Motivating positive public engagement through love (rather than fear)

All too often, the easiest way to get people to engage about public policy is to threaten to take something away from them. This post is about taking the opposite approach in order to achieve positive public engagement.

A while back I was half of a panel, alongside Tom Uglow from Google Creative Labs’ Sydney office, commissioned with the task of discussing community engagement with a group of around 100 post-graduate architecture students as part of Crowdshare Sydney.

We each did 15-minute talks. Tom’s was on the marvels of some of Google’s jaw-dropping creative adventures in engaging crowds, mine on the far more dour and pragmatic subject of engaging the public in thinking about public policy.

The conversation was then open to questions from the floor.

We spent some time talking about the importance of identifying and specifying the question that you want the community to think about. This might seem obvious. Observation has taught me that it isn’t. Unfortunately, most of the clients we work with still think that the question is something like, “what do you think of our great draft strategy?”

BORING! Please don’t bother to wake me up before you stab me in the eye.

For the record, this is NOT a good question.

A good question might be something like “what would you do to reduce the conflict between cyclists and motorists?” or “what do you feel most proud of about your city? What do you show people when they visit?”

Good questions do not assume great chunks of knowledge and do not require hundreds of hours of reading to frame a response.

The conversation then turned to the question of motivation.

Our observation has been that people are more likely to get involved in public dialogue if two conditions hold.

First, the project impacts must be concrete and easily understood. Rather than asking people to think about a “park management plan”, try asking a strategic question like, “what could the city do to make you visit the park more often?”

Secondly, the project topic has to have some emotional resonance. It is easy to get people talking about their pets, their kids, their sense of self, their sense of place… but not in these terms. Conversations about off-leash dog walking never fail to get a response. People tend to either love their dogs or are terrified of other people’s dogs. People will not respond to a consultation about a “pet management strategy”, but they will respond to a threat to change whether dogs can or cannot run free on a beach or in a park.

Which is a lovely segue to the point of this post.

After spending some time talking about the unfortunate fact that we tend to see a lot more activity on discussions that are motivated by the potential for the loss of something (a perceived right, one’s sense of self, money, etc) — the consequence of which is that it is often very easy to want to frame a consultation around that loss in order to drive up participation volumes — I was asked how we could motivate public engagement other than through fear. positive public engagement

The answer, of course, was in the skills of someone like Tom. And by chance, pretty much everyone else who just happened to be in the room.

Tom is an artist realising his visions through various digital collaborations. The outcome of his projects is that heady mixture of delight and wonder. That lovely child-like state of astonishment.

And, of course, the room was full of architects. People with the wondrous capacity to create beautiful temporary spaces that can induce a similar state of awe and bewilderment.

This, for want of any better word, is the state of love.

A John Lennon quote comes to mind:

“There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance.”

So my answer is to embrace love. Use art and design in its most captivating forms to get people to stop in their tracks. When their jaws are slack with astonishment or confusion or wonder, then, start a conversation.

Please note that an earlier version of this post was originally published on Medium here.

Photo credit: I wish I could find the original source! If you know, please let me know.

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