Effective Public Engagement: Ensuring Inclusive Representation

Ensuring Inclusive Representation in Who Attends Public Meetings

Proclamations are often made about the importance of diverse voices being a part of public processes.  Then there is the counter retort that “We advertise public meetings, but nobody comes!” Often planners and policy-makers don’t know how to recruit diverse groups of people to public meetings, and certainly not in ways that are fully representative of the community.

So, why is inclusive representation important?  First, it is the right thing to do.  If a plan or policy is being developed that will impact a community, the full range of perspectives from that community should be heard.  Second, engaging all perspectives can increase the chances of successful implementation, because the plan will have broader community support and more credibility with elected officials.  The community will feel greater ownership of the plan and take greater responsibility for implementation.  Finally, it makes for better decisions and plans.  The challenges facing planning and policy-making are complex and cross-sector.  Good strategies require input from as many different perspectives as possible.

Gaining representation across stakeholder groups, when doing public engagement, is reasonably straightforward.  Most planning efforts we have witnessed have some structure such as a task force or committee to engage people with expertise and a stake in different areas, including environment, housing, and business, among many others.  Representatives from these areas engage in discussion with planners or policy-makers and with each other to protect their concerns.  They read draft materials and provide input.  This effort usually goes well, though conflicting interests can be hard to manage.

Gaining a good representation of participants fromacross the general citizenry is generally more challenging.  How do you get a large and representative group of citizens engaged?  How do you get the full range of the community in one room together?  What is the representation – which often, but not always, includes racial and economic diversity – that we should be aiming for? In what ways should we plan to engage residents and how will that differ with the way we engage other stakeholder groups?

Residents vs. stakeholders.  When we talk about engaging residents (or citizens) we are talking about members of the general public that do not represent any particular interest except perhaps their own.  When we talk about stakeholders, we are talking about individuals or organizations that are representing a specific interest or set of interests: preserving biodiversity, supporting business growth, advocating for lower-income housing, etc.  Of course, the boundary between the two is not always clear.  Almost all of the people representing stakeholder groups are residents, and many of the residents have certain issues that are more important to them than others.  However, the distinction has been helpful to us, and we believe that planning and policy-making efforts need to increase the level of engagement with residents while maintaining good engagement with stakeholder groups.

Many planners will shy away from speaking directly about engaging a diverse or representative group of people across race and income.  They tend to use less specific references and say “we want to engage those that have been under-represented or not involved in previous planning efforts.”  It is okay to use this language sometimes, but public officials need to be explicit and intentional in their internal planning for public meetings to achieve the representation and diversity they are aiming for.

What kind of representation should public officials seek to get in public meetings?  We believe the best answer is that participants should match as best as possible the demographics of the community according to age, race, income, and gender.  We have not seen a meeting or project that scored perfectly on all these, but we have seen many that get close, and that is a big improvement over most efforts.

What does this mean at a practical level?  It means you need to set clear targets for your engagement efforts.  Usually you can use recent U.S. Census figures.  It means developing strategies for engaging each different demographic, especially the “hard to reach”.  It also means tracking how well you are doing in achieving your targets.

People often ask us what we suggest for engaging the hard to reach. To use a tired but true cliché, the most important factor is not what you know, but who you know.  When you engage racial minority groups. youth or low-income people, you have to work with people they trust.  This usually leads to developing important relationships with churches, community based organizations, and other “grass-top” leaders.  When a minister in a church suggests on Sunday morning that the community should get engaged, it goes a lot further than a PSA or flyer.

In our work, and in our recommendations to others, we engage these local organizations and leaders very early in our planning efforts.  We bring them on board in ways that allows them to give some input to the way we do public engagement.  We position the project so that it is worth their time and effort to be involved and ask the members in their community to be involved.  In many cases, where we want a community organization to do a lot of outreach, we will offer stipends to cover some of their time.

Another helpful tactic is to hire local organizers.  These are usually individuals who already have good connections with the community.  They can help gain access to local organizations and spend time working the community, attending meetings, making calls and knocking on doors to talk with people and get them engaged.

All of this probably sounds labor intensive.  It can be, but a little bit can go a long way.  One way we have found to reduce costs on some of our larger projects is to recruit and train “semi-volunteers”.  These people, we sometimes call them Ambassadors, receive a small monthly stipend and training from us to reach out and engage their community.  These people usually have other jobs, but want to be more involved in their communities, have free time in the evenings and weekends, and appreciate the small amount of money and training they receive.

Aside from this outreach, the other important facts for engaging the hard to reach are more about logistics.  When you can, meet people where they are, in their communities.  Go to the churches and community meeting places they already know.  For big meetings, provide support services, from language translation to childcare and transportation assistance. Community based groups can also help with “turn-out logistics” such as providing car and van pools to your events.

Achieving effective community representation at public meetings helps build legitimacy for the community engagement on your plan, project, or initiative in the eyes of not only elected officials but also community leaders and the public.

As you’re progressing on the goal of recruiting a diverse audience, you will need to be determining how best to organize and design the meeting in order to achieve the purpose and goals of bringing the community together to weigh in on the issues at hand. We will feature MEETING DESIGN in our NEXT blog post.