Problems with Talking about Complex Issues in a Complex Way

Civic issues are complex. There are a confusing array of variables and tradeoffs that go into something like the city budget. Difficult decisions have to be made about what goes in and what must be cut. City governments need to get input from the public on these issues, but citizens will not participate in the input process if the issues are too daunting to comprehend. If citizens do participate without understanding the issues, it is unlikely that their feedback will be helpful. Citizens who feel that they were not made aware of the issues could even derail a project by convincing Council not to approve the proposal.  

What is Gained by Talking about Complexity in a Simple Way

The goal is not to make these decisions seem uncomplicated and obvious. It is important that citizens see that there are many factors in play and that supporting one area may mean making a painful cut someplace else. Part of building public trust is displaying complexity so that there is a shared understanding when cuts do need to be made. Presenting this complexity in a simple way will help citizens understand the tradeoffs and give actionable feedback about their preferences. Citizens and their government can be sure that they went through a comprehensive process together that produced deep and actionable feedback.

3 Steps to Digestible Citizen Engagement


The first step in this process is separating what can be changed from what must remain the same. Many engagement projects begin with vague questions such as, “What do you think” or “Send in your comments”. These questions fail to outline the parameters for the discussion and lead to unfocused conversations about issues that are not even under consideration. It is better to set clear expectations from the outset to show participants exactly where their feedback is needed the most.


The second step is now that you are only talking about what can be influenced, you need to create narratives around the key choices under discussion. We are doing X, we want to be doing Z, therefore we need Y to get from X to Z. This clearly explains to citizens what is at stake and what their tax dollars may be used for.


The third step is enabling citizens to compare those narratives against each other and experiment with selecting different combinations, so that they can experience firsthand the complexity of making tradeoffs between options. By having to cut some programs to fund others that they feel will have a greater impact, citizens gain an understanding of the tradeoffs that the City faces.