Sometimes progress comes from unexpected quarters. It is not the mission of the Health Care Foundation to engage individual members of the public. As a foundation, it works with the people who work with individual consumers. Yet Health Forward is making a truly historic contribution to public engagement. Its passion for hearing directly from regular people, and on a large scale, has the potential to transform the public’s role in our region. The impact reaches far beyond health-related issues.
Health Forward was the lead funder for an event last fall that engaged 300 people – mainly people with mental health challenges, along with their friends and family – in creating innovative, community-based ways to improve mental health. Health Forward board and staff members experienced the power of hearing directly from people who are affected by an issue.
This year, on Oct. 11, Health Forward is replicating that event, this time engaging the uninsured and underserved in a conversation about health and how to make this region a healthier place.
The community conversation will operate much as you would expect a conversation to happen: some speaking, some listening, everyone engaged. There will be small-group discussions and keypads and iPads (provided for the event) to give a voice in real time to hundreds of people who are uninsured and underserved.
The process is deliberative, which is unusual for public meetings. Deliberation is characterized by “the thoughtful and reasoned consideration of information, views, experiences and ideas among a group of individuals.” Compare that to the typical public meeting, which almost always uses the public hearing process. Remember the health care town meetings of 2009? That’s the public hearing model on steroids: one microphone, and a line of (usually angry) people waiting to have their say.
When most elected officials and community leaders think of engaging the public, that’s what they expect. For many, the public hearing model is all they know. They see the public as volatile and difficult because the process used to engage them typically brings out the worst in them.
How do we change this bad habit of public engagement? Let people experience an alternative.
You can watch the light come on the first time someone sees what’s possible when you involve people before all the decisions are made, let them work in small groups and give them a meaningful task. They realize the public actually can be thoughtful and civil and productive.
Health Forward is endearingly resistant to tooting its own horn, so I will make a joyful noise on its behalf. By engaging the public in large-scale, deliberative meetings – twice – Health Forward has given regular folks in our town a chance to shine. It has opened the door for better decisions, a more engaged community, and local leaders prepared to involve people thoughtfully. That is the kind of leadership that transforms a region.
Jennifer Wilding is director of Consensus, the nonprofit organization celebrating its 30th year of putting the “public” in public policy by giving people a thoughtful voice in decisions that affect their lives.