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.
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.
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.
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
August 1, 2016
The IAP2 Federation Board is pleased to announce the selection of Cassandra “Cassie” Hemphill as the new Professional Development Manager. Cassie commenced her duties on Monday, August 1, 2016.
Cassie brings to IAP2 more than 25 years of experience as a communications educator and consultant. As an educator, she teaches university and outreach courses in public speaking, interpersonal communication, intercultural communication, technical writing, and dialogue and deliberation at the University of Montana. She recently piloted a 12-hour “people skills” training for supervisors as part of an outreach to local businesses. For her university’s global leadership initiative, Cassie will teach a first year seminar in deliberative democracy. Prior to teaching, Cassie worked as a communications consultant, primarily coordinating large (>$1M US) commercial and government proposals and serving as lead writer and editor for complex, multi-volume technical and scientific publications.
Cassie’s Ph.D. research focused on the implementation of an innovative government procurement policy by a federal natural resource agency. Her M.A. research examined the decision-making processes used by technical experts in complex environmental cleanup projects. She as a B.S. in management and service leadership and a certificate in natural resources conflict resolution. She completed IAP2’s 5-day certificate course (now Foundations in Public Participation training) in 2004 and has completed training in project management, proposal management, and facilitation of P2 processes. Her current research explores best practices in adult learning and assessment, organizational communication, and deliberative dialogic decision-making processes.
Cassie is active at the national and regional levels of IAP2 USA. She is on the IAP2 USA Certification Task Force and is the Montana state representative for the Intermountain Chapter. She serves on the editorial board of the Northwest Communication Association Journal and has previously served that association as a conference planner. One of the highlights of her year is serving as chief judge for the 8th grade physical science division at the Montana State Science Fair.
IAP2 extends sincere appreciation to Staffing Committee members Jan Bloomfield (Canada), Kylie Cochrane (Australasia) and Ellen Ernst, Executive Manager for their efforts in working through the recruiting and selection process and for their thoughtful consideration of all applications received. IAP2 was pleased with the interest received from more than 30 applicants from around the world. The breadth and depth of experience was quite impressive.
In the coming weeks and months as Cassie becomes acquainted with the organization, key initiatives, and her role, many of you will have the opportunity to meet and work with her. Cassie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please join us in welcoming Cassie to IAP2.
San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) Public Outreach & Engagement Manager Deanna Desedas was first introduced to the IAP2 Core Values, Code of Ethics and Spectrum by Lewis Michaelson when she attended the IAP2 Foundations in Public Participation program (formerly called the IAP2 Certificate Program) in June 2013.
In her role with SFMTA, Deanna oversees the outreach and engagement for major capital construction and neighborhood-focused projects conducted by the agency. “We have hundreds of staff who conduct public outreach and engagement as part of the work they do for the agency. The challenge was how to bring authentic public engagement to scale.”
“We had identified a number of pain points. The community expressed growing frustration with the Agency’s approach to public outreach and engagement, and we would receive complaints about outreach occurring too late in the process, difficulty in reaching the agency and understanding who is in charge of a project, and a lack of consistency across projects. When this frustration turned to opposition, it created costly delays in project delivery in several ways, such as threatened lawsuits, negative press, protests and political pressure.”
To take on the challenge, Deanna embarked on a process to develop a Public Outreach and Engagement Team Strategy (POETS) that would help develop public outreach notification standards for all staff conducting outreach and engagement. By August 2014, she had launched the “POETS Peer Group” a team of 40 hand-picked Project Managers and Project Leads chosen for their leadership skills from multiple divisions across the agency with buy-in from all departments. Over the course of the next year, the POETS Peer Group conducted research on best practices, solicited feedback on drafts and vetted standards and guidelines. Ideas were sought from Portland, Boston, Los Angeles and New York. A grant from the Davenport Institute for Civic Leadership and Public Engagement supported development of the program.
“We needed to put together something compelling about how we engage the community when we implement projects with significant impact. We needed something different than a spreadsheet that listed public engagement as a task to be checked off without further elaboration.”
In early 2015, Deanna enrolled SFMTA in IAP2 USA’s Government Membership Program, which allowed her to enroll all project managers and project leads with public participation responsibilities. Since that time she has worked with IAP2 USA and Lewis Michaelson to bring the IAP2 Foundations program in-house. “Broadly training our project management staff gives us a common language – the IAP2 framework – to talk about and measure the effectiveness of our public participation efforts.”
Deanna and her colleagues within SFMTA use the Core Values and Spectrum every day. “Every project that involves putting together a Project Needs Assessment and Communications Plan requires us to think about the level of engagement we’re looking for depending on the nature of the project, and we frame the techniques we use around that level of engagement. Another way to look at is that we use the IAP2 Spectrum to put together the plans.”
While continuing to push forward, Deanna is now able to sit back to reflect on her efforts. “Now when we engage with stakeholders we try to really listen to them and take their concerns and input to help shape a better project, which helps projects run more smoothly and reach completion within better time frames.” But what Deanna finds most rewarding is building relationships and trust for the agency. Through the work she has done to bring authentic public participation to scale, Deanna has seen a change in public perception of the agency and its role in the community. “You have to have a base, and IAP2 is the solid base from which we started.”
By Francesca Patricolo and Anne Carroll, IAP2 USA Federation Representatives
On May 10-11, the IAP2 Federation Board met in Jakarta, Indonesia, graciously hosted by IAP2 Indonesia Affiliate presiding member Aldi Muhammad Alizar and held at the offices of Medco Energi. The IAP2 USA Affiliate sent our two Federation board representatives, Anne Carroll from St. Paul, Minnesota and Francesca Patricolo from Portland, Oregon, who participated with members from Canada, Southern Africa, and Australasia (Italy was unable to attend).
The lively and successful meeting covered ways the Affiliates can accelerate our work together to more powerfully support and advance the practice, sustainable investments in that collective work, approving the new train-the-trainer process for the Foundations course, progress on other initiatives in the current work plan, and the ongoing evaluation of progress and renewal of the strategic plan (see summary here).
On the morning following that meeting, Federation board members were honored to participate in an important seminar hosted by IAP2 Indonesia focusing on P2 and how to progress toward the UN’s 2030 sustainable development goals in this rapidly developing country of 260 million people spread over 922 permanently inhabited islands. Presenters and audience members included representatives from the United Nations Development Programme Indonesia, several national ministries and provincial agencies, academia, international private industries, international consulting firms.
Later that day, several of us from the Federation board joined our Indonesian IAP2 members in a meeting with the Dean and a faculty member from the new School of Government and Public Policy to discuss how IAP2 might be able to contribute to their work.
By Lauren Cobb, Southern California Emerging Chapter
Awareness of the need for and commitment to enhancing public engagement has been quietly growing in California for some time. Recently, California’s State Assembly formed its first Select Committee on Civic Engagement, chaired by the Assembly Member for the 13th District, Susan Talamantes Eggman. The committee’s first hearing was held December 18th, 2015 in Sacramento.
Boldly, Assembly Member Eggman convened the second hearing, held on May 13th, in Southern California at the Los Angeles Public Library’s Downtown location. The hearing offered a remarkable opportunity for members of IAP2 USA’s Emerging Southern California Chapter to attend and meet with policymakers and influencers who are thinking and planning for a more engaged California public.
Steve Boilard of the Center for California Studies, who facilitated a lunch discussion at the IAP2 USA 2016 Skills Symposium this past February, and Sarah Rubin of the Institute for Local Government presented on the opening panel describing an overview of civic engagement in California.
Grayce Liu, Director of the Los Angeles Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, and Pete Peterson of the Davenport Institute, who have both supported LA’s emerging chapter from the beginning, presented on the second panel, Local and Neighborhood Efforts, offering their powerful experiences cultivating more involved communities in Los Angeles and California at large, respectively.
The day’s presentations testified to growing awareness and resources in California for supporting improved and expanded civic engagement – both from the Public and from our public servants. If you are interested in seeing the recorded video of the hearing you can view it here and you can follow the efforts of Assembly member Eggman on her website and Facebook page.
Space station astronauts see 16 sunrises each day, and with each sunrise comes the thrill of a new beginning. Have you ever met anyone who has had the good fortune to be in on the new beginnings? That’s been Theresa Gunn’s experience with IAP2.
Theresa served as Chair of the transition committee that formulated the IAP2 USA Affiliate agreement, and subsequently served as President of the inaugural IAP2 USA Board of Directors from 2011-2012 where she oversaw the nascence of IAP2 USA. She also served on the first IAP2 Federation Board of Directors following the March 2010 decision to move to an Affiliate model, first as Treasurer, 2011-2012, and then as Deputy Presiding Member in 2013. After a short sabbatical, Theresa volunteered to chair the Membership Services Committee, 2014-to-date, where she continues to champion new beginnings.
“As a membership organization, we need to continue to grow the practice of public participation by expanding our reach and creating attractive membership and learning opportunities for people within the practice. In the beginning, we primarily represented sole practitioners whereas today we’ve grown to serving agencies and organizations who are living the Core Values every day. We want to make sure they’re part of our organization and we’re meeting the needs of our members.”
Theresa and the Membership Services Committee piloted the Government Membership program which began with the cities of Fort Collins and Longmont, Colorado in late 2014, and has since grown to include government entities representing municipalities, transportation, natural resources, regional planning, and school districts. Later this summer, the Government program will launch IAP2 USA’s first online Community of Practice to provide members in the same industry with opportunities to network, share best practices, and bounce ideas off each other.
Designed to allow the members of the community to define what they want to do and how they want to engage, the program will expand to include additional, self-defined communities so as to meet the needs of that group.
Theresa is looking forward to the day when we can offer tracks at the North American Conference to represent member interests whether it be by organizational type such as nonprofits or local government, or industries such as infrastructure (e.g., utilities or transportation), or issues such as the environment or sustainability. “Already we have members coming together by geography through chapters, and we need to find more ways to support networking to share best practices and build the profession.”
While not directly involved with the Certification Task Force, Theresa is a champion of their efforts and a proponent of developing the Professional Certification program. It was a priority for her as a Federation board member where she was able to shepherd the process that gave IAP2 USA permission to develop the program.
“IAP2 USA is a global leader in establishing the gold standard for public participation. Professional Certification will ensure organizations relying on certified practitioners are going to get the best of the best, and community residents who are participating in these process will be assured these are transparent, open processes founded on research-based best practices.”
And she is a champion of the work the organization is doing to support chapters. “We’ve seen some really good work come through the Chapter Liaison group this past year from developing the Chapter Handbook so everyone knows what resources are available to launching the chapter grant program and developing a chapter mentor model for emerging chapters. The services the central office can provide are much better defined, and chapters are better positioned to take advantage of the support that can be provided.”
Theresa is extremely passionate about the practice, and has seen the impacts P2 can make whether it be through a local flood control project or being the change agent who is able to help organizations fully value what their community can add to the decision-making process.
“Oftentimes we’ll hear ‘Oh, I’m the planner’ or ‘I’m the engineer, I have the expertise to do this.’ But then they’ll jump to the tool without really defining what they’re looking for. When we show people the Core Values and help them create an understanding of why they want to reach out, what information do they want, and how are they going to use that information, it changes the conversation. Open, honest, transparent processes allow communities to come together and make a difference. Instead of hearing from just the 10% who want to stop everything, decision-makers hear from everybody, including the people who want to make a difference.”
Where do we go from here? What’s next?
Later this year the Membership Services Committee plans to conduct another membership survey to get updated feedback on what members are looking for and how best to deliver programming.
“The last membership survey we did was two years ago when we were working on the 2015-2017 Strategic Plan. Since then we’ve added a lot of programming and we want to make sure our members are aware of the programming opportunities, that we’re presenting them ways that allow them to participate, and that their needs are being met. We need input to shape the 2018-2020 strategic plan and we need to be proactive in how we engage people early in the planning process to learn from membership as their needs change.”
Theresa regularly asks her staff, “How have our projects impacted somebody today? Are we making a difference in people’s lives and the communities they live in?” The projects undertaken by the Membership Services Committee and the efforts of others reflect the passion and commitment of those deeply engaged in the work of the organization and the impact the profession can have in making a difference in people’s lives and in the communities they serve.
Today is a new day at IAP2 USA.