As posted on Cairns:

Our last day began with a panel of elected politicians discussing the role of civic engagement in their work. Listening to their experiences and comments, I was struck by how much of the burden of civic engagement seems to be laid at their feet. We (citizens, political observers, even engagement practitioners) are so used to seeing representative politics as the locus of decision-making that we too often frame the challenge of civic engagement in terms of improving citizen-politician dialogue, or increasing participation in the big-p Political process.

But focusing on established political challenges limits our participatory efforts in very profound ways. First , it turns elected officials into a participatory bottleneck: we have only as many channels for engagement as we have elected officials. Second, it freights the participatory challenge with all the institutional, cultural and political baggage that constrains elected officials themselves: the incentives for structuring participation through established channels, like parliamentary committees; the disincentives for institutional innovation; the necessity of keeping processes tidy enough for media consumption.

Even more problematic, this focus on elected officials as the participatory gatekeepers limits citizens to a relatively brief participatory moment. When you look at the full story of policy formulation and program delivery, the process parliamentary or congressional consideration is actually just a short (if crucial) chapter. The process can begin with the emergence of a social problem or the observation of a policy shortcoming; it evolves into the identification and delineation of a specific policy-making challenge; someone has to get that challenge onto the policy agenda, and perhaps that person would then be part of a larger team that decides on a menu of policy choices. Elected officials might be involved in outlining or narrowing that menu, in (hopefully!) engaging citizens in discussing the choices outlined, and then in reaching a final decision. From there the cycle continues into the process of specifying mechanisms for implementation, finding appropriate resources, deploying resources, monitoring implementation, evaluation success, and identifying and shortcomings. And perhaps the cycle begins anew.

The moment when the policy cycle intersects with the electoral system is not only a relatively brief part of the overall cycle, but also one that precludes some of the most useful elements of citizen engagement. Citizens, community members, stakeholders are often in the best position to identify problems that need to be addressed (and often, are the starting point for policy formulation). They can play a crucial role in getting an issue onto the public agenda, and in identifying the appropriate range of policy options (and indeed, can not be said to be true partners in policymaking unless they can play a role in the agenda-setting process).

More important, they need to be part of the implementation process. Carolyn Lukensmeyer talked about participatory decision-making as a way of creating a political constituency for change (see my notes on day 1); that constituency can be a powerful resource (in terms of knowledge, effort, and outreach) when it comes to implementing a policy decision. For that to happen, citizen participation will need to become a part of bureaucratic culture as well as of political culture. Focusing on participation as a project of elected officials overlooks the important work that civil servants can (and often do!) do in partnering with citizens and community groups throughout the implementation process.

And that’s just looking at government. Comparable policy and program delivery cycles exist in the non-profit and business cycles. Businesses in particular may describe the parts of their cycle a little differently – talking about R&D, product development, and customer fulfillment – but they face many of the same issues around customer input, community engagement, and customer satisfaction. Focusing on participation as a characteristic of electoral politics obscures the important commonalities between engagement in the public, private, and non-profit sectors, and diminishes our opportunities to learn from one another’s experiences.