Engaging the public in local government decisions: Empower

How can local and county governments better engage the public in decision-making processes?

If you’re an elected (or appointed) official, have you ever wondered if there was a better way to engage the public in local government than having them observe and maybe give public comment at an open meeting? If you’re a private citizen, have you ever wished you could be more involved in the government/decision making process? This is the fourth article in a series of Michigan State University Extension articles that examine the public’s participation in local government. The series began by discussing public comment periods at open meetings, which you can find here. Other articles introduced the International Association of Public Participation’s “Public Participation Spectrum” and discussed the most previous steps, “Inform,” “Consult,” “Involve” and “Collaborate.” Each step on the spectrum can be viewed as a commitment level of public participation. Each level/step includes a goal for public participation, and a promise that a governmental body is making to the public regarding the level of participation that may indeed contribute to the decisions that that will be made.

This article will take a closer look at the final step on the Public Participation Spectrum: “Empower.”

In “empower,” the goal is to “place the final decision making in the hands of the public.” The promise is to implement whatever it is that the public decides.

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Putting a decision on a ballot for a public vote is one commonly cited example of empowering the public with decision-making power, though even that doesn’t exactly meet the spirit of empower. The true spirit of empowering the public to make the final decision includes allowing the public to determine the process for coming to that decision, as well as developing the alternatives available. If a public body develops the choices, and then asks the public to vote on them, that isn’t truly empowerment.

Involving the public to this degree requires an attempt to form consensus on the issue at hand. This requires another clarification, as there are many ideas about what consensus may mean, and what level of consensus should be sought. The level of consensus being pursued in a process should be clearly defined and the public should have the final say in defining that level.

Empower level engagement can be difficult, time consuming, and resource intensive. There also exists the possibility of harming relationships and breaking trust with the public if the decision-making body does not live up to the promise in “Empower” or if consensus cannot be reached. It is also scary in many cases for a public body to commit to truly implementing a public designed solution.

Because of this, and because of laws that may direct public processes in some cases, empower is not often used. That said, participatory budgeting, which is becoming more popular at local levels, can be a form of empower level engagement. It relies on residents to brainstorm ideas for projects, develop proposals, and then vote on which projects should be funded. Local governments that implement participatory budgeting commit to funding the projects that the public selects.

Participatory budgeting has its roots in Brazil, but is catching on in American cities. Cambridge, Massachusetts has been using it for a few years, and you can learn more about that on this page. This Michigan Public Radio story from last year talks a bit more about the process.

Hopefully this series on how to engage the public in local decision-making has been useful. If your local government is interested in implementing creative solutions to involving the public in the decision-making process, MSU Extension can help. Those in MSU Extension that focus on Government and Public Policy provide various training programs, which are available to be presented in your county. Contact your local Government and Public Policy educator for more information. 

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