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10 tips from Greg Keidan on engaging residents in regional community planning

Here’s a great list of tips from Greg Keidan‘s 11/18/10 post on the new AmericaSpeaks blog.  Greg works with Terry Amsler at the Institute for Local Government’s Public Engagement and Collaborative Governance Program.

Greg is currently researching strategies for involving residents in regional sustainable community planning, which is a hot topic right now in California.  He outlines a few of the challenges local and regional government agencies are facing as they seek to engage residents in this issue (including the fact that “regional sustainable community planning requires thinking twenty and thirty years into the future about a large area”).

Here are some of the key things Greg has learned about how to overcome these challenges:

1. Make it Relevant
Develop messaging that demonstrates how people’s lives will be affected at a local level; bring the issue home.

2. Seek Partnerships with Other Organizations
Cross sector collaborations are one key to engaging a broad cross section of residents.  Nonprofit organizations, foundations, congregations, other faith organizations, businesses, public health organizations, libraries, unions and schools can be essential partners in outreach.

3. Go to Where the People Are
Some regional agencies have found conducting public outreach at popular gathering places such as transit hubs, farmers markets, fairs, shopping centers, and colleges to be fruitful.  Staff from several regional planning agencies have noted that they are generally more successful when they ask community groups to host meetings where their members can interact with agency staff, and less successful when they ask the public to come to a meeting hosted by the agency.

4. Build Relationships with Key Leaders
Especially when trying to reach traditionally underrepresented parts of the community, it is very important to develop relationships with recognizable and trusted community leaders who can champion participation.  Even one active community leader can make a big difference in outreach efforts.

5. Use the Internet to Broaden Participation, but Remember its Limitations
The internet is an incredible tool for inviting participation and for disseminating interactive surveys.  Most residents polled by the Fresno Council of Governments said that e-mail was their preferred way to be notified of opportunities to participate.  However, not everyone has internet access or is comfortable with this mode of participation, so  face to face engagement is also necessary.

6. Focus on Outcomes
Ask people to weigh in only on relevant issues being considered, set parameters of what is realistic and the timeframes involved, and demonstrate how public input helped to shape the final decisions.

7.  Make it Easy and Fun to Attend
Hold meetings at convenient times and locations that are accessible by public transit.  Provide food, childcare, and translation as appropriate to overcome barriers to attendance. Music or other local entertainment can be a great hook to get people to come and to set a positive grassroots tone for a meeting.

8.  Keep it Simple
Avoid technical jargon and acronyms in written and spoken communications.  Use an advisory committee or focus group to provide feedback on educational materials to ensure the language is clear and compelling to the intended audience.

9.  Provide Different Levels of Engagement
Some people care deeply about regional sustainability and may be willing to serve on an ongoing advisory committee.  Others may be willing to attend a meeting or two.  Others may feel they are too busy to attend a meeting, but would fill out an interactive online survey.  Providing many options for engagement that require different levels of commitment will enhance and diversify participation.

10. Get Input Early
When people have an opportunity to weigh in from the beginning of a planning process, they feel more empowered and are more likely to support the final plan than if they are brought into the process late and asked to provide feedback on something they did not have a hand in crafting.

Read the full blog post on the AmericaSpeaks blog at http://americaspeaks.org/blog/effective-inclusive-public-engagement-in-local-government/.

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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