A wide variety of field projects have formed our path of inquiry over almost the past 20 years. The cumulative findings address commonly help misperceptions about public participation.
1) “The public doesn’t care…”
The apathy myth – Community members DO care and will get involved if they are invited to participate from a trusted colleague and if the process is accessible in its language, framing and logistics. Common Knowledge projects and partners have shown that people in groups least likely to participate will vote, volunteer, advocate, lead dialogues and organize next steps for the issues they care about.
2) “Well, even if they do care, the issues are too complicated for them to understand…”
Public capacity – The public, especially underrepresented communities, have far greater ability to learn about complex policy issues than most policy elites understand; there is a way to distill the issues to help people understand the “basics” and they can tolerate far more ambiguity/”gray area” than politicians (or consultants) realize.
3) “Well, even if they can understand the issues, people are way too polarized to find common ground.”
Common ground – The public’s input on policy issues is most helpful in determining guiding values and trade-offs -– rather than expecting the public to be able to weigh in on the technical details of any one specific solution. At the values level, there is far more common ground than is reported by the media or many advocacy groups. Common Knowledge has been part of projects that have demonstrated common ground on such controversial topics as health care reform, affordable housing and even how to modify California’s Prop 13.