Here at Mennonite Central Committee, we’ve been challenging ourselves recently to expand our understanding of public engagement. Two definitions from highly respected sources have helped us.
“a set of processes and experiences, which enable people to move from basic awareness of international development priorities and sustainable human development, through an understanding of the causes and effects of global issues, to personal involvement and informed action.”
A linear graphic would look something like this:
The CCIC guidebook continues: “It encourages their full participation in the worldwide fight against poverty and adds a global dimension to their understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, helping Canadians become global citizens.”
The focus here in some ways goes beyond the objectives of MCC’s advocacy work, as most of our public engagement efforts invite constituents to respond to their increased awareness and understanding of global issues by offering greater support to, and involvement with, MCC.
Such a response is only part of what it means to “become global citizens.” CCIC’s “informed action” response expands this perspective, envisioning that citizens will participate in public life, “deliberating and acting for the common good”, with both local and global consequences.
Public engagement as participating in public life for the common good.
Don Lenihan has a lot to say about this. Lenihan is an internationally recognized expert on democracy and public engagement. His book – Rescuing Policy: The Case for Public Engagement– argues that public engagement is the right response to the rise of the consumer model of politics where “citizens” are reduced to “taxpayers” looking for the best shopping deal and “government” becomes a mere “service provider.”
Lenihan is talking about public engagement in the context of public policy formation, a quite different context than MCC’s and similar civil society organisations. He presents two approaches to policy formation – the consultative and the deliberative – and contrasts them with the public engagement model. I think they may be instructive to us civil society organisations as we engage our constituencies.
- Consultative approach = Participant as Advocate
The consultative approach gives the public an opportunity to influence government planning and decision-making by presenting their views on an issue, in a wide variety of formats. Thus, citizens participate as advocates for their particular cause by having them compete with one another for influence over decision-makers.
- Deliberative approach = Participant as Advisor
The deliberative approach asks the public to go a step further, to participate in the task of deliberating over these views, along with government, using dialogue to work through the issues. Once this work is done, government will make the final decision on what it will do. Thus, the public participates in the role of advisers to government.
- Public Engagement approach = Participant as Full Partner
The public engagement approach casts participants as partners with government by getting them to work together with government to find and implement solutions to complex issues. The public thus participates fully in the action stage of the dialogue and takes on some responsibility for solving the issue. Engagement represents a big step for citizens and stakeholders as they work toward building communities and networks to help government formulate policy.
So what are the challenges for MCC?
First, CCIC’s challenge for MCC is to enhance our understanding of what “response to increased awareness” means, to include participating in public life and working for the common good. While this hasn’t been absent – the Ottawa Office advocacy work is but one example – we still can better integrate this focus in all our public engagement work.
Secondly, Lenihan’s work pushes MCC to look carefully at how we view and engage our constituents. Are they / you “full partners” in program visioning and work? Likely not. But perhaps there are situations where the other two approaches are also appropriate.
So challenges for MCC, yes. However….
There’s one critical dimension that we as people of faith at MCC have understood profoundly for many decades that is missing in the above definitions of public engagement.
We believe that we in the global north also need transformation, that as we increase awareness of global issues and respond globally and locally, we are transformed – our perspectives, our priorities, even how we live. Increased understanding and involvement in our world and becoming global citizens results in our own transformation, as persons and as communities.
We launched this blog back in March. The opening post – “What is MCC doing on Parliament Hill anyway?” – suggested that effecting change in government policies ought not be the primary objective of political and public engagement, because ethical formation – responding to increased awareness – occurs primarily in those engaged, rather than in government policy.
Public engagement as mutual transformation!
By Tim Schmucker, MCC Canada Public Engagement Coordinator