INTERVIEW: Tina Nabatchi & Matt Leighninger on 21st Century Public Participation

Tina Nabatchi and Matt Leighninger have helped shape public participation methods and thinking for a number of years. Already collaborators in assembling Democracy in Motion: Evaluating the Practice and Impact of Deliberative Civic Engagement (2012), they’ve now teamed up to author Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy (2015). The book offers a wealth of guidance and case studies about public participation, offering actionable insights about how citizens can get more involved as well as the struggles they face. Former Kettering research assistant Jack Becker recently spoke with Tina and Matt about their new book and what KF can learn from it.

Jack Becker: Why did you write this book and for whom do you hope it will be helpful?

Tina Nabatchi: When we looked at the available teaching materials, we found there weren’t many useful textbooks on public participation for use in the classroom. We’ve tried to assemble a book that instructors can use in their classes. This was an opportunity to fill that gap from a teaching perspective.

Matt Leighninger: We also found there was nothing comprehensive to help us think about how to sustain public participation in the community. We hope the book will be just as useful to people in academic settings as people in communities. If our classrooms and communities are learning two different sets of knowledge about public participation, it’s a problem. Communities will not be learning what they need to know, and people in the classroom will not find what’s applicable.

Jack: How do you define public participation?

Tina: Public participation is an umbrella term that describes the activities by which people’s concerns, needs, interests, and values are incorporated into decisions and actions on public matters and issues. As the book’s name implies, this book is about emerging, innovative public participation methods in the 21st century. We are primarily concerned with participation methods other than conventional forms. Conventional forms of participation reinforce the status quo, strengthen predetermined agendas, allow little discussion outside of the agenda, and are typically easy to disrupt. Even the physical layouts of conventional participation processes reinforce power disparities!

These conversational approaches don’t help us improve our infrastructure. To improve public participation, we have identified five things that need to happen:

  1. Give good processes! Treat citizens like adults.
  2. Understand thick and thin participation and how to combine them. This goes beyond conventional forms of participation.
  3. Empower and activate participation leaders.
  4. Assemble the building blocks of participation.
  5. Provide systemic supports.

Jack: Did you confront significant challenges in reconciling research and practice in your writing?

Matt: It wasn’t as much a challenge in reconciling research and practice. It was a challenge to decide what research and case studies to synthesize and present in the book. The challenge became, how do we lay out the challenges and opportunities of public participation and lay it out in a way that is useful in the classroom as well as to practitioners in their communities?

Jack: In the book you discuss the failing infrastructure of the public square. What evidence is there for a “failing infrastructure”?

Tina: The evidence is both academic and witnessed in practice, and we see it in many facets of our infrastructure: legal, governmental, civic, electoral, and educational. The research on conventional approaches to public participation, such as the town hall meeting, shows conventional methods don’t lead to much satisfaction on the part of elected officials or the public. They don’t contribute to improving public action around issues or addressing public problems.

We know in practice that these meetings are sometimes intense and hostile, and that other times people don’t show up. We can identify lots of issues, whether racial and ethnic tensions, education, health, or other areas, where more and better participation can be useful. When you consider how conventional methods of engagement are such a salient part of our civic infrastructure, you have to consider that the public square is struggling.

Matt: There are many public meetings where participation methods are crummy. Astoundingly, it often seems like the more important the meeting, the worse the meeting! At one end of the scale there is a growing distrust between institutions and the people they serve. This rise in distrust has led also to the rise of additional outlets for public participation.

However, what we have seen is that when public participation is done well, it is often done well on a temporary basis. These temporary participation strategies don’t have a long-term impact on institutional distrust because they are event based. To build a better participation infrastructure, we lay out several important steps in the book: empower and activate participation leaders and networks; assemble participation building blocks; and provide systemic supports.

Jack: Can you talk about the participation building blocks you lay out in the book? How do the building blocks help sustain public participation methods?

Tina: We lay out six participation building blocks: disseminating information; gathering input and data; discussing and connecting; enabling small-scale decision making; enabling large-scale decision making; and encouraging public work. These are broad categories of techniques and tactics to think about public participation in broad and comprehensive ways. Public participation should be about opportunities for people to connect on decision making at the political scale. Public participation is about people taking responsibility. When we reframe public participation to think about these categories, we move away from one-off processes and events to think about building sustained infrastructure.

Jack: You mentioned the importance of thick and thin forms of participation that go beyond conventional forms of participation. What is thick and thin participation?

Matt: Conventional forms are the most common and likely forms of participation. This is the traditional “three minutes at the microphone” sort of meeting.

Thick forms of engagement started more or less 20 years ago and are about empowerment of the small group. They use deliberation, dialogue, and other forms of meaningful discussion to learn, decide, and act.

Thin forms of engagement enable individuals, often in large numbers, to express their ideas, affiliate with a cause, donate a little money, or identify a public problem. The Internet has expanded these opportunities dramatically.

Jack: In your book you have four chapters dedicated to “participation in action.” These chapters cover participation in education, health, planning and land use, and state and federal government. What was most compelling about those areas of public participation?

Tina: These are three areas that have huge impacts on personal lives, including the health and well being of communities. There has been a lot of innovation in these areas, but there’s room for improvement. We could add many more chapters about a variety of realms: budgeting, finance, policing, and other areas, but these three areas seemed particularly important. We also have a chapter on participation in state and federal government, since most of the examples we use elsewhere in the book are at the local level.

Matt: The changes we’re seeing in these areas are driven in large part by a change in mentality. Basically, you’ve got people who are less willing to be governed and better able to take part in governance—and that brings with it both challenges and opportunities. The institutions of the 20th century are not capable of offering what people want. It’s up to all of us to improve them.

Tina Nabatchi is an associate professor of public administration and international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University. The author of numerous book chapters, monographs, research reports, and white papers, her research focuses on citizen participation, collaborative governance, and conflict resolution.

Matt Leighninger is the director of public engagement at Public Agenda and the former executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, an alliance of organizations and leading scholars in the field of deliberation and public participation. With 20 years in the field, he has worked with public engagement efforts in more than 100 communities, 40 states, and 4 Canadian provinces.           

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