Citizen Participation, Media Hype and… Dogs

Generation Why Blog by Aik Kramer

A while ago, I facilitated a public meeting about dogs in the municipality of Zandvoort (Holland), a fishermans village that, over the years, has transformed itself into a tourist beach resort. It houses approximately 16.000 inhabitants and, with the seasons, has a flow of millions of tourists each year. There are hotels, cafes, clubs, a race-circuit, and of course, there’s the beach itself.

Zandvoort is also a popular place for dog-owners. ‘Walking through the surf, watching your dog swim and play, is the best feeling in the world,’ I heard a dog-owner say. I had done a series of participatory meetings with citizens in Zandvoort, on policy issues such as the opening-hours for bars and clubs and public safety. Dogs, I thought, would be an easy topic compared to these issues. I was in for a big surprise.

Citizen participation and media hype

The mayor had requested that I lead the meeting about dogs. By involving a neutral facilitator, he wanted to create a more open and equal discourse between citizens and the local government. The purpose of the meeting was to evaluate the current local rules about dogs – where do they need to be leashed, where can they run and play freely and how do we deal with poop. They seemed like straightforward questions, but even before they meeting took place, I discovered that dogs are very dear to dog-owners. They are like family members.

People love (their) dogs and can be very protective of their beloved pets. So when the media picked up on a rumor that the local government wanted to ban all dogs from the beach (which was not the case), the dog-owners rose up in arms.

A sort of media hype followed, where dog owners were interviewed by reporters and responded with outrage to the supposed ban. ‘The local government has some nerve trying to change dog policy. They tried this years ago and now they’re trying again!’ The dog-owners were upset, and rightfully so, but it was all based on the assumption that the municipality wanted to ban dogs from the beach. This was not the purpose of the meeting. Had the media checked their story with the municipality, this would have become clear. Unfortunately, they didn’t and the story quickly reached the national media.

To address the escalating situation the mayor stepped in and appeared on a national news program to explain the purpose of the meeting. He clearly articulated this and made a polite statement about the miscommunication. He said: ‘It is not important where the rumor came from, but it is important for dog-owners to come to the meeting and speak up for themselves.’ He emphasized that their contributions during the meeting would become the basis for future policy proposals. He repeated, “There is no policy proposal, the meeting is pro-active!’.

The media hype showed how media-coverage can influence the expectations of stakeholders. Citizen participation can be about complex and controversial issues. Announcing a participatory meeting can lead to confusion. There are various ways to deal with ‘media-fallout’, but it is important to realize that you can’t always prevent this from happening.

The meeting

Unfortunately, a media hype can escalate out of control. Trying desperately to repair the damage with more press releases and emails, the case-manager of the municipalityturned to me a day before the meeting and asked,’What do we have to do to avoid a disaster?’. My response was, ‘Let the facilitator (me) start the meeting with a clear and understandable introduction. There is nothing more we can do to correct the story in the media. We will address the rumors and expectations head on, and will then clearly communicate the purpose of the meeting and the type of citizen participation it entails.’

This strategy proved to work. It had to work, because more than two hundred people showed up at the meeting. It was a chaotic, emotional, but also a very productive evening. It didn’t help that the audio-system failed us, that there weren’t enough chairs, and that there was an old man at the back of the room that kept screaming. At first I ignored him, then I asked the group to intervene and calm him down.

During the meeting I had to use the full power of my voice. To structure the discussion I had to fall back on methods of grassroots decision-making that I learned during my student days. I focused on creating a safe environment in which everyone could speak their mind and on summarizing what people said. Through hand-signals people could agree and disagree with statements. I did not dig too deep, and compiled a list of concerns on a flip-over.

We were able to ‘manage’ the expectations of the dog owners. By the end of the meeting we had discussed the needs and concerns of dog-owners extensively. It was too early to formulate coherent advice to the municipality, so I proposed that we organize a second meeting to evaluate the outcome of the first meeting and then, in a structured way, write up a consensus-document. I explained that in order for the decision-making body to adopt the groups advice, it had to be coherent and representative. I said: ‘This does not mean that we have to agree on everything, but that we have to be clear about what we as a group agree on, and where opinions differ.’

Conclusion

Two weeks later we had the second meeting. The group shrank to about fifty people. Together with the case-manager and relevant officials, we mapped the dog-owners’ interests, prioritized their wishes and discussed the practicality and achievability of certain solutions. Doggie policy, as turns out, is a lot of fun to play around with. Did you know there are public toilets for dogs, and even special poop-mobiles? The most important thing for effective doggie policy is good communication about the conditions of dog-ownership and clear public rules for dog-owners.

Citizen participation constitutes an important part of policy making. In Holland we have been experimenting with ‘interactive decion-making’ for decades, but evaluation of these type of processes rarely takes place. We shouldn’t expect the media to do this for us, since not every aspect of participation is ‘newsworthy’. To figure out what type of participation is best for a certain topic or situation, governments, citizens and facilitators should together evaluate processes: What went wrong? What went right? What should we do better next time?

My only regret is that the media hype caused a lot of stress among dog-owners. Still, without the hype, I doubt that there would have been such a mass mobilization. In participation, the old saying still rings true: there is no such thing as bad publicity.

                        author

Aik Kramer

Aik Kramer (LLM) works as a professional mediator, researcher and consultant. He specializes in public policy mediation. He has worked for the Dutch Ministry of Internal Affairs, The National ombudsman and various municipalities. In 2007 he founded generationwhy.nl, a platform for young mediators. MORE >

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