In Conversation With Susan Clark
Each month, PlaceSpeak presents a Q&A with experts in public engagement and civic technology. This month, we spoke with Susan Clark, founder of Common Knowledge.
She founded Common Knowledge to pioneer “community-driven design”, including diverse stakeholders to stimulate innovative solutions on various issues. Susan is an active board member of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD). Recently Susan has been focusing on combining the best of in-person and digital engagement and has been an adviser to Code for America, Voter’s Edge and other civic tech groups.
1. What is “community-driven design”? How does this paradigm shift enable better decision-making than traditional methods?
User-centered design is really popular these days, and Common Knowledge is filled with people who come from a market research and consumer marketing background. So this notion of understanding your audience and their worldview, in a culturally competent way, is second nature to us. The premise of respecting and understanding your users or residents is really important. What we find sometimes is that our colleagues will bring in community members (such as at a focus group) as a research subject, not as a partner in solving the problem.
So for us, community-driven design means involving community members, not just as one-off subjects, but as a team. One part is having a cross-section of the community help define the problem, and together, in dialogue, come up with shared meaning around the problem. If you ask any one resident how they’re experiencing the problem, you’re still going to get a lopsided view. The second part is that there are different steps along the way to designing what the decision looks like. The community isn’t just consulted at the start and told at the end – they’re with you all along the way.
For us, the key issue is in the delivery and the implementation. For example, one of our signature projects was called “Key to Community”. We were working with less-educated, lower-income young adults – those least likely to vote. Instead of just going with surveys where people said, “I don’t vote because I haven’t got time” or “I don’t like politics”, they went through their own user-centered process. The group found that the number one barrier was the perception that going to vote was going to be like a test at the DMV – not a pleasant experience. In understanding that worldview, they collectively defined the problem as performance anxiety, misconceptions of the process, and also the de facto literacy test. It was a multi-dimensional definition that went deeper than the surface answers. They then co-created a program of dialogues, peer-led workshops and the non-partisan Easy Voter Guide, and delivered it. That kind of community-driven design doubled the voting turnout rates among lower-educated, low-income young adults of colour in California. The community has an important part of the answer, and has a role to play in delivering it.
2. What do you think are some of the biggest barriers that prevent decision-makers from engaging effectively with citizens?
Right now, the ways which many local governments interact with the public perpetuate hearing from the “usual suspects”. Local government officials and staff are often frustrated because they see entitled, angry, and/or professional citizens, and they don’t see the broad cross-section of the public for whom they went into public service.
Sometimes they’re going out with information that’s too technical or in “government-speak”. It’s not their fault – they get promoted because of their technical competence. But then when they hit a certain level of seniority, they’re suddenly supposed to become competent at community engagement. There are opportunities to improve how we train and build the next generation of leaders, and that’s why we’re working with younger leadership in local government on community engagement.
Another issue is how local officials think that they have to “dumb it down” and make the choices simple. In our experience, community members want to hear about competing values, issues and tradeoffs. They will actually trust you more if you acknowledge the ambiguity which makes a decision tricky – just do it in simpler language. In short, governments are using complicated language for oversimplified choices, so flip it – use simpler language and acknowledge the tough choices. That builds trust.
Another barrier is that engagement processes start way too late. There’s a perception that people won’t get involved until something’s at stake and it’s decision time. We’ve been helping debunk the myth that people won’t get engaged early, and share ways to invite people in and get that input early when people can learn about the issue, and learn about how others are affected by the issue. We rely on brain science to explain the conditions that enhance people’s ability to learn about the various dimensions of an issue.
3. What are some tangible steps that governments and decision-makers can take to empower citizens to participate and engage in their communities?
The most important thing that local government officials can do to get out of the “usual suspect syndrome” is to stop seeing the entire landscape of their community with an ideological lens. Get beyond the advocacy groups and see the myriad of ways that people affiliate and are engaged in community life. We reach out beyond the usual familiar groups, e.g. Rotary, Chambers of Commerce, and connect with other kinds of more informal networks who can host dialogues and fireside chats because they want to learn more about the issues.
The other thing is to have a longer time frame for sustained engagement, not just episodic. I think any jurisdiction will benefit from investing in a platform, like a PlaceSpeak platform, where people can see the arc of a decision. I’m a fan of Daniel Yankelovich’s Seven Steps of Coming to Public Judgement. The “wicked”, complex problems do not get solved in a single series of charrettes, design meetings, etc. New people are coming in all the time, and there are lots of conversations happening inside and outside of official channels. It’s good to have a platform to collect and curate the information where newbies can come on board and not get flooded with too much detail, while allowing more engaged people to track discussions at the more detailed policy level.
4. After the United States presidential election, NCDD launched its #BridgingOurDivides campaign to repair the social and political fabric. How can civic technology help facilitate genuine, inclusive dialogue around controversial issues?
As we work through the great stressors that you have acknowledged, it’s really encouraging to see a greater appreciation for skills of reframing. Issues that feel contentious can be reframed. In this Marin County example (just north of San Francisco), we’re encouraging house-level discussions and fireside chats about well-being. We let people work through what they learned about well-being growing up, and how that relates to collective well-being. The conversations evolve to addressing issues of equity, race, and segregation, but we don’t start by saying that “we’re going to have a dialogue about race.” There are ways to invite people into a conversation where there’s human-to-human sharing, and let people go from human experiences to understanding the larger systemic issues. We’re all about public learning and civic learning, but how people get invited into these conversations impacts whether they’re in a learning mode.
We’re also very excited about the potential – not yet fully realized, but it’s getting there – for online platforms to make a community visible to itself. That means showing people that there are other regular people in their community who care about the same issues, not just advocacy groups. So you have dialogue enthusiasts such as at folks at the NCDD, and you have a lot of data enthusiasts in the civic tech community, and we’re seeing more progress on how the dialogue and reframing techniques are getting married into the power of data-driven, place-based dialogue. People do care about their community – they just have to be asked something real and tangible. We’re busting the idea that we don’t have enough resources – time or money – in our communities by tapping the powers of local networks and ecosystems. There is abundant potential waiting to be tapped if people are invited into the conversation, not in a political way, but in a community-building way.
5. What is the most important lesson that you have learned from your extensive experience in citizen engagement?
My orientation to the work has evolved to facilitating multi-sector, multi-level approaches to solving the most important problems, whether it’s education, climate or health outcomes. I think there’s some vulnerability in being able to say, “I can do this part, but I can’t do it all.” More and more of my peers in different fields, in their multiple sectors, are ready for these intentional partnerships. What gives me hope are the ones connecting with grassroots community members as an integral part of the partnership.