making democracy pay
Continuing the discussion on “social profits” in organizations, how does engaging the public affect an organization’s bottom line? Such a question might seem crass or simply out of place to political theorists focused on the positive benefits public deliberation offers for participants and communities. But it’s an important question, and one that public engagement consultants think about a lot. See, for example, this blogpost on the “ROI” of improving online engagement, or this white paper on “how democratic engagement can cut the cost of government.”
While some critics believe public engagement (PE) should be a hallowed space protected from the market, I took two different approaches to this question in my book. Rather than prejudging or minimizing the market for public engagement, I was interested in exploring the empirical reality of the industry for PE facilitation services and products (like software)– and the ways in which it was actively moralized by participants.
First, I looked at the use of public engagement by industry clients as an organizational strategy. In the context of organizations using other related strategies (such as public relations, digital campaigning, grassroots lobbying, corporate social responsibility), whether with staff or outside consultants, how much did PE processes cost, how were they being marketed, who was buying them, and for what situations?
Second, I looked at the culture around that activity—how consultants used both economic and non-economic language in their work to promote deep democracy. Consultants were very careful to civic-ize the market for engagement, focusing on the production of public-spirited, equitable, representative dialogues and preventing contamination of those processes by interest groups or well-heeled sponsors seeking consent for predetermined outcomes. But consultants were also passionate about linking economic and civic outcomes and saw social and economic profits as interdependent and mutually reinforcing.
In fact, the civic authenticity that political scholars celebrate in deep democratic processes is what gives public engagement its marketability for organizations in crisis. This is why I argue that research on participation can benefit enormously from organizational approaches of all kinds.