By Maureen Tobin & Kit Cole
Public participation (P2) projects and processes can be intimidating and often lead us to ask, “Where do I even begin?” As advocates of P2, we’re excited that more people now recognize this as an essential component of good government; however, there is no one-size-fits-all formula. P2 is a dynamic process that requires a comprehensive understanding of the community, coupled with clarity on what authentic public engagement really is. These two elements serve as the foundation for building trust between local government and community members. Although your well-intentioned leaders may be pushing you to “Engage, engage, engage!” - we highly recommend you plan out your P2 process before you “hit the streets” by asking yourself the following 5 questions:
1) Is there an opportunity for community members to influence a decision or affect an outcome?
This question is probably the most overlooked when starting to plan for P2, yet it is absolutely essential. Not all projects and initiatives provide an opportunity for community members to influence a decision and/or impact the outcome. If the answer to this question is “no”, then an engagement process might not be necessary and, in fact, could be detrimental and lead to distrust between the local government and the community. If the community doesn’t really have a say in the outcome, don’t mislead them by asking for input as if it will make a difference. Instead, consider putting together a solid communications plan that will inform community members by sharing information about projects and initiatives that may affect them.
2) What is the current landscape of the community?
Before any steps are taken to develop or plan for P2, we recommend you consider the current landscape of the community. What has recently affected that community, either positive or negatively? This could range from global or domestic politics, to a pandemic, or even a small localized neighborhood issue of street repairs that are causing angst and inconveniences for neighbors. This unique community landscape provides the context for your P2 plans and can help you determine the best approach to take.
3) Who needs to provide input to inform your engagement process?
Often one person gets tagged with the main responsibility for P2 which, as we’ve mentioned previously, is not the best approach. In the same vein, one person alone shouldn’t determine the P2 plan and process. Who else (inside your organization or out in the community) should be involved in helping develop the actual plan? A plan informed by conversations that take place with all the necessary folks at the table, including those who will be directly impacted by the plan, will help to ensure a better process that involves all the right community stakeholders
4) Do you have the resources?
Remember that “resources” are not limited to finances, although sufficient budgetary support for a good P2 effort definitely helps. Just as important are the resources of time and talent. Good P2 takes time. In our experience, trying to cram a process into a super short time frame almost never works out well. Likewise, assuming that key teammates are good community engagers just because they are subject matter experts on an issue sometimes doesn’t pan out the way you hope. Facilitating contentious community meetings is a skill and an art. Are there teammates that have well developed relationships with key stakeholders? Or does it make more sense to bring in a consultant and/or a facilitator? Having the right talent on your team can easily make or break a project.
5) Are the decision makers on board?
If decision makers (Council, Board of Directors, etc.) aren’t on board, think P2 is an urban myth, or have already made up their minds on an upcoming decision, public input won’t make much of a difference. Going through an extensive (and expensive) P2 effort and gathering lots of input from the community only to have it completely ignored by a City Council is a true engagement disaster. We’ve seen this happen time and time again. Reaching out to the public is simply a performance if the decision makers have already come to a decision. Furthermore, it erodes the already tenuous trust in government and leaves your community less likely to participate in future efforts.
P2 can - and should - play a significant role in local government policy development and decision making, but not all issues require the same level of P2. We encourage you to start your process by asking these five questions and talking to your colleagues and leadership to consider what’s actually wanted and needed. If you’ve done that, you’ll know you’ve got a good foundation to make your P2 efforts a true success.
Tune in next Tuesday for another “engaging” article, and for additional resources or assistance with P2 efforts and planning please visit us at the Davenport Institute and The P2Club - we’re here to help!