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Open Spaces & Citizen Ownership

20 June 2012

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On Monday, the Maxwell School’s Program on the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration (PARCC) ran a facilitated public meeting on the Onondaga Lake Watershed for the Onondaga Lake Partnership, the Onondaga Environmental Institute and several other groups.

There have been many public meetings about the lake to educate policymakers on citizen priorities and to educate citizens about the lake itself. This one, however, was different for two reasons. First, it focused on the entire watershed, not just the lake. Second, the goal  was specifically to cultivate citizen involvement and leadership in future clean-up and restoration activities as the the legislation that created the Onondaga Lake Partnership and its funding is about to expire.

As such, CNYSpeaks co-director Dr. Tina Nabatchi used a process called Open Spaces to organize the session. The process allows citizens to self-organize into groups of interest, to switch groups whenever they want (the Law of Two Feet), and to otherwise control the process and its outcomes.

Of course, all meaningful engagement processes spark free-flowing dialog and elicit genuine citizen feedback. And the role of the facilitators in Open Spaces is also similar as they make sure everyone has a chance to participate, that no one is disrespectful of other participants, that participants are aware of the clock, and that adequate notes are taken.

But the Open Spaces process has a lot more citizen direction built in, such as the ability to form groups around topics they suggest (as opposed to random assignment or pre-set topics) and to switch groups. Facilitators had a list of general questions to guide participants through, but the questions were not topic specific since, again, it was up to the participants to decide the topics themselves.

All of this is extremely appropriate when the goal of the meeting is cultivate citizen ownership. If you want people to take ownership, it has to be something that came from them and that they genuinely care about. If policymakers really wanted to hear citizen opinions on a specific topic, then it wouldn’t have been the right choice. As Dr. Nabatchi has taught me so well, form must follow function when designing a meeting.

The forum was extremely well attended, and the feedback we got at the end was overwhelmingly positive, as you can see from the photos above. Unfortunately, I did not get shots of the small group discussions, led by Maxwell and SUNY ESF students, that were at the heart of the event, because I was facilitating myself. There was a professional photographer there, and hopefully I’ll get some of those photos to post soon. Also note that this was not a CNYSpeaks event, but rather a collaboration between the Onondaga Lake Partnership, PARCC and other groups. It was certainly, however, in the CNYSpeaks spirit.

Speaking of which, if you haven’t done so already, join the growing CNYSpeaks group on Facebook. That’s where we are currently most active.

Forum on Civil Discourse Draws Crowd

18 February 2011

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We got a great turnout at the CNYSpeaks / FOCUS Greater Syracuse forum this morning on how to host public meetings that are constructive, productive and civil. Thank you so much to all who participated and supported the event. We’ll be reporting back soon on what we learned.

In the meantime, check out The Post-Standard’s take on the event, and this piece from YNN. You’ll also enjoy CNYSpeaks Co-Director Tina Nabatchi‘s Op-Ed piece in Sunday’s Post-Standard.

Let’s keep the discussion going here online. It’s not too late for you to help us better understand the conditions necessary for meaningful and effective public meetings.

What, exactly, is civility? You tell us!

17 February 2011

We’re continuing to collect your thoughts on how to have constructive, productive and civil public meetings, the subject of our Friday, Feb. 18th Forum with FOCUS Greater Syracuse

(Courtesy The Post-Standard) CNYSpeaks’ Facilitator Sally Rock-Blake listens during a CNYSpeaks event.

Since the Arizona shootings, the discussion of civility in our public discourse has become more vigorous than ever and has raised many questions:

  • What exactly is “civility”? Is it about pinkie-in-the-air politeness? Is it honoring difference as legitimate and making a good faith effort to find common ground?
  • Do we even need civility to have a substantive and productive debate?
  • What is required to have productive and constructive public meetings?
  • How can public meetings be designed to help promote civility, and, perhaps more importantly, to allow citizens to express themselves in a substantive way that truly helps inform our elected representatives and other policy makers?

These are questions we’ve been wrestling with on this blog since this post first went up in a slightly different form last week, and that citizens wrested with on Feb. 18 during a free public forum.

Let’s keep the dialog going. Check out what others are saying in their comments below and please share your own thoughts.

Tell us how you define civility, or give us your take on any of the other questions above. Or tackle it another way and talk about a public meeting you attended that worked — or about one that got ugly.

Chime in any way you want. CNYSpeaks is listening!

Salt City Dishes Event this Sunday

17 January 2011

Vote on Public Art Proposals at Salt City DISHES’ Quarterly Dinner this Sunday!
Sunday January 23, 5:30-8 pm, St. Clare Theater (840 N. Salina Street)

Salt City DISHES
is a quarterly dinner that features a variety of different public art proposals from local Syracuse artists.  The dinner audience  votes on their favorite proposal and all of the admissions money ($10-15 per person) goes towards funding the art project. At the next dinner, the previous winner presents their completed project to the audience and the audience votes on a new project for the next quarter.

Join us in supporting the local Syracuse art community this Sunday! Buy tickets in advance at Craft Chemistry2nd Story Cafe & Bookstore, and Sound Garden.

For more information, visit
Salt City DISHES

Making Public Meetings Work for the Public

11 January 2011

CNYSpeaks and FOCUS Greater Syracuse to Host A Forum on Civil Civic Discourse
Free Public Event to be held at 7:30 a.m. Friday, Feb . 18, at City Hall Commons

CNYSpeaks and FOCUS Greater Syracuse want to collaborate with YOU — the citizens of Central New York — to find ways to make public hearings and meetings more civil, constructive and productive.

(Mike Greenlar / The Post-Standard) Participants at CNYSpeaks events like the one pictured sit at small tables and work with fellow citizens and trained facilitators to brainstorm ideas and identify solutions to community issues. We'll be using this format on Feb. 18th to explore how we can make public meetings more civil and constructive.

Combative school board sessions and angry town hall meetings on health care have obscured the fact that public officials and citizens must work together to solve the complex problems we face here in Central New York and across the country.

Yet public officials are given little guidance on just how to structure public meetings to ensure that citizens are heard, and citizens have little guidance about how they should behave at those meetings to ensure that their interests are understood and that the meetings are safe and productive.

On Feb. 18, FOCUS Greater Syracuse will devote its monthly Core Group meeting to exploring this topic, with the goal of hearing from citizens about how they believe public meetings can be better designed to be productive, civil, and effective.

The forum, which is free and open to all, will run from 7:30 to 9 a.m. at City Hall Commons, 201 E. Washington St., Syracuse.

Participants will work in small groups with trained facilitators from the CNYSpeaks Initiative and the Maxwell School’s Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration to discuss questions such as:

  • Why do people go, or stay away from, public meetings?
  • What do public meetings that “work” look like?  What do such meetings accomplish? What processes are used?
  • How should public meetings be designed to be more inclusive, productive and constructive?
  • What are the minimum standards of behavior required of citizens — and officials — to have successful public meetings?

Please join FOCUS and CNYSpeaks as we tackle this important issue, and thank you in advance for helping us spread the word about this event. Again, it’s free and open to all. There is no registration required. The event will start promptly at 7:30 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 18, and be over by 9. Coffee will be served.

For more information, please contact FOCUS at (315) 448-8732 or CNYSpeaks at or 315-730-4621.

[Both CNYSpeaks and FOCUS are nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations. CNYSpeaks is funded by a Chancellor’s Leadership Grant administered by the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University.]

Participation 2.0: Citizens and the Internet

25 November 2010

Tina Nabatchi and Ines Mergel at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University recently published an essay for the report “Connected Communities” edited by James H. Svara and Janet Denhardt, Arizona State University. The report, which was drafted for the Alliance for Innovation, identifies steps local governments can take to connect communities and achieve a higher level of citizen engagement.  Through identification of model case studies, alternative strategies and methods, the report reveals answers to four questions:

  • What are the alternative goals of citizen participation and engagement?
  • What is citizen engagement and what forms does it take?
  • Who is responsible for citizen engagement efforts?
  • How does citizen engagement contribute to community building?

Nabatchi and Mergel’s essay in the report is entitled, “Participation 2.0: Using Internet and Social Media Technologies to Promote Distributed Democracy and Create Digital Neighborhoods” and explores the use of Internet and social media technologies to engage citizens in the work of government. The essay begins with a brief history and discussion of Participation 2.0 and then provides several examples of innovative projects in local government where Participation 2.0 is being used to promote distributed democracy and create digital neighborhoods. The essay then turns to a brief discussion about the challenges of Participation 2.0 and considerations for local officials wishing to engage in such activities.

This blog will explore some of the issues in the report in subsequent posts throughout December. The full report is available for download here:


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