Article Discusses How to Improve Public Input

An October 16 Sustainable Cities Network article discusses methods that a governmental entity can use to get better public feedback on proposals.  Although the article focuses on sustainability initiatives, the advice in the article can apply to most subject areas.  The article is based on a presentation by HDR Inc. Public Involvement Manager Stephen Sykes at the recently held 6th annual Growing Sustainable Communities Conference.

“Achieving broad stakeholder engagement … requires a significant allocation of resources – staff time, financial resources – and commitment to the process. Within the project itself, there needs to be a commitment that this engagement function, this dialogue, is going to be given the time that is needed,” Sykes said.

Mr. Sykes argues for a broader outreach than holding a couple of community meetings.

Traditional methods of soliciting comments tend to draw disproportionally from certain demographic groups – particularly those with ready access to time and transportation – while excluding others.

“The only opportunity to hear from the public can’t be on a Tuesday evening from 6 to 7 at a public meeting,” Sykes said.

Instead, Mr. Sykes advocates for the need for a wide range of approaches and innovative techniques.  He describes a “Bingo Night takeover” where a project discussion was held as part of a regularly scheduled Bingo Night that was attended by many members of the community.  Among some of the outreach techniques discussed in the article:

Community Workshops

Public open houses, a traditional method of introducing a project, have limitations. “Even if you hold them over the lunch hour, where we find more success than we do in the evenings, they are, in my opinion, fading in their effectiveness. … The other thing is that these types of meetings are typically about pushing information out.”

Instead, Sykes’ teams have had more success breaking stakeholders into small groups, each one with a member of the project team, to discuss the issue at hand. “You get better information to enhance decision-making … if you can do so by sitting at a table asking questions, providing opportunities for people to document their feedback,” he said. “Ultimately these participants have an increased sense of ownership.”  …

Mobile Workshops

Simple tables on a sidewalk can be a place to gather information. Sykes has also worked with a public transportation organization that took buses to crowded summer locations and invited people in to participate in a mobile workshop on public transport, which worked even better because the summer was hot and the buses were air conditioned.  …

Online Surveys

You can’t simply put a survey online and expect to get usable data, but a survey on a tablet or laptop can be an excellent icebreaker, Sykes said. In the early days of tablet use, one of his project teams gained the attention of key stakeholders by showing up with a survey on an iPad, which many of the people involved had never used before. “They got the support they needed,” he said.

Other types of outreach discussed in the article included grassroots meetings, project area tours, digital do-it-yourself toolkits, and smarter social media usage.