What decisions do we face?
In the middle of a public engagement project, the most basic decision a manager faces is “are we done yet?”.
In considering projects in retrospect, for instance if we’re considering what methods or consultants to use for an upcoming assignment, the basic question might be “was the project successful?”.
These big questions break down into lots of little questions, as we can see in our bridge example.
Is more engagement work required to create the needed level of long term support across stakeholders? Can we count on the bridge’s neighbors to see the project out, in spite of the disruptions we expect as a result of construction? What about unrealistic expectations: Have the overly rosy hopes for rush hour traffic reductions been corrected? And what about perceived unfairness: Are the city’s taxpayers likely to continue to fund bridge maintenance though the bridge benefits primarily commuters?
Questions like these could be addressed by polling, surveys, and interviews of the relevant stakeholders.
Of course, since the goal is long-term stakeholder support, the proof of the pudding is whether – five, ten, and twenty years hence – the support is there. Research centers and foundations that study public engagement should revisit past projects to determine how well stakeholder support was sustained.
As we manage each of the five component processes as the public engagement effort proceeds, we are continually making one important decision:
Have we done enough at each particular stage to allow succeeding stages to be successful?
This is a broad topic, but I’ll illustrate the approach with questions that could, in turn, drive metrics.
OUTREACH: Are we reaching cyclists as well as commuters, low income as well as middle income residents? Does the sample group pulled into the engagement process match the larger stakeholder population in key characteristics? As this larger population changes over time, can we pull the right kinds of new members into our sample group to stay in synch? Have we pulled in enough participants for subsequent processes to succeed, e.g. for a survey to be statistically reliable?
These questions can be answered by demographic surveys of participants, compared to polls of the underlying population of stakeholders.
SOCIAL SURVEY: Can we use our survey of commuters, our interviews with cyclists, our polls of taxpayers to design relevant education efforts and anticipate the key issues in the negotiation phase? Are we assessing all stakeholder groups in a reliable way? Are we following the relevant best practices from statistics, ethnography, and so forth?
EDUCATION, INFORMATION, PUBLIC RELATIONS: Do our presentations to automobile association members in fact bring commuters up to speed about the different needs of cyclists? Do users engage with our website in enough depth to understand the uncertainties in the bridge construction project? Do the bridge’s neighbors have a clear sense of how construction will affect them?
NEGOTIATION: Is the negotiation phase structured to address the concerns we’ve uncovered in the social survey phase? Once the negotiation phase has concluded, are taxpayers ready to support the bridge? Are cyclists comfortable that they’ll be able to use the bridge safely? If we’ve added a park project to compensate the bridge’s neighbors for the construction impact, does the neighborhood understand and accept the relationship between the park and the main bridge project?
OPENING UP: Once we’ve opened up the process, are taxpayers who weren’t directly involved in the previous four phases as supportive of the bridge project as taxpayers who participated in the negotiation? Are the bicycle activists we didn’t reach with the initial public education campaign comfortable that they too will be able to use the bridge safely? Are the stakeholders who participated in the public engagement process directly and those who learned of the process through our dissemination similar in their degree of project understanding and support?
Metrics, Decision-Making, and an Orientation to Results
This post demonstrates the value of the view of public engagement laid out in the previous two posts. By fitting public engagement into the larger picture of public infrastructure projects, we have a context for considering the kinds of decisions that will need to be made, and thus what kinds of questions and metrics will be useful.