 50 foundations, nonprofit organizations, and universities, collaborating to support research activities and advance democratic practice in North America and around the world. Over the last 16 years, Matt has worked with public engagement efforts in more than 100 communities, in 40 states and four Canadian provinces. Matt is a senior associate for Everyday Democracy and serves on the boards of E-Democracy.Org, the National School Public Relations Association, and The Democracy Imperative.

One of topics I’ve been trying to put my finger on is civic infrastructure. When I talked with Sandy Heierbacher about this, she explained it as “the big picture of why we do this work” which she goes on to say are “the underlying systems and structures that enable people to come together to address their challenges effectively.” Betty Knighton added to this discussion by arguing that we have to do a better job at identifying where these “conversations occur naturally in our community.” Matt Leighninger, one of our fields’ many careful surveyors of community engagement practices, contributed to this conversation by tracing some of the arenas of practice and thinking about what kind of leadership it takes to foster engagement.

Jack Becker: When we think of civic infrastructure what activities are most important?

Matt Leighninger: There are official spaces set up for participation like public meetings, public hearings, advisory committees, some of which are legally required, some of which are traditional things which our governments and school systems have established. Then there are more informal or semi-formal kinds of things at the grassroots level like parent-teacher associations (PTAs), homeowners associations, labour associations, and community organizing outfits. Some of them have semi-official connections in certain situations to local governments (for example, PTAs are connected to the school) and sometimes they do not. There are other associations that people belong to in some sense but are not necessarily that participatory or are not that meaningful to them like vehicles for fundraising, rather than mediating institutions. There is a new kind of locus for engagement like online forums that are popping up around geographic interest or issue-based interest and often they are poorly connected or not connected to the official participation structures or the informal grassroots ground floor of democracy groups that are a little bit older and not so online focussed. I think these are some of the main things in terms of arenas for people that are a part of the infrastructure.

In The Civic Renewal Movement: Community Building and Democracy in the United States by Carmen Sirianni and Lewis A. Friedland (2005), the authors trace innovations in democratic engagement by looking at various arenas of practice, such as urban planning, health, and education, among others. How do you see engagement in these arenas of practice?

They all have taken somewhat different paths in different issue areas and they are generally not connected at all with one another. So, within land use and planning, we see it is driven to a large extent by increasingly tense confrontations between residents and planners and residents and the local officials or developers around various kinds of land use decisions. I see one of the motivating factors of increased engagement being the desire to avoid the screaming-match type of meetings. With health, it’s more driven by the data and the realization that the social determinants of health and the way people live is in many ways much more influential as far as their health plan comes in than what kind of care they get. So, healthy communities’ coalitions which started emerging 20 years ago kind of reflect that interest on how to improve health or figure out how to reduce obesity or substance abuse or promote healthier living by biking or through similar activities. With education, it is more financial than anything else. Some of it has to do with the same worries like the screaming-match meeting and also other kinds of issues like school closures, which is a definite driver of engagement of education, and financial stuff like funding, which is mainly district level and not grassroots level.

In what ways are these areas of practice being connected together?

I don’t think there’s a lot of work to connect them, and that’s a shame for all kinds of reasons. One basic one is that public participation is incredibly inefficient in the sense that it is each organization and an issue area on its own trying to engage people in those issues despite the fact that these people often have interests in a range of issues, they don’t just care about education, they care about other things too, and also because the issues themselves are interrelated (for example, healthy kids learn better and having places to live affects their health). So, it makes sense to try and think how you can achieve participation in a more holistic way that is more citizen-centred rather than the way in which we try to do it now.

What kind of thinking would that require?

I think there needs to be planning, there needs to be a new form of planning. Local level primarily, but all the other levels of government and society can benefit by this and add to it. You need to be able to have people who represent a range of sectors come together and take stock of what there is and learn from each other. The most basic step that communities can do is simply bring together people who do engagement in different arenas, who often don’t even know that they exist and don’t know each other, and have them compare notes and figure out if there are ways that they can work together. That is a very basic step that can be very helpful.

I find that every so often I experience an “a-ha” moment in life and work—a moment of clarity that legitimizes my work, compels me to act, or clarifies a problem I have been working on. Have you had any of these moments recently?

This notion about connecting games and fun with participation is definitely an important “a-ha” moment. Games are not simply a way to liven an otherwise dull process. The meaning here is kind of deeper. If you are thinking like a game designer, you’re thinking about how you are going to gratify people and if you can do that effectively, then that’s essentially the same kind of thinking that has to go into public engagement even if what you are designing is not necessarily a game. Then there is the importance of thinking about the frequency of participation and the fact that it might be better to plan things that are more frequent and regular, such as every week. In some of these online game forums, the amount of time people are spending is probably a fair amount of time and some of the tasks are quite complex, all this runs counter to the impulses engagement people have to think we have to make participation convenient for people because they have short attention spans and are very busy. I think we should spend more time questioning these assumptions.

So public participation should be gratifying and competitive like a game? That seems to really buck conventional wisdom.

Well certainly. Socializing, cultural things like food, music and drama, and cross-generational socializing, these things carry with them a basic gratification. With cross-generational socializing, for example, it’s not just that people want to hang out with the younger people, it’s actually younger people that want to hang out with the senior citizens. The cross-generational thing is actually real. Friendly competition between people should be a part of the exercises, too, because that is a motivator and people enjoy it and again, it kind of runs a little bit counter to the traditions that have gone into this field because a lot of people came into this because they cared about conflict resolution or were tired of competitive politics. And yet, competition is not necessarily a bad thing and I think it can be really productive.

One of the challenges we have in making the case for better public participation essentially boils down to a communications problem. It can take a long time to explain this work well so finding analogies that make sense to people is important. Do you have any insight into how we can do this?

Well I had a good sense after many years of doing this work about the small picture of democracy and community engagement: how you recruit people, organize meetings and facilitate them. But it wasn’t until many years after that, that I got a sense of the big picture when I was in Lakewood, Colorado, which is a suburb of Denver. I was there because residents of Lakewood had said in surveys that it was a great community. They thought that the schools and parks were good, they valued the services they were getting from the local government, everything was wonderful and yet the city budget had gone fairly deeply into the red because 9 times in the last 30 years citizens had voted down sales tax increases to maintain the same level of services. So the mayor had brought people together for a meeting to talk about this. There were various community leaders present and other citizens, and the mayor asked them what they wanted him to do, whether he should raise taxes or cut services. Somebody said, “Mayor, we like you and we think you are right for us but essentially what we have had here is an apparent child-to-adult relationship between the citizens and government, and what we need to establish is an adult-to-adult relationship.” We need more of this kind of analogy because people can relate to it.

Do you think there is recognition amongst public and elected officials that citizens want to be treated like adults, and within that, what an adult relationship looks like?

Some of them do, but a lot of them don’t. What’s difficult is that their experiences with participation are so bad. Their experiences with public engagement is three minutes on a microphone in a meeting where they don’t get anything out of it and they feel attacked and mistrusted and citizens tend not to like them. The interviews that Tina and Cynthia did a couple of years ago with state legislators and members of congress show a dark and dire picture. They had almost no ability to envision any kind of better setup and that was the most disturbing thing about that. Not only did they have all these bad experiences, they just didn’t think it was possible to have a productive conversation with a group of people.  They have some conversations with citizens in the grocery store or somewhere public but other than that they have no good interactions with citizens.

But they do want to have more positive interactions with citizens, right?

Yes, if you push them on they would probably propose this kind of adult-to-adult framework and they would resonate with that. But not only do they have a hard time envisioning what it would look like, they also on many cases don’t think that it is even possible.

You’ve contributed to this work about “making public participation legal.” I think most people’s reaction is to say, “I didn’t know it was illegal.” But actually, as you point out, it’s not particularly clear what forms of participation are explicitly authorized, and many officials are afraid to take chances with forms of participation other than the conventional public hearing.

It’s not true that all participation is legal, of course, but I think part of the point that we are making in that work is that it is often unclear as to what is legal because of how outdated and how generic many laws are about the legal ways to get input from people. So, to some extent yes, there are some mandates for participation processes that don’t work. So the Budget Control Act is one example that people always point to saying the Act compels them to do certain forms of bad participation. The more common problem is not the mandate issue but is simply a lack of clarity about what is allowed and what isn’t, particularly when it comes to anything related to the Internet because most of the laws don’t really take the Internet into account. I think part of the dynamic here is that citizens’ capacities and expectations have gone way up, one way that manifests itself is that people are more litigious and so therefore people are suing their governments and other institutions at a higher rate, and other institutions are spending more money defending themselves and limiting their liabilities. As a part of that whole dynamic, the legal people inside public institutions are more powerful than ever before.

So it sounds like one of the basic trade-off calculations officials are making is about innovating in the public square and playing it safely as to not get sued. What are some other basic trade-offs you see elected officials wrestling with?

The most basic trade-off is that it is time intensive, staffing intensive, and for a short-term gain, it is often not feasible. Part of what is going to happen is that public officials and other decision makers are going to be willing to seed choices to citizens. One of the scenarios is that in exchange for votes, public officials and other people basically say, “You get the say on this,” and that’s a bargain that would work on both sides. It brings with it all kinds of dangers.

One of the basic threads of this conversation is that in some places, some of the time, some people are deciding to take a chance and do something different. That sounds like leadership, and it makes sense, you need somebody who is willing to initiate all this. So what does leadership look like among people who do engagement work?

Well, there are different kinds of levels and sets of people here. I think locally, you have to have people who have a stake in the community and are willing to take a long view, like community foundations, universities, public officials, city managers. Also, there are people who are more on the citizen side of the spectrum like longtime community organizers or chambers of commerce. It is not like they are the people who would come up with a plan all alone, but part of the whole challenge here is in involving regular people and envisioning the community that they want in terms of infrastructure and not just the environment.

Do you think there’s a portrait of a “civic leader”?

Well as you pointed out before, it has a lot to do with the willingness and the skill to engage. From so many of these leadership roles, we continue to prepare people and give people the expectation that they are going to be experts or representatives or both. And when they get into these roles, people find out that they cannot just do those things. You cannot just be an expert or just be a representative because the citizens don’t want that. Citizens want to be heard. So there’s a great deal of surprise from experts and officials as to how great citizens’ expectations are. When I first started work with officials I thought it was all going to be an intellectual thing like tools and reports and stuff like that. We got to those kinds of things, but the first thing was group therapy. We were all talking about why they were elected by their peers to make decisions on their behalf and three months into their first term everyone was screaming at them and they did not know why. So there is a major expectation shift and therefore an educational shift.

Not to count short the many citizens, communities, organizations, and public officials doing good work, but it seems like there’s a fairly small group of leaders involved in thinking about and convening this level of high quality engagement. Have you been able to work with the other leaders in the field successfully?

Yes, it is a pretty small group of people and we’ve known each other for a long time in most cases. So it is pretty congenial, and it seems like there are only a few groups. We try to support each other, and they try to convene meetings where people kind of try to compare notes, which is really good. The National Dialogue for Mental Health has been a great step forward, and it has been an actual project where people have been sort of forced to work together. You get one level of understanding of somebody by reading/hearing about it, but you get a whole advanced level of understanding where you actually have to do it together with them. But I think that’s still a very small step, and part of what we need to be doing is working more intensively with local leaders and spend more time trying to work with different kinds of organizations than with groups specifically involved in the engagement field. There is a whole new category of groups that have come along as a part of the civic infrastructure.

Jack Becker is a former Kettering Foundation research assistant. He currently works for Denver Public Schools Office of Family and Community Engagement. He can be reached at Follow him on twitter: @jackabecker