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To engage citizens on the issues, speak their language.

This is the third in a five-part series, leading up to the National League of Cities Local Government Professional Staff Conference, Sept. 24-26 in Louisville. Each article explores an important approach for working with the public.

How is it possible for public officials to work with the public if citizens can't understand issues or see their stake in them?

The answer: It's not, at least not in constructive ways.

But that's exactly what happens everyday. When it does, the results usually aren't productive. In fact, efforts to work with the public in solving problems often make things worse.

One major roadblock: "False choices" frustrate citizens' attempts to think about and act on issues. Indeed many of the choices people face aren't relevant to their concerns. One mayor recently told me that when economic development issues are debated in her community, all arguments quickly are cast as "pro" or "anti" business--there's no possibility for other options, no place for people to enter the debate.

Approaching issues in "expert" terms is yet another problem. Think about what citizens hear on many issues today. Disconnected facts and figures inundate them. Issues are so fragmented they bear little resemblance to how people actually view problems. The words and terms we use--"professional speak"--sound akin to a foreign language to many citizens.

What's more, when citizens are deemed ignorant on issues, the response is to give them more information facts, figures, technical studies. But people face an "information paradox," having so much information they can neither understand it nor sort through it all.

So what's needed? Last week I suggested that to gain "constructive input," public officials must grasp their opportunities for engaging citizens to "learn" what's important to people and why. This requires moving beyond technical issues reserved for experts, or false choices that hype the debate, and instead focusing on "public issues."

Here's what it means to focus on public issues:

* Citizens need to know what's "at issue"--what exactly must be decided if they are to consider an issue seriously. The issue must be carefully crystallized, so people can get a handle on it. And it must be framed not in expert terms, but in ways that "start where the public starts"--how people see and understand the issue.

* The focus should be on how people balance competing core beliefs. Citizens seldom slip naturally into debates about the nuances and technical aspects of policies and regulations; instead, they instinctively struggle with what they hold most important on particular issues, wrestling with such deeply-felt concerns as equity, security, opportunity, excellence.

* Facing up to the costs of different actions--the trade-offs,the limitations, the expenses--is essential for citizens to give constructive input. Without confronting costs, citizens can't work through what they really think.

* People need information synthesized for them, not every conceivable fact and figure available. So while information is vital for making informed judgments on issues, it is a mistake to overload people. Citizens need just enough information to understand the parameters of an issue, the options for action, and the costs.

* For issues to make sense to people, they need a context. People draw connections between issues-seeing a more complete panorama of the challenge than the picture that is ordinarily offered. Yet we strip away that sense of context, presuming that piecemeal issues and facts tell a whole story on their own; they are meaningless to most people without the proper context.

* When working with citizens, public officials must use a "public language"-- words, terms, phrases as defined by citizens. Obvious point, yes, but one that is often forgotten and more difficult to accomplish than people assume.

In short, gaining constructive input from citizens requires treating "public issues'' as both "public" and "issues." They must be "public." drawing their meaning and momentum from citizens, and they must be "issues," topics framed for realistic consideration and aimed at real solutions. Then, public officials can "learn" what's important to citizens, the kinds of trade-offs people are willing to live with, the directions for action that are sustainable. Problem-solving will begin. And the foundation for a new public official-citizen relationship will take shape.

Next week: How to listen to citizens so that you capture and benefit from the full depth and meaning of what people are saying.

Richard C, Harwood is president of The Harwood Group, a public issues .research and innovations firm in Bethesda, Md. The firm works with public officials in workshops and projects aimed at defining policy problems and developing sustainable solutions.
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Title Annotation:part 3
Author:Harwood, Richard C.
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Sep 14, 1992
Previous Article:The Local Partnership Act: what it could mean for your community.
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