Is your organisation's engagement strategy in the red zone? Introducing 'Messy Democracy'

Why is there so much tension between our organisation and the people we’re trying to help?

Otto Rohwedder, the inventor of sliced bread. Image from  Wikipedia .

Otto Rohwedder, the inventor of sliced bread. Image from Wikipedia.

Otto Rohwedder went down in history as one of the change leaders of the consumer revolution.

Who is he?

Well, you can probably finish this phrase: “This is the best thing since ….” Yep, the inventor of sliced bread, USA, 1928. A newspaper of that year printed:

 “The idea of sliced bread may be startling to some people. Certainly it represents a definite departure from the usual manner of supplying the consumer with baked loaves.”

Until that time consumers were faced with the Henry Ford mentality, “You can have any colour so long as it is black.” The manufacturer was firmly in control.

Sliced bread caught on fast. So much so that housewives across the country rebelled when the US government banned construction of sliced bread machines during WW2 to save metal. The unpopular ban was lifted after just two months! The consumer now had power over a desperate government on a war footing.

As consumers, we’ve been in charge of choices and decision-making over products and service for decades in almost every sphere. But we often don’t enjoy the same influence in our government…

We live in an age of ‘messy democracy’

We’ve created this term to describe the movement people are seeking for more genuine engagement in decision-making. It’s messy because often different people have different demands all at the same time!

We want to introduce the following model to help officials and citizens understand the demands being made on democracy. The red zone represents public conflict. Green represents a satisfactory balance. Orange is a warning light.

Introducing our ‘Messy Democracy’ model. Where does your organisation usually sit?

Introducing our ‘Messy Democracy’ model. Where does your organisation usually sit?

When citizens have a low demand for power sharing, your organisation might just want to consult. If citizens’ demands are higher, you might want to look at strategies such as Citizen Juries, Participatory Budgeting or Online Engagement. At the high end you could look to Community Empowerment models.

In general the public is moving from low to high demand for power sharing. An increasing number of councils and government agencies are going to find themselves in the Red Zone and in need of innovative ‘messy democracy’ strategies.


Where does your organisation sit on the ‘messy democracy matrix’?

If any of these situations sound common, we should chat:

  • Decisions get overturned or taken to court after a lack of consultation or engagement

  • Your ratepayers survey or Performance Improvement Framework suggests your organisation isn’t “listening”

  • Your organisation spends a lot of time scrambling to prevent “front page PR disasters”.