We work with a diverse set of clients in often-public settings and regularly need to have public engagement, involvement and participation. In this first of two blogs, we will talk about what public engagement is, why it is so important, and why it is important to do right. In the second blog on it, we will discuss some of the many techniques that can be used to successfully execute a public engagement strategy.
What is public engagement (also known as public involvement)?
For this blog we are defining public engagement as any process that directly engages the public in decision making and takes into consideration their input in making that decision. Note the use of the word “process”. Public engagement is a process, it is a series of activities over the life of any project or plan, it is not a one-time event.
Public engagement gathers input for many groups and individuals (“stakeholders” as we planners like to say) and seeks input at specific times during a project and/or on specific topics. There is nothing worse than having outsiders come into a community and dictate what should or should not happen without engaging and listening to a variety of stakeholders.
What are the different types of engagement?
The type of public engagement that is performed should be a function of the potential for public influence on a decision, as this will vary from project to project. Public engagement can be viewed along a spectrum, from informing to consulting to involving to collaborating to empowering (a hat tip to the US EPA for this useful framework). The varying degrees of public engagement are:
Informing the public by providing information to help them understand the issues, options, and solutions.
Consulting with the public to obtain their feedback on alternatives or decisions.
Involving the public to ensure their concerns are considered throughout the decision process, particularly in the development of decision criteria and options.
Collaborating with the public to develop decision criteria and alternatives and identify the preferred solution.
Empowering the public by placing final decision-making authority in their hands.
Prior to starting any public engagement process, it’s important to know what type of engagement you are seeking, and what the public expects from that engagement.
Understanding public expectations is a critical precursor to public engagement because successful public engagement requires a promise to the public; it represents what the public can expect from the process regarding access to and potential influence on the decision.
The promise also defines the level of information and communication that can be expected, and the type of engagement must align with stakeholder’s expectations. By outlining the process prior to the public meeting, you can avoid conflicts and confrontations.
One other thought on the process, successful public engagement is not simply asking the public “what do you want”. This open-ended question creates expectations that often can’t be met and creates resentment and an “us versus them” attitude. You need to provide enough baseline information and context so that the participants can provide meaningful contributions; it keeps the conversation focused and fosters thoughtful conversations. Furthermore, providing that information helps set expectations at a realistic level.
Why do public engagement?
There are many reasons to do public engagement – legal requirements, a need for public input, or to demonstrate public support. Other reasons include a desire to see if there is opposition or controversy related to the idea or plan or to gain allies. But the most important reason is that it is a best practice for plan-making and project or program development so the community and various stakeholders are not taken by surprise.
Public engagement may be a requirement under the law, such as federal transportation and environmental regulations. But “window dressing” public engagement that is intended to only meet legal requirements are often a prescription for disaster.
What are the benefits of public engagement?
There are many benefits to public engagement, but we have listed a few of the highpoints.
Better and more easily implementable decisions that reflect public interests and values and are better understood by the public.
Communities developing long-term capacity to solve and manage challenging social issues, often overcoming longstanding differences and misunderstandings.
Increased likelihood of success if public feels their input has been included.
Expanded baseline shared information.
Developing a constituency and relationships in the community that can assist in implementation of recommendations.
The bottom line: public engagement results in better decisions, dec
ision-makers have more complete information, participants feel more invested, controversies can be surfaced and responded to, partners can be identified and supported, and communities can be enhanced.
Public engagement is a great investment of your time and resources and can make you a hero in the eyes of your stakeholders! Look for Part II of this blog to gain insights and tips on tactics and techniques to generate constituent buy-in and get the conversation started.
Eastwick Solutions develops revitalization strategies for towns and municipalities, activates rivers and trails through recreation, education, and environmental programs to spur economic development in nearby towns, provides Main Street marketing to supplement existing staff, engages stakeholders of all levels to ensure buy-in and support, stimulates economic development strategies leveraging nature-based assets (rivers, trails, agriculture, events), designs and develops nature-based asset programming, events and activities to maintain engagement and build affinity, writes grants for project-related funding, and conducts asset assessments to build image, programs, and events around.