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Public Engagement


Community engagement is a continuous effort that can ensure an effective planning process and lead to a successfully implemented plan through community ownership and relevance.  Much like a successful business responds to the needs and ideas of its existing and potential customers, good local government must continuously interact with and respond to its customers – residents, businesses, organizations, and visitors.

An effective community engagement plan begins with an internal situational or contextual assessment of the issues. The assessment should answer the following questions:

  • What does the community already know about the issue(s)? Is engagement needed for additional feedback or to garner wider acceptance of public choices?
  • What stakeholder groups are most impacted or influenced by the issue? What positions does each stakeholder group have regarding the issue(s)? Are the positions barriers or facilitators to the planning process?
  • What community leaders are organizers, conveners, and contributors to the process?
  • To what degree will public preferences influence the outcomes of the planning process?

From the situational assessment, the next step is to establish participation goals by stakeholder group, if necessary. As stated by the International Association for Public Participation in its spectrum of participation, there are five possible goals:

  • INFORM  – Provide the public with balanced and objective information
  • CONSULT – Obtain public feedback on analysis, alternatives and/or decisions
  • INVOLVE – Ensure that public concerns and desires are consistently considered and understood
  • COLLABORATE – Partner with the public in each aspect of the decision including the development of alternatives and the identification of the preferred solution
  • EMPOWER – Place final decision-making in the hands of the public

These goals, which are not mutually exclusive, determine the possible techniques used during the public engagement process. For example, if the goal is to inform, then the entity may chose fact sheets, web sites, open houses and/or organizational briefings; and if the goal is to consult and inform, the entity may also include focus groups, surveys and public meetings comment forms.

To reach out and facilitate dialogue takes the right tools, the right forums, and the right sequence of events.  Techniques vary by audience and scope of a project, but often the more media, the better.  Today, many community members are on-line, but never forget the digital divide.  Thus, a range of publications, including the printed and digital, helps reach all segments of society.  Additionally, where a public event is held and its format will influence the accessibility and comfort level for participation for an intended audience.  Rather than always holding meetings at a formal civic location, think about actually facilitating outreach and meeting with various audiences in settings and events most familiar to them.  Finally, the order of events will make the difference between active engagement and superficial patronization.  The most effective engagement has an interdependent cycle of events directly contributing to plan or project development.

In addition to providing feedback to the governmental entity and the professional consulting firm, participation can build civic capacity and create a citizenry that serves the community in other endeavors. Since today’s public problems require active citizenry and civic capacity to generate relevant solutions, community engagement cannot rely just on the perspectives of the policy mavens and elected civic elites. In other words, the traditional public hearing, where an individual receives 2 to 3 minutes to voice his or her opinion, is not community engagement. Community engagement by its nature requires true dialogue (two-way communication) and the mutual exchange of ideas between the governmental entity, the professionals and the community.