How does one do (one kind of) public engagement?

Posted: March 12th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Civic engagement, Framework, Uncategorized | 7 Comments »

How Public Engagement  Achieves its Goals

This past Monday, I laid out how public engagement bolsters long-term stakeholder support for large infrastructure projects by creating more realistic expectations and reducing perceptions of unfairness.

In this post, I’ll argue that achieving these results requires five processes:

  1. Reaching out to the full diversity of stakeholders to create a representative sample with whom we can work directly,
  2. Assessing the sample’s experience and understanding,
  3. Informing and educating the sample,
  4. Negotiating among stakeholders in the sample, and finally
  5. Opening up the process to include all stakeholders.

Component Processes

OUTREACH: Stakeholders are diverse.  In planning and constructing the bridge, bicyclists can’t speak for the car commuters who in turn can’t speak for the construction workers or the taxpayers.  Many lead busy lives, like single parents, students juggling studies and work, or older people who stay involved in spite of physical challenges. Some, like commuters, live and work far away. All will have to be brought into the process, and it will take thought and effort to do so.

SOCIAL SURVEY: Stakeholders are generally much more diverse than the project team. It’s difficult to know, in advance, what experiences, skills, and expectations various groups bring to the engagement process and what they know about one another. One way or another, we have to find out,  through polls, interviews, focus groups, public meetings, and similar activities.

INFORMATION: Once we’ve determined what the gaps are, we have to fill them in. For instance, we’ll show drivers what cyclists need to share the road safely, describe construction processes and schedules to residents, so they know what to expect, and bring taxpayers up to speed on the advantages and disadvantages of levying tolls to pay for construction and maintenance. We’ll achieve this through guidebooks, video, websites, discussion, among other ways.

NEGOTIATION: Information begins to address perceived unfairness, but generally more is needed. The city pays for the bridge, but the bridge serves commuters who pay income taxes in the adjoining state. The bridge’s neighbors will bear the brunt of the construction process and the long term increase in traffic without getting commensurate benefits. Negotiation may be required to determine side arrangements, e.g. bridge tolls, commuter taxes, a new park to compensate the bridge’s neighbors, that will draw support from enough stakeholders to underwrite the long-term success of the bridge. In public engagement, these negotiations are often informal, structured as dialogue and deliberation.

OPENING UP: Bridge project stakeholders number in the hundreds of thousands. Even if we’ve reached what’s considered to be “large numbers” in the previous four steps, it’s unlikely to be more than a few thousand. We need the long term support of a much larger proportion of stakeholders. So we must open up the process to reach all stakeholders, well beyond the sample. This is generally achieved through advertising, public service announcements, and large scale events that draw media attention.

“Project Tuning”

So far, we’ve assumed that the public engagement process doesn’t affect the planning, construction, operation, and maintenance of the bridge directly. But, of course, modifying these and other aspects of the bridge project may improve stakeholder support. E.g. a bike path can be added to accommodate local cyclists, the building schedule may be modified to reduce impact on surrounding neighborhoods, and so forth.

Project tuning can, in turn, affect each of the components of public engagement. Changing the bridge design so that it accommodates only cyclists and pedestrians may remove commuters as a stakeholder group, and thus reduce outreach requirements. (Though commuters may have something to say if they expected a new bridge to ease their morning and afternoon travels.)

If we increase the scope of the project, by adding a bikeway to what was before a bridge designed only for cars and trucks, outreach requirements increase. The requirements for each of the following phases may also become more complex.


How do we know that our public engagement efforts have been successful? If we’re responsible for just one component process, how do we determine that we’ve done our part? For these and other questions of decision-making and metrics, come back next Monday.