Best of 2018: Most Public Engagement is Worthless

This is one of those pieces I wrote where my local insights were applicable to an international audience, yet I knew it would not be received well here locally. The push back was mild compared to what I expected (and what I’ve experienced in the past), but the feedback from our audience was overwhelming. Statistically, this may be the most shared article I wrote all year.

As a planner, I used to do these kind of public engagements. I would even convince myself that it mattered, that the fact that people later showed up feeling disenfranchised was their fault, not a byproduct of the process I was using. Those of you that have been here a while know that I’ve soured on the ability of experts to tell us much about the path we should be on, that what we need is not expert-as-leader but expert-as-servant. It’s a difficult transition to make, especially in the planning profession.

Yet, the simple four-step process I outline in this article really resonates with people. I’ve been sharing it for a number of years now and I become more and more committed to it as a viable strategy with each community engagement I participate in. As Patron Saint of Strong Towns Thinking Nassim Taleb has taught us, it’s difficult to live in a world you don’t understand.

Difficult, but not impossible, so long as you recognize what you don’t understand.

Probably my favorite part of writing this piece was my friend Ruben Anderson’s response piece (“Most Public Engagement is Worse Than Worthless”) and the fact that it prompted us to sit down for a long overdue podcast together. We didn’t really talk about public engagement, which only means we have a follow up conversation we need to schedule for 2019.

This evening is my last public engagement of the year, a trip to Fergus Falls, Minnesota. As we wind down the year here at Strong Towns, continue to enjoy our best of content and, if you’ve not renewed your membership or have been waiting to join, take a moment today and become a member.

In the decade I’ve been writing in this space, I’ve received a lot of input and advice about things Strong Towns should do. Some are wacky, but most times the suggestions are very logical. And, due to the broad reach and depth of our movement, a lot of this advice comes loaded with passion.

For example, we used to run a Ning network, which is basically a private social media site for Strong Towns. It was a suggestion that sounded good to me at the time and was kind of fun. For a while, that is. Running the site was a ton of work. We spent a lot of energy—which we did not have—trying to build it to a critical mass. It wasn’t working, and we were doing a disservice to our movement by keeping it running. When we finally shut it down, it upset a handful of people who were disproportionately influential to our thinking, but it also freed us up to do work that proved far more important to the Strong Towns movement.

The dangerous recommendations are the ones that reinforce what I already think we should be doing. I’ve learned to be suspect when people tell me what I want to hear, yet it still feels soothing—even for me—to have my thoughts validated by those I’m asking for advice. I don’t know that there is a real defense against this. I’m human, just like you.

It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.
— Steve Jobs

Our thinking is a byproduct of the questions we ask. This is one of the reasons Steve Jobs was not a big fan of asking the customers what they wanted. Customers don’t know what they want, at least when it comes to something innovative. Something different.

I was in a public meeting last week that was representative of so many others I’ve experienced. It was a focus group, of sorts, with some youth. The team that was steering the community planning process rightly felt that this was a group of people they needed to chat with, not only because youth are not represented on the committee, but because the needs of younger residents are so poorly understood—and those needs are especially critical to the future of the city.

The meeting started out with the standard public policy questions planning professionals like to ask. What do you like about the city? What do you not like? If you could change one thing, what would it be? The answers were worse than worthless, and it was painful to watch non-policy people trying to answer questions that weren’t designed for them.

After a bit of pain, we got around to asking the kind of questions Steve Jobs would have asked. How did you get here today? (A: Walk or bike.) Is this how you get around in the winter when it’s twenty below zero? (A: Yes.) Do you feel safe walking? (A: No.) Do you feel safe biking? (A: No.)

These were valuable questions, not only because they provided great data, but they also made the people listening to the answers uncomfortable. Do you ride transit? (A: No.) Why not? (A: It takes longer to ride the dial-a-ride than to walk/bike.)

Time and again, the ones there to ask questions and listen tried to put things back into a policy box, to bring the conversation back on to comfortable ground. If you were to cut something from the budget to pay for a skate park, what would you cut? If we created a job training program at the college, would that help you get a better job? If we added more lighting to the street, would that make it safer to walk? The answers were the same type Steve Jobs would have received if he asked people what they wanted in the years before Apple invented the iPod: a better Walkman.

I was even guilty of this myself. I asked the youth in attendance if they thought we had enough parking, something I’m obsessed about. I got the answer Jobs would have predicted: a bunch of young people who don’t own cars and don’t drive informed me about how it’s not convenient to drive unless you can park near where you want to go, so we should build more parking. 

I’m a planner and I’m a policy nerd. I had all the training in how to hold a public meeting and solicit feedback through SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) questions. I’ve been taught how to reach out to marginalized groups and make sure they too have a voice in the process. That is, so long as that voice fit into the paradigm of a planner and a policy nerd. Or so long as I could make it fit.

Modern Planner: What percentage of the city budget should we spend on parks?

Steve Jobs: Do you use the park?

Our planning efforts should absolutely be guided by the experiences of real people. But their actions are the data we should be collecting, not their stated preferences. To do the latter is to get comfortable trying to build a better Walkman.  We should be designing the city equivalent of the iPod: something that responds to how real people actually live. It's a messier and less affirming undertaking.

I’ve come to the point in my life where I think municipal comprehensive planning is worthless. More often than not, it is a mechanism to wrap a veneer of legitimacy around the large policy objectives of influential people. Most cities would be better off putting together a good vision statement and a set of guiding principles for making decisions, then getting on with it.

That is, get on with the hard work of iteratively building a successful city. That work is a simple, four-step process:

  1. Humbly observe where people in the community struggle.

  2. Ask the question: What is the next smallest thing we can do right now to address that struggle?

  3. Do that thing. Do it right now.

  4. Repeat.

It’s challenging to be humble, especially when you are in a position, or are part of a profession, whose internal narrative tells you that you already know what to do. It’s painful to observe, especially when that means confronting messy realities that do not fit with your view of the world. It’s unsatisfying, at times, to try many small things when the “obvious” fix is right there. If only those around you just shared your “courage” to undertake it (of course, with no downside to you if you’re wrong). If only people had the patience to see it through (while they, not you, continue to struggle in the interim).

Yet what if we humbly observe where people in our community struggle—if we use the experiences of others as our data—and we continually take the actions we are capable of taking, right now, to alleviate those struggles? And what if we do this in neighborhood after neighborhood across the entire city, month after month and year after year? If we do that, not only will we make the lowest risk, highest returning public investments it is possible to make, we won’t help but improve people’s lives in the process.

That is the essence of a Strong Towns approach.

Read a response article by Strong Towns member Ruben Anderson: "Most Public Engagement is Worse Than Worthless."

(Top image courtesy of the Department of Defense.)