How the World has Changed and PE impacts

The world has changed… and what this means for engagement.

Your open houses, story boards, fact sheets and clear expectations for public involvement are dying, dead, extinct. Traditional public engagement doesn’t work in the world we are living in. While it’s hard for so many to let go, change and move on from their familiar engagement processes, the world has already moved on without you. The context and environment for public engagement is different, and changing fast. These changes are positively – and negatively – impacting how people participate.

These changes include:

  • Distrust in government, corporations, media and large organizations;
  • A sense that the system is breaking or broken and is working for small minority of elites;
  • A swelling tide in demand for citizen involvement;
  • An environment of duelling and alternative facts eroding credibility and faith in decisions; and
  • A rise in uncivil discourse and polarization.

There is a growing distrust and cynicism towards government at all levels (primarily in western democracies) and an increase in activism and grassroots activities by citizens outside of formal engagement processes. These factors present both a challenging environment and an enormous opportunity.

The 2017 Global Trust Barometer, produced by Edelman Public Relations, indicates a global decline in trust by the public in government organizations, leading to a CRISIS in TRUST in 2017.

The engagement of citizens in a genuine, meaningful way, and the consideration of citizen’s ideas and values represent a potential shift in the way in which decisions can be made within government. This shift represents an opportunity to move from status quo to a new way of working with citizens and communities:

  • FROM government solves problems TO citizens advocate for solutions and identify new ways to move forward
  • FROM command and control, decide and defend TO citizens taking actions outside of formal process
  • FROM selling a decision, solution or idea TO working collaboratively to find long-term solutions that work for all
  • FROM government governs TO right and responsibility spread across multiple parties

The rise in adversarial and oppositional participation, and a sense of entitlement and demand that individual (versus collective) needs be met is influencing the public arena, and creating a whirlpool of outrage, righteous indignation and chaos. This can be seen in marches, protests and meetings and online and in social media, where uncivil, disrespectful participation is frequent along with a sense that treating people who disagree with you as the enemy is acceptable.

In 2016, Oxford Dictionary identified “post truth era” as its phrase of the year. While many would like to blame the U.S. 2016 Presidential election campaign for the rise in alternative facts, this has been a growing trend for a number of years. When you combine:

  • The overwhelming amount of information and unlimited access to multiple sources of information;
  • A reliance on information seen as more credible when it comes from peers or familiar faces;
  • The rise of alternative facts and misinformation and its impact on the context of conversation and the human psyche; and
  • The way the human brain processes information and makes meaning – there is a direct impact on our public engagement processes.

Suspicion is thrown on information provided by government, media and experts, resulting in less certainty about the facts and a higher incidence of group think.

The growth in grassroots movements and fast mobilization on key issues can be seen everywhere. Globally, people, communities, and countries are standing up and demanding greater participation in the decision-making that affects them. Brexit, the Trump election, growing unrest across the European Union, grassroots based movements such as Move On (with more than 8 million members), Occupy, Idle No More, Black Lives Matter, We Stand with Standing Rock and many other growing movements, pro-democracy protests in Russia, across China and around the world – these are all examples of dramatic changes that are influencing how governments and businesses relate to society.

As citizens participate more frequently and vocally in initiatives and on issues that are important to them, their capacity and ability to participate increases. They build knowledge and understanding about the organizations they interact with and how they operate, the variety of issues and inter-connectedness and decision-making processes. They identify the changes they want to see in those systems of governance. They also develop an understanding of public engagement itself – and what works for them, and what doesn’t. It’s time engagement teaching and approaches caught up to the changes happening in the world.

We’d love to hear about your experiences and the impacts of these trends in the work that you do.

  • Do you face similar challenges?
  • What role are alternative facts playing in your conversations?
  • How is distrust impacting the dialogue?
  • How have fear and polarization impacted your projects?

Send me an email at or comment on our Facebook Page.


Steph Roy McCallum