In order to be effective as public engagement practitioners, we need opportunities to reflect on our work and think about the underlying theories and assumptions on which we base our actions. The tools and resources that follow are designed to encourage practitioners to think about how change happens as a result of public engagement, and to help them apply that understanding to the work of their organizations. We hope that organizations in our sector will use our theory of change model to reflect on their own assumptions about how change happens, and ultimately that they will undertake to develop, or adapt, a theory of change to inform their work.

Definition of Public Engagement

The following was developed as a working definition of public engagement for the ICN project.  It is not meant to be a prescriptive or conclusive definition, but rather, a definition that helps contextualize the approach and understanding of public engagement for this project, in this moment in time.

Public engagement is the practice of inspiring, supporting and challenging people and groups in dynamic cycles of learning, reflection and action on global issues. Public engagement is a transformative process that works towards more equitable social, economic, environmental and political structures.

Transformational vs. transactional engagement

“We need to shift the balance of NGO public engagement activities away from ‘transactions’ and towards ‘transformations’. This means placing less emphasis on ‘£5 buys…’ appeals and simple campaigning actions, and more emphasis on providing supporters with opportunities to engage increasingly deeply over time through a ‘supporter journey’.”-Finding Frames, Page 10

Over the past few decades there have been pressures on public engagement that have led to an increased adoption of transactional, rather than transformational, methods. We believe that the purpose of public engagement is transformational change: it should create long-term, sustainable change within individuals, groups and societies.

Transactional engagement seeks to lower or eliminate barriers to entry and calls for actions that are broad-based, easy and fast – such as a small donation via a text message, or signing an online petition. While these methods can be an important and often vital part of public engagement, we don’t believe that transactional methods alone will ultimately lead to the change we seek. In fact, some argue that they can be counter-productive for creating lasting change (Finding Frames, 6).

Transformational engagement seeks to implicate individuals and groups in dynamic cycles of learning, reflection and action on global issues. This process requires spaces for deeper engagement and methods that foster longer-term participation. Techniques for transformational engagement might include learning circles, experiential learning (local or global), or deliberative dialogue to work through complex issues, among many others.

As argued in a discussion paper commissioned by CCIC:

“Generating change in global systems cannot happen exclusively through awareness raising. . . .  More and more, [civil society organizations] of the South are telling their northern counterparts that the best way they can support development is by catalyzing changed attitudes and practices in the North and to entrust them with their own local development efforts. Public engagement needs to be holistic in its approach and include all of the actions leading to social change that citizens can take and this includes advocacy” (“Public Engagement in Challenging Times: The Context, Implications, and Possible Directions”, 18).

Public engagement is work that is never complete, and changes as we change, as our organizations change and as our societies change.

The ‘How Change Happens’ knowledge hub explored the explicit and implicit messages of our public engagement work. Our sector has had many conversations about the conflicting paradigms of justice on the one hand (the idea that development is a process of addressing inequities in social, economic, environmental and political structures, for the betterment of all) and charity on the other (the idea that development is a gift from the North to the South), and how they are both reflected in our messaging. The Finding Frames report looks at how the public in the UK understands global poverty through a frame of charity even when practitioners try to frame their message as one based in justice:

“The causes of poverty are seen as internal to poor countries: famine, war, natural disasters, bad governance, overpopulation and so on. The dominant paradigm has been labelled the Live Aid Legacy, characterised by the relationship of ‘Powerful Giver’ and ‘Grateful Receiver.’ Public perceptions have been stuck in this frame for 25 years” (Finding Frames 6).

The report demonstrates that the UK public is mostly unable to identify the ways in which their own behaviour and that of their government perpetuate inequality. Additionally, they hold onto the paradigm of “Us vs. Them” and perceive any solution as being tied to the charity model (20). We see many parallels between the UK report and the public engagement environment in Canada.

Lynette Shultz, Associate Professor of Education Policy Studies, identifies another dominant paradigm in public engagement practice in Canada: that of the “empowered individual” (“Public Engagement and Educating for Global Citizenship: What do we risk by focusing on “the Empowered Individual”?”, 3), a person in the developed world who has the power to make positive change. On first glance, this paradigm appears different than that of the “Powerful Giver” and “Grateful Receiver.” However, this paradigm does not change the relationship between the giver and receiver, but, rather, shifts the frame to focus only on the “giver” – the empowered individual – thus de-legitimizing collective action, and shutting out voices from the Global South.

We are left with the question of how we can re-frame our public engagement work in order to help Canadians understand themselves and their roles differently, and emphasize the values of cooperation, equality and justice that we believe are integral to our work.  We hope that the tools in this module will provide opportunities for practitioners to reflect on and share their own understandings of how to help Canadians engage in transformative change.