Art of Engagement: Being open to learning while under fire

by Lee Nellis, FAICP, Great Falls, Montana

Happy New Year! This is my first column since becoming the Deputy Director of Planning and Community Development for the City of Great Falls, Montana in October 2013. My new email address is:

Principles of Public Engagement #4

The Western Planner’s Agenda 21 issue offered great advice for keeping one’s cool and carrying on in the face of inflammatory rhetoric. I want to build on that theme by continuing my discussion of the seven principles for public engagement set forth by the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD). You can find the principles at

I’ve addressed the first three in previous columns. The fourth is:

Openness and Learning – Help all involved listen to each other, explore new ideas unconstrained by predetermined outcomes, learn and apply information in ways that generate new options, and rigorously evaluate public engagement activities for effectiveness.

The broadest of the NCDD principles covers both the process and its evaluation. It may also be the most idealistic. We work hard just to achieve respectful listening. Can we really hope that people will learn, that they will veer from the comfortable path of “predetermined outcomes” and that new options will arise from the conversation?

Learning from a parking ticket

I think we can design opportunities for mutual learning into major public engagement campaigns. However, most of our interactions with the public are routine. What kind of learning can we expect to happen at a hearing on, say, a simple three-lot subdivision? Some, I think, if we can approach each interaction as both a teacher and a student.

Two weeks ago, I learned something in a conversation with someone who was mad – really mad – about a parking ticket. One of my duties in Great Falls is managing the city’s parking system, a new twist for me and one that involves a lot of unhappy customers (I have not, however, heard that parking meters are a UN plot). This person showed me how I could make one of the parking enforcement forms we use better. So, I did.

Trivial? Maybe, but it makes a point. I learned something helpful (and acted on what I learned which we’ll get to with the sixth principle), because I was open to learning, even under fire. So, my question for all you readers is: How do we evoke curiosity in our constituents? How do we get them asking questions instead of making pronouncements? How do we simulate a continuing community conversation? I will share some thoughts next time, but would love to hear your ideas

What to Read? I will say that I think part of the answer lies in the oldest form of human instruction: story-telling. I recommended Annette Simmon’s The Story Factor in a column nearly three years ago. Her recent book, Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins, is even better.

Lee Nellis, FAICP, is a pioneer of planning in the rural West, starting his career in Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin in 1974.

Published in the February/March 2014 Issue

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