public involvement

Engaging Community Partners

Wired and empowered citizenries demand more authentic and ongoing engagement than can come from sparsely attended meetings in public libraries or school auditoriums.Public involvement has become a staple of review processes for major public projects. However, public expectations for genuine engagement have outstripped the techniques most commonly used to collect public input.

Typically, project sponsors schedule meetings in a public library or school auditorium to present their idea and solicit opinions. Just as typically, about a dozen or so people show up. The exception is when the project is highly controversial. That can draw hundreds of people, some to listen and others to protest loudly. Neither scenario equates to engagement.

Engaging affected publics means affording them an opportunity to participate at the ground floor of a project. This could involve a poll to measure support for relative project sizes, locations or costs. It also could involve in-person or online focus groups to understand how respective publics view different project options.

Lost Opportunity by Following the “Rules”

Communities need to keep people involved, even at work sessionsSometimes people don’t know the rules. At a recent small town city council work session, a local resident wanted to share an idea to solve a problem under discussion. He raised his hand. He politely asked to talk with the council. But the council chair said, “no,” adding: “Work sessions are a public meeting without public comment.”

Mumbling, the man walked out and probably never will attend another city meeting again.

Limiting public comment at council work sessions is appropriate. Without the rule, nothing would get done. However, communities should consider ways to get and keep people involved, even at work sessions.

To improve engagement, communities should:

  • Ask attendees to sign in, providing name, address, phone number and email address.
  • Start the meeting with a short explanation to the audience about the rules.
  • Encourage people to share ideas using comment cards or make a computer available to sign-in and comment.
  • Assign a staff person or elected official to talk briefly with people attending.
  • The next day send a thank you note to each person who attended meeting. Ask staff to follow up with people who have problems, comments or suggestions.

Negative opinions of local, state and federal government are widespread. Using simple engagement tools would help to rebuild public confidence — one person at a time.