I believe one of the most important aspects of human development is how we create opportunities for everyone in our society to thrive, allowing people to flourish and live good lives. For local municipalities around the globe, creating a better local environment is not easy as several factors must be taken into account. Development is bound by a constant struggle between goals, initiatives and resources.
Development is also bound, and to some extent limited, by the ideas which drive actual solutions forward. It is my personal belief that involvement of various opinions and different views in almost any ideation phase is critical towards creating better solutions. In this article, I would like to give some attention to the potentials of involving and collecting ideas from local stakeholders early in public development stages. I find this topic essential, because it pivots around one of the most important aspects of human life – our local area where the majority of us live the most of our daily lives.
Ask anyone working within public property administrations, and they will most likely agree that one of many issues with development of physical spaces within communities is securing both short- and long-term acceptance of whatever is being decided, and eventually, built. The acceptance is essential as the users, the people who will live with the decision on daily basis can provide positive feedback to the solution by engaging with it and fulfilling its purpose. On the contrary, physical negative feedback is also an option which can result in functions never being used, societal purposes not being reached, and in the case of physical spaces – vandalism can (will) occur.
A solid way to counter negative issues evolving from a purely top-down decision or purpose is to begin any public project with a bottom-up approach. We know that early involvement creates early ownership. And we also know that ownership is important for later acceptance. Establishing relationships between users and decision-makers ensures the development of the specific area is bound to the needs and wishes of the actual people using it. In return, this creates a large potential for fulfillment of political and social purposes.
As in business, I view public sector development projects as establishing relationships between authorities and end-users. The long-term outcome of many, many projects is to a wide extend based on the relation between authorities. Many of us recalls the clearly outspoken difference in development wishes expressed by a large number of Brazilian citizens and the authorities developing physical spaces for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Instead of ‘outspoken’, I could have written ‘violent riots’. Avoiding such unfortunate and undesirable situations has to be a focal point. Even with less extreme examples of unrest, we see some of the same negative dynamics that non-acceptance carry for the development of public spaces in particular and for society in general. Determining local development must be based on local involvement. In my opinion asking questions is step 1.
When you involve someone in challenging your problems, you signal trust. You signal trust because you are acknowledging that other people can help you. We trust many people in our daily lives, and often we don’t even notice it. Co-drivers, chefs, teachers, pilots – we trust a wide range of our fellow citizens. If authorities do not trust citizens to be positive drivers and influencers of the development of their local environment, we are creating a democratic paradox between the ruling class and the citizens. Who knows better about your daily challenges than yourself? Surely, when you are ill you might need a doctor’s expertise. But how do doctors often provide diagnosis? By asking questions.
“Ask the public, and be amazed of the ingenuity of the collective brain.”
This is my statement and I firmly believe we can add positive elements to public management and create solutions to improve life, simply by asking the public for input and ideas when combatting specific societal and local challenges. What is needed in one neighbourhood, might be redundant or even useless in another. Naturally, solutions coming from local municipalities must be tied to a strategy and a goal centred on improving basic societal metrics. But the way to do this differs from place to place and from neighbourhood to neighbourhood.
Asking questions based on a defined need for improving basic societal metrics, and involve end-users and people affected by the solution can significantly improve pre-decision input and is also a positive driver for aforementioned early-ownership and sense of responsibility.
Asking questions is also important for another aspect of development; transparency.
Transparency Now! I believe transparency is essential for development processes. How are we to contribute if we do not know the challenges or policies? Early public involvement in public sector development and innovation stages requires transparency. In my opinion, it is one of several prerequisites for successful engagement. We have earlier discussed the power of engagement when it comes to getting new ideas and discovering solutions, and since we know that engagement also drives ownership, we got a cocktail worth mixing. Add transparency to your early innovation phase and you can get powerful and valuable engagement from key stakeholders.
Transparency is also a prerequisite for bottom-up democracy. And in the case of local development, it is democracy on the most local of levels – our local municipality and their direct life-affecting decisions. Coming from a Scandinavian background with Nordic ways of structuring governance, my opinion is clear; Transparency is an essential aspect of the public sector. Transparency is also essential when it comes to getting new ideas and innovate on existing solutions. We need to know the ‘why’ in order for us to support the how and the what. We need to know why our input is valuable, and we need to know why we should engage ourselves in public debates.
If we structure our public sector development initiatives around transparent processes and systems, and invite end-users to contribute to the solutions, we will bring better ideas forward. The engagement we can create based on transparent social challenges has great potential. It is in the engagement between different stakeholders that we truly understand the complexity of the challenges, the needs for action and, eventually, which ideas and solutions are needed to take on the challenges. Communities around the world provide several examples of this; from Grandparents Parks in USA to Language Learning initiatives in Norway, the scope of ideas coming from bottom-up approaches continues to show potential for improving every-day life.
Several countries around the world have excellent structures in place for citizen participation. I am definitely not questioning the awesome and dedicated work carried out by our public servants on a daily basis. They are heroes in my book. But, I will allow myself to question how citizen participation is done today. At least in my home country, Denmark, it is possible to criticize some of the existing structures because they to some extent accommodate a certain type of people; the ones who have the social capital needed to participate in public discussions and forums.
In a perfect world, we are able to involve anyone with interest and/or knowledge on the specific subject to ensure full perspective and the best ideas possible. The current situation does not quite live up to this. I have personally attended several participation programmes, and I get the feeling that several segments are missing in the initial decision-making. This could for example be the youth, the disadvantaged and the vulnerables. This strikes me, because quite often these specific segments of society are highly impacted by the decision.
Let’s turn the tables here. Instead of expecting engagement, let’s create it. Let’s create engagement around specific challenges on platforms which encourages broad engagement and is not at all complicated to use. In other words, let’s select a digital suggestion box to match the digital generation and the general digitalization process many companies are embarking on.
The process of influencing your neighbourhood development should not be limited to physical space and time. Keeping up with traditions is bound to continue the exclusion of certain types of personalities and certain groups of people who for whatever reason can’t attend these physical meetings.
Modern businesses bend over backwards to get input, ideas and feedback from their heavy-users or key customers. The most successful businesses often create outstanding transparency around their product. The public sector can pick up on some of the principles and processes, and get valuable input for successful decision and governance. As shown in this post, structuring the idea management in the public sector holds awesome potentials.
If the inherited boundaries linked to attending public participation processes are addressed, we can unlock the true potentials of idea management in the public sector. The potential benefits clearly outweighs the investment, as direct involvement, transparency and broad participation not only generates better and locally anchored ideas, but also brings ownership, respect and acceptance.