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For many years, watershed assessment and planning has largely been a government agency activity, with limited citizen involvement. Too often, citizens and stakeholders were given opportunities to become involved too late in the process when they could do little to influence policy decisions and implementation plans. As a result, there has been limited ownership or buy-in to these plans. Not surprisingly, implementation of water quality plans and practices have often stagnated or not met goals developed for a particular watershed. This experience has led MPCA to reconsider the ways in which it studies and manages water pollution. In addition, The Clean Water Council has recommended that MPCA encourage greater civic engagement in watershed planning by encouraging more citizens to become leaders for change in their communities and holding individuals personally responsible for making needed changes that could reduce water pollution. 

Since watershed protection and restoration depends largely on changing the behaviors of citizens who live on the land, it will require a real commitment at the community level to address problems in our lakes and streams. Watershed assessment and planning must be much more inclusive, with the public playing a much more active role, beginning early in the planning process. Citizens must be involved in framing the problem, developing solutions and taking responsibility for implementation.

How does civic engagement help Minnesotans take responsibility?

Civic engagement requires a different orientation, where the government works to create the appropriate venues and opportunities for Minnesotans to take part in the watershed planning processes and to take a greater share of the responsibility for clean water. How can this be encouraged and supported? At its best, civic engagement supports and encourages the following:

  • Conversation - Government can provide a safe place where diverse stakeholders can meet to engage in deliberative dialogue. The quality of the conversation is very important. Citizens and Stakeholders are not brought together to debate each other, or to try and persuade others to support one view over another. Dialogue allows for the airing of many points of view and for the sharing of personal experience and stories. When meaningful dialogue occurs, participants are confronted with ideas that may challenge their own. In the end, significant shifts in thinking can occur among participants. Conversation can move people beyond self-interest to a concern for the common good.
  • Collaboration - Collaboration requires social structures within a community that allow meaningful relationships and partnerships to emerge and mutual respect and trust to develop between previously disconnected neighbors, businesses, and local government officials. Trusting relationships can result in the sharing of information, resources and connections that support water restoration and protection efforts. When citizens find creative ways to connect and leverage resources in the community, exciting things can happen.
  • Community - Civic engagement, at its core, builds community.  Government, individuals and organizations can strengthen communities by strengthening existing or building new networks  between people, building bridges during times of conflict and fostering a greater level of citizen involvement. Many Americans crave a deeper sense of community. Watershed activities can provide one important opportunity to build and increase social capacity across Minnesota.


The following materials are recommended reading for people who are interested in increasing their understanding of civic engagement and how it can be applied in watershed projects. These materials and websites are but a few of the resources available on the subject of civic engagement. However, these should provide a general overview of the subject as well as provide several approaches and tools that are available.

Clean Water Council

This presents the perspectives and views of the Clean Water Council regarding the importance of civic engagement in watershed restoration and protection projects. In addition, the PowerPoint presentation summarizes important findings from the National Research Council on what works and what does not work in changing individuals’ actions and behaviors that impact water quality.

MPCA activities

These documents provide an overview of the civic engagement products and services that MPCA has developed and will be developing for use by local partners and citizens in watershed planning.

Civic engagement

Civic Engagement Philosophy/Good Democratic Processes

Assessing community capacity for civic engagement

A list of helpful tools that can be used to conduct an assessment of community capacity for civic engagement.

  • Harwood Institute - Harwood Online lets you actively explore and apply a set of proven ideas, frameworks, and tools that the institute has developed over the past 20 years that help you to create and accelerate change in your community.
  • Tetra Tech, under contract 68-C-99-249 to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Getting in Step: Engaging and Involving Stakeholders in Your Watershed. 
  • MacDermaid, Karyn K. and Daniela Barnstable. Step by Step Guide to Conducting a Social Profile for Watershed Planning. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 2001.
  • USEPA. Community Culture and the Environment:  A Guide to Understanding a Sense of Place. US EPA (EPA 842-B-01-003), Office of Water, Washington, DC, 2002.

Changing individual behaviors to improve water quality

Useful information on how to encourage individual behavior changes on the ground that may improve water quality.

  • McKenzie-Mohr, Douglas and William Smith. Fostering Sustainable Behaviors:  An Introduction to Community-based Social Marketing. Canada:  New Society Publishers, 1999. McKenzie-Mohr’s Quick Reference for Social Marketing
  • Shepard, Robin. Making our Nonpoint Source Pollution Education Programs Effective. Journal of Extension, Vol. 37, No. 5, October 1999.
  • “Service Design and Behavioral Change” in Touchpoint: The Journal of Service Design, Volume 2, No. 1, May 2010.

Civic engagement tools

These documents and resources describe a wide variety of citizen involvement approaches and tools:

Innovative tools for involving stakeholders

These approaches offer something different in the ways they involve citizens and stakeholders in decision making. Both are very interactive and satisfying for participants.

Online engagement. Provides a thorough overview of the ways that on-line engagement has been used to enhance public decision making.

Measuring social capital and public opinion