Engaging the public in local government decisions: Inform

Each step on the Public Participation Spectrum can be viewed as a commitment a level of public participation.

If you’re an elected (or appointed) official, have you ever wondered if there was a better way to engage the public in local government other than having them observe or comment at an open meeting? If you’re a private citizen, have you ever wished you could be more involved in the government/decision making process? This is the third article in a series of MSU Extension articles that examine the public’s participation in local government. The series began by discussing public comment period, which you can find here. The most recent article introduced the International Association of Public Participation’s Public Participation Spectrum.

Each step on the Public Participation Spectrum can be viewed as a commitment a level of public participation. Each level/step includes a goal for public participation, and a promise that a governmental body is making to the public regarding the level of participation that may indeed contribute to the decisions that that will be made.

The first step on the spectrum is Inform. Inform is not the most exciting step on the spectrum, and not the most engaging. It is probably the easiest, but may not satisfy those searching for better ways to engage the public in the local decision-making processes. The stated goal of Inform is: “To provide the public with balanced and objective information to assist them in understanding the problem, alternatives, opportunities and/or solutions.” The promise to the public is “We will keep you informed.” The message is fairly simple, the effort to start is pretty minimal, however, if one wants to encourage active participation, inform will not be sufficient.

Governmental bodies ought to recognize that informing the public is not an opportunity to persuade or manipulate public opinion regarding a decision. Rather, the purpose is to provide the public with the information necessary to understand a project or decision.

Some examples of what Inform looks like in real life could include a public meeting where a governmental body or department gives a presentation about a project or decision, a briefing may be put together for public consumption, or maybe a newsletter providing relevant information. In any situation, it requires ensuring that the public is able to understand what the decision is, and if possible, what factors led to it being made.

In the next article, we will discuss the next step in the spectrum, Consult.

Additional articles in this series:

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