Engaging the public is an essential aspect of community planning and decision-making. Public engagement can help identify community needs, build trust and collaboration, and create more effective policies and programs. Ultimately, when done right it should also lead to greater civic pride. However, there are several common mistakes that we regularly see communities make when engaging the public that can undermine the effectiveness of their efforts.
One of the most significant mistakes that communities make when engaging the public is not being equitable. It’s important to recognize that different groups within a community have different needs, interests, and perspectives, and they may not all have equal access or willingness to engage in the same ways. Communities should strive to create inclusive and accessible engagement opportunities that are designed to reach and represent diverse voices and viewpoints. This may be as simple as offering child care at public engagement events, offering multiple ways to engage (both in-person and virtually), or offering foreign language translation of engagement materials and presentations. However, being equitable isn’t as simple as providing equal opportunity for everyone to engage. It means you may have to make extra effort to reach certain groups and really understand what is important to them.
Another mistake that communities make is expecting people to come to them. This approach often results in only hearing from a small segment of the community, who may not represent the broader population. Communities should take proactive steps to engage people where they are, using a variety of methods, such as at public events, on-the-street engagement, and by partnering with other organizations that may have a built-in audience. It’s important to recognize there is a hierarchy of needs that must be met before individuals are motivated to engage, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be reached. One example of this is that homeowners have more personal and financial incentives to engage, but we should be making significant efforts to ensure we are reaching renters as well.
Another mistake that communities make is treating engagement data like a vote. It’s essential to recognize that engagement data is not a vote, and you shouldn’t look to survey results to make a “winning” decision. Engagement data should be used to surface diverse viewpoints and inform decision-making in conjunction with other relevant data and expertise. Too often civic leaders want engagement data to make the tough decisions for them and point back to the data to say this is what the people wanted. However, a minority opinion you heard from may represent the viewpoint of thousands that you haven’t heard from. Therefore engagement should be used to surface the different viewpoints in a community but you need to be very careful when using that data to make a decision for you. Public engagement data is too easily skewed by special interest groups that absolutely have a right to rally their contacts and make their voice heard but effective leadership should not just look at who was the loudest or what got the most “votes” on a survey.
Communities often fail to provide meaningful feedback to participants in the engagement process. A lack of feedback can leave participants feeling disengaged and disempowered. Communities should strive to provide timely and transparent feedback to participants, acknowledging their contributions and explaining how their input is being used. This can be done through stylized infographics of what was heard or by closing the loop and directly showing how their feedback was considered and applied to the decision-making process. This is extremely important in cases where one group may not get exactly what they wanted, but you should still show them how they were heard and how the decisions were made.
It is easy for the engagement process to get residents and stakeholders excited about ideas that are discussed but then reality sets in and things either don’t happen or happen on a much longer timeline than stakeholders may of anticipated. Therefore it’s important to manage expectations in the engagement process. Public engagement is all about building trust over time. Therefore celebrating wins and implementation of things that come out the engagement process is very important. Communities not following through can erode trust and confidence in the engagement process and lead to disengagement in future efforts. One of the most common reasons that people cite for why they aren’t engaged is because they think nothing will actually come from it so it is a waste of time. Communities should strive to be transparent about the outcomes of the engagement process, and follow through on commitments made to participants.
In conclusion, effective public engagement is critical for building trust, collaboration, and effective policies and programs in communities. To avoid common mistakes, communities should strive to create inclusive and accessible engagement opportunities, engage people where they are, treat engagement data as a source of diverse viewpoints, provide meaningful feedback to participants, and follow through on commitments made as a result of the engagement process. By doing so, communities can create a more robust and effective engagement process that truly reflects the needs and perspectives of their residents.