Getting public engagement right: two questions and four considerations

By Brenda Morrison

More neighborhoods, towns and cities consider public engagement an integral part of any new community initiative, law or regulation. But all too often these usually well-intended efforts fall flat in execution and appropriate timing to fit the need. 

With our representative form of government, we elect people to make decisions for the larger population. Some decisions are made independently. Some decisions may need some input. Yet other decisions need to be made together with the public, and that is when public engagement plays an important role, whether through town hall meetings; small, high-touch gatherings; high-tech tools such as keypad polling or interactive budget simulation; participatory budgeting; phone town halls, crowd sourcing, or other formats that make sense.

For public engagement to be effective, it must utilize the right format, use the right tools and adhere to the right timing. But in most situations calling for citizen involvement, correct format and timing aren’t obvious or easy to achieve. For example, elected officials or decision makers might determine that an issue is ripe for public engagement but they lack a serious desire to receive that public input. In this case, if citizens believe they are being asked to give input into a decision that is mostly made, they will become frustrated, even angry.

Citizen anger is exactly what erupted -- and perhaps could have been allayed with better public engagement - earlier this year with the public-private partnership created to widen the U.S. 36 corridor between Boulder and Denver. The 50-year contract with a consortium of companies drew skepticism and loud objections from residents along the corridor who were surprised by the terms of the $425 million project, which allows a private company to manage and collect tolls from travelers. Following the outcry, the Colorado Department of Transportation has put in place measures to gather more public input in road projects.

How do governments, communities and decision makers decide when public engagement makes sense? First, they should ask two questions:

  1. Is there a serious desire for input?
  2. What are the politics involved and how will they influence the process?

In any public engagement process, it is important to make sure answers aren’t predetermined and input can still influence decisions. Also, you can’t ignore politics. No matter how hard organizers try, a good public engagement process won’t trump the political realities, so remove any blinders when planning the effort.

Once it is determined that a public engagement format makes sense, organizers need to weigh these considerations to ensure they are effective:

1) Process

There is more than one way to design a meeting to achieve public engagement goals, so put a lot of thought into the design of the process.

2) Policy and pre-meeting education

The weight and magnitude of each public policy issue will be different and must be well planned before the first participant arrives.

3) People

It sounds obvious, but you need people to have public engagement. All too often, organizers lose sight that public engagement is not one directional. It is multidirectional between decision makers and their constituents. It is not taking two-minute turns at a microphone. It is conversation building toward consensus.

4) Platform

Selecting the appropriate platform is critical: Should it be in–person meetings? If so, what is the format? Maybe a small-group meetings or a large town hall meeting makes more sense? Also, how should technology factor into the process? Should the format be entirely reliant on technology? Should it be a combination of both - technology and in-person processes?

One of the key purposes of public engagement is help decision makers understand what their constituents think and feel, and for their constituents to also talk and learn from one another.

One thing is certain, the public is increasingly aware of and expectant of well-executed opportunities that give them a voice in decision making, especially given how interconnected and information-rich our worlds are these days. Creators of new projects, policies, rules and laws need to take heed of the new environment and step up their game. If they don’t, they risk losing their power to make real change, and possibly even their own credibility in the process.

Brenda Morrison is a partner at Engaged Public, a public policy firm based in Denver that has led projects including Engaged Benefit Design, TBD Colorado, the Colorado Citizens’ Initiative Review; developed public engagement tools including the Backseat Budgeter; and created leadership development programs including Bighorn Leadership Development Program and the Colorado Youth Advisory Council. Reach Brenda at


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