Archive for the ‘Partners & Like-Minded Organizations’ Category

Invitation to participate in NCDD’s field-wide inventory

December 1, 2016 Leave a comment

The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) has invited IAP2 USA to participate in their field-wide inventory.

“Now more than ever, it’s vital for us to be able to say, with some authority, how large our field is, how many dialogues are held on an annual basis, involving how many people, and so on. We want to know what approaches you are trained in, which ones you tend to use, and which ones you train others in. We’d like to know which online tools you find most useful, and what factors influence your decisions about which collaborative projects you’ll get involved in. And true to NCDD style, we want to share this information widely.”

Please do take the time to complete this survey by the deadline — Wednesday, December 7th — if you haven’t already.
NCDD would greatly value your participation!

Guest Post: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up

August 6, 2016 Leave a comment

davebiggsDave Biggs, Chief Engagement Officer, MetroQuest
Dave Biggs is an internationally-recognized speaker, author and public engagement strategist focusing on best practices to supercharge community participation for planning projects.

James Hoggan has influenced my work for two decades. I find myself quoting his work in many of my public speaking engagements and the lessons he has articulated have shaped MetroQuest and the best practices listed in our guidebook in numerous ways. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to sit down with Hoggan to discuss his new book, “I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up.” After years of research that included interviewing some of the world’s most profound thinkers on democracy, conflict and consensus-building, Hoggan has cleverly articulated not only what’s wrong with public discourse but also what must be done to fix it. Here’s our conversation.


Image from book launch event courtesy Hoggan & Associates

My interview with Author James Hoggan: ‘I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up’, Published by New Society, May 2016

Dave Biggs: You named your book ‘I’m Right and You’re an Idiot.’ What does that title mean to you?

James Hoggan: The title I’m Right and You’re an Idiot describes today’s warlike approach to public debate. It’s a style of communication that polarizes public conversations and prevents us from dealing with the serious problems stalking everyone on earth.

It is an ironic title, chosen because it epitomizes the kind of attack rhetoric we hear so often today. It reflects the opposite of the real message of the book, which was best said by peace activist and Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh who told me to: “Speak the truth not to punish.”

Dave Biggs: It’s clear that you covered a great deal of ground in researching this book. Tell me about that journey? What motivated you to go to such lengths?

James Hoggan: I was driven by curiosity about how we might create the space for higher-quality public conversations. What passes for public discourse these days is little more than antagonistic name-calling, where each side accuses the other of bad faith.

This bitter combativeness has replaced healthy debate, during which passionate opposition and science can shape constructive mind-changing conversations without creating polarized gridlock or deep animosity.

I am interested in why are we listening to each other shout rather than hearing what the evidence is trying to tell us about problems such as climate change.

How have we come to a time when facts don’t matter and how can we begin the journey back to where they do?

No single person has the answers to these complex questions but collectively the experts I interviewed offer incredible wisdom. Many of the thought leaders I spoke to have spent their entire professional lives working to find answers to these tough change resistance questions.

Dave Biggs: Many of our readers are involved in community engagement for planning projects and, as they can attest, it can get quite heated. You describe public discourse as increasingly “toxic” and “polarized.” What do those terms mean to you? Is the situation getting worse? What’s driving it?

James Hoggan: Today’s public square is a toxic mix of ad hominem attacks, tribalism and unyielding advocacy. It’s a kind of pollution that sabotages public discourse and discredits the passion and outrage at the heart of healthy public debate, because it polarizes people and stops them thinking clearly.

Fear is what propels toxic discourse and it is happening on both sides of the Atlantic, in North America and Europe. Sadly, facts do not compete well when leaders whip up primal feelings around fear, whether it’s about immigration, jobs or economic woes.

Rather than confronting the substance of an argument itself, people tend to attack the motives of opponents and stir up hostility towards groups that hold differing opinions.

This dangerous habit of attacking the character of those who disagree with us, rather than focusing on specific issues, distracts the public from what’s really going on.

Accusing opponents of corrupt motives is a highly confrontational technique that deflects attention and makes it easy to dismiss well-founded criticism. This aggressive approach to public debate leaves little room for the middle ground and as Debra Tannen wrote, “When extremes define the issues, problems seem insoluble and citizens become alienated from the political process.”

Dave Biggs: I’ve started a series called “Fiasco Files” to see what can be learned from the wreckage of public engagement disasters. Have you looked at specific case studies where things went off the rails? Does your book point to common mistakes and how to avoid them?

James Hoggan: One of the best example of a fiasco in Canada was in 2012 when the oil & gas industry and Conservative government campaigned to convince Canadians that British Columbians who opposed pipelines and tankers on the west coast were extremists working for American business interests.

A tremendous amount of information was provided, by both government and industry, regarding Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion, Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline project and TransCanada’s Keystone XL and Energy East.

Despite armies of PR people and volumes of communication materials, the mismanagement of communication around these proposed oil sands developments became textbook examples of how not to achieve social license.

When it comes to public opinion, there’s a common belief among proponents that providing facts is the best way to sell a story. But in the oil sands case, when the companies and government failed to achieve their goals, they resorted to a combative, underhanded style of advocacy.

The Prime Minister’s Office called opponents “foreign funded radicals.” The Minister of the Environment and the Minister of Natural Resources accused environmental charities of criminal activity.

Senator Don Platt said ‘where would …environmentalists draw the line on who they receive money from. Would they take money from the Al-Qaeda, the Hamas or the Taliban…’

This highly polarizing strategy backfired badly as opposition to pipelines grew and community groups and First Nations became better organized. It failed because the government and industry started with a mistaken assumption that anyone who disagreed with them was either misinformed, unreasonable or even a wrongdoer.

Despite assurances from oil and pipeline companies that these projects will create jobs, are safe and will respect the environment, the public continues to see the benefits as small and the risks as unacceptably high.

It’s not that information doesn’t matter, but a growing body of research on how people develop perceptions of risk shows that facts and statistics alone do not change people’s concerns about what is risky. Emotions play a huge part.

University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic has studied the various social and cultural factors that lead to disputes and disagreements about risk, and says the problem lies in the diverse ways in which “experts” and the public view risk.

Experts look at risk as a calculation of probability and consequence. The public takes a more personal approach; their perceptions are around personal control, voluntariness, children and future generations, trust, equity, benefits and consequences.

Slovic says the mistake experts (and the companies and governments they represent) make is viewing themselves as objective and the public as subjective.

They perceive the public as being too emotional and having irrational fear. The public’s attitude is then dismissed as laypeople getting the facts wrong and not understanding the evidence.

“Laypeople sometimes lack certain information about hazards,” Slovic says. “However their basic conceptualization of risk is much richer than that of experts and reflects legitimate concerns that are typically omitted from expert risk assessments.”

This is where a company’s decision to “educate” the public to adopt its point of view can really backfire. People aren’t sitting around waiting to be told what to think. In fact, few of us like being told what to think.

Communicators need to be sensitive to this broader concept of risk. Facts aren’t just facts. They aren’t as objective as we assume they are. Facts and risk are subjective for both experts and the public. They are a blend of values, biases and ideology.

The hypodermic needle theory of communication, where we believe we can simply inject information to cure people of their misunderstandings, doesn’t work. Neither does demonizing opponents or polarizing people.

Dave Biggs: I’m always on the lookout for emerging best practices in community engagement. Government agencies are hungry for strategies to improve the dialogue in face to face events as well as online. What lessons can you share to help them broaden the dialogue to a wider demographic and collect meaningful and constructive public input to inform their decision making?

James Hoggan: We often don’t even get the basics right. Learning to engage in emotional dialogue is a good place to start.


Curtailing the growth of unyielding one-sidedness begins with the assumption that people who disagree with us have good intentions. They aren’t idiots or evil.

It is important to recognize that in a time when mistrust and polarization have soared to all-time highs, conversations aimed at injecting information into people in order to cure them of their misunderstanding will fail.

The power of emotion is a critical consideration. No matter how good you think your argument is, regardless of how provable your facts, if the public feels its liberty, right to fair treatment or livelihood is threatened, you’re losing the battle to dread.

Opposition is often based on feelings of dread that citizens have about the impact a project could have on their way of life, a mistrust of the companies behind it and skepticism around government regulators charged with oversight.

Fear can grow despite a steady stream of facts and expensive PR campaigns from proponents claiming their projects are built to minimize risk.

Opponents often don’t accept the proponents’ facts, but are instead driven by what Paul Slovic calls the “dread factor” — the prime predictor of a strong reaction to risk.

According to Slovic, risk resides in us mostly as a “gut feeling” rather than the outcome of analytical calculations. The most powerful of these feelings is dread and it is linked with a sense of having no control in a situation, inequality (where others get the benefit, while they get saddled with the risk) and how catastrophic a risk is seen to be.

His research shows that reliance on feelings as our guide to risk causes us, when we see risk as high, to also believe the benefit is low. The opposite is true if we come to believe the benefit is high, we tend to see risk as low.

Misunderstanding the “dread factor” and the possibly legitimate concerns that fuel it, intensifies the problem of unyielding one-sidedness that we see in so many public disputes.

It is also difficult to be seen as authentic in an argument if you don’t understand what Slovic calls the “whisper of emotion.” This is the emotional meaning; the good or bad feelings and gut instinct that can help people make decisions. Sometimes these feelings are misguided, but they are usually a sophisticated compass that directs us through life efficiently and accurately.

We need to be more conscious of emotional dialogue because this is where most risk communication fails. And we need to recognize it needs to be a two-way process where both sides have something worthwhile to contribute.

If you hold your views lightly and remember you could be wrong, people are more likely to trust you and be more receptive. It’s about communicating trust, by having an open mind, open heart and an open will.

Reposted with permission from Metroquest, July 5, 2016

Guest Post: Community Engagement Highlights from APA 2016

April 27, 2016 1 comment

Dave Biggs, Chief Engagement Officer, MetroQuest
Dave Biggs is an internationally-recognized speaker, author and public engagement strategist focusing on best practices to supercharge community participation for planning projects.


As I do every year at the APA National Conference, I did my best to catch as many community engagement sessions as possible. Here are highlights, takeaways, and the common threads I noticed this year.


American Planning Association / Southern Nevada Strong, a HUD funded regional planning effort for Las Vegas and the surrounding region.

Whether you attended the APA 2016 National Conference or not, you likely missed some of the great dialogue on community engagement, because the program was packed. As I do every year, I did my best to catch as many highlights, takeaways, and trends as possible. Here are ones that stood out for me from my four days in Phoenix. Please join the discussion in the comments to share your own takeaways.

2016 National Planning Excellence Award for Public Outreach

The big community engagement prize winner this year was Southern Nevada Strong, a HUD funded regional planning effort for Las Vegas and the surrounding region. The project team shown receiving the award above was led by the city of Henderson. This project exemplified best practices in community engagement in numerous ways. Three things struck me about their effort: massive online engagement in English and Spanish, multiple supporting strategies to target typically underrepresented groups, and unique urban ethnographic research partnership with the University of Nevada. The APA describes how their efforts paid off, “SNS received unprecedented community engagement and collaboration among local municipalities. The engagement efforts set a new standard among Sustainable Communities grant recipients. An estimated 6,000 community members participated in the process and nearly 70,000 inputs were received…” Congratulations to the SNS team and all of this year’s Public Outreach award applicants.

The need to better define social equity

One workshop on social equity sparked some valuable ideas. Cali Kay Williams from New York City Economic Development Corporation suggested that a more consistent definition of social equity is needed. She felt that given the looseness of the term, groups can cherry pick the elements that are most convenient to them and claim that their process meets the criteria. The dialogue then went further, suggesting that we need to better define metrics for community engagement, especially as they relate to social equity. So often we hear about how many people were engaged and not about the diversity of the participants.

The importance of educating the community during the engagement process

Jamie Greene from planning NEXT spoke about the challenge that many community members do not have the information they need to make choices that we are giving them. As an example he suggested, “We need to help people understand the financial implications of the choices during the community engagement on your comprehensive plan.”

Other sessions built on this idea highlighting techniques like participatory budgeting and scenario planning that use interactive educational tools to highlight benefits, tradeoffs and real world constraints into the community engagement process. Victor Dover spoke about the Seven50 project in Southern Florida that presented scenarios online for the community input. The scenarios illustrated the costs and benefits of alternatives and after over 2,700 participants had their say, to their surprise they found that over 73 percent of people preferred the scenario that focused on smart growth principles. He credited the educational components of the process with that outcome.

The rise of targeted community engagement

The award-winning Southern Nevada Strong team and many panelists this year were talking about the success they had dovetailing traditional and online engagement with targeted engagement to ensure broad representation. To be fair, targeted engagement is not new, but there is a dialogue emerging about the benefits and strategies for evaluating the gaps using a demographic analysis and then using specific strategies to target the missing voices.

Darlene Walser of Hennepin County in a panel session entitled “Community Engagement in TOD Station Planning” talked about a three-level community engagement strategy. She recommended beginning with a baseline communications strategy followed by a formal public participation process and finally targeted engagement. It was this last phase where they had success leveraging partnerships with community groups to target difficult to reach audiences.

Multigenerational engagement strategies from Baby Boomers to Gen Z

One of the most interesting sessions for me was the panel on “Picking the Right Tool: Multigenerational Engagement.” Each of the panelists covered one generation and talked about their characteristics and strategies to engage them. There were many takeaways. The ones that stuck out for me were the lessons about Gen X and younger cohorts that they described as underrepresented in face to face community engagement.

Linda Vela of the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization talked about Gen X born between the early 1960s and early 1980s. She described this cohort as fiercely independent, informal by nature, outcomes-focused and many caring for kids at home. Gen X are generally poorly represented in face to face community meetings so online and other alternative engagement strategies are suggested. Online, facebook is their preferred social platform and most will use laptop or desktop computers to surf the net over mobile.

Tina Geiselbrecht of Texas A&M Transportation Institute talked about millennials or Gen Y born between the early 1980s to the early 2000s. Like Gen X, millennials are interested in engaging online though most access the internet on mobile devices and choose Instagram and Snapchat more than facebook so campaigns to leverage those networks can be effective.

Trish Wallace of the city of San Antonio talked about Gen Z or boomlets born between the early 2000s and early 2010s. She talked about the benefits of using games and craft activities at community events to engage even the youngest residents. The results were compelling and these activities also gave planners an informal opportunity to talk to parents while the little ones were busy. Many of the tweens in this cohort are glued to their devices and love taking selfies. Trish talked about engagement strategies that invited people to take selfies in places related to the project as a way to engage youth in the dialog about community planning.

I tip my hat to these planners who took every opportunity to broaden the community engagement to include each cohort.

Creative ways to combine face to face and online engagement

In years past online engagement has been presented like a silver bullet touted to solve all of community engagement’s challenges. This naïve notion seems to have dissipated and the dialogue now has turned to a toolkit approach to leverage the strengths of a variety of engagement tactics. Michelle Nance of the Centralina Council of Governments demonstrated this well as she presented their project called Connect Our Future, a regional growth plan for greater Charlotte, NC. Early in the process they engaged over 400 participants in one of the largest Reality Check events ever held. These hands-on workshops allow participants to allocate expected growth using chips or legos on large-scale regional maps. The four scenarios that emerged from this process were then loaded into the MetroQuest online engagement tool to allow the broader community to assess and provide input on the scenario options. Nance reported that over 8,400 people were engaged and closed by saying with satisfaction that, “Everyone said it would be impossible to reach consensus but we beat the odds.” What struck me the most is the value of the co-creative process of coming up with the scenario alternatives with hands on input from residents early in the process before going out to the broader community online.

Techniques for dealing with contentious groups and individuals

The heat must be on because several sessions highlighted tools and techniques for dealing with contentious participants at community meetings. I was pleased to see these as they add our ongoing dialog in the Fiasco Files. Della Rucker of the Wise Economy Workshop ran a session called “Manage the Ax-Grinders: Do Better Public Participation” and led participants through role play exercises and provided tips on dealing with disruptions. In particular she highlighted the value of breaking into smaller group discussion to encourage people to work together constructively while also giving more time for each participant to speak.

Roberta Rewers of the APA led a session on “Working with Contentious Groups” and provided helpful tips to prepare planners for community meetings. She highlighted the need to establish and reinforce rules of civil discourse and define the purpose and agenda of the meeting early on. When disruptions happen she recommended that leaders do not debate, mind their manners, thank individuals for the comment and do what they can to stay on track and stick to their key messages.

Participants chimed in with additional suggestions including sitting down and talking with a vocal community member in advance of the project moving forward to allow them to be heard while avoiding public disruptions.

One participant said that when seeking community input, tables in the round didn’t work in his community as like-minded people would band together and make people with a different opinion feel like outsiders. This may be another reason to heed Della’s advice and break participants up into table discussions.

The spirit of these discussions was about giving people equal opportunities to be heard and avoiding disruptions that might compromise the right of other participants to have their say by either dominating the dialogue, hijacking the agenda or intimidating others so they are afraid to speak up.

Building trust and creating an engaged community

Several panelists highlighted the frustration that many community members feel about not feeling like they have been heard. Begin transparently about what’s on the table and how the community input will be used was a common theme. This year more than ever, panelists were talking about the value of communicating with the community following the engagement to reinforce the value of participation. Darlene Walser of Hennepin County commented that, “When people start seeing what they say reflected in the plans they remain engaged and engage again next time.”

Overall, APA 2016 did not disappoint. It had community engagement enthusiasts looking for a cloning machine. I look forward to hearing other insights that people took away from their time in Phoenix.

Reposted with permission Planetizen.