As I talk with people about America’s Waterway, there’s some confusion about the words, “civic engagement”.
A definition is in order: civic engagement engenders collective action to identify and address issues of public concern. And, perhaps most relevant to America’s Waterway and the civic engagement we are planning: it instills a personal sense of responsibility to uphold obligations to a community.
So it goes beyond consensus-building and collaboration. It goes beyond outreach. It’s a community-building endeavor meant to last beyond a single decision-making step.
In the interest of clarity, here are 10 reasons civic engagement for the Mississippi River makes sense. In true Jay Leno fashion, we’ll start with number 10:
#10. Civic engagement relies on a knowledge base of facts, science and agreed-upon values. Where this knowledge base is incomplete, civic engagement requires that it be created and shared by all participants. It makes sure scientific, demographic and economic information is fresh, accurate and included. The internet and site-based technology enable this.
#9. Civic engagement relies on a trusted environment where participants feel safe and secure in expressing their opinions. This usually means those who conduct the civic engagement process are outsiders and professionals. That’s why we’ve partnered with AmericaSpeaks, the national leader in deliberative democracy, to conduct the National Dialogue. For Mississippi River residents, this means the agenda isn’t prescribed by special interests, and it minimizes turf issues.
#8. Civic engagement is purposely designed to address complex, multi-party issues that can’t be reached by one single agent. This is why it’s particularly appropriate for the Mississippi River. By definition the River is a complex ecosystem, important for habitat, economic prosperity, healthy communities, cultural heritage…. you name it. And, all these interests play a part in the process.
#7. Civic engagement, while deliberately addressing large and complex issues, relies on local participation and ownership. This sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s achievable. It’s critical to arriving at a shared sense of responsibility for the whole Mississippi River. By now, you can tell this isn’t your average public outreach campaign.
#6. When there’s civic engagement, participants work on future issues rather than revisiting historical differences of opinion or reacting to proposed policies. By holding simultaneous small group discussions, participants work together to find common ground. This is something Americans excel at – solving problems together. So why not tap this national tradition for the country’s largest and most significant river?
#5. Civic engagement can accomplish goals faster and more measurably. How is this possible? First, face-to-face meetings are managed by experienced facilitators. But most important, information and systems technology is maximized to collect and prioritize citizen ideas and responses. Decisions about whole-River approaches can be made, can move forward, and reach goals within set time frames.
#4. True civic engagement ensures that all affected parties are in the process. When we hold hearings or do public outreach, research tells us only the people with the strongest voices get heard and only those who are already receptive hear the information. By adopting a civic engagement platform and using a proven process to reach all sectors of the Mississippi River – as is our commitment – we insure water quality advocates, commerce advocates, habitat restoration advocates, recreational advocates, and so on – are in the room and collaboration is authentic.
#3. Civic engagement is practical for today’s public decision-making environment. The public expects to be involved in the decisions that affect their lives. There is no going back to believing that because the River is different along its course, that people are willing to have authorities in another section of the River make decisions that affect their livelihoods and futures where they live. Technology and mapping research can aid us in sharing our visual understanding of the whole Mississippi River.
#2. Civic engagement’s goal is sustained engagement, not just attendance. The new approaches created through The National Dialogue will need support. Civic engagement relies on active involvement and that builds active support.
#1. In the hands of skilled facilitators, civic engagement fosters exploration of joint gains and integrated solutions. This is the main reason America’s Waterway has asked AmericaSpeaks to conduct A National Dialogue on behalf of the Mississippi River. We know civic engagement results in better, more comprehensive and integrated solutions. And, that’s what we all want for America’s Great Waterway, the Mississippi River.