Effective Public Engagement: Linking to Decision Making
Core to our belief in public engagement is that people should have the opportunity to influence the decisions that impact their lives. The fact is too many public meetings do not have any significant influence on the end result – a policy change or new plan. Good public engagement does not waste time asking citizens and other stakeholders to provide input that has no real potential to impact decision making or outcomes
In our initial meetings with planning clients, we insist on clarity about what they want citizens – and stakeholders – to potentially influence. Many clients are accustomed to sharing information with the public about what is to be done, or what might be done. Or they look to present something that they hope the public will accept or endorse without much back and forth. But they are far less used to allowing citizens to genuinely influence a decision or plan. In our experience the most successful planning encourages and enables citizens to shape and refine plan or policy development up to final reviews and approval.
A very different shortcoming we see in some public meetings is policy makers or planners asking very open-ended questions: “What are the most important issues?” “What do you want to see in the future?” There is a time and place for assessing all of the opportunities and challenges in a community. And there is a time and place for identifying what people envision for their future. However, done poorly, this leads to discussions about issues that are not that closely linked to the policy questions at hand, to the plan that needs to be developed, or to the resources that are realistically available. And when this is done poorly, it both raises expectations about what will get addressed and, ultimately, skepticism about participating in a public process when results don’t transpire.
We believe it is absolutely essential when organizing community engagement to link – whenever possible – the public’s guidance and recommendations directly to a policy’s or plan’s development. This requires putting something on the table that can genuinely be influenced by the public input. It also requires clarity and transparency about what is fixed and cannot be influenced. The former can be difficult for those who are accustomed to not involving the public in a meaningful way to influence decisions. The latter can be difficult, especially for elected officials that want to appear responsive to anything the public says.
We believe it is absolutely essential when organizing
community engagement to link the public’s guidance and
recommendations directly to a policy’s or plan’s development.
We recommend that at the beginning of the project, and as it evolves over time, to continually ask yourself:
- What stage of the policy development or plan development process are we currently in?
- What are the decisions that need to be made now?
- What information do participants need to consider the options?
- And what input do I want from people to help inform that decision – or to narrow down options?
A guide we have found useful was created by the International Association of Public Participation (below).
Public participation occurs across a spectrum. Each element along the spectrum can have high value in public engagement. But it is critical to be intentional about where you need to be along the spectrum, and to then embrace what implications that has for the way you work with the public.
None of this is to suggest that the decision-making authority is transferred to the participants (unless you are on the empower end of the spectrum, which is very rare). In planning and in most policy-making arenas, there are many other factors that need to be assessed. And in the end, it is the elected officials and policy makers that must make the final decisions, but they must do it with the best information they can acquire from meaningful public input just as they do with professional planning expertise from staff and consultants.
After input has been received, other factors considered, and decisions made, the transparency must continue with elected officials, planners, or policy-makers making clear what the final decisions are, why they made them, and how public input factored in. They need to show what they were able to include from the public input, and just as important, what they could not include and why.
Making this link between community engagement and decision making helps build higher levels of collaboration and shared responsibility between government, citizens, and other stakeholders. This is especially important when broad public support and multi-sector support is required for successful plan or policy implementation.
How do you achieve broader public support? By effectively engaging a more diverse population in the process. THAT is the subject of our NEXT blog post.