Proper public engagement is challenging even under the best of circumstances. The Federal Highway Administration suggests that the first step to increasing public engagement is to better understand why people do not participate. Some the key reasons include:
- Lack of awareness of public meetings
- Negative perception of the sponsoring agency
- Fear that their input will not be taken seriously or that the decisions have already been made behind closed doors
- Meetings are inconvenient (too time consuming, too boring, too far away, etc.)
Do any of those resonate with you? While the above are possible reasons why the general public does not participate, there are additional barriers for some residents. As is true in much of economic development, just because it is hard does not mean it is not worth doing. Engagement strategies can be employed to enable a community to gather feedback from the atypical public meeting goers. The following is a collection of various barriers that possible participants may be facing that make it difficult for them to participate and give feedback.
- New Americans - Immigrants and New Americans in your community may face multiple barriers including language, cultural, and child care. The first step to engaging New Americans is to identify a leader within the community who you can empower as an advocate for the process and help identify the best engagement strategy. Strategies include going to their community gathering place, respecting their cultures and traditions when considering timing and location of meetings, providing transportation, and most of all using the liaison from their community to highlight the benefits of participating and how projects discussed in these public meetings will help their community.
- Language – Many of us can’t imagine what it is like to enter a room and not understand what is being discussed. Offering interpreters (including ASL) as necessary can create a more welcoming environment for those who speak different languages. Creating special meetings that are in the predominant second language, translating meeting materials, offering ways to receive non-English feedback, multiple language surveys, and other communications in a variety of languages can ensure engagement from residents of various languages.
- Child Care – What time of day to hold meetings is always a question – meetings during the day interrupt people’s work schedule while meetings during the evening can result in child care issues. To alleviate the child care issue, make meetings family friendly by offering free meals and on-site child care as well as offer ways to provide feedback without meeting attendance. Additionally, hosting a children’s meeting and an adult meeting is a way to capture feedback from children, another voice not often heard.
- Disabilities – Special accommodations allow adults and children with disabilities to participate in meetings. These include a handicap accessible meeting location, interpreters, and other techniques. Using press releases and other announcements to indicate any accommodations that will be available will increase awareness of the effort to bring in many different voices and the importance of inclusive engagement.
- Disenfranchised – Throughout history many populations, including minorities, women, and young people, have felt disenfranchised by the greater public. They may feel intimidated by participating in a public meeting because they do not think their opinions will be heard. Educating these populations on the importance of their input and involvement through social media campaigns, press releases, and conversations within their community can help promote engagement at public meetings.
- Disengaged - It can be a challenge to connect with members of the public who are already disengaged and detached from the community. Often times disengaged members do not see the point in participating and engaging them requires figuring out what speaks to them, what they see as important, and communicating why the planning process needs their participation and the impact that it will have on their lives.
In general, offering multiple avenues for participation and highlighting why participation is important will garner the most inclusive feedback. As outlined in the post about engaging young people in planning, being flexible is important and finding new ways to bring people into the conversation will further your efforts. All of this costs time and money, and even then there will be people who will never participate, but in the end these strategies will allow you to engage the greatest number diversity of people.
Oh, and one last thing – food – works like a charm.