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Meaningfully Engaging the Public (Within a Politically Charged World): Challenge 5

By Caitlin Coleman

We live in a time of what Martín Carcasson calls “wicked problems.” We’ve all seen them—political standoffs in D.C., heated dialogue on topics like hydraulic fracturing, and don’t forget Colorado’s first-ever recall elections in September 2013 over gun control disputes. As a society, we’ve become polarized.

According to Carcasson, who directs Colorado State University’s Center for Public Deliberation, these issues exist because of our competing values, attitudes and preferences. As important as scientific research is for developing solutions, we can’t research these kinds of differences away, Carcasson argues. Instead, leaders need to deliberately engage the public in talking through issues.

MaryLou Smith, professional facilitator with the Colorado Water Institute, leads dialogue around tense water issues and says the process can take years to produce solutions. That is in part due to human nature. “If we could get people to start listening more deeply to one another, to have an attitude of wanting to resolve something, to make it work broadly instead of wanting to win…we
could change the culture overnight,” says Smith. 

The goal for facilitators is to help people find common ground and agree on next steps like legislation or formal solutions that account for everyone’s concerns. However, extensive public engagement may not be possible for every problem, says Connie Lewis, senior partner at the Meridian Institute. “Not everyone can afford it, in spite of the fact that a penny spent now may save a penny later,” says Lewis. The investment could stave off legal battles or other forms of opposition to whatever action is proposed.

To host a constructive dialogue, make room for all interests and voices, Lewis advises. And, “Try to think more creatively about how to accommodate a value and to honor and protect other people’s fundamental interests.”

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