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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.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 21 June 2012 1:16 pm

    Onondaga Environmental Institute was happy to partner with PARCC and help organize this forum. For more information about the event, visit:


  1. Open Spaces a Tool to Build Ownership « Greg Munno

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