Public Life Skills is the X Factor When Government and People Come Together

Sun Valley Boulevard Corridor Charette image from

Sun Valley Boulevard Corridor Charette image from

Have you been to those government-run public meetings, you know the ones, where they roll out flip charts, markers, blank pages, sticker dots, and other assorted materials so that you can “provide your input?” Sure you do, this sort of meeting typically happens in charettes, where design considerations are often put to the public for their consideration.

I’ve participated in my fair share, as well as run a few, of these types of meetings. If you’re lucky, there’s someone (or group of someones) running the meeting who knows how to work with the public. If you’re unlucky, the meeting feels like (and probably is) nothing more than a perfunctory legal requirement. When this happens, you know that the people running the meeting would rather not hear from you, which leaves you remembering that you had more important things to do than sit in a public meeting where your time was being wasted.

Yet, when run well, I’m always struck with how these meetings sometimes generate amazing energy. Everyone feels good about the work and everyone feels heard. People generally work well together. They dialogue at tables about the benefits and costs of any given potential decision. Something as seemingly innocuous as the option for removable stanchions on a streetscape becomes the centerpiece in a debate about vehicle access and pedestrian traffic desired in tomorrow’s newly envisioned neighborhood.

When done well, the government does a decent job of putting together a good product with the public’s tax dollars. When done well, the folks who work for the government become human again, shedding their “suits,” and actually learn from you, the public. When done well, you know you’ve contributed valuable input and given meaningful mental and emotional time and effort to a public cause. Unfortunately, most public meetings, even the charettes, are not done well. Why is that? I believe we have to think about three important factors contributing to this being the case.

What are these three factors? First, let’s tease out the two obvious and important factors, you and the government representative(s). Or, more generally, the public and the government. In your standard a+b=y equation, a is the public and b is the government. The outcome, a good or bad meeting, is y. Unfortunately, the equation is not as simple as this. Recall that three factors need to be considered.

Today’s progressive mantra for participatory governance calls for government to work with the people, not  for, or on, or to the people, but with. The idea being, of course, that if you work with the people the equation of a+b=y can actually function as it’s envisioned. Except, you and I both know that even when a thoughtful, accountable, progressive body of government men and women adhere to this mantra they somehow find a way to bungle it up. Why is that? Well, I believe it has everything to do with the third factor, which I call public life skills. Where does this factor fit into the equation?

In our a+b=y equation, the third factor becomes a multiplier, which further complicates how factors behave within the equation. This multiplier is x, making the equation look like this: a(x)+b(x)=y. Can you see the difference? Public life skills is the x factor, which plays a very important, but very often ignored, or poorly understood, role in our public activities among each other or with government representatives in public spaces and situations. In order for public meetings between the public and government to work well, both sides need to have good public life skills.

Aha! But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Exactly what goes into good public life skills and how does one get them? Maybe we learn in grammar and secondary schools? Usually not. How about post-secondary schools? Also, not. Maybe on the job? Typically, no. How about in our social, sports, or maybe, affinity clubs? Nah. How about in church? Not usually.

Where exactly are these skills taught, then? Maybe on TV, during campaign season, when our candidate hopefuls for elected office display the best of public life skills in action? Doubt it. If recent national campaigns are any indication, elected office candidates demonstrate about as good a performance of public life skills as, say, a drunken, shrill-voiced karaoke performer in an empty dive bar.

So if there is no real systematic place where we learn how to practice and improve our public life skills, how do we learn it at all? Well, there are places. Community organizers, for example, train themselves and others on how to improve their public life skills. Folks at the Industrial Areas Foundations and Midwest Academy have been doing this with communities for decades.

There are numerous online sites and local, regional, and national groups dedicated to teaching various aspects of public life skills (most typically refer to this as civic skills). I’ve provided a working list on the civic inclusion sites page, which you can click and browse at your own leisure.

This blog is dedicated primarily to providing and generating dialogue about these efforts, as well as proposing ideas and strategies for future learning and skill development in public life, and it is my hope that what is discussed in this blog complements your interests and efforts to improve your public life skills. My hope is that through this blog we can develop the x factor in public relationships, activities, processes, spaces, and meetings in such a way that the outcome is increasingly better each time, and by extension our democracy begins to look, feel, and operate like the one we still believe is promised and possible.


  1. I like your post and I agree with your thinking that there is an X factor involved in meetings that are meaningful and productive. I think that X factor is respect, which can lead to trust. As a planner, I work quite a lot with the public, often as an outsider. It does not do to try to impose preconceived plans and policies on people and then ask for “input” after the fact. I have found that when I am able to meet people where they live with respect and trust, I get it back in return and we are able to do productive work together.
    Thanks for the post and all the links. I look forward to more.

    • Excellent point on respect. For any public meeting to work, respect must be present on both sides even when emotions are raw, but respect is one of those overlooked skills that depends on other, well-developed, social skills for it to show up. When people lack the requisite skills, it becomes very hard to bring respect to the fore.

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