Preparing for community engagement starts long before the actual public process. Initial preparation involves developing a stakeholder committee, finding creative ways to get information to and learn from the community, establishing consistent branding and messaging, and preparing for the public kick-off of the process.
Preparing For Community Engagement
Leadership is a critical component throughout this planning process. Involving stakeholder groups and project champions is an important part of community outreach. Stakeholders and champions establish the message, help share the message, identify additional key individuals to invite, and act as public spokespeople to support the credibility of the process. Stakeholders should agree on common messaging and talking points in order to avoid confusing the public. Including stakeholders and champions creates transparency of the process, provides them with a broader understanding of public preferences, and increases their commitment to the process.
Determine a location to hold community meetings and public workshops. To encourage attendance, hold community engagement events in a location within the study area. Libraries, iconic buildings, churches, schools, and community centers that hold particular importance among residents are good locations for public events.
Building awareness among residents is a very important part of preparing for community engagement. A variety of outlets can be used to help inform, invite, and involve the community in the process. Residents can be informed by radio, newspaper and television ads, flyers, postcards, newsletters, e-mail blasts, and even personal invitations signed by local elected officials or other key community leaders. Project websites can inform residents as well as collect community input through surveys and questionnaires. Social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and crowdsourcing sites like MindMixer are also great tools to broaden public awareness. Collaborating with stakeholders to develop branding and a logo is another great way to help create an identity for the project. An easily recognized logo builds public awareness. Holding a contest to submit logo designs could be a fun way to get the public involved. This is a flexible process; these tools can be combined in a way that makes sense for each community. Scroll through the slideshow above to see some public communication examples.
Care and consideration should also be taken to include those typically not involved in public processes, non-native speakers and underrepresented populations. It's helpful to get established advocates for underrepresented populations to host workshops or other events. These groups are more likely to be involved if an event is hosted in a familiar location by someone they trust.
There are individuals and groups who will oppose and challenge the process. Much of this opposition comes from misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the process and potential outcomes. There are a variety of ways to effectively respond to this opposition. One approach is to acknowledge these groups and seek to understand the reason for their opposition. Start the process with the assumption that there will be groups with conflicting views. Be proactive and identify champions and stakeholders to deliver key messages and work through concerns early on in the process addressing potential issues before they become insurmountable. Set up meetings or discussions with challenging parties and discuss the process and provide clarification as needed. It's important to emphasize that this community effort, as well as potential implementation, is being driven by fellow members of the community.
Not everyone will be able to attend public workshops and meetings; information, updates, and alternative ways individuals can provide input should be made available following the workshop. Fact sheets, newspaper articles, and websites where interested individuals can view the presentation that was given at the workshop and participate in surveys are just a few ideas of things that can be provided.
National Spotlight: The Tommorrow Plan
The past 20 years have seen a patchwork of growth in Greater Des Moines. New development has been located according to the needs of each municipality rather than the region as a whole. The Tomorrow Plan presents an opportunity to coordinate anticipated change in the region. By 2050, the region's population is expected to increase by 50%. Historically, the many issues facing the region have been tackled by a variety of agencies and organizations. This planning effort brings together these many groups as well as people who live, work and play in the area to work together toward a vibrant, enduring future. The creation of The Tomorrow Plan marks the first time in Iowa's history that major planning components are being integrated into a comprehensive, forward-thinking regional plan.
As part of the planning effort, residents were given the opportunity to set their priorities for the region using an interactive online tool called Design My DSM. Design My DSM offered Greater Des Moines residents a chance to learn about planning issues, opportunities, and trade-offs, and provided a fun, responsive way to explore priorities and spending. The feedback received was used to create the "People's Choice" scenario, which was compared with other scenarios.
Design My DSM works by first asking users to identify their priorities for the future. Users play with a star rating system, having the ability to prioritize various elements by allocating 0 to 5 stars to each. Second, users can learn about how different planning projects and policies impact the priorities they selected. Icons change color as users click on policies that might have a positive, neutral, or negative impact, and clicking on each icon reveals a written explanation. In the third stage, it's decision time: users have 12 coins, and may choose as many policies as they want and as many projects as they can afford. Design My DSM forces users to consider the difficult decisions that must be made when allocating limited resources and, thus, paints a true picture of what is more important to residents. In the final screens, users can view a comparison map to see what people voted for in different communities. Users can click on individual projects and policies to see where they are receiving the greatest percentage of votes.
National Spotlight: planET
Meeting in a Box is a public participation tool created as part of the Plan East Tennessee (PlanET) project in Knoxville Tennessee. Meeting in a Box is designed for use with community groups, neighborhood associations or friends to gather at a convenient time and location to share their opinions about the future of the region.
The Meeting in a Box "kit" contains everything needed to hold your own discussion including instruction sheets for the host/facilitator, discussion questions, worksheets for participant responses, feedback questionnaires, and directions for recording and returning responses. The input received was shared online and organized by each meeting in a box discussion.
The tool has also been an excellent way to reach non-traditional participants in the planning process. Throughout the project, these small group meetings provided opportunities for PlanET team members to engage with a wider range of community residents. Participation ranged from youth and young adults to the Hispanic community and other groups who are typically less inclined to participate in more traditional community forums.
Series 3 Meeting in a Box expanded opportunities for involvement with MetroQuest—an online participation tool that allows participants to weigh in on things that matter most to them and the future of their region. The interactive application allows participants to visualize different ways that growth might occur, and then compare outcomes like transportation choices, job gains, housing options, and health impacts.