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Sparking and Growing Positive Public Engagement

It’s a well-worn adage that the squeaky wheel often gets the most grease. From an early age, it seems that the more vocal and persistent a person is, the more likely they are to get attention. Perhaps it’s an innate lesson learned from our days as toddlers that whether it’s positive or negative attention, any attention is better than none at all. So has it become for public engagement.

For governments, though, the quality of public engagement matters. Positive engagement can lead to growth, stability, and success. Negative engagement can lead to unrest, protests, and failure of initiatives. Social media and the digital landscape make it possible to engage more directly with all audiences, but it also can create an environment where underserved audiences can develop resentments against a perceived lack of attention from government that can make negative results even worse.

Mitigating these risks of only engaging with the most vocal of federal agency stakeholders was the subject of a recent Granicus webinar featuring Michelle Stephens, AICP, and Megan Ruble of EngagementHQ. Designed around the idea of making it easier for people to understand what’s happening in their community, this conversation focused on four important strategies to better engage residents in all audiences.

Why is Public Engagement Important?

Civic engagement is the core of a functioning democracy. It’s found everywhere from voting to public meetings to paying taxes. Building positive engagement with residents on city, state, and federal levels is vital for creating government that efficiently serves residents’ needs while providing a base for future growth.

For that reason, residents should be seen as the target audience for any government agency. While this idea might be seen as simplistic or obvious, how agencies engage with this audience (and how residents engage in return) shows real concerns.

Ideal government/resident engagement should be a two-way street that:

  • Builds understanding of what’s happening in communities without needing a deep knowledge of city, state, or federal business.
  • Increases participation in public processes with clear instructions and without barriers.
  • Allows sharing of intentional feedback that helps drive decision making at any time on any device and with minimal steps.
  • Rewards engagement with transparency that doesn’t require open records or FOIA requests and calls to local representative offices.

Engagement isn’t just done for engagement’s sake. True engagement — the kind that drives communities forward — makes residents feel as if they are an active participant not only in their government’s processes, but that their voice is helping shape the future of their communities.

Four Strategies for Sparking Public Connections

Another old adage that consistently proves itself true is that good ideas can come from everywhere and anywhere. Building positive public engagement comes from welcoming new and varied voices, no matter where they might live, no matter their education. During their webinar, Stephens and Ruble discussed four key points to building engagement strategies that connect with all communities and drive positive results.

  • Educative: By establishing a common set of facts or understanding about the nature and limits of a government’s work, residents can have realistic expectations of what can and can’t be accomplished. As part of the two-way street, governments need to make sure that they break down complex processes to speak to audiences in an accessible way.
  • Actionable: Once residents have a better understanding of the “what” of an agency’s work, they need to know the “how” of engagement. Clearly showing communities exactly how, when, and where to participate creates an actionable path that allows opportunities to not only engage with agencies more easily, but in a more productive way.
  • Transparent: Just as in other types of relationships, transparency can build trust or erode participation. Agencies that provide clear, uncomplicated information about what they do and don’t know establishes the groundwork for a positive engagement. Beyond that, providing reports on decisions, acknowledging wrongs, and celebrating victories shows a culture of transparency in both good and bad times that makes for a stronger civic relationship.
  • Open-Minded: Perhaps the most important aspect of building wider public engagement, agencies should focus on welcoming new and varied voices to collaboratively address challenges. This reflects both an understanding of the public audiences agencies serve, but also acknowledges the breadth of experiences and ideas that these residents bring to addressing civic issues.

Putting Engagement Strategies into Action

While these four public engagement strategies may seem idealistic, creating a culture that uses these ideas as strategic pillars is possible. Stephens and Ruble discuss during the webinar the importance of building an environment in agencies where engagement is seen as more than a checkbox.

Facilitating meaningful engagement strategies is not only the right thing to do for agencies in a public facing role; these strategies also provide a tremendous trust builder for agencies both internally and externally. When done well, community engagement can help agencies find efficiencies through cross-departmental collaboration, guard against angry backlash from excluded community members, and help ensure projects and work reach the finish line.

One place to make early steps forward in shifting culture, Stephens and Ruble suggest, is looking for “easy-win” projects – those that still have a low-impact decision to be made. Demonstrating to a community that their feedback was heard and tied to an agency decision shows them the value and reward of participating in public processes.

Storytelling is another low-lift tactic that, as discussed in the webinar, can be an incredible empathy builder in public engagement. Collecting community stories, whether in person or online, can give agencies a means to connect with audiences on a personal level to build understanding of how a proposed plan, issue, or change affects community members. By coupling those personal stories with quantitative data collected through other online engagement efforts, qualitative data from storytelling can help agencies understand and eventually tell the complete story as to how a community feels about proposed projects.

Understanding and Reaching Underserved Populations

Equity is more than just a buzzword in 2022. Reaching underserved populations and ensuring that their voices are heard is a vital part of making sure that civic engagement grows in a positive way. During their webinar, Stephens and Ruble admit that there is no magic bullet for the work or reaching these populations. But taking a “two-way street” approach can, again, start building those pathways.

Agencies must develop relationships with those populations that aren’t predicated on what the agency needs. Too often, agencies focus on gaining access to new populations only to immediately ask them to complete a survey or other task or join a focus group. Just as you wouldn’t ask a new friend to help you move a couch the same day you meet them, the trust with community members that creates positive engagement takes time.

A good community engagement strategy gives your residents many opportunities and methods for participation. Choosing those methods of engagement also factors into understanding where and how each audience is most likely to engage. Online, SMS (text messaging), standard mail, and telephone participation can be effective with distributed audiences. But it’s also important to understand what engagement trends show per channel, as well as be prepared to adjust channel strategies to create the most positive outcomes.

Feedback is Key

Reaching out to communities for engagement means nothing without listening to feedback and acting upon it. This also applies to strategies used to initiate that engagement. During their webinar, Stephens and Ruble suggest initially focusing on the types of questions to be asked and the data needed (qualitative or quantitative) for decision-making before focusing on the type of engagement tool to use.

Not only can the channel used for engagement create differences in the quality of feedback, so to can the quality of questions and prompts. A well-written question or prompt is clear and actionable (allowing agencies to make decisions based on responses). But it also helps set boundaries within the engagement as to what can and can’t be decided as a result.

Moving Forward with Positive Connections

Just as with any relationship, honesty will help build better engagement. Stephens and Ruble suggest that agencies be as honest as possible throughout all levels of engagement. That can be around subjects as broad or specific as budgets, scope constraints, and timelines. The more an agency is upfront about what they can and can’t do with individual decisions, the more trust can grow. And when agencies are clear about what they know and what remains to be decided, there is less room for confusion from residents about boundaries.

Another way for agencies to build positive engagement is to admit when they’ve got it wrong. This can be anything from overlooking a step in the process, acknowledging that a particular group was overlooked in engagement, or when the feedback received still isn’t enough to move a decision forward. Reporting back at each of these moments can be a tremendous trust builder and lay the groundwork in advance so communities know exactly what they’re in for. It’s hard to get it wrong when agencies are honest, open to new ideas and voices, and prepared to change course as needed.

Learn more about how EngagementHQ, now by Granicus, can help agencies build the pillars of public engagement!