Where is everyone? Tools for increasing public engagement turnout.
February 28, 2018
An unfortunate, but all too common scenario… time and money has been spent preparing for a public meeting, you’re about to start the presentation, and only a handful of people have shown up. You take a deep breath, put on a smile, and start the meeting while asking yourself “where is everyone?” Low attendance can occur at any public engagement meeting, regardless of the time and effort spent organizing and publicizing the meeting. Yet these meetings are vital to communicate your project to the community and receive feedback. Thinking of some non-traditional approaches can breathe new life into your public engagement program and change the outcome.
An extremely effective non-traditional approach is to go where the public is instead of inviting them to come to you. Non-traditional venues allow you to obtain community insight/perspective, tackle difficult questions, obtain needed feedback, and build project support/consensus without the stress of a formal public meeting, which many people are hesitant to speak at. These non-traditional venues include public markets, shopping centers, elderly drop-in centers, county fairs, neighborhood fairs and block parties, and sporting events. Going into the community provides both agencies and consultants access to a larger and more diverse public population. Seeking community input at non-traditional venues sends important messages to your community including: 1) Your input is important; 2) We understand you are busy and value your free time, so we came to you; and 3) We want input from a wide cross-section of the community. Make it fun. Have posters the public can draw ideas on or stickers they can use to rate project components. Your creativity will pay off with exceptional public feedback.
Regardless if your approach to public involvement is traditional, non-traditional or a hybrid, planning for public engagement should start at the onset of a project and consider the following:
Commitment – The project team and sponsor should proactively commit to incorporate public engagement outcomes to ensure stakeholders that their time is valued and their input will be incorporated.
Methods – Engagement methods should be planned to meet both community expectations and project goals. For example, stakeholders that expect an active collaborative role may only attend public meetings or charrettes. Other engagement methods include open houses, focus groups, panel discussions, fairs/markets, and digital meetings or online polling. Multiple engagement methods are often needed to ensure a representative cross-section of the community has the chance to provide input.
Notification – Notification is critical. Clear, concise, and upbeat. Public engagement notification should be able to cut through the noise of daily life, convey critical project information, and convince stakeholders their input and attendance is important to the process. Notification should be sent several weeks in advance and, if needed, in other languages. Direct outreach is the most effective means of notification and includes email lists, direct mail, and door-to-door flyers.
Time & Place – Convenience is key. Weeknight engagement should be brief and ideally after rush hour. Accessible locations should offer both parking and transit options. Accommodations should be planned for those with seeing or hearing impairments and for families with younger children.
The project will benefit when the team moves beyond checking the public engagement process off the list but creatively seeking input and recognizing the value this process brings to a successful project.