Taking Your Public Engagement to the Next Level
Over the years, I’ve learned that transparency, equity and inclusivity are crucial to building trust within a community and ultimately getting their buy-in. One thing practitioners often forget is that engagement is a continuous process. It’s like a relationship that is built over time and continues after a project ends. Good engagement is not transactional; it is reciprocal, collaborative and continuous. Therefore, it should not have a beginning or end. However, most times, we find ourselves starting an engagement process from scratch. We learn the city, its issues and opportunities, and the key players and begin to draft a public engagement plan. The engagement process can look different in different communities. In some communities, the city staff leads the process, while others retain consultants to lead the effort. Either way, a few guidelines should be followed to ensure you have meaningful engagement and, ultimately, a successful project.
Transparency means sharing the goals and objectives of your project upfront – clearly stating who you are and what you represent. If there are major controversial topics, address them head-on. This does not mean it needs to be abrasive, but it needs to be thoughtful and straightforward. Make sure you tell the core story and talk about real issues. As mentioned before, this also means creating a continuous feedback loop. Not only do you gather input from the community, but you also want to report out what you heard, who you heard it from, and how that input will be used in the plan. It can be done with infographics like the one shown below. These updates can also be included in reports and presentations.
Not every neighborhood is the same, and the sooner we acknowledge this reality, the better. As you drive through a city, you can see the areas that received the most attention and investment: cleaner streets, sidewalks, well-maintained lawns and nice amenities. However, neighborhoods with disinvestment have few amenities, if any, trash and dilapidated buildings needing repair. This disparity is seen in the built environment. Still, it is felt by residents who have been left out of the planning process, are disengaged, and feel hopeless, and disenchanted with their local government.
In turn, our task becomes working to build the trust that has been broken in the past. It can be challenging, but it is necessary to get buy-in during the planning process. An equitable engagement process starts with identifying and eliminating barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups. Obstacles might include language, transportation, and a lack of time and childcare.
Inclusion takes an equitable engagement process to the next level. It means creating an environment where an individual is welcomed, respected, supported and valued to participate fully. An inclusive environment embraces differences and offers respect for all members of the community. It can be demonstrated in the following ways:
- Hiring interpreters for meetings where multiple languages are spoken.
- Working with local leaders to disseminate information to their community. Allowing meeting participants to write their ideas down rather than asking people to share their ideas out loud or (even more intimidating) asking them to speak on a microphone in front of a large group.
- Hosting community conversations with a deliberative process that is thoughtful in preparation, uses powerful questions and dismantles the typical speaker-audience dynamics of a meeting.
- Limit jargon. We all get comfortable using acronyms and vocabulary known in our professional community, but the general public does not know those terms. Jargon can often be off-putting for people who don’t understand technical language. It is also confusing for non-native English speakers.
Quality over quantity. There is often an inclination to focus on the numbers. How many people took the survey? How many people were at the meeting? Instead, we should focus on what was shared at the meetings and what stories were told and consider the information necessary for decision-makers.
Community-driven. We recognize and understand community members as the experts that they are. They see firsthand what works and what doesn’t work in their community, and we want to hear from them in this planning process. Engage community members and make sure that their concerns are not only heard but addressed.
If you are interested in creating an equitable engagement process for your next project, please reach out to someone in the Freese and Nichols’ Urban Planning + Design group. We have a public engagement specialist who would be happy to share tools and methods with you.