In our last blog (which you can read here), we discussed what public engagement, involvement and participation is, why it is so important, and most importantly, why it’s so crucial to do it right. In part two of of this series of blogs, we will discuss some of the many techniques that can be used to successfully execute a public engagement strategy.
Before we plunge into techniques, let’s take 2 steps back and ask: “who are we trying to engage?” and “why are doing this engagement?”. Defining your stakeholders and setting goals are necessary precursors before starting any public engagement strategy. If you don’t know who the audience is that you are trying to reach, you’re not reaching anybody; and not having goals will result in wasting time and gathering useless information. No one needs those headaches!
So, identify your stakeholders – it may be based on a shared geography or demography or psychography, it may be issue-oriented or a broad spectrum of issues, or it could be both. But take the time to figure it out. When determining goals, they need to be realistic and articulated clearly so that you can use them to evaluate the outcomes from the engagement process.
Based on the typology from US EPA and International Association of Public Participation and mentioned in our previous blog, public engagement takes form along a spectrum from least engagement to most engagement. These levels of engagement range from informing the public by providing information to help them understand the issues, options, and solutions. It also includes:
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
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.
Keep reading as we offer some techniques that align with these different types of engagement. The examples below will encourage creativity and inspire you to take the next steps.
Informing – The least amount of engagement but still an important one. We applaud an innovative informing technique used in Colorado that installed “High Water Mark” signs showing historic high-water marks in flood-prone areas. This provides information to the public about the height of previous floods and is a vivid (but passive) message about the issue of local flooding.
Consulting – Perhaps the most common of the different levels of engagement, it can be helpful in communities with low trust of authority. Techniques include surveys (on-line or in-person) or holding meetings with feedback requested. In low trust circumstance, on line surveys provide anonymity and if it’s conducted in a public forum, it’s important to have a comfortable, nonthreatening environment. You may want to include a couple of trusted community leaders in the process to instill confidence in the process.
Involving – This level of engagement typically requires multiple contact points with stakeholders. One often-used technique is the public open house, with boards and staff available to present information, answer questions and record comments. A popular technique at these open houses is the use of “dot-ocracy” where attendees are asked to place adhesive dots on boards to reflect their preferences and priorities. The questions and comments raised are then used as recommendations are formulated and brought back in subsequent meetings to ensure that the public’s concerns have been addressed. This technique is usually very interactive, sparking conversations among participants and giving them the opportunity to get up and move from idea to idea.
Collaborating – At this level of engagement, there is extensive interaction between the public and agency staff. Creating a technical advisory committee that includes key stakeholders, can be an effective collaborative technique. This technique requires regular meetings of the committee and their involvement in early phases such as goal-setting and criteria development. The overseeing agency also needs to be transparent in their decision-making processes and insure there is a reporting mechanism in place, so the public knows the status of the project.
Empowering – The highest level of engagement, empowerment requires the greatest amount of trust between the public and an agency or government; it requires careful consideration about process and final decision-making. Before embarking on this technique, an agency or government must embrace the promise that it will implement the decisions that the public makes. This may involve a ballot measure or other voting measures. A public workshop, task force or technical advisory committee are all techniques that can empower the public, if there is the commitment to implement decisions made within those techniques.
These varying techniques and levels of engagement are not mutually exclusive, you may wish to use some or all of them as part of your public engagement strategy, i.e. combining an on-line survey with a public meeting using “dotocracy” to encourage levels of engagement. And, as your strategy is rolled out, you need to be flexible and be ready to change your intended level of engagement, depending on circumstances.
So, there you have it, public engagement is a necessary component to successful planning, project development and implementation …you want the public on your side with a sense of ownership! A deliberate and carefully thought out public engagement strategy can be an effective way to reduce conflict and controversy, and enhance an agency’s reputation for integrity and trustworthiness. Try it today!
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.