What are some steps to achieving success in citizen engagement? Let’s break it down:
Design an engagement plan before you reach out to the public.
A common theme among the main challenges to citizen engagement success is lack of preparation in setting up the engagement process. The process can flow much better if you create a strategy before the process starts. Think about what sort of information you need to gather, what decisions you need to make, your goals for the engagement, who will be reviewing the feedback, and how the feedback needs to be formatted.
The engagement process should help participants feel like they are part of the process, but their participation should also be structured in a way that produces positive results for the city. In other words, you are gathering high quality feedback that is actionable and relevant to the decisions that you have to make in your project.
The process should also be structured in a way that ensures that even if thousands of citizens participate, you will still be able to quantify results and see clear themes and narratives that you can address in the project. You should be able to gather feedback that tells you what the public is concerned about, what they like about the proposal, what needs to be changed to address these concerns, what can be done to make the project more successful after it is implemented, and what will improve the likelihood that council will approve the proposal.
These are the types of questions that you need to consider before starting engagement, because these questions determine how you engage the public, what tools you use, what specific questions you are going to ask, and how the public will provide feedback.
One half of accessible participation is providing opportunities for engagement and the other is making it simple for the general public to interact with complex civic projects and give feedback. It does not serve the city government or the public to ask broad questions that citizens cannot respond to in a useful way. Questions like “What do you think about this project?” or “What are your ideas for this project?” are so broad that they invite responses that cover areas that are not really under consideration. When gathering feedback on the city budget, many cities make the mistake of asking citizens whether budgets for particular departments are too high or low without providing any context for what an increased budget would do for that department or whether the department is currently meeting its goals. Citizens who are particularly well informed might provide some good feedback, but will only account for a low percentage of respondents.
Instead of asking citizens what they think about a complex project in a broad way, ask them about the specific issue under consideration. There will be areas of the project that are pretty much already decided, and there will be areas to which public input would be immensely valuable. Ask about the elements of the projects that can be changed.
The public will appreciate that their feedback is going towards something that is actually going to happen, something that is under discussion, and is an issue that their feedback could help address. Citizens want to know that if they invest their time into participating in an engagement project, their feedback is going to be used for something positive.
Link your network to other networks
A major challenge to engagement outreach is informing citizens that there is a project happening that they may be interested in.
The first step here is scanning your network for people who may be interested, which includes reaching out to your email lists and social media followers. It can be very tough to get in front of new groups that have not interacted with the city yet, so these are people that are not currently followers on social media and have not given their email address or phone number.
The second step is expanding your network by reaching out to other groups that have their own networks, such as other city departments that engage the public, local businesses, and advocacy groups. Local businesses will have their own networks of customers on social media and via email newsletters that they may be willing to share news or important links to. Advocacy groups have their own members that they can reach out to. By reaching out to other networks, you can greatly expand your reach to include more and more people.
Create opportunities for participation
The most common opportunity for public participation is through an in-person meeting, but as we covered in our challenges to citizen engagement, many people cannot attend these meetings since they are during working hours. So even if people did know about the meeting and wanted to attend, many people simply cannot make it and may want to at least hear what happened in the meeting or have a way to participate remotely.
Create a clear narrative for your project and why people should participate
When you share out information about your project to your networks and partner networks, it is important that you share a clear narrative about why your project is important and why people should participate. This goes back to our section on planning that states the importance of understanding what decisions you need to make in your project and why/how you need to reach out to the public to participate in these decisions. This thorough understanding of why and how you need the public to participate is key to sharing out to your networks, so that citizens can quickly grasp what is happening with the project and whether they feel they can contribute to these decisions.