Tips for Public Involvement - Outreach experts

Involving the public in decisions can be tricky whether you are a nonprofit, governmental agency or business. If you have any experience with it, you know that even a public project that seem uncontroversial to your team can ignite public outrage or attract a crowd of protestors. Having public engagements experts on your team who know how to create a successful public participation plan can turn this headache into an asset.

An effective public participation plan does more than provide the public with an opportunity to express their opinions. It creates opportunities to build lasting partnerships with key stakeholders and utilizes the unique knowledge, perspectives and expertise in the community to make more meaningful decisions. It also mitigates the risk that the project will be stopped or stalled by public outrage.

Last month, our team here at Outreach Experts had the opportunity to join other professionals across Chicago who work with the public for a developmental training led by the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2). We took a deep dive into public engagement looking at common obstacles that derail public processes, fundamental aspects of effective participation plans and successful techniques used across the U.S. and around the world.

We left with 6 key insights for how to develop and execute effective public engagement plans.

1. Begin with Values Instead of Positions

This is one of the three foundations of developing a good public participation process that we learned at the onset of IAP2 training. It resonated with everyone in the room who had experience managing public processes.

Positions divide communities more than values. You can spend all day arguing about different positions without coming close to a consensus. If you make the effort to drill down past individual positions to the values informing them, you are more likely to discover both the fundamental concerns within a community and opportunities for common ground. A values-based public participation process prioritizes finding shared values that will shape the vision and direction of a public project instead of promoting a position.

2. Clearly Define the Scope of the Decision

Running a decision-oriented process is the second foundation of successful public participation. IAP2 training brought a new dimension to this term by defining it is as delineating the scope of issues that are relevant to both the community and the project to prevent the decision-making process from being hijacked by other interests. It wasn’t hard for us to come up with examples of public process that went off the rails because they failed to do this.

To accomplish this, we must first listen to voices in the community and drill down to their values. A public participation process that is both values-based and decision-oriented will have a scope of that is responsive to the real needs and concerns that intersect with the project.

3. Articulate the Goal for the Public’s Involvement

The last foundation of a well-run participation process is that it is goal-driven. Again, IAP2 brought something new to this concept by stressing the importance of being transparent with the public about their role. As we shared our experiences and dove into case studies, it was apparent that outlining what the desired role of the public will be and the impact their participation will have on the project fosters better cooperation and manages expectations.

These three foundations create a holistic framework for developing a public participation process that we used throughout the rest of our training and have taken back with us to our work.

4. Develop Sustainable Projects

Have you had a plan that looked great on paper, but the public would not accept it? We’ve all been there. The project is economically viable, technically feasible, and environmental compatible, but you can’t get public buy-in. We learned that this is a sign that you need to take a closer look at the needs, values and desires that are shaping that community’s sphere of interest.

Sustainable decisions satisfy the needs of the four fundamental spheres of interest in society: economic viability, technical feasibility, environmental compatibility and public acceptability. You might think that it makes more sense to put the development of a public project or policy fully in the hands of experts instead of the public, but local communities have many assets to offer.

The diverse perspectives and wide range of expertise spread throughout a community, along with their local knowledge, can improve decisions and drive innovation. You will miss out on opportunities and solutions that meet the real needs of that community by ignoring the importance of the public sphere of interest.

5. Incorporate the Public into the Decision-Making Process Early

Involving the public into preliminary stages of the decision-making process is the best way to develop a sustainable public project. While it may feel easier to wait until the final stages of your project to involve the public, it is more likely to cause public outrage and it increases the risk that the project will be derailed. It also eliminates the opportunity to tap into community knowledge and expertise to make the best possible decision.

The most important stage in the decision-making process to involve the public in is establishing the decision-making criteria.

This insight goes against the practice of most organizations. Decision-making criteria for actionable projects is usually determined behind closed doors. Opening up this part of the process might seem risky, but it can significantly increase the likelihood of project’s success and public buy-in.

People are more willing to accept an outcome, even if they don’t like it, if they are given the opportunity to be involved in establishing what requirements the project should meet. If you include the public in the process of establishing the decision-making criteria, it will allow you to build trust early and mitigate the risk of public outrage. It will also allow you to establish the best decision-making criteria by combining your technical information with community insights.

6. Attitude is Everything

We talk a lot about engaging with enthusiasm here at Outreach Experts. During our training, we did an exercise that illustrated how attitude has a direct impact on outcome.

We were paired off to role play with a partner. One of us was told to play a public facilitator and the other a community member. Each of us was handed a short description of the project and the attitude we had about participating in the public process.

When the person playing the facilitator and the person playing the community member were both given negative attitudes, the conversations quickly stalled out or became explosive. There were no opportunities to find common ground or work through important issues because the conversations were too emotionally charged.

The tenor and result of the conversations completely changed when the person playing the facilitator was told to start the conversation over with a positive attitude. Even when the community member started out with a bad attitude, the conversation became more productive. This was true for every pair in the room. It was difficult for everyone who was playing a community member to maintain outrage, antipathy or distrust when someone was being kind, empathetic and making a real attempt to listen and understand.

You can’t flip a switch and control the attitudes of the people who show up to your public meetings and events. You can, however, create a path for open-minded dialogue by coming in with a good attitude and maintaining it. The more openness, empathy and humility you display, the more trust you will earn.

We left IAP2 training excited about applying these insights to our public engagement work. We hope they help you navigate the challenges of incorporating public participation into your decision-making processes.

Check back soon to find out some of the innovative techniques we learned!