Talking about public participation & community engagement with the US Federal Government

These are my responses to the Federal government’s new Request for Information (RFI) survey about methods and leading practices for advancing public participation and community engagement with the Federal Government.

I shared them with a group of colleagues and several of them asked me to post them on my blog for reference, so here they are for all of you. 


What is your and/or your organization(s)’s mission and/or areas of experience or expertise?

Our stated mission [in CII] is to promote innovations in collective wisdom, co-creativity & collaborative governance.  Our central focus and expertise has been in the realms of group process and public and stakeholder engagement.  However, all that is in the context of furthering a democracy capable of generating collective wisdom (long-term wellbeing of all life), as in our Wise Democracy Pattern Language Project  More than a hundred engagement processes are highlighted in the Resources and Examples section of each of the 96 patterns there, as well as in the and .org websites and my books The Tao of Democracy, Participatory Sustainability, and Empowering Public Wisdom.  All but one of the [board] members of the Co-Intelligence Institute are group/public process practitioners.

What is the Federal Government doing well when you (or your organization) participate in or try to participate in government PPCE activities? Please include any specific examples.  (“PPCE activities” include notice and comment processes, Requests for Information, consultations, listening sessions, customer feedback surveys, user research, crowdsourcing, or other activities that solicit feedback from the public to inform government decision-making.)

To our knowledge, we have not participated in any PPCE [the Federal Government’s Public Participation and Community Engagement] activities, as such.  We did supply a few volunteer facilitators for AmericaSpeaks’ massive 1998 Americans Discuss Social Security project in which 50,000 Americans including President Clinton and 120 members of Congress actively participated  We also participated in curating the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation’s public engagement guidelines for the new Obama administration in 2009.  See

What might the Federal Government do to make it easier or more likely for you (or your organization) to participate and engage with the Federal Government to inform government decision-making (e.g., to share concerns, recommendations, experience, knowledge, or expertise on government policies, regulations, programs, plans, priorities, and services)?

   1.  Go beyond mere input towards greater citizen/stakeholder partnership and empowerment in governance – see Sherry Arnstein’s 1969 Ladder of Citizen Participation which was the inspiration for the modern International Association for Public Participation’s Spectrum of Public Participation
    2.  Go beyond mere recommendations and even collective intelligence to collective wisdom – see and

What is your understanding of how individuals and organizations can engage with the Federal Government to inform government decision-making, and of various opportunities (both past and present) to do this?

There are vast international resources and associations who have knowledge, designs and and processes that enable generative public and stakeholder engagement – particularly including amazingly innovative initiatives in Europe and Taiwan.  (For just a taste, visit The US Federal Government should have an office dedicated to Citizen and Stakeholder Engagement in Current and Future Issues (CASEinCAFI) which researches and convenes innovative generative forums among diverse public, private and civic individuals and entities, online and in person.  The US should be an international leader in this emerging movement for a more potent and participatory form of democracy.  We’d be delighted to participate in any conversations to bring that about.

What can the Federal Government do to reach and include a broader and more diverse range of people and groups, especially those who might typically be missed? 

Do focus groups, forums, and surveys (especially the participatory polling platform Polis in conjunction with World Cafe, a potent, simple mass engagement approach to engage different marginalized groups – and/or highly inclusive diverse groups of all kinds (perhaps through “sortition” – aka random selection) using questions like “From your perspective and to serve your needs, what would you also like the government to do to engage citizens and stakeholders like you?”

What types of content (e.g., methods, tools, definitions, research on the value of participation and engagement, promising practices) could OMB include in a Federal framework for PPCE that would be effective and informative for Federal agencies to initiate or improve their participation and engagement activities, including those carried out with underserved communities? Please share any specific examples.

These are contained in my previous answers.  Here’s a list of them – some of which are compilations of many others – plus a few others.

* The Wise Democracy Pattern Language Project
* The Tao of Democracy, by Tom Atlee
* Participatory Sustainability, by Tom Atlee
* Empowering Public Wisdom, by Tom Atlee
* The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation’s public engagement guidelines
* Sherry Arnstein’s 1969 Ladder of Citizen Participation which was the inspiration for the modern International Association for Public Participation’s Spectrum of Public Participation
* “The Nature of Wisdom in a Democracy”
* Participedia (one of the largest of dozens of process and engagement compilations on the web)
*  Polis
*  World Cafe
*  The Change Handbook by Peggy Holman et al
*  NCDD Resource Center
*  International Association for Public Participation
*  Democracy R&D
*  The Bridge Alliance

How might OMB facilitate agencies adopting and effectively applying such practices, given the wide range of possible PPCE activities and focus areas?

By having a dedicated office of staffers who have researched, networked and practiced in the field – and have them linked to officers within each agency who are specifically tasked with liaising with them regarding any effort at public engagement within the domain of their agency.  This has been successfully piloted for years by the vTaiwan program in Taiwan, where every ministry has a Public Participation Officer.  See

What are effective ways for the Federal Government to provide updates to the public about the feedback it receives during, and decisions made after, PPCE activities? Please include any specific promising practices.

I have no knowledge of such specific practices appropriate for the federal government.  But for inspiration beyond that, I offer the example of Canada’s Maclean’s magazines “The People’s Verdict” initiative.  Full information at– with a summary narrative at

What goals and objectives should OMB consider when developing a Federal framework for PPCE?

1.  Integration of diverse approaches connecting focused minipublics (like randomly selected Citizens Juries) with broadly participatory forums (like World Cafes) using participatory polling platforms (like Polis).
2.  Integration of such citizen engagements with networked multi-stakeholder collaborations to cover a fuller range of needs, views and resourcefulness.
3.  Iterative processes whose outputs – and the results of those outputs – become inputs into subsequent processes, forming an ongoing form of collective intelligence.
4.  Inclusion of representatives of marginalized communities, non-human living communities (nature) and future generations in all forums, enabling the emergence of collective wisdom (long-term broad wellbeing).
5. Engagement of all sectors and communities in developing the capacity to contribute to all of the above (e.g., training facilitators and community engagement professionals who can actually DO that work)

What guidance might OMB provide to agencies for developing their own goals and objectives for participation and engagement?

We’re not just looking for input into Federal decision-making.  We’re seeking to build the capacity of communities and stakeholder networks to generate collective intelligence, collective wisdom, collective will, and collective resourcefulness to address all our shared challenges in all areas at all levels, with explicit awareness that we’re not just looking out for ourselves, but for all current and future life.

What metrics could OMB suggest to help agencies assess the success and/or impact of their PPCE activities (e.g., participant diversity, breadth and saturation of reach, new or unique perspectives gained, engagement quality, engagement satisfaction, usability of feedback on government decision-making)?

All those are great.  How about rating of policy outcomes by  full-spectrum agency-specific stakeholder surveys?  I’d also add general level of trust in government and quality of life indicators – although these are probably more for OMB than for individual agencies.  However, developing comparable (trust and QoL) indicators for each agency’s publics and outcomes would be a giant step forward in responsible governance.

In co-developing a Federal framework for PPCE, what specific steps should OMB take that involve the Federal Government and the public, especially engaging members of underserved communities, to ensure collaborative development of the framework?  

To add a few approaches that will likely be quite different from most answers to this question, I offer these:

1.  Engage networks of libraries, nonpartisan community groups, cross-boundary bridging efforts (interfaith, interracial, multi-sector, transpartisan, etc.) in a series of forums (designed as in prior answers) seeking insights into this question.
2.  With major players from the conversation in (1), sponsor a series of well-publicized national conversations on specific issues, intended – as per the Maclean’s initiative mentioned earlier – to give the broad public a vicarious view of how dramatic AND productive high quality dialogue and deliberation can be, so that they WANT it.  Ideally, each forum would demonstrate a different conversational approach or approaches, to generate national discussions about the gifts and limitations of all these approaches.

Do you have any additional feedback for OMB to consider in developing and implementing this Federal framework for participation and engagement?

People will respect it and participate in it if
a.  It represents and/or engages a full spectrum of views and people, for whom it expresses respect and appreciation
b.  It has integrity, being transparent and accountable, demonstrably fair and unbiased, and not manipulated or manipulative.
c.  It has clear and/or demonstrable influence on policy, programs, budgets, etc., constituting true partnership between government and its constituents

Beyond public attitudes about it, it will generate wise outcomes to the extent

d.  It studies, identifies, and uses processes that are most powerful at using diversity and disturbance creatively.
e.  It creatively integrates the wisdom and resourcefulness of both the citizen population and networked stakeholder collaborations in each issue domain.
f.  When it engages expertise, it reaches beyond mere issue experts to include experts in systems thinking (all kinds!), ethics, complexity, ecology, conflict management, multi-capital economics, cognitive psychology, and other outside-the-box realms that can help the US consider the larger contexts within which every issue is embedded, generating second- and third-order effects that influence civilization’s capacity to continue.

Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440

Appreciating, evoking and engaging the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole

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